Published 12 September 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Trishla Sinha

Trishla in the wet-lab. Photo/Credit: Milla Gois, MSc

Trishla from the Netherlands is an MD/PhD student at the University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands.

In her research, Trishla aims to identify factors that shape the maternal and infant gut microbiomes and viromes, focusing on birth and environmental factors. By doing so, she hopes to find key microbial factors that are linked with the onset of disease later in life so that we can work towards preventing them. Her research primarily involves the large prospective multi-omics cohort, Lifelines NEXT, which consists of about 1500 mother-infant pairs from the Northern Netherlands.

Trishla participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Trishla and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

I was inspired to pursue a career in science by my parents. My mother is an anthropologist, and she has always had this natural curiosity that she passed on to me. She taught me that it’s important to always keep asking questions and to never stop learning. My father, on the other hand, is a child & adolescent psychiatrist. He’s spent his entire career devoted to his patients, which made me realise how rewarding it is to use your knowledge to make a difference in people’s lives. Seeing their passions and hard work made me want to combine the best of both worlds – my mother’s love of discovery, my father’s dedication to helping others, and both their interests in working with people. That’s why I decided to pursue an MD/PhD. I figured it was the perfect blend of research and medicine. I knew, however, that it would be hard work because both roles require working hard and that choosing a combined path would require me to work even harder. Thankfully, working hard is something I love doing.

Who are your role models?

My biggest role model is my PhD supervisor, Professor Alexandra Zhernakova, who has an MD and a PhD. Her relentless dedication to unraveling the complexities of the human microbiome and its role in health and disease is truly impressive. Under her guidance, her team has made significant strides in understanding the interactions between the microbiome, host genetics, and chronic diseases. Sasha’s commitment to multidisciplinary collaboration underscores the importance of teamwork in scientific advancement, and she has fostered connections with researchers all around the world from various fields such as microbiome, genetics, epidemiology, and autoimmune diseases. This has shown me how collaboration and open-mindedness can pave the way for holistic, ground-breaking discoveries. Most importantly, however, I am inspired by Sasha because she is genuinely curious, always enthusiastic, and creates a wonderful atmosphere within our research group. If I get the opportunity to lead a group, I will make sure to incorporate these values.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

Trishla with her parents under the portrait of the first female rector of the University of Groningen
Trishla with her parents under the portrait of the first female rector of the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Machiel Drenth Olivares, MD

I was born and grew up in a small town in India. Because my father worked at an academic, governmental hospital, I was lucky enough to interact with clinical researchers from a very young age. This allowed me to be part of critical discussions at a very young age, which my parents luckily allowed and even encouraged!

When I was 16, I left my parent’s home and moved to the Netherlands to explore my Dutch roots and finish my high school education. I believed this move would give me the opportunity to pursue my higher education in Europe and thereby increase my chances in life.

After high school, I started to study medicine at the University of Groningen, where I quickly learned that I wanted to combine life as a clinician with research. Luckily, my university offers this opportunity! They provide special honors programs throughout the bachelor’s and master’s that allow students to take part in fundamental research. They also provide scholarships to clinicians who aspire to work as clinician researchers. While working on my master’s, I met Prof. Sasha Zhernakova, with whom I wrote a successful grant to get into the MD/PhD programme. I obtained my MD in 2021, and since then, I have been working on my PhD, which I hope to finish next year. In 2022, I spent six months in the lab of Dr. Moran Yassour in Jerusalem, where I challenged myself to build and use computational pipelines to study microbial strain transmission from mothers to infants. One of my favorite things about my career path is that it has allowed me to learn many different skills and work in a multidisciplinary team with bioinformaticians, computational biologists, clinicians, microbiologists, dieticians, and chemists.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Trishla presenting her poster at a conference
Trishla presenting her poster about the gut microbe project at a conference, Photo/Credit: Milla Gois, MSc

The coolest project that I have worked on so far is the Dutch Microbiome Project. This large-scale population-based cohort study investigated the relationships between various diseases, diet, genetics, environmental factors, and the human gut microbiome. We collected extensive data, including biological samples, lifestyle information, and health records, to examine the role of the microbiome in health and disease. We were able to show that people with very different diseases had similarly disturbed gut microbiomes, enough to distinguish a generalised “healthy” microbiome from a generalised “unhealthy” one. We also saw that various medications like proton pump inhibitors significantly influence the gut microbiome. We are now performing a similar study on pregnant mothers and their infants. Even though we are in the preliminary stages of analysis, we see that infants partially obtain their gut microbiome and virome from their mother’s gut microbiome and virome. This really stresses the importance of maternal factors in establishing a foundation for long-term health in the infant.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

