Sydney PhD graduate selected for prestigious Novo Nordisk-Oxford Fellowship

16 August 2019
A rising star in diabetes and metabolism research

Medical sciences PhD graduate, Shilpa Nagarajan, has been recognised as a future leader in diabetes and metabolism research, receiving a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship to expand her research into insulin resistance and diabetes.

A self-titled 'Third Culture Kid', Shilpa has already lived and studied across 3 continents, 4 coutries and 5 cities. Europe is the next exciting chapter in her story.

A natural scientist with an inherent curiosity, Shilpa says her journey into diabetes and metabolism research resulted from a family history of the condition and a personal quest to ask and answer her own questions.

Now a researcher on the rise, we caught up with her to find out what inspired her PhD project, why she chose the University of Sydney, the challenges she's faced as an early career researcher (ECR) and what's involved in her upcoming fellowship.

What was your PhD research project about and what sparked your interest in this topic?

My research focuses on understanding the role that proteins and lipids (fats) play in the progression of insulin resistance within fatty liver disease. South Asians are at a higher risk for developing diabetes, which explains why my entire (immediate and extended) family has it!

When my parents were diagnosed in my first year of uni, lifestyle changes were the hardest to take on board. I spent a lot of time trying to increase their nutritional literacy, explaining how different food groups affect their physiology so they could improve their diet decisions rather than rely on a do and don't eat list.

Eventually, I ran out of explanations and was hungry to learn more! I began my research career in diabetes at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore and at the University of Toronto in Canada during my undergraduate degree.

By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to continue learning and contribute to preventing the disease which affects so many of my family members.

What led you to study your PhD at the University of Sydney?

I was originally planning to stay in Canada to complete my PhD, but my parents wanted me to consider somewhere closer to home (Singapore), but I wasn't convinced.

I threw my hat in the ring for the University of Sydney because it's located in a beautiful city, it's internationally recognised, and had recently opened the Charles Perkins Centre for research specifically related to diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular research.

In the end, it came down to my answer to the question ‘who would I want to work with for the next 4 years?’. Dr Andrew Hoy was and continues to be, a dream supervisor and I instantly knew I wanted to work for him after the first interview.

In my opinion, picking a good supervisor is just as important, if not more important, than picking a good project.

How has your journey as an early career researcher (ECR) been so far? Have you faced any challenges?

I love doing research and I love being in the lab. I specifically chose a small/medium-sized lab because it allowed me to have plenty of face-to-face communication with my supervisor, greater resources and support for individual research outputs (papers, grants, etc), and the opportunity to collaborate with many other labs while tapping into multidisciplinary expertise (leading to more papers, larger network, etc).

The greatest challenges with being an ECR for me have been personal/emotional ones – dealing with rejection, failed experiments, criticism and impostor syndrome. I’m thankful for scientists who have been just as open about their failures as they have about their successes, and for organisations like Franklin Women that promote and teach self-advocacy.

How did you come to apply for and receive the prestigious Novo Nordisk-Oxford Postdoctoral Fellowship?

When I came across the Novo Nordisk-Oxford Postdoctoral Fellowship, I felt like it was too good to be true. Novo Nordisk is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies focused on diabetes research and Professor Leanne Hodson at Oxford was one of my aspirational fatty liver/diabetes labs to work in.

I originally applied in February 2018 but was not successful, but after emailing Leanne she offered to meet with me when she came to visit Sydney later that year. We got on really well and with a shared research interest we decided it was worth a shot to apply again this year.

I had to read my offer letter aloud maybe 4-5 times before I realised it was real. Honestly, I’m still in shock sometimes but incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with leaders in my field and become a better scientist myself.

Can you tell us a little bit more about what’s involved with the fellowship?

The 3-year postdoctoral fellowship is based at the University of Oxford, where fellows such as myself undertake a specific project related to diabetes and metabolism with a supervisor at Oxford and a mentor at Novo Nordisk.  

I will be specifically working with Professor Leanne Hodson, Professor Fredrik Karpe and Dr Katherine Pinnick to explore the relationship between lipid droplet size, location, composition and fatty acid source with insulin resistance.

To investigate these parameters, I’ll be using 2D and 3D liver cell models of fatty liver disease as well as stable-isotope tracers in human participants.

Undertaking a research degree in medicine and health at the University of Sydney is an opportunity to make a real difference to the health of individuals and communities around the world. Search for a supervisor or project and find out how to apply.

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