Student Spotlight: Ananya Basu
Ananya Basu, a third-year PhD student, is using innovative approaches to overcome previously intractable targets in the Zhang Lab. Appointed to the CLP Predoctoral Training Program, she is being co-mentored by Zhang (chemistry) and Horvath (molecular biosciences).
What is the focus of your research and how did you become interested in that area?
I work in the field of targeted therapeutics, specifically on the discovery of novel small-molecule protein degraders. I started as a high school student in a lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital where I was first exposed to high-throughout anticancer drug discovery in the context of pediatric leukemia, and this fostered an interest in therapeutics. I continued working in the Oncology department throughout my undergraduate years in preclinical drug development, as well as in synthetic chemistry labs in the Chemistry department at the University of Cincinnati studying organometallic catalysis and bioinorganic chemistry. These varied experiences led me to chemical biology for my graduate work.
Can you tell me about one of the highlights of your academic career?
Last July, I identified the first promising lead for targeted protein degradation of my graduate career. Data from follow-up with this lead was submitted as part of a disclosure to Northwestern’s INVO office, which was particularly exciting for me. It has also been very rewarding to mentor our Lambert fellow, Chi Li, and watch him not only come into his own in the lab but also build the foundation for what will be a very bright future as a scientist.
What is the most effective way to explain what you do to a nonscientist?
Many blockbuster drugs are well-designed inhibitors that block the activity enzymes that are involved in disease. Enzymes, because they carry out very precise chemical transformations, have defined structures that are well-suited for drug design. However, many proteins involved in the development or progression of cancer, for example, are not enzymes and lack structured regions where drugs can bind and block their function. Targeted protein degradation is an alternative strategy to access these disease-related proteins for therapy and is an exciting avenue for modern therapeutics. Degraders can bind disease-related proteins and cause them to be destroyed in cells, which blocks their activity. Identifying new degraders for disease-relevant proteins may help improve patient outcomes in the future.
You are part of the NIH Graduate Training Program with the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute in 2022-23. Could you tell us more about that program and how has it benefited you?
I am very fortunate to be a part of the Chemistry of Life Processes training program and have had many of my most positive graduate school experiences as part of the program. The program aims to train scientists to conduct rigorous research at the chemistry-biology interface, which is a perfect fit for my interests. I have had numerous opportunities to present my work through research forums to an interdisciplinary audience and network with other students and faculty, and these experiences have proven to be invaluable for me. The opportunity to develop orthogonal skills in a secondary mentor’s lab is also very unique. All of the staff and faculty involved in the training program are dedicated, supportive, and kind. Penelope, who helps coordinate many of our activities, is an absolute light in our lives and truly cares for us during and after our tenure in the program. Even as a nonscientist she has a deep understanding of the academic milieu and offers her continued and unwavering support.
What do you enjoy most about working with the Zhang Lab?
Joining a new lab is definitely a unique and formative experience. As an early member of a new lab, you have a role in setting the lab culture and I feel that our lab as a whole is a very tight-knit community. We take birthdays and holidays very seriously (as I write this our lab is in full Halloween spirit) and Xiaoyu has diligently promoted a Monday-morning bagel culture that I strongly approve of. Xiaoyu is a creative thinker with lofty aspirations for his research program and I am fortunate to work under his direction.
In 10 years, where do you hope to be in your career?
I think that the early-career period is the best time to take calculated risks, so I hope in ten years that I can say that some of those choices paid off. As a first-year, I took a course under Dr. Rick Morimoto and he advised me to always work on things with impact, and that really resonated with me. I think that high-risk, high-reward ideas are exciting and if I choose to continue in biotech post-graduation I think the start-up scene would be a good fit for me. If I hang up my lab coat for good, I might look towards a career in consulting or something more administrative. Most importantly, though, I see myself in ten years with an expansive walk-in closet and a vast array of sparkly possessions.
Aside from your work in chemistry, what hobbies do you enjoy?
The academic lifestyle is admittedly not very compatible with hobbies, but I love music, art, shopping, and good food. When I was younger, I played the violin quite often and enjoyed making cards for people in my life. Whenever I have the time and energy (unfortunately a rare co-occurrence) I like to explore nature or hop on the train to discover new places around Chicago.