‘I was so fascinated by life sciences that I refused to go to dental school’

1 Jul 2020

Nidhi Kedia-Mehta is a postdoctoral researcher at Maynooth University and University College Dublin. Image: Nidhi Kedia-Mehta/Irish Universities Association

Nidhi Kedia-Mehta seemed set to study dentistry, but encountering biotech and life sciences opened a new world for her.

After receiving her BSc and master’s degree in biotech from Nagpur University in India, Nidhi Kedia-Mehta went on to complete a second master’s in immunology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

In 2019, she received her PhD in immunometabolism from TCD and is currently a postdoctoral scientist studying the impact of obesity on the immune system as part a group based across Maynooth University and University College Dublin.

Her research is funded by the Health Research Board and is supported by the Euraxess Hosting Agreement Scheme, which enables approved research enterprises to recruit experts from outside the European Economic Area for their R&D departments in Ireland.

‘It’s all about perseverance and patience in our field’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

After my Leaving Cert equivalent exam in India, the only options in front of me seemed to be medicine or engineering. Even though I appeared for a pre-medical entrance test, I was never too sure if I really wanted to go down that path.

While I was waiting to hear back from a dental school that I had applied to, my uncle, who is a pathologist, suggested to me that I should get an undergrad degree in biotechnology.

At the time I hadn’t even heard of this subject, making it crystal clear that in an Indian society, a student fresh from the Leaving Cert is presented with very little choice even though there are many.

I decided to start an undergrad in biotech and life sciences and it opened up a whole new world for me.

I remember being mesmerised by the structure of the cell and the stories of Louis Pasteur and Edward Jenner. I would read books on cell biology and immunology at leisure as well as for exams. I was so fascinated by life sciences that I refused to go to dental school when I finally heard back.

During my undergrad, people told me discouraging things like, “There’s nothing you can do after this degree” or, “You should have gone for dentistry when you had the chance”.  I realised I didn’t know how to answer those questions because being a researcher seemed like a distant dream to me at the time. But the comments only pushed me to make that dream a reality.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

While pursuing my PhD in the field of immunometabolism, I developed an interest in the field of obesity. After getting my doctorate, I came across the perfect opportunity to pursue this interest when I started work as a postdoctoral researcher with Dr Andrew Hogan and Dr Donal O’Shea, the leading researchers in the field of obesity in Ireland.

Although the main focus of my lab group is to study the immune system of people living with obesity, currently our research focus has turned toward the impact of Covid-19 on the immune system.

Our research aims to study the immune system of the patients that needed hospitalisation after contracting SARS CoV-2 (coronavirus). Our lab looks at a particular type of immune cell called the mucosal-associated invariant T cell, or MAIT cell, that has been implicated in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases and obesity related co-morbidities.

Through this research we aim to study the functional and metabolic characteristics of this particular cell type in patients suffering with Covid-19.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Obesity is an important research area at the minute, not only due to rising numbers of people living with obesity, but the increase in healthcare costs that go in treating illnesses that are directly or indirectly associated with obesity.

The number of children living with obesity has also markedly increased and it brings with it a whole lot of psychological as well as physical issues. For the first time ever, it’s suspected that the current generation might live shorter lives than their parents.

Apart from being a risk factor for illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, obesity is in itself a disease, manifesting itself in the form of a dysfunctional immune system. As the whole world is swept by the ravages of Covid-19, obesity has stood out as a salient factor that makes the disease outcome worse.

It has only made it more apparent that obesity needs to be treated as the disease that it is. Treating obesity would not only improve life expectancy, but also quality of life.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The biggest challenge for any scientist is that things don’t always go as planned and experiments fail more often than one might assume.

We as researchers require to be very resilient when it comes to failure. It’s all about perseverance and patience in our field.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

A common misconception is that obesity is solely a result of gluttony and sloth. Having fought with obesity as a teenager myself, I can say that that is not true.

A lot of factors are at play and they need to be addressed separately. That is not to say that a healthy diet and exercise are not important, but as simple as the concept of calorie deficit may seem, it is not always that straightforward in practical terms.

People with obesity may be suffering from a variety of causative issues that can be psychological, genetic or epigenetic that are not under their control. For instance, certain prescription medications can make one gain weight.

An effective strategy to address these misconceptions might be to raise awareness, be sensitive and regard obesity as a condition that needs medical attention rather than putting all the responsibility on the individual.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I find the role of gut microbiome really interesting with regard to obesity. This research is still in its infancy, but it’s emerging to play a bigger role than previously thought in controlling our physiology and even our psychology.

Another area that really excites me is ageing. The focus has always been on increasing the life expectancy, but the costs of a long life were never truly considered until recently and now a new question is how to cure ageing. It’s really exciting that there’s a possibility to have not just longer life but longer youth.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.