Interview with an early-career scientist: Dr Chaitali Mukherjee

Hear from an early-career scientist about her first-author publication in Cell Metabolism and her academic journey

At Proteintech, we love celebrating your scientific success stories.

Dr Chaitali Mukherjee is the first author of a recent paper in Cell Metabolism: “Oligodendrocytes Provide Antioxidant Defense Function for Neurons by Secreting Ferritin Heavy Chain”, PMID 32531201.

Here, Chaitali discusses her motivations for neurodegenerative research, her work in science outreach, and how her career to date has unfolded.

Dr Chaitali Mukherjee used Proteintech’s antibody against Rab35 (11329-2-AP) for immunoblotting of extracellular vesicles.

Firstly, thank you for your time and congratulations on your recent paper in Cell Metabolism! Can you start by telling me a bit about yourself, your background, and your career so far?

Thank you! Sure my pleasure. I am originally from India, having completed my schooling and Bachelor of Science from Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. Although I trained in Chemistry, Zoology and Microbiology during my undergrad, after the Parkinson’s diagnosis of my Grandfather, I developed a deep interest in Neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases. I moved to Germany for higher education and completed my Masters and PhD in Neuroscience from the Georg-August University of Gottingen in 2015, following which I moved to Munich to join the lab of Prof. Mikael Simons at the Deutsche Zentrum fuer Neurodegerative Erkrankungen (DZNE) Munich.

Having worked with cell intrinsic mechanisms of nerve cell development during my PhD, I was keen to switch gears and work on the influence of cell extrinsic factors such as glial neuron interactions on neuronal health and function. Prof. Simons was the one of my PhD thesis committee members. I had come to know him not only as one of the leading scientists working on glial biology but also as an excellent mentor. Hence, I decided to join his lab in Munich for Postdoc where I am working on understanding the neuroprotective functions of oligodendrocytes in aging and neurodegenerative diseases.  

“…after the Parkinson’s diagnosis of my Grandfather, I developed a deep interest in Neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases.”

Can you briefly describe the findings of this paper and how they fit into the global work the glial research field?

Glia comprises a large percentage of cells of the central nervous system. However, for a long time they were thought as passive contributors to proper brain function.  With recent discoveries which demonstrate that glia play a more active roles by modulating neuronal survival by carrying out vital tasks such as providing metabolic support, and waste disposal for ensheathed neurons, this view is changing. Even though we are rapidly discovering the importance of glia for neuronal health and survival, the potential proteins provided by glia that are necessary for neuronal viability are not fully understood. Through this particular study, we identified ferritin heavy chain as a critical molecule that is secreted by glia that acts as an antioxidant defence system for protecting neurons against iron-mediated cytotoxicity. Such a system might be crucial as it offers protection to neurons against increased oxidative stress, often seen in the aging brain or in various neurological diseases.

What is your favourite antibody-based technique and why?  In your paper you use a wide range from IHC, ICC, ELISA and immunoblotting.

Well that is a great question! It is very hard for me to choose as each has its own merit. However, if I had to choose, I would pick two. IHC, as it allows you to visualize and quantify cell-to-cell interactions, cell morphology and distribution in a tissue as well as pathological events. However, I also would pick ELISA, as it is a quick, sensitive and easy quantitative method for immunological detection of proteins in various biological samples; it is non-invasive and has tremendous diagnostic value.

Outside of your research, I see that you do a lot science outreach and are a team leader for NeuroCamp in Munich. What is this and how are you involved?

Neuroscience is a fast-paced evolving field, and we have made huge strides when it comes to understanding the functioning of the nervous system. However, we still have a long way to go! Especially in areas of pathophysiology and therapy. Therefore, it is imperative to find ways to inspire and encourage for the future generation of neuroscientists. With this aim, we started NeuroCamp in 2018 as a two week summer school for enthusiastic and bright (gymnasium/ 10-12th grade) high school students. In the first week, we equip the students with the basics of neuroscience in the form of lectures and hands-on workshops. In the second week the students get to do a 3 day mini projects in scientific laboratories guided by PhD students, which they present to their peers and an open audience at the end of the week in the form of a talk of poster session.  This format gives them a taste of the various sub fields in neuroscience as well as experience what it is to work on scientific questions in a lab setting. However due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this year we adapted Neurocamp 2020 to an online format. Keeping the same structure of lectures in week1 and experiments in week 2. As the team leader, I bridge any communication gap between the various teams working on various aspects of the camp (e.g. Funding, academic content, logistics, etc) and ensure that all of us are working towards the common vision and goal of making NeuroCamp educational and fun for the participating kids.

“…it is imperative to find ways to inspire and encourage for the future generation of neuroscientists.”

As an established PostDoc in a world-leading lab, what careers advice do you have for people looking to follow in your footsteps?

I think at a personal level what I can say is, my schooling and undergraduate studies in India provided me with a very strong base to build on, which helped me get into the prestigious International Max Planck Research school (IMPRS) Neuroscience program, Goettingen, for my Masters. Very good grades, especially during my undergraduate studies helped me secure the stipend for excellence, which helped me finance my stay and education in Germany during Masters.

Since it’s hard to overcome the language barrier in Germany, especially in the beginning. For international applicants interested in pursuing higher education in Germany, I can highly recommend the IMPRS MSc programs in Germany. The courses are taught in English and in my experience, the program coordinators took care of us international students and helps us find accommodation and with all initial bureaucratic hurdles, we faced. The programs are well-structured, with lectures from renowned scientists and an environment fostering scientific discussions as well as intercultural exchange. I felt the option of doing short 2-3 month lab rotations in different labs during Masters helped me streamline my interests and choose the right lab for PhD.

For PhD as well as Postdoc it is extremely important to have very good mentors, who can guide you technically and develop your scientific thinking. I was fortunate to have had excellent mentors in my scientific career so far. They not only shaped me as a scientist, but also taught me to be resilient when faced with challenges, a very important quality to survive and succeed in science.

Papers like are a huge collaborative and teamwork effort. Who would like to thank in your lab and personal life for helping you succeed?   

You are absolutely right! Science is a collaborative field and papers take team work. I would like to thank all the authors and collaborators involved in this study. Without all of their support and collaboration, this study would not have been possible.