Doctor of Philosophy (UQ)
Preparing the body for the next pandemic
My name is Rishika Abrol, I am a PhD student at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland. I have always been striving to know more and expand my horizons which led me to pursue a biological science PhD in Australia. There is a desperate need to understand and introduce new and effective treatments for infectious and inflammation-driven diseases that plague our society. These include sepsis, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, stroke, and rheumatoid arthritis. My research focuses on understanding the innate immune system, a system in our body that provides front-line defence against infectious diseases and also initiates and spreads inflammation. Within the innate immune system, I am primarily interested in deciphering how immune cells called macrophages work – to help us better understand infectious and inflammation-driven diseases and how to treat them.
The global pandemic driven by COVID-19 has highlighted the importance and requirement of extensive research in biological sciences. Chronic inflammatory diseases are a billion dollar burden to the health sector, with the Australian government spending almost 38 billion dollars per year to treat various inflammatory diseases. In addition to this, the rise in antibiotic resistant superbugs, a bigger threat that looms over the horizon, accounts for an additional burden of 7.5 billion dollars to the Australian economy. These statistics are red flags that suggest an increasing need for us to understand such diseases and introduce new and effective treatment strategies. My research aims to explore how our immune system initiates and exaggerates destructive inflammation in our body during bacterial infections. The long-term goal of my research is to develop new treatments for inflammatory and infectious diseases and make Queensland a pioneer in this research field.
I am an Indian girl, who has made her way not only through the clutches of a patriarchal society but has also managed to make a career in scientific research. I decided to study in Australia because of the impressive focus on scientific research that most courses and degrees in my field were supplemented with. Through my work, I want to help young keen minds, especially girls to identify the kind of programs that can help build their skills, and contribute towards making university studies more accessible for students.
While growing up, I had no female scientific role models to look up to. Even though I always had my parents by my side to encourage me in my pursuits, I had to figure things out on my own. I lost my dad just before I started my PhD, but I knew it was his dream to see me become a scientist and so I continued to work towards it. Everything wasn’t easy for me, so I decided to help others in a similar situation with their passion for science. I became a tutor at the University and a part of the Wonder of Science program as a Young Science Ambassador to promote STEM education amongst primary school students across Queensland.
I think promoting the STEM culture offers an ideal platform where students can identify their inner spark at a really early stage. The kind of learning in which students are not only taught about the topics but are encouraged to experiment and make mistakes stimulates the brain to think about other un-answered questions. This reminds me of the time when I went to school to give them a challenge task to build a seismometer. Even though the primary design of the instrument was laid years ago, I was amazed by the designs that the students came up with. The learning techniques not only encouraged them to solve the problem but also troubleshoot every issue that came their way.
Inspiring young minds, especially girls, who are the potential frontrunners in scientific fields of the future is a rewarding task. And I’m looking forward to continuing to encourage and mentor the next generation of female scientists.
Apart from research work, I have also been a part of the Wonder of Science program under the University of Queensland. As one of the Young Science Ambassadors (since 2021), I’m entrusted to promote STEM education to primary school students across rural and urban Queensland. Inspiring young minds of Queensland who could potentially be frontrunners of various scientific breakthroughs in the future is a rewarding task that has been instrumental in my new-found passion for science communication, in addition to research.
As a Young Science Ambassador, I have visited schools in different regions of Queensland including Brisbane and rural areas around Dalby. During these visits, I got the opportunity to not only share my research but also encourage pupils to think outside the box to answer their curiosities.
I have also been a part of the ‘Girls in STEM’ program at Foxwell State Secondary College, Brisbane. This program gave me the opportunity _to encourage young girls in their passion in science by facilitating University lab tours and mentoring. I mentored a year 7 student for 7 weeks, helping her understand the scientific literature of her project and encouraging her to think about a career in STEM.
I have been a teaching assistant at The University of Queensland for more than 2 years, assisting with 6 different courses. This involves assisting with practicals, workshops and grading papers. As well as assisting with the course, I am always happy to help mentor students when they are considering their career paths. I think if can inspire or help even one student then that’s a cause worth working towards.
Apart from being a good scientist, I think it’s also important to be able to communicate about the science. Hence, over the years I have participated in science communication events. These include giving presentations at international scientific conferences, participating in the 3-minute thesis competition and volunteering at the World Science Festival, Brisbane (2021).