Anuja Kibe

Written by: Mai I. Baker

Anuja Kibe is a PhD student at the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI-Würzburg) in Germany, working on the discovery and analysis of programmed ribosomal frameshifting in immune cells. Anuja has already completed a five-year integrated Master’s at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University, India.

During her Master’s thesis, she had the freedom to explore various fields of study. For example, she initiated a project examining the biocidal and therapeutic applications of plant defense peptides, under the supervision of Dr. Vaijayanti Tamhane. After a year, she was awarded a prestigious international scholarship as part of the Khorana Scholar Exchange Program, which is a collaborative program administered by the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum, and WINStep Forward. This scholarship allowed her to conduct her research on developing novel antivirals and immunotherapeutics against Noroviruses, under the supervision of Dr. B.V Venkatar Prasad at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas, USA. It was this golden opportunity that sparked her passion for studying viruses and their interactions with the host translational system. Thus, upon returning to India, she moved to Dr. Krishnan Harshan lab where she sought to understand how individual proteins of the Japanese encephalitis virus affect the host translation pathway. Since then, her interest in translational reprogramming has continued to increase and she decided to expand her expertise in this field.

Following her Master’s degree, Kibe moved to Dr. Neva Caliskan’s lab to pursue her PhD studies in programmed ribosomal frameshifting, and ever since her first interview with Dr. Caliskan she was drawn to her lab. She recalls, “throughout the interview with Neva, I could see how passionate and excited she was about the projects and that energy was, for the lack of a better word, highly infectious.”  She adds, “Being one of the first PhD students in the lab, I had the chance to work closely with her, which has contributed a lot towards developing my scientific mindset. [Dr. Caliskan] appreciates and nurtures the strong association among colleagues in the lab. People sometimes underestimate the importance of interpersonal relationships in the lab. I am quite fortunate to have some of the best people as lab mates. Ultimately, the advice and feedback I receive from the entire group is invaluable.” Sharing such a special bond between colleagues in the lab indeed maximizes their performance and enthusiasm toward science and the work. She adds, “There is never a dull moment in the Caliskan lab as the atmosphere is quite dynamic. We are able to investigate multiple topics and ask different questions, and in the process, we enrich our skill-sets. In the course of four years, I have learned a great deal, be it the latest biophysical techniques to learning how to work in a BSL3 lab.”

Kibe finds that HIRI is “the first of its kind as it combines RNA research with infection biology. So, I am glad to be a part of this institute from its very start”. Her work in the Caliskan lab mainly focuses on deeply probing the mechanism which allows the ribosome to slip and adjust the reading frame, known as programmed ribosomal frameshifting, or PRF.  Kibe was recently able to uncover that ZAP, an antiviral protein, has a novel role as a regulator of PRF. She explains, “PRF likely evolved as a hallmark of viral replication and it is exciting to imagine ZAP as the cell’s response to the virus in this molecular arm’s race. Through further collaborative efforts, we are trying to pinpoint the exact portion of ZAP that is involved in PRF inhibition. This bears the hope that this domain can be used as a template for novel antivirals.” She adds, “Additionally, PRF has also been observed in human genes; however, the extent of PRF in humans and its purpose is understudied. Through an expansive experimental toolbox, we are currently looking for hidden genes, which are subject to PRF.”

“People sometimes underestimate the importance of interpersonal relationships in the lab.”

Kibe’s first piece of advice to students is “to be a part of a PhD project that you are passionate about.” She continues, “I have learned that experiments fail and things may seem like they are not going to improve, but if you are truly interested in your research, it will definitely help you to pull through.” Kibe also advises to consider taking a little break from the lab and work when it is needed. “Another thing that helps me [stay productive] is to do and learn things outside of the lab, whether its sports, music or languages. I have often found that [taking little breaks] helps you focus on your project even more.”

Kibe feels that Germany has become her second home, she says, “I received the same amount of help and kindness that I was used to back home. Despite not knowing the language when I arrived, I have hardly ever felt out of place” and as an Indian, she finds it exciting to celebrate Indian Festivals with people in Germany, as “most Indian festivals are also celebrated here in Würzburg. It is quite heartwarming to see people not only from India, but also from other cultures and countries participate in these and be genuinely interested in knowing our traditions.”

Kibe is inspired by many people who she has either met or read about, for example; she began by mentioning an Indian woman, “Kamala Sohonie, who was the first Indian woman to get a PhD. Her journey from having been rejected for a fellowship on the grounds that women are not competent enough, to getting a PhD from Cambridge and finally receiving national awards for her efforts on eliminating malnutrition in children was truly inspiring.” She adds, “Also, I would like to increase my knowledge of RNA biology and ultimately apply it to drug development. Thus, I was really motivated by Melissa Moore’s talk at the RNA2021 conference where she won the lifetime achievement award.”

“I have learnt that experiments fail and things may seem like they are not going to improve, but if you are truly interested in what you are researching, it will definitely help you to pull through”

Kibe was trained to be an effective communicator since she was little, she recalls, “throughout my schooling and undergraduate studies, I have always been involved in public speaking. It has helped me organize my talks, be confident on stage (admittedly I am extremely frazzled before a talk) and convey my message efficiently”. She also finds it interesting to communicate science in front of the audience “HIRI organized its first Science slam in 2019, which I had won by talking about how cool I thought the presence of endogenous retroviruses in the human placenta was. Although this experience exposed me as a huge virus nerd, I realized I enjoyed science communication, whether it is writing or talking.” Kibe is currently working as a volunteer for an Indian organization which offered her the Khorana Scholarship, “by helping with its outreach and management. This is not only my way of giving back to the program, but also connects me with scientists and students across the world.”

As gender stereotype still exist in the academic world, her biggest struggle is “to shake off this nagging feeling of never being good enough. Although we live in the 21st century, I was not taken very seriously when I thought about pursuing a science career. I often was – and still am - reminded of my ‘other priorities’ as a woman.” She adds, “When people expect you to fail, there is an added pressure to prove them wrong.” The way she loosens this pressure is “by recognizing and being confident of my skill-set and celebrating the little wins. [She also accepts] that I will make some mistakes along the way and learn from them. It helped a lot to have a supportive family, lab mates and a good mentor.”

Following her enrollment to HIRI, Kibe attended RNA society meeting 2019, held in Krakow. As a first-time attendee, “I didn’t know what to expect but it was certainly amusing watching scientists let loose and have fun”. She indeed is “Looking forward to the next in-person meeting!”

Obviously, her favorite RNAs are the recoding regions of viral frameshifting RNAs, and her favorite journal article is a recently published paper, “Crystal structure of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) frameshifting pseudoknot.”

Finally, Anuja just won First prize at the April 2022 RNA Collaborative Lightning Talk Workshop and Competition for her YouTube video explaining ribosome frameshifting. "ZAPping out the virus". You can find Anuja Kibe on Twitter @anujakibe