Prof. Dr. Shobha Vasudevan

by Paula Petronela Groza

“Push yourself harder” – is the incentive that her parents have instilled in Dr. Shobha Vasudevan, which accompanied her in all the steps of her formidable career and carried her “through hard times”. Dr. Vasudevan’s path as a scientist started at the St. Josephs College, Bangalore University in India where she finished her BSc degree in Microbiology and Honours in Chemistry. Driven by her love for science she moved to the USA to start her PhD in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology in the Peltz lab at UMDNJ-RWJMS/Rutgers University, in New Jersey. She then trained as post-doctoral fellow with Professor Joan Steitz at Yale University. She became Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, MA in 2009. In the same year, she was also awarded the RNA Society Scaringe Award for her outstanding achievements as a young scientist. Ten years later, she became Associate Professor within the same institution, the position that she still holds. Throughout this time, she guided herself to “not lose focus” and to have “persistence in doing what is best for all” both of which she considers key elements for any principal investigator.

An “accident” led her to the wonders of the RNA world. “I was testing phorbol ester drugs and I read that serum-starvation improves their effect. For [an experiment testing a drug plus serum-starvation, serum-starvation] alone should be the control. So, I did that control in addition to untreated non-starved cells and noted enormous changes in the serum-starved alone compared non-starved cells. I ended up forgetting about phorbol esters, as I realized that it was more the non-coding RNAs and RNA binding proteins that were dramatically changing.” This experiment paved her path in studying RNA related mechanisms in quiescent cancer cells which “adapt to harsh conditions to survive and are therapy resistant”. She finds it fascinating to study “the coordination and feedback regulation among multiple gene expression regulatory programs” involved in quiescence “as it can shed light on an understudied area of cancer research” and considers that revealing “the full potential of each program and their networks, could lead to effective cures.”

Her research is currently focused on investigating post-transcriptional mechanisms responsible for gene expression regulation in drug resistant cancer cells, with an emphasis “on understanding and targeting RNA mechanism changes in cancer states that are clinically resistant, such as quiescent cancer cells”. She believes that targeting RNA mechanisms can be used for “effective cures, which is a rarely used term in cancer”. Her ambition is “to make that a moot point”. Current cancer therapies “do not work well or for long”, “are expensive” and are clearly “missing out on harnessing the vast potential of RNA”. Thus, “if we can understand the changes in RNA mechanisms in resistant cancer, we can develop new therapies to block resistance, and provide effective remissions and even cures.”

“The most rewarding scientific data are when seemingly negative data destroy your hypothesis but help reveal the true mechanism and the ‘real’ answer fits better than what we had thought, its awe-inspiring in that perfect moment.”

During her career she and her team have contributed to multiple aspects of RNA biology, namely post-transcriptional control by mRNA regulatory elements, G0 RNA-protein complexes (RNPs), non-canonical mRNA cap and translation mechanisms, regulation of microRNA processing and RNA modification, post-transcriptional and translational changes in quiescent, chemo surviving cancer cells.  Either by developing novel methods for purifying endogenous RNA binding proteins such as in vivo cross-linking and RNA affinity purification, or by adapting already existing ones to their scope her laboratory uses targeted methods to blocks different RNA-based mechanisms to decipher their function. Among other things, such methods allow them to uncovering signalling-induced RNA regulators that control gene expression. In her view, “the most intriguing aspect of studying RNA mechanisms in refractory cancer cells is how all the changes are precisely orchestrated to elicit tumour survival. These changes involve stress-induced survival adaptations such as the acquisition of survival mechanisms from evolution, the environment, or from other organisms and/or the dysregulation of development and other normal programs. How these adaptations precisely co-ordinate to elicit survival, is amazing and shows immense potential that we could harness to curb disease and improve life”. She is enthusiastic about how her lab’s current projects are developing and is always eager for the most exciting one, the one that “is yet to come”.  From her perspective, “the most rewarding scientific data are when seemingly negative data destroy your hypothesis but help reveal the true mechanism and the ‘real’ answer fits better than what we had thought, its awe-inspiring in that perfect moment.”

Despite her impressive work, achievements, and dedication to science, she considers herself a “work in progress to which her parents, siblings, mentors, friends, colleagues, and lab members” are actively contributing.  As a mentor herself for many trainees, PhD students, and post-doctoral fellows, she trusts that “persistence, acceptance that obstacles will lead to your best, mentors, and gratitude” will lead to lasting success. She feels that one of the most rewarding aspect of being a mentor was when she “slow-walked someone away from giving up after a series of setbacks.” Her interventions and support allowed the mentee to build some successes and once that happened, “they were off to the races.” While her research focuses on RNA mechanisms, her favourite RNA molecule is “yet to be discovered”. When asked about her favourite paper published in the RNA Society’s journal she was unable to give an honest answer. She said “I have been in the field for a while, so too many RNA journal articles have influenced my thinking, my science, or have been inspiring, right from my graduate days till now, so I’m unable to choose one”.

In addition to her in-lab mentoring Dr. Vasudevan is committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and has given considerable effort to make the RNA Society a more welcoming and diverse place. She is the inaugural chairperson of the RNA Society’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, where she leads a team of colleagues to help address opportunities and challenges to ensure that the Society and the research advances by its member scientists are accessible to all. She also has some food for thought for the members of the RNA Society the broader RNA biology community and to people who inspire her. Simply, she asks people to think about “How can we, [as RNA biologists] be more inter-disciplinary? How can we create an environment that can focus more on out-of-the box questions, without worrying about funding stability?”

You can read more about Dr. Vasudevan’s research on her lab’s webpage or connect with her via LinkedIn by email at [email protected].