Profile: Dr Rita Tewari

January 10th, 2014

Tell me a bit about yourself?
I was born and grew up in Delhi. I was always fascinated by biology. After school I wanted to do medicine but my father – who was a professor in Social Sciences — moved to northeastern India, a backwater, to establish a university. There were no medical colleges so I went for Zoology. I started my PhD at the University of Delhi, studying genetics and sex chromosomes. I became hungry for research, wanted to see more and the only way to do that was to go abroad in good labs. My life is such a mixture now with languages, culture, with friends — I have friends all over in Europe — and it becomes your life.

Do you have a typical day?
In the lab, talking, planning. And then there are the students. So it’s part research, part teaching, a bit of fun and conversation. My modules include pathogens, mainly about malaria parasites, bacteria, fungi — you get students that can really inspire you.

What drew you to this area of research?
Imperial College wanted me to work on transgenic mice. The panmalarial parasite first attacks the host’s liver cells. So can I express certain proteins in the mice’s liver so the parasite cannot invade? That’s how I got into malarial research. The basic processes, whether it’s a human cell or a mouse cell or a parasite cell are more or less the same. For me, that is the beauty of biology: there are no boundaries if you want to ask simple questions — how does the cell divide, how can I make the cell stop?

What does it involve?
Now we are very much interested in how a parasite cell divides, that’s our major grant now. Can we stop these protein, stop the cell division? Can we target them?

In parasites, particular proteins direct them.  Some of these like kinases are very important — if you block them the cell cannot grow. At Imperial College I started this ambitious project to knock out [replace one gene with another] each of the 72 kinase genes in the genome one by one and understand the function. That was a big gamble, a very, very ambitious project. I was quite close to finishing when this job at Nottingham came up. I finished that work [the world’s first comprehensive study of the molecular switches in the malaria parasite’s life cycle] and that made me.

Now we are doing the other side of the coin, the phosphatase, which returns the protein to its silent state. Nobody has studied these phosphatases at this scale.

The malaria lifecycle has two parts — one is the host, for which we do everything in mice, and the other side is mosquitoes, and to maintain the colony was the biggest challenge. Now we have both the mosquito and host stages here at Nottingham so we can study the protein or any gene function in the parasite through the life cycle and that gives me the advantage because many labs either do one or the other.

What do you like most or least about your work?
I love sitting at the microscope! I love the lab. I can sit at the microscope for hours. Every time you see a cell it looks different, it has something else to show you. Least: Too many student answer sheets! I like creativity or a challenge.

What are the highs and lows of your career?
Getting a PhD was a big thing for my family and for myself. A big high was working for Frank Grosveld [head of the Department of Cell Biology at the Erasmus University Medical Centre, Rotterdam] in Holland. I think Imperial exposed me to lots of challenges, and here [Nottingham] when I got this work published. I think every paper is a high and now it’s not just for me, it’s a group effort.

Lows? [Dr Tewari encountered racism from one foreign individual at her lab in Norway but has nothing but praise for the country as she has made some lasting friends there.]

For me the biggest part of a scientific career is learning about people, their culture, the language and that I would have never learned if I had not taken this journey.

What do hope your research will achieve in your lifetime?
I’m hoping there will be drugs and a better quality of life for people who suffer from malaria, at least in Africa. The Indian sub-continent has improved a lot but the parasite is also mutating so you have drug resistance. Malaria will not be eradicated: I think it can be controlled. Education is important.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Have a passion for your work. For me to come on a Saturday or at four in the morning because I want to see a result is not a hardship. What drives me is that I want to know the unknown. For me, it’s not work: I love every bit of it.

What living person do you most admire?
I really admire my old boss in Holland, Professor Grosveld, and Dr Tony Holder, who’s in London [at the National Institute for Medical Research]. They are both famous scientists but the thing I admire in them is that they are both very good human beings, and they understand people.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
My neighbours — they’re great — my students and group and my mentors. My parents, my family.

If you weren’t doing this, what else might you be doing?
I don’t know! Maybe I should open a restaurant — I love cooking. There would be food from every part of the world that I’ve lived. My cooking in not ‘Indian’ anymore, it’s a mixture. I’m a vegetarian, I mix things, it’s the same I do in research, if you’re exposed to so many different things you can think, create.

Where do you call home?
It’s where I live because I have been a nomad. India is still a big part of me — my father and sister and most of my family are there — but I call myself now ‘part of this world’. Home would be where I’m living now.

Where would you go back in time?
I’m a person of the here and now.

How do you relax?
I love cooking, going to concerts. I love live music: jazz, world music — I don’t always understand the language but I love listening to it  — or meeting people. Lakeside is a favourite of mine.

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