From Molecules to Mice

by Anita K. Iyer '01, PhD

Anita Iyer ’01I am a Hindu and a vegetarian. As a Hindu, I believe that all life forms are sacred, to be loved and respected, and therefore practice ahimsa, a doctrine that urges avoidance of harm and violence to living creatures. I became a vegetarian for both health and religious reasons after realizing how cruelly animals are treated in slaughterhouses.

I am also a molecular biologist — one who will be expected in the years ahead to conduct research using animals. Because working with animals in my biomedical research projects is essentially at odds with my religious beliefs, I have constantly been trying to resolve these inner conflicts. Would it be possible to have a successful career without working with mice, or would I need to find a way to reconcile my career goals with my Hindu beliefs of ahimsa and respecting all life forms?

I first became interested in molecular biology during my junior year at Scripps in Professor Margaret Mathies’ genetics course — specifically in how precise molecular mechanisms have profound effects on full body physiology. I was even more fascinated by how altering the function of one gene at the molecular level can lead to debilitating diseases such as Huntington’s or Cystic Fibrosis. Molecular mechanisms became how I inherently thought about science. I had found my calling: to become the best molecular biologist I could be by studying the molecular pathogenesis of human disease.

Fast forward nine years. I have a PhD in human genetics from UCLA, where I published many papers on the molecular mechanisms of a gene that causes adrenal hypoplasia congenita. I am now a postdoctoral researcher in reproductive medicine and neuroscience at UC San Diego and was recently awarded a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study the molecular regulation of gonadotropin-releasing hormones and mechanisms of infertility.

As a scientist, I am confident and skilled in molecular technologies that involve working with cultured mammalian cells representative of the physiologic system I am studying. So far during my biomedical research career, I have not handled a single mouse or any animal, and this comes as no surprise to my colleagues and mentors. However, I have recently reconciled my career goals with my Hindu beliefs and will be pursuing a project involving mice later this year.

I am not doing this because of pressure from my mentors or the demands of science in academia and industry. My desire to resolve my religious conflicts and delve into the animal model is driven by my own curiosity to understand how my molecular findings translate to the complex system that is a whole animal. Whole animal studies corroborate molecular findings and further understanding of human disease, a very fulfilling idea.

Hindus believe in karma, a law of cause and effect where your deeds dictate your destiny. As you sow, so shall you reap. Good Hindus lead lives of good conduct, and perform their duties with noble intentions.

I therefore asked myself, why am I doing this? I am working with the animals for a good, virtuous reason: to benefit human health care by advancing the knowledge of complex biological systems and human disease. This knowledge will lead to the development of better treatments and therapies. My duty in life is to be the best scientist I can be. Applying my molecular studies to the whole animal is the best way to maximize the impact of my findings.

We are very fortunate to be living in an age of great resources and model systems to refine novel treatments for human disease. In addition, we have elaborate regulations to treat and handle the animals in a humane manner.

I am very excited about taking my career as a scientist to a new level. Having reconciled these differences will open doors for me to have a very fulfilling and satisfying biomedical research career in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry.


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