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Interview with Aparna Lakkaraju, PhD

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  • Rachel: Thank you for coming today. Can you please state your name and institution?

    Dr. Lakkaraju: I am Aparna Lakkaraju and I'm at the University of California, San Francisco.

    Rachel: You have a grant with us. Can you tell us a little bit about your project?

    Dr. Lakkaraju: So, what we're looking at is… So, my lab works on age-related macular degeneration, which is one of the most common causes or the most common cause of blindness among older adults. And we don't really know exactly how this disease happens, how it triggers vision loss, and how most of us age normally, while some of us go on to develop age-related macular degeