What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
The current focus of my work is modeling cardiovascular diseases and disorders in-vitro using a combination of iPSCs, CRISPR/Cas9, and microfluidic organ chips. I have utilized hiPSC-derived cardiomyocytes to model diseases such as viral myocarditis (and recently, infection of the heart by the COVID-19 virus SARS-CoV-2), examine the developmental mechanisms underlying congenital heart disease, and understand ways to alleviate the cardiac toxicity caused by cancer drugs.
I find my work rewarding because I can see the impact that stem cell biology can have towards understanding and alleviating cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of mortality in the world. And plus, it's also really fun to watch stem cell-derived human heart cells beat in a dish.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I was fortunate to be raised in an environment where science, learning, and diversity were valued, with my father being a physics professor at a historically black college in Alabama. I've tried my best to follow in his footsteps and be a passionate scientist, educator, and advocate for underrepresented groups in science. I also grew up in the Rocket City of Huntsville, Alabama, home to the Marshall Space Flight Center and a huge aerospace influence. As a result, and to be completely honest, astronomy was my first love in science, and during grade school, I was prepping for a career in that field. But when I heard about induced pluripotent stem cells in college, I was captivated. The ability to transform human tissue into stem cells and then into whatever cell type you're interested in...that seemed like science fiction to me! And I could immediately see the translational application. So iPSCs were the catalyst for my career in stem cell research.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
I'm excited by the prospect of making in vitro biology as close as possible to the in vivo. There are so many incredible technologies that have become available that make genetic and cellular manipulation of stem cells cheap, easy, and accessible. I am incredibly excited by technologies that can intersect with stem cell biology, such as CRISPR and organ-chips, because they take in-vitro disease modeling to the next level. Genome editing allows for the creation of custom iPSC lines harboring any patient-specific mutation of interest, or more intricate fluorescent reporters that enable precise visual interrogation of protein function. And organ chips enable all-in-one systems that can further mature hiPSC-derived cells while harboring multiple cell types, a more realistic representation of what's actually going on the body. Better in vitro model systems is a great goal to strive for in this field.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Be passionate about the work that you choose to do as an academic trainee, but also be open to the opportunities that are just exploding outside of academia, around the world. We are living in a golden age in biotechnology, and stem cell biology is poised to make a translational impact when intersected appropriately with the technologies that I've mentioned.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Joseph Wu, Sean Wu, Jon and Kricket Seidman, Clive Svendsen, Paul Burridge, Tony Rosenzweig, and many, many others who have guided and mentored me during my journey. I'm also inspired by people who can effectively communicate science in an accurate and accessible way, such as my friend and mentor Willy Lensch at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. You don't have to be a professional science communicator to make a difference in the way science is perceived in the general public! In a modern world swirling with misinformation online and offline, I think it's so critically important that we're able to convey our science effectively. This is part of the reason I'm active on social media (@ArunSharmaPhD on twitter) and science podcasting via the Stem Cell Podcast. We can all do our part, however small, as vocal advocates of science.
How do you spend your free time?
We just had our first child in 2020. He is a real spark of light in the dark times that we have all lived through recently. I spend my free time playing with him, watching him grow, and sleeping a few hours whenever possible!
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I may have spoiled the answer earlier, but I absolutely love space, and always have since my childhood. This is also probably not a big secret to anyone who gets to know me. I had the opportunity in graduate school to send a sample of hiPSC-derived cardiomyocytes to the International Space Station to study the effects of microgravity on the human heart. To date, it's still coolest science project I've ever been a part of, and I'm constantly trying to figure out ways to integrate space science into my career as a biologist.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
I've been an ISSCR member for many years now as a trainee, and what I value most is the community. I still mark the ISSCR annual meeting as my favorite conference to attend (hopefully in person soon), because of the amazing friendships and connections that I've made there. Plus, it always seems like there's a presentation every year that just takes your breath away. I love the stem cell community, and the way that the ISSCR has brought us all together.