Breaking Barriers Research Profile on Sita Ramaswamy -Anastasiya Plotnikova
“I like being on the edge of new discoveries.”
Sita Ramaswamy, a junior doublemajoring in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Criminology is no stranger to breaking barriers—in more ways than one.
ITA’S EVOLUTION FROM CURIOUS beginner to skillful investigator started with her chemistryfocused IB program back in Orlando. Once at UM, Sita was introduced to nanotherapeutic strategies in a lab at Miller. Sita’s intrigue with investigation, born out of a passion for knowledge, has set her on an unique pathway. Her passion for discovery—which often entails coming up with something out of nothing—has earned her a position in Dr. Michal Toborek’s Brain-Blood-Barrier (BBB) lab at the Miller medical campus. Currently, Sita spends 3 days a week at Miller, a commitment she carved out of her already busy schedule that includes night shifts at Richter’s research services. Starting her sophomore year, Sita has been grappling with PubMed papers, PI’s, post-docs, learning lab techniques, and shadowing Dr. Luc Bertrand, a postdoc in Toborek’s lab. Sita wasted no time carving a name for herself as one of the select few undergrads in a large lab already staffed with 3 faculty and multiple postdocs. The lab’s main focus is molecular work, which involves in-vitro cell culture studies alongside animal studies. The lab aims to explain what makes the blood brain barrier so good at its job of protecting the brain from pathogens. In particular, their research explores how the HIV virus can compromise the integrity of the barrier. HIV is one of the few diseases that can make the BBB more permeable. While most HIV work is done in the context of the immune system, Toborek’s lab explores HIV’s effects on the permeability of the Brain-Blood Barrier. Sita’s project focuses on determining what genetic pathway HIV exploits in order to make cells stop
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expressing the tight junction genes. Once this occurs, the membrane becomes more permeable. The logistics involved a lot of human cell culturing in flasks and pipetting. To narrow down which pathway HIV could take advantage of, Sita performs either transfection, (the silencing of genes via silencing RNA) or nucleofection (subjecting the cell to an electric current to induce permeability). In analysis, assays and Western blot analysis are done to measure protein levels in cells. While Sita was working with HIV, the particular strain she used in lab can’t actually infect humans. Even though she can’t be infected, Sita has to don 2 pairs of gloves and a gown. “It’s like I am going in for surgery,” she jokes. Sita’s independent project has allowed her to recognize the importance of doing your research and investing time into the inquiry process. Starting with just a few key terms, answers to questions like “How is the brain degenerating?” can become more attainable. The implications of the type of Sita’s research span far and wide. Currently, the major problem is getting drugs into brain—and if the pathway that HIV uses can be manipulated to get drugs into the brain, that would be a major game-changer. “Our research is different—once HIV starts degenerating the brain, there’s not much that can be done. It’s not a heavily studied structure.” This past winter, Sita presented her research at the Miami 2019 Winter Symposium for HIV Research held at the Miami Convention Center. The HIV Research symposium hosted HIV researchers from all around the world to present their findings on developing vaccines against HIV. While everyone there discussed the HIV
Issue 13 of Scientifica Magazine