WHO? Mayurika Lahiri, 42
WHAT? Cancer Biologist
WHERE? Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune
Reported by Aashima Dogra
The only BIG difference between men and women that everyone seems to agree on is that women can give birth. After nine months inside a woman’s body, the child is born. After that, usually, for the next months the only nutrition it gets is via the mother’s breasts. Even after the breastfeeding stage, more often than not, the mother is willingly the primary childcare provider. As a society that allows healthy children to come into the world, we have to keep this in mind, always.
Whether it is in science, space travel, corporate boardrooms or government projects…we can’t tell young women in any words that mean “sorry, you are going to have babies at some point so I can’t hire you” or “here’s an opportunity to do research at our institute but we don’t care what you do with your children while you are here eight hours a day; as far as we are concerned, they don’t exist” or “congrats on the new baby, but sorry there is no place you can feed your baby every hour so that it can stay alive, please be at work at 8 am.” Let’s not do that! That’s antisocial. And should be illegal.
In 2008 cancer biologist Mayurika Lahiri was offered a research position at IISER, Pune, a year later she requested a daycare center for her little daughter on-campus. At that time, as it still is, such a facility was unheard of in most institutes of the country. Mayurika was stumped – what was she supposed to do with her child, too young to be left alone while she was putting in long lab hours on campus. Thankfully, the Director of the institute wasn’t so antisocial. She was assigned a room, not far from her lab, which she could use for feeding and looking after her daughter. A few years later, Mayurika would go on to set up a full blown daycare center on IISER Pune campus with sixteen rooms and 2 gardens.
But first let’s take a look at her science.
When Mayurika returned to India from Harvard Medical School, at the end of the 10 years she had assigned herself to launch her academic career, her breast cancer research took a leap to a new dimension: the 3-dimensional breast acinar structure.
“A person studying cancer cells in only normal a 2D monolayer cell culture would miss out on signals from the micro-environment that a 3D culture can provide because it is growing flat on a cell culture,” she said. “With the 3D method now we have a breast gland growing in culture. So now we can actually see the progression of changes from very early to the very end.” Mayurika was one such “2D person” before an undergraduate at her lab pointed out the new 3D matrix method discovered by Mina Bissel and Ole Petersen.
“We grow breast epithelial cells on a matrix – called matrigel. The gel-like matrix lies on a plate, and a human cell is put on top of the matrix. In a few days, a round sphere-like structure of 30-35 cells is formed that actually phenocopies (shows physical features of) a breast gland or the acini present in the breast,” she told me as we began the interview at her roomy office. “When it grows, half of this structure juts out and half is inside the gel (as it is 3D) making it easy and very efficient to do breast cancer research.”
“This model system is much better than looking at cancer in mice.” Firstly, human cells are used in this technique, taking out all the inaccuracies involved in using an animal model.
The early changes that happen when cancer develops, are at the core of the research questions Mayurika’s lab is asking. Their projects take a glimpse into the signalling pathways that turn the wrong way leading to cancer.
She explains: “My lab is really interested in understanding how cells maintain genome stability. Because DNA damage is constantly occurring during cell division, there is a repair system in place to combat the damage. If the damage is not repaired, then it tends to become cancerous. That is the way cancer arises from the genes.”
“If the damage (that occurs while copying the DNA stands for multiplication of the cell) is repaired there’s no mutation in the genes, but if it is not repaired then it becomes a mutation in the (newly formed) cell. If this happens to some very essential genes that control essential parts of the cell then it becomes cancerous as it leads to too much proliferation and too much growth in the cell.”
So damage leads to mutation, and mutation to cancer. What happens in between these three points is the subject of all the experiments at Mayurika’s lab. With advanced microscopy they can look at the smallest and earliest of cancer signatures.
“We induce DNA damage to first transform a normal cell into a cancerous phenotype and then study many of the signalling pathways.”
Studying these signalling pathways at both cellular and gene levels is bound to point to signatures indicating the threat of cancer.
Isn’t testing anticancer drugs using this method also possible, I asked. “Yes – that’s the other thing. But it is still a little bit early for that. We have tried out certain inhibitor molecules on our 3D models and found them to stop the cancer from growing. Obviously, this is not a drug – it hasn’t been developed into something that can be used a drug.”
Mayurika’s 3D models have a lot more to offer cancer research. They can be used very efficiently to confirm the anti-cancer activity of certain molecules. “Using a 3D system you can test various drugs, in the market or under development. I collaborate with a chemistry lab working on similar aims – when they want to see if their molecule will kill cancer cells, they partner with us to test it on the 3D model. If you grow cancer cells in this 3D model, you can use various drugs or combination of drugs to see if you can reduce the size of the cancerous acinar.”
Caring for children, on-campus
The IISERs are meant to be for basic sciences what the IITs are for engineering: a premier research-based Indian educational institute. Since these institutes were established recently, they have had the advantage of an open-mindedness in their functioning that might be hard to find an IIT. The standards set by IISER are unprecedented in India.
Today, there are seven IISERS around the country. IISER Pune was the second one after IISER Kolkatta to set up a daycare center, thanks to Mayurika.
While research carries on in labs, young children of the faculty, students, and the staff are safely napping, playing, reading or eating at the daycare center in the next building.
Mayurika’s hard work in setting it up and chairing the committee overlooking the daycare has paid off in many ways. In fact, researchers and staff working in six other academic institutes in the 2 km around IISER Pune, have been enrolling to use IISER’s daycare center.
“Our daycare is not basic, it is quite fancy since we tried to maintain the standards we started with. We get a lot of requests from academics in the neighbouring institutes to join with our daycare,” she said proudly.
“It has also put pressure on all these institutes to have one of their own. National Centre for Cell Science, an institute that has been in Pune for a long time has never had a daycare but now I hear that they will have one up and running by next month. And as per the government rules, it is now mandatory to have a creche in government run institutes.”
“So these daycares are definitely a sign of things to come.”
IISER’s daycare opened its doors in March 2015. But the fight for it started in 2008 with the little room allotted to Mayurika.
“Currently we have 36 or 37 kids at the daycare including infants from four months onward. For young parents, it has been a great blessing. They can leave their child there and go to work in the next building. We’ve had some working mothers feed their babies at regular intervals every day for six months.”
“It is very important to have a daycare facility on-campus. When I’m working I don’t even think about my child because I know she’s safe. My research has benefited from the daycare. I am able to spend more time here… till 6:30 the whole time is for me and my students.”
The daycare is a busy place. On the ground floor of the guesthouse building (this is temporary, dedicated daycare building is in the plans), the daycare houses a large area, one garden in between the building structure and another garden at the back. It has 16 rooms delegated for specific uses: three nap rooms, one large multi activity room, two infant gyms, two infant nap rooms, nursing room, music and dance room, dining area, a kitchen and a library – ” a very good one” according to Mayurika.
Mayurika’s role, besides pushing for it and setting it up, is to be the link between the parents, the day care committee that she leads and the daycare provider. Having accomplished this, while others are only waking up to this challenge, Mayurika’s expertise is in high demand.
“I’ve had requests from quite a lot of institutes even other IISERs..like IISER Tirupathi – who have contacted me for guidance to set up their own daycares. Obviously, there is always a woman faculty who has to take up this cause like I did. Then I can help with how to set it up, what are the things that need to be bought.
Mayurika’s protocol for starting a daycare at your institute
- Form a committee of interested men, women, faculty, administrators, staff, who believe in this cause and of course the boss’s nod.
- Interview various daycare providers in your area. Mayurika’s committee met five of them, and informed them their expectations for a daycare on campus. Then ask each of the providers to come back with a presentation. Choose the one that suits you best and sign the deal. IISER Pune has contracted Bedrock Educare for two years.
- The initial support for space in an on-campus building and funding for furniture and supplies come from the institute. The committee places the orders for what is to be bought and the institute funds this purchase. For day-to-day operations, funds come from paying parents.
- Parents can pay for two, four, six and eight hours of care. For each age group and number of hours, pricing needs to be figured out. In IISER, you would pay for one child of 2.5 years and above, Rs 4,000 per month for 4 hour care. Emergency daycare, important for last minute arrangements are priced differently.
- At the daycare, regular group activities areorganised everyday by full time care taking staff and food is provided.
- Important: Daycare is for everyone, also the staff and non research employees of the institute, some students may have kids too. Daycare pricing at IISER also adjusts for low paid employees.
- The committee oversees to make sure the daycare is running properly. Regular meeting with the daycare provider and unannounced visits every month by ensures due diligence.
Coming back to sexism
In the last few years at IISER, Mayurika has re-witnessed the Indian brand of sexism that she had left behind when she left for England to do a Masters and then PhD. Growing up in Calcutta, she says her doctor parents never forced to do anything, including asking her to be a doctor. But the choices her female students end up making, remind her how much pressure Indian parents put on their daughters.
“What I find quite disappointing in my own lab is: after they finish their Masters most of them will get married. And then they have to figure out if they want to do a PhD, it should be where their husband is.”
“Parents are still acting like they are in the prehistoric ages, asking the girls to get married so early. And standing up to your parents is something most girls are not doing.”
“I think mothers do play a significant role in a girl’s life, and if a mother can be a role model than it’s the best thing. I’m not saying that homemakers can’t give that advice. Especially after so much education, what’s the point of abandoning your real interests? It’s a shame,” she says glumly.
As the chairperson of the Women’s Cell at IISER Mayurika is close to issues like these and those of harassment that takes place at the institute. With every case (most of them end at the counsellor’s office, she said) Mayurika is paving the way for a more equal, balanced future at her institute so that the focus stays on the research.
She told me that her responsibilities with the women’s cell have included everything from organising self breast examination workshops to sending back emails that have been sent to her with the greeting ‘Dear Sir’.
Mayurika and her husband are one of the six faculty couples at IISER Pune. A bold movement its own right, in a background where “CSIR has an unwritten rule that they cannot hire spouses (but there have been cases where spouses have been hired).”
Hiring couples is one of the easiest ways to get more women into institutes. “ If the husband doesn’t come then there is a high possibility that the woman won’t join. So we always see if it can be done while scouting for new faculty and the management is fully on board.”
“We try our to see if both can give an interview. If the spouses’ research is in physics or chemistry, biology (department) always sends the information to the other disciplines so they can also evaluate the person and take a decision to take the person or not.”
These might be small moves but time will envelop and carry these positive steps. Like the DNA repair she studies, she’s making sure no mutations are carried forward.