This week we have Parmvir Bahia (@pbiwan), a Research Associate at the University of South Florida. Parmvir received her PhD in Pharmacology from University College London. After completing her first postdoc at King’s College London, she moved to the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she has worked for the last 10 years. Her current position is as a Research Associate in a lab investigating the role of sensory nerves in various disease conditions. We asked Parmvir a few questions about her interests, her work and how Neuroscience relates to the lungs!
How did you end up in this career?
I don’t have an inspirational story about what got me into science. It was just the most enjoyable subject for me at school and one that I had some aptitude for. As I was coming to the end of school, my biology teacher pointed out, since I enjoyed biology and was pretty good at chemistry, that I might want to study Pharmacology, which I did. Naively I thought I’d end up working at a pharmaceutical company developing cancer and HIV cures. Essentially I just kept “leveling up”: from high school to undergraduate, to PhD, to postdoc to a long term position as a senior scientist. One commonality to all these career stages is that I spent much of that time just thinking “wow, that’s amazing!”.
Why did you choose this field?
One of the most enduring memories I have is of me, aged 17, learning about how nerve cells work. How they use electricity to transmit a signal along their length to be able to communicate with the next neuron, and that was it, I was sold on neuroscience. As for what keeps me there, for someone who suffers from chronic pain, studying the very nerves that transmit that information, makes the research personal.
I am a neuroscientist studying diseases of the lungs and airways. Wait. What? You will have spotted that lungs are not part of the brain. What I actually look at are the sensory nerves that tell the brain what is happening in the airways. Our lab is particularly interested in nociceptive nerves which are vital for triggering defensive mechanisms such as cough and mucus secretion. The problem is that these nerves can become over-sensitive and start signalling when they shouldn’t. This contributes to unpleasant or debilitating sensations and inappropriate reflexes, and has important implications in diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and even heart disease. I’m trying to understand how these nerves work and the potential for new therapies and my focus has been on the TRPA1 ion channel a.k.a. the wasabi receptor.
But how is this important to all of us?
As someone who works in health and disease it seems pretty easy to justify the importance of my research. Asthma incidence, for example, is on the rise worldwide. It is a very human consequence of climate change and increased pollution. An additional advantage of studying these nerves is the capacity to yield information that would also be relevant to pain conditions.
Do you have any extracurricular activities you like to spend your time on?
With a group of friends I founded a science outreach nonprofit called Scientists Inc. Under that guise we record a podcast called 2Scientists sharing the research and personal stories of scientists, and we have an annual festival for adults called taste of science. I’m part of an informal collaborative trying to establish a culture to support science communication at the University of South Florida where I work. I also serve on the Science Outreach and Communications Committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Essentially I eat, sleep and breathe science and outreach!
Running might not sound particularly interesting, but the trails in Florida make for a real adventure. I’ve met snakes, armadillos, turtles, woodpeckers, owls, deer and most unnervingly a wild hog. When I have the time I also enjoy bouldering or tinkering in the garden.
And your ideal day off??
A long trail run followed up with some well deserved fries and a beer from one of our favorite local breweries.
Welcome Parmvir, to Real Scientists!