Name: Teena Bajaj
Age: “25-plus,” she said.
Hometown: New Delhi, India
Department: Comparative biochemistry at UC Berkeley
Research topic: Improvements to mRNA treatments for protein deficiency diseases.
One of the first things I learn about Teena Bajaj upon meeting her is how much her family matters to her. In fact, what she says exactly is that they are “a very essential part” of her life, especially her sisters.
“I was talking about this in the morning to my sister, like, ‘Oh, today I have an interview and I’m excited,’ ” Teena tells me, unprompted, at one point in our conversation. “She was very surprised, like, ‘What interview are you getting? … Does she take [postdocs]? I would also like to get an interview.’ ”
She smiles and shakes her head, her silvery earrings bobbing back and forth. I laugh and wonder if, as an older sister, I’ve ever said something like that to my brother, cutting into his spotlight in some way. This is a feeling Teena references a lot as we talk, at one point saying that she’s actually “grateful” for it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a UC Berkeley graduate student, Teena lives with one of her older sisters, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at UC San Francisco. Before this, Teena lived in India, and she spends long stretches of our conversation describing her family to me — reenacting snippets of conversations like the one above, rolling her eyes and making me laugh. In the end, it seems to me like her childhood was defined by the lively group of women who raised her, even as her family struggled with the country’s patriarchal views.
“There was a social stress that [a] family should have a boy. … I was the last resort,” Teena says.
By the time she came along, Teena explains, there were four people around to raise her — it was almost like she had a second set of parents.
“Since I was the youngest, I got the most love, I would say. My mom and my father very, very rarely scolded me,” Teena says. “But my sisters [took] their role, actually. They were slapping me, they were scolding me, and all that.”
But like all loving siblings, her sisters also gave Teena a lot of guidance. They helped her pick out what to wear, taught her shortcuts for division and instructed her to read ahead in her primary school textbooks so that she would always know the right answers. Her oldest sister even introduced her to biochemistry, something Teena later fell in love with.
She recalls the moment that set everything in motion: “I was in my fifth standard — there used to be a diagram [of the] digestive system in which you draw the stomach, liver, large intestine and small intestine.”
She stops to laugh at how easy it all seems to her now. But back then, she said she struggled to learn all the body parts before the test. Her oldest sister (who had a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, at the time) sat down with her and helped her through it.
That is, in a nutshell, how Teena ended up studying biochemistry too, during her undergraduate years at the University of Delhi. And now, many years later and across the globe, she hasn’t strayed far from the subject.
When she first arrived at UC Berkeley, Teena joined a lab that studied kinases, which are enzymes that jump-start the transfer of phosphate groups to molecules. But she tells me that she was looking for something more related to translational science.
“My father is a patient of retinitis pigmentosa, in which you lose your vision [as you] age,” Teena says. “So when we used to be kids, there was no cure for this disease, or we didn’t have any knowledge that we could get treatment. And still, I don’t think there are great therapies for [it].”
This is what prompted her to consider translational science, a field that is sometimes referred to as bench to bedside and that aims to build on existing scientific research to create new therapies or medical procedures. As it turns out, this is one approach to addressing the novel coronavirus right now. And that’s precisely what Teena is working on.
But let’s take a small step back. Before the presence of the virus, Teena was studying improvements to mRNA, a molecule that carries genetic code from the DNA in a cell’s nucleus to that cell’s ribosomes — the sort-of protein factories of the cell.
As Teena describes it, the proteins are like the “main players” of the cell. So when you have a disease that creates some kind of protein deficiency, it’s pretty essential to get those proteins back in your body. This is called protein replacement therapy. But it’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds — proteins are very delicate to handle and very expensive to work with. So an alternative is to inject mRNA into your body instead, which can encode the proteins you need. But again, mRNA can be tough to handle, and that’s why scientists like Teena are working on ways to improve it.
“So, I want to improve the stability of mRNA so that we can treat protein deficiency diseases in a better way,” Teena recaps. “COVID is a virus and it has so many proteins which are important. I’m targeting one of its essential proteins — if you destroy its activity, you can inhibit the virus growth. So we are trying to get some inhibitors for the target protein.”
I ask her how they’ll test the compounds once they finally determine the right ones to inhibit the target protein, and she hedges for a minute, saying, “I’m not sure if you are able to understand this because you’re an astrophysicist.”
