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International Women’s Day Q&A Spotlight on Charu Kaushic

Words of wisdom from IIDR member, Charu Kauschic leave a lasting impression – a perfect way to end our International Women’s Day Q&A Spotlight Series.

Among many inspiring topics, Charu tells us about her impressive research on women’s reproductive health; leading the certification process for IIDR’s state-of-the-art Biocontainment Level 3 Laboratory in 2011; and the benefits of having a reciprocal relationship through female mentorship.

What does your research focus on?

My research is focused on improving women’s reproductive health. Women are at a higher risk for a number of sexually transmitted infections and in addition to social, economic and political reasons, there are underlying biological reasons for this increased susceptibility.

We, as a research group, are trying to understand the underlying biological mechanisms that determine the outcome of exposure to sexually transmitted viruses: herpes virus type 2 and HIV-1 (the virus that causes AIDS).

We study what we call “host-pathogen” interactions to understand how these viruses try to overcome the host’s natural resistance to cause a lifelong infection and how the immune system in the women’s reproductive tract resists infection. We study the effect of sex hormones, bacterial and viral co-infections, microbiome and a number of other biological factors that affect this tug of war between the host and the virus. The overall goal is to better understand these mechanisms and use that knowledge to design better preventative strategies, such as microbicides and vaccines, to decrease these chronic infections in women.

What are the real world applications of your research?

Sexually transmitted infections are a huge problem globally and the repercussions of these infections are very serious, especially for women. They typically have less symptoms and much worse outcomes than men. For example, infertility, pregnancy failure and reproductive cancers are all common consequences of unrecognized and untreated sexually transmitted infections in women. Furthermore, women can transmit these infections to their newborns. So our efforts to understand and prevent these infections have real clinical benefits in improving the reproductive health of women.

What is the most rewarding part about being an IIDR member?

As anyone who is a research scientist will tell you, science and research is not just a job, it is a way of living and part of your identity. As such, it is really important for scientists to be able to connect with others who share this passion – IIDR provides that.

It is the feeling of a shared sense of common purpose, of belonging to a community where my motivation, accomplishments and the significance of my work is recognized and validated. IIDR members and in particular our director, Gerry Wright have very successfully provided support to individual researchers and have raised the profile both internally and externally of the significance of infectious disease research for human health and well-being, now and in the future. Antibiotic resistance, emerging infections, and the big three infections (TB, HIV and malaria) which are among the biggest killers globally, are all a major focus for IIDR and as such there is shared sense of excitement with every new break-through that comes out from one of the IIDR labs. It is a collective feeling of accomplishment and pride!

What is your proudest accomplishment as an IIDR member?

IIDR has a number of world class, cutting-edge technologies and facilities, and is a leader in infectious disease research here at McMaster, in Canada and globally. However, for a number of years we did not have a state-of-the-art Biocontainment Level 3 Laboratory where we could work with high-risk human pathogens.

In 2011, the University committed to invest in building a new BSL3 facility and Gerry Wright asked me to lead the initiative for a CFI grant to obtain funding for equipping the lab with the latest equipment and getting the facility certified from Health Canada. The average time for completing the whole process is between 3-5 years. We beat all expectations and managed to get the facility built and certified in 18 months; it was officially inaugurated in October 2013. It was a perfect example of teamwork: IIDR leadership, great support from FHS and the construction team, combined by the hard work of the researchers in getting the laboratory ready and completing the regulatory work with excellent guidance from our Biosafety Office.

It was a sense of great accomplishment for the whole team and I was very privileged to be leading the effort on behalf of the research team. The McMaster BSL3 lab is currently one of the most well-equipped, state-of-the-art facilities in Canada, certified by Health Canada for conducting work with air-borne as well as contact pathogens.

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?

I say this to every girl who is interested in science and/or pursuing a career in science: “Don’t let other people define you, i.e. tell you what you want and/or are capable of doing.” Even though we have made much progress, even now in 2017, there are so many gender stereotypes, societal influences and (mostly well-meaning) advice that shape the experience, identity and abilities of girls and women!

Although not overt, it puts them in a box in subtle ways and prevents them from recognizing their aptitude and achieving their maximum potential. I would say to them, decide for yourself who you are and what gives you a sense of accomplishment, think outside of the box and create your own path. You are only limited by your own expectations!

Why should women and girls have an interest in science and/or pursue a career in science? Why is it important to encourage them?

For many different and important reasons! First because women bring a different perspective and their priorities are different. Encouraging women to have an interest and careers in science doesn’t just benefit them or other women. Having women in leadership positions and in policy making bodies provides more gender-balanced approaches and outcomes, which affect society as a whole. Nowhere is this more important than in science and technology. Decisions being made today regarding technology, infrastructure, health, climate will determine the future of our country and the world, and women need to be at the table in sufficient numbers to affect those choices. To get to this goal, we need to start at a grassroots level and encourage girls and women to be part of the process at every step!

A second important reason to encourage women and girls is that as the numbers of women who are scientists, engineers, mathematicians, chemists, physicists and in other more traditionally “male” careers increases, the norm of what is acceptable is changing and in my opinion, we as a society, will become more tolerant of diversity in other areas such as race, gender, sexual orientation.

Why is female mentorship important?

I see mentorship as a reciprocal relationship. Typically, the mentors have the insights and experience, but the mentees frequently have enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Ideally these complementary qualities should invigorate growth and empowerment in both parties.

When women partner with other women in mentor-mentee relationships, the experience of the older generation and the boldness of the younger generation, combined with context and richness of the female experience and narrative, creates the right environment where women can collectively break new grounds.

Can you tell us a personal story about a female student you mentored?

There are so many personal stories, especially for women trainees. It is my personal goal to motivate them to reach their best potential, and each one needs a different approach to do that.

A recent graduate first came to the lab as a summer student, wanting to spend an extra year after her undergraduate degree to try to improve her grades in order to get into graduate school. Right away, you could see how talented she was in the lab! I hired her as a research assistant for the next few months and the following year she started as a graduate student in the lab.

Graduate school was a steep learning curve, academically demanding and cause for a lot of self-doubt. But her hard work, persistence and determination, combined with lots of encouragement, helped her to not only successfully complete graduate school, but in the process, she received multiple awards and accolades, produced an excellent thesis and became one of the most productive members of the lab in recent years! She has been an inspiration to everyone in the lab, including me.