My work in the group involved setting up a large cohort of mother-infant pairs and a randomised controlled trial. Occasionally, I had to retrieve samples that participants had taken at their homes. When visiting participants at their homes, they sometimes told me how extremely excited they were with the research we were doing. They believed, like us, that the development of early life microbiome could have long-term implications for future health and were happy to contribute to the research. Sometimes they would have practical questions: “Our baby cries all the time. Could this be because of their microbiome?” or “Our child has multiple food allergies. Could this be because of their microbiome?” Knowing we will soon be able to answer some of these questions makes me proud of my work.

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

Trisha analysing data at a desk at university
Trishla in the dry-lab. Photo/Credit: Marloes Kruk, BSc

A typical day for me in summer involves playing tennis in the morning before work. I then cycle to work (this is very normal in the Netherlands). At work, I am currently analysing the data I generated in the first years of my PhD, so it involves a lot of time sitting behind a screen. As much of our work is collaborative, I often have a few meetings to attend. Coffee and lunch breaks with my fantastic colleagues are a much-valued part of my day. I think I now work slightly too much as I sometimes stay at work till around 21:00, but I find working late very peaceful and thoroughly enjoyable. However, sometimes I work until 18:00-19:00, after which I have dinner with friends or go out for more sports.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I aspire to work as a clinician, researcher, and teacher at an academic institution. Leading a research group is something I am currently considering because I like to supervise students, and watching them grow gives me a lot of joy. I have strong organisational skills, a critical mind, and a vision that I hope to instill in a group. I often joke that I am not someone who would win a Nobel Prize myself, but I hope that one day I might be able to help a student achieve great scientific success.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I enjoy playing tennis and spending time with my family and friends when I’m not doing research or in the clinic. I love traveling to new places and usually combine conferences with a trip in the vicinity. I combined the Lindau Meeting with a hiking excursion in the Alps.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

In the research environment, especially when working with bioinformatics, it can sometimes be challenging to be taken seriously by the men around me. My advice is not to be afraid to voice your opinion and to keep asking questions, even though it may feel like a battle every day. In my experience, relentless determination, continuous asking of critical questions, dedication, and perseverance eventually earned me the respect of the people around me. Another important thing is to love what you are doing and be enthusiastic. In my experience, enthusiasm is infectious. If you are enthusiastic, people around you will be too, and that is a wonderful environment to be in!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

I believe the next significant breakthrough in my discipline will be the use of microbes as therapeutics. For example, an emerging avenue for microbial-based cancer therapies involves genetically engineered bacteria. These bacteria can be engineered to specifically target tumor cells, deliver therapeutic agents, or promote an immune response against the tumor. Certain bacteria, for instance, can be modified to produce anti-tumor molecules, such as toxins or immune checkpoint inhibitors, directly within the tumor microenvironment. This approach holds immense potential for precision medicine, as the engineered bacteria can be tailored to the characteristics of individual patients and their specific cancer types.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM and that the gap only grows wider the higher up one goes in the STEM career ladder. One of the initiatives I have been part of is to start encouraging students early: we go into schools and advocate to young girls ages 12-16 that a career in STEM might be something for them.

Role models also help a lot! For example, I had the privilege to work with Prof. Cisca Wijmenga, who is now the first female rector of the University of Groningen! Having more women in leadership positions really helps young girls and boys see that these positions are not only for men. It really gives me a boost to think that if others have done it, why can’t I?

I currently work under the excellent leadership of a female head of the department and two female supervisors for my MD/Ph.D. trajectory. I, however, realise that I am fortunate to be here and that in most places in the world, huge inequality still exists between men and women in such positions. To increase the number of female scientists and professors in such places, special grants targeting women could be very helpful. Tenure-track positions targeting women in universities have helped to increase the number of female professors. Very importantly, I believe that practical measures like paternity and maternity leave and daycare facilities close to workplaces can significantly promote the participation of women in science at higher levels. Also, normalising men working part-time to take care of their kids are also some things that could make a huge difference in the current work environment.

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.