And what she goes on to say is pretty confusing, but she figures out how to simplify it enough for me to get the gist. Essentially, even after all this work — isolating the protein and figuring out what compounds could inhibit its activity — the virus may still continue to grow uninhibited, and that puts them back at square one. But, if the virus growth is affected by the compound in question, Teena will get to move on to the next step: determining the crystal structure of the compound’s interaction with the protein.
Teena gestures, forming a circle with one hand: “Let’s say this is a protein, and this is an active site,” she points at one side of the circle, then forms a C-shape with her other hand and holds it up against the site she just showed me. “So, if my compound [hits] here … it reduces the activity of my protein. … It’s making bonds with this part, so I [can look at] the crystal structure.”
But, Teena adds, actually getting the crystals to form is quite tricky. She’ll have to set up lots of little wells with mixtures of the protein and the inhibiting compound, and then she’ll spend a good amount of time waiting to see if anything happens.
“I feel like it’s a little bit of luck,” Teena tells me. “Like 70-30. 70% is your hard work. … 30% is your luck. If you’re not lucky enough, you won’t get it.”
I tell her that I hope she’s lucky.
Once she is able to see a crystal structure form, Teena can figure out at what level the compound inhibited the protein’s activity and hopefully use that information to modify the compound so that it inhibits it at even higher concentrations.
“Yeah, so for [all] that, you need crystal structures,” Teena summarizes, giving me a quick, uncertain smile, as if to check whether I got all that.
I tell her that I think I understood everything on a basic level. And then I comment on how busy she seems to be with all of this — how it’s so different from the norm right now, with all the rest of us being cooped up at home.
“Yeah … People around the world [are saying] since COVID happened, [there] is so much change, so much boredom,” Teena says. “But I think, in my life, it’s the same because I have been coming to lab every day, you know, and working all the time. So I never felt that, okay, something has changed.”
Teena extends this sort of matter-of-factness to the way she feels about her work, too. I ask her about her favorite part of what she does, and she says she doesn’t have one.
“I actually get confused sometimes about which [experience] is most memorable for me,” Teena says.
She tells me that her work is her work — she has to do it, and she will enjoy whatever it is.
“You know?” she asks.
I do know, I tell her. Then, I ask if we can pivot slightly.
A lot of what follows is about Teena’s experiences as an international student at an American university, something she mentions that her family never thought was financially possible. And this is what seems to be at the root of a lot of Teena’s frustrations: how hard it is to socialize with American graduate students who would rather be at “the pub” than at the department Christmas party; the visa issues she encountered on her way here last year that caused her to miss her orientation and defer her classes until the following semester; and, maybe most of all, all of the fellowships she can’t apply to because of her non-citizen status.
“There are so many departmental fellowships, but we are not eligible. … Like 99% of fellowships say you need to be a U.S. permanent citizen or some kind of green card holder,” Teena says. “I really feel like … we are studying here, we are doing jobs here, we are paying back to this nation. I understand there is something different between a citizen and an international [student] … but as a person, as a part of the same university and the same program, we should get the same rights; we should get the same eligibility.”
This makes sense to me. By making English the de facto language in STEM, there is pressure to study at an English-speaking university. In that way, the United States is a monolith. So people work hard to end up over here, sometimes paying over $10,000 extra in supplemental tuition and fees. But after all that, they can’t always obtain adequate funding for their research, putting them at a further disadvantage. That’s frustrating, and I tell her as much.
“I know,” she says. “We are trying to make a better world, and the world won’t become better by differentiating people by their regions. … If you want to get this better world, we need to educate everybody the same as other people.”
This leads us to talk briefly about the different social movements spreading across the country, mostly Black Lives Matter. And on that topic, Teena has a fairly uncomplicated perspective.
“It’s simple. It’s as you are, as I am, [as] we are,” she says. “It’s about the values you got from your family, values you got from your life experiences. … People are people. A person is a person.”
In fact, a lot of what Teena says across the hour we spend talking has to do with her values. Of course, we talk about her accomplishments, her research, her disappointments too, and I’ve included all of that here. But she always brings me back to her childhood, to how she was raised and who she was raised by.
“I would [like to] say thanks to everybody who participated in my life and tried to … help me in my difficult times, mainly my family,” Teena says as we near the end. “[My two sisters and I] have been raised with good moral values, and we came here from a middle-class family who had so many social issues, so many family problems.”
There’s a pause here, what I think is maybe the end of her thought — but I can’t be sure, so I wait. It’s silent for a beat longer and I get ready to ask a follow-up question.
“Even after that, we reached here.”
To learn more about Teena’s research, visit the Murthy lab website.