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Deepshika Ramanan

Harvard Medical School

Deepshika Ramanan’s career as a microbiologist started with, of all things, lizard poop. While studying at Winona State in Minnesota, Ramanan collected fecal samples from some of her biology department’s pet iguanas and characterized the bacteria found in them to understand the creature’s microbiomes.

“That was sort of my first intro to looking at the microbiome of an animal, she said. “It just seemed like a fun thing to do. And that ended up fueling this whole trajectory that I’m on right now.”

Born in India, Ramanan attended Winona State largely because her sister had gone there before her. “Growing up in India, I really didn’t have that many role models who are women scientists,” she said. “I’m the first person in my extended family to have a PhD.”

That’s led her to prioritize outreach activities during her budding career. While working on her PhD at New York University, Ramanan mentored a high schooler student who went on to win second place in a statewide science competition with a project Ramanan helped her design.

Ramanan moved to Boston with her husband in 2016 to start a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School with a focus on how non-genetic traits passed from mother to child can influence a person’s immune system.

One protein will bind to microbes in the guts of mice. In June, Ramanan published a study showing that the levels of immunoglobulin A  —  a protein that binds to microbes in the gut  — found in a mouse can reliably be traced back to its mother (and its grandmother, and great-grandmother) through the milk a mother feeds her pups.

These immunoglobulin proteins are vital in an animal’s immune system, and can influence another immune cell — a regulatory T cell. Some subtypes of these regulatory T cells  are correlated with better responses to certain viruses and bacteria — and analogs of them are found in humans, too.

“Growing up in India, I really didn’t have that many role models who are women scientists,” she said. “I’m the first person in my extended family to have a Ph.D.”

“When we think of inheritance, we think of genetics, we think of epigenetics. We don’t really think about inheriting environmental factors or microbial factors,” Ramanan said. Essentially, she said, her work showed that “it is possible for mothers to transfer things they learned during their lifetime that are not genetic to their offspring, and then to their offspring’s offspring.”

Ramanan’s research also popped into her head after she gave birth to her first child in January,

“You can imagine when I had the baby, I was freaking out. Because I was like, ‘Am I doing everything right? Am I passing on the right things to her?’”

But she said she remembered something she had discovered: that the differences she found conferred protection against different microbes, but that none were uniformly “good” or “bad.”

“That kind of helped me calm down a bit,” she said.

—  Kate Sheridan