By learning how to disrupt the life cycle and proliferation of the malaria parasite, we can help towards developing new drugs and vaccines to block transmission of the disease. In parasites, particular proteins direct them. Some of these, like kinases, phosphatases and cell division molecules are very important – if you block them the cell cannot grow. Can we target them? At Imperial College I started this ambitious project to knock out [replace one gene with another] each of the 72 kinase genes in the genome one by one and understand the function. That was a big gamble, a very, very ambitious project. I followed this with the other side of the coin with phosphatases in 2014. I finished the world’s first comprehensive study of the molecular switches in the malaria parasite’s life cycle.
Now we are working on many molecules that are involved in parasite cell multiplication which these kinases and phosphatases regulate. That again is a big and exciting thing because the cell division in the sexual stages of parasite has been studied very poorly. These transmission stages are very crucial if the disease needs to be eradicated.
That’s the beauty of biology: there are no boundaries if you want to ask simple questions
I was always fascinated by biology. After school I wanted to do medicine but my father – who was a professor in social sciences – moved to northeastern India, a backwater, to establish a university. There were no medical colleges so I went for zoology. I started my PhD at the University of Delhi, studying genetics and sex chromosomes. I became hungry for research, wanted to see more and the only way to do that was to go abroad in good labs.
I started to study the malaria parasite at Imperial College, London, working on a group of transgenic mice. The basic processes, whether it’s a human cell or a mouse cell or a parasite cell, are more or less the same. For me, that’s the beauty of biology: there are no boundaries if you want to ask simple questions – how does the cell divide? How can I make the cell stop? I can sit at the microscope for hours and people think – “what is there?” – but I still get excited by the same single cell because every time you see a cell it looks different, it has something else to show you.
Getting a PhD was a big thing for my family and for myself. A big high was working for Frank Grosveld [Head of the Department of Cell Biology at the Erasmus University Medical Centre, Rotterdam] in Holland. I think Imperial exposed me to lots of challenges, and here [at the University of Nottingham] when I got this work published. I think every paper is a high and now it’s not just for me, it’s a team and more collaborative effort, both within the group and with other scientists who have different expertise, and contribute to understanding the exciting biology. And, of course, my inaugural lecture as Professor of Parasite Cell Biology, with all my friends, family and mentors there, was very special for me.
For me the biggest part of a scientific career is not only learning exciting biology of the cell but also learning about people, their culture, the language, and that I would have never learned if I had not taken this journey.
Better understanding of the malaria parasite will lead in turn to better drugs and a better quality of life for people who suffer from malaria, at least in Africa. The Indian subcontinent has improved a lot but the parasite is also mutating so you have drug resistance. We need to understand the fundamental biology of the parasite transmission as the mosquito bite is what leads to infection. Malaria need to be controlled both as a disease and its parasite transmission.
Have a passion for your work, or like what you do. For me to come on a Saturday or at four in the morning because I am very curious and I want to see a result is not a hardship. So work hard and play hard. What drives me is that I want to know the unknown. For me, it’s not work: I love every bit of it.
What drives me is that I want to know the unknown. For me, it’s not work: I love every bit of it
I really admire my supervisor in Holland, Professor Frank Grosveld, and Dr Tony Holder, who’s in London at Francis Crick Institute. They are both excellent scientists but the thing I admire in them is that they are both very good human beings, and they understand people. For me, that’s more important than big papers.
I don’t know! Maybe I should open a restaurant – I love cooking. A world restaurant, where there would be food from every part of the world that I’ve lived in. My cooking is not “Indian” anymore, it’s an amalgamation of everything. I’m a vegetarian, I mix things – it’s the same as I do in research. If you’re exposed to so many different things you become curious and then can think and create.
I’m a person of the here and now. Go back in time? I don’t know. I would like to go to Peru. Maybe explore more of Europe and South America. Back in time in India when i was studying, my dream was to go to Europe – it was a mystery to me. I have many friends and collaborators from Europe now. I hope the UK and its partners will remain committed to this free exchange of ideas, visits by scientists and further collaborations. I feel science and scientists do not have boundaries.
Global Research Theme Health and Wellbeing
Research Priority Area Antimicrobials and Antimicrobial Resistance
View Rita's full profile
Rita Tewari is Professor of Parasite Cell Biology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.
+44 (0) 115 951 5151
Connect with the University of Nottingham through social media and our blogs.
Campus maps | More contact information | Jobs