One-on-one with Aditi Ayer
PhD student at Univerity of Sydney
Her curiosity, interest in medical science and desire to help people, led Aditi Ayer to undertake a PhD in Infectious Diseases and help Whiteley Corporation develop novel solutions for biofilm disruption. She spoke to IMCRC about her research.
Q: What is your background, and what led you to take up a PhD position for this project?
There are three things about me that have remained the same: I’m curious, I’m interested in medical science, and I’ve always wanted to help people. Since high school, I’ve been drawn to science.
As part of my Bachelor of Science, I initially majored in Neuroscience but then decided to take up a double major and enroll in Immunology and Infectious Diseases as well. My interest in Immunology prompted me to undertake an Honours year, designing an assay for flow cytometery that detects and measures the shifting antibody response to the house dust mite (HDM) allergen following immunotherapy. The test allowed me to observe how the treatment induces desensitisation to HDM, thus acting as a marker for its success.
Following my Honours degree, I did a Masters in Infectious Diseases and Immunology. It was during that time that I met my PhD supervisors Associate Professor Jim Manos and Dr Das Ashish Kumar, who introduced me to Whiteley Corporation and their research project about removing biofilms to aid in treating bacterial infections.
Q: Tell me a bit about the project, and what is your role in it?
The Whiteley project focuses on the removal of bacterial biofilms in different applications across medical, medical device and industrial applications – such as in urinary tract infections, cystic fibrosis, diabetic leg wounds, etc. Biofilms are essentially a microbial community encased in a produced matrix, providing protection to the enclosed microorganisms and increasing difficulty of eradication and removal.
As part of my PhD I work on the cystic fibrosis module. Patients with cystic fibrosis are more predisposed to having poor lung function as they lack a gene that aids in thinning out the mucus that naturally coats the lungs. Unfortunately, a thicker lung mucus creates a perfect environment for bacteria to grow in and leads to bacterial infections that are difficult to treat, in the form of biofilms. Due to the structural complexity of biofilm infections, they are difficult to treat with conventional antibiotics and they contra-indicate patients for lung transplants that could help them survive.
The research concentrates on developing a novel formulation that combines antibiotics and other elements such as antioxidants to assist not only in breaking down the biofilm, but also treat the infection, and manage the disease to the point where patients can get a lung transplant.
At the moment, I’m trying to see how the treatment can work on a cystic fibrosis cell line – I plan to grow cells using what is called a transwell plate. The cells obtain their nutrients from the bottom compartment and grow and produce mucus within a removable insert, where I can test the treatment.
Q: What do you like most about the research?
I’m thankful that a PhD isn’t like a conventional 9 – 5 job and that I have the freedom to plan my life and work. Research fulfills my curiosity – if I’m intrigued by a question, I can review scientific literature and/or do an experiment. Even if the experiment fails, I still would have answered a question because even failure is a success in disguise allowing me to move forward. Sometimes I answer one question, and 10 new questions pop up in its place, which isn’t a bad thing. I’ve learned that that is what progress in research looks like, and if I do everything to the best of my abilities, success will eventually follow. I didn’t realise how passionate I could be about something, and I’m glad that I’m able to whet my curiosity through my PhD, and do it independently as well, with amazing support from my supervisors.
Q: How do you feel about an industry-led research project?
I’ve never been exposed to industry prior to my PhD. This is a whole new world for me. The thing that I like about an industry-led project is that there are firm milestones that need to be met. Having set end-points and milestones help frame the research work, providing an idea of how the research work should progress, and I like the structure it offers.
I never thought about whether my work could be commercialised before joining the Whiteley project. Now being exposed to an industry project has given me a lot of things to think about career-wise. That being said, I would have still done this project even if it wasn’t industry-led, as I like the fact that I can progress the scientific community in some way, and also having my work peer-reviewed.
Q: What do you see yourself doing after completing the PhD?
Before I had exposure to Whiteley, my first instinct was to stick to academia, potentially do a postdoc and teach students, as that’s another thing that I love about academia. But the industry research project has broadened my horizon. I feel that I’m not limited to just a career in academia which is the more conventional route people in my field take. I could move into industry, and potentially learn how to commercialise a product, manage a project and people. At the moment I’m keeping my options open, as I don’t know what the future holds.