Researcher Spotlight: Dr Lolitika Mandal
Dr Lolitika Mandal is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, India. She has an Intermediate Fellowship from the WellcomeDBT Indian Alliance and uses fruit flies as a model for understanding the development of blood cells.
What are you working on?
My team is interested in understanding development of blood cells (haematopoiesis) using the fruit fly (Drosophila) as a model system. Work in the last decade has established Drosophila as the best invertebrate model to study blood cell development.
Exploiting the strength of fly genetics, and the fact that there is a high degree of similarity in blood development between Drosophila and vertebrates, we strongly believe that our work will have far-reaching implications and we are poised to unravel the molecular signals required for specification and maintenance of blood cell development in flies.
What does your average day involve?
After I have sent my two daughters off to school, I start my day interacting with PhD students and undergraduate students. This daily interaction is limited to briefing about the previous day experimental results and chalking out troubleshooting if any required. We meet once a week for detailed discussion and brainstorming on their individual projects.
Since our Institute conducts BSc-MSc integrated course, we are also involved in teaching, so almost everyday I invest an hour and half in taking class or preparing them.
Why is your work important?
We believe that our work is of immense importance and has the potential to shed light to numerous aspects of blood cell development – in both normal as well aberrant situations.
Studying blood cell development in Drosophila has not only enriched our understanding of basic cell fate decisions, but also has far-reaching implications that spill into stem-cell biology, immunity and cell migration.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
Blood cell development in Drosophila has been shown to have similarities to that of vertebrates. Haemocytes arise from distinct waves during the development of the fruit fly and share many important signalling molecules necessary for their formation and differentiation with vertebrates. Their characterisation can thus help us elucidate basic mechanisms of blood cell development in vertebrates.
Very recently we have been able to identify the active sites of blood cell formation and specification in adult flies. These active haematopoietic sites/hubs are capable of responding to bacterial challenges. Our work has also revealed that these active hubs harbour bi-potent and biased progenitors, and differentiated haemocytes, embedded in a functional network of Laminin A and Pericardin, that is similar to vertebrate bone marrow.
Given the fact that the vertebrate bone marrow is not easily accessible, we believe that our finding will establish Drosophila adult haematopoiesis as a simpler, yet genetically testable, model to separate out normal and aberrant blood cell development. This will help us to answer questions related to blood stem cells, haemocyte migration, immunity, wound healing, and senescence.
How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?
During my postdoctoral studies at UCLA, I was lucky to have two fantastic scientists, Professor Volker Hartenstein and Professor Utpal Banerjee as my mentors. Working with them was an absolute pleasure and a great learning experience.
How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?
WellcomeDBT Indian Alliance has been a boon to researchers like me. In July 2009 I joined the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, which was then in its infancy. Having been motivated to return to India and set up my team and independent laboratory I feel very blessed to have received the Intermediate Fellowship within a year of my return.
With the Intermediate fellowship and Institutional support, I was able to build up a fully equipped and functional laboratory from scratch. Apart from the visibility that it endows on the recipients, the flexible financial support is an added advantage to new researchers like me.
What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?
Do fruit flies have blood – and is it red in colour?
Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?
I do not dread any question related to my work. Rather, I feel elated that my research has stimulated people enough that they have invested time in framing a question.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
Whenever I am sad, I eat ice cream – irrespective of the seasons! I also love watching Tom and Jerry with my kids whenever I get a chance.
What keeps you awake at night?
Somehow solutions to problems I encounter in the experiments strike me at night. With the ticking of the clock and silence all around, I am able to sense a lifeline to the hurdles that obstruct my progress.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
When I was a doctoral student, the first years were bogged down with lots of failure, in spite of my endless effort. Once, while talking to my dad, I got the best piece of advice and now I always share it with my students.
A PhD is almost like running a marathon. Along with physical fitness you also require mental strength.
You can only complete it if you know how to set small milestones and rejoice on their completion. More importantly, running the first half slower than the second half is the key to running a smart and enjoyable marathon – and the same is true of a PhD. That is something that I also realised later.
The chain-reaction question, set by our previous spot-lit researcher, Dr Rosemary Green, is this: What other research area are you most envious of and why?
I am so happy with my field that I do not feel envious of any!
You can find out more about Dr Lolitika Mandal and her work by reading her papers: Active Hematopoietic Hubs in Drosophila Adults Generate Hemocytes and Contribute to Immune Response and Interaction between differentiating cell-and niche-derived signals in hematopoietic progenitor maintenance.