How Bollywood boost Australia’s brainpower

3 September 2019:

In the 10 years since graduating with a degree in biotechnology from university in her home state of Odisha in India, Minakshi Das has covered a lot of ground – both physically and in her studies.

First she did her masters in Biomedical Engineering at Gachon University in South Korea followed by a year’s work as a research fellow at a biotech company.

Then she arrived in Australia in 2016 to work towards her PhD attached to the CNBP, based at Macquarie University.

We have Bollywood and the Sydney Opera House to thank for that.

“I had this fascination about Sydney Opera House, because when I was a kid there were a string of Bollywood movies being shot in Australia featuring the opera house and the harbour bridge,” she says.

“It turns out my husband was even more fascinated by the place and I said, ‘OK I’ll take you there’. And that’s when I applied for my PhD at Macquarie University.”

Her husband now works as a project manager while the clock ticks towards the completion of Minakshi’s PhD in November, under the supervision of Professor Nicki Packer.

Minakshi works with upconversion nanoparticles (UCNPs), which she hopes to make a diagnosis tool for targeting diseases. Upconversion particles are excited using longer wavelengths and their emissions are in the visible UV and infrared ranges. They are ideal for Minakshi’s purpose as these particles are photostable and have a longer lifetime, which makes them suitable for bioimaging to understand the intracellular mechanisms.

The particles she uses have a polysaccharide coating, which can target certain types of cells that are responsible for cardiovascular plaque which ultimately leads to block blood vessels and heart attacks. She hopes to use them to build a tool for early diagnosis of cardiovascular plaque.

“The polysaccharides I use make a special coating on these particles that hasn’t been used on UCNPs until now,” Minakshi says.

She says her CNBP experience has opened her eyes to the benefits of collaboration and given her the means to do so. She collaborated, for example on a paper that was published in August that described how to bring Super-Resolution Microscopy in an affordable form to every lab. This collaborative effort wouldn’t have been successful without the specialised polysaccharide UCNPs.

“I feel like I am really blessed. I see students in our department who don’t have anything like the collaborations I enjoy at CNBP. It has given us opportunities as students, which we wouldn’t find otherwise.”

That support has included travel grants for conferences and collaborative research projects.

“I have been to almost 10 or 12 conferences – I even attended three or four international conferences. So I feel like I have been exposed to a lot of great Australian and International science.”

Minakshi is a student representative on the CNBP’s nurturing environment committee. It addresses issues of ethics, centre culture and supports gender equity and diversity in STEM initiatives.

CNBP provides practical support too, with professional development about the grants system, publications and other tips for navigating the global research environment.

“That was really helpful. It provided practical knowledge from vastly experienced people. I was really grateful to be a part of it,” says Minakshi.

With the final rush of work to complete her PhD, it is too early to tell what exactly will come next.

“To be honest at the moment I am just focusing on finishing my PhD on time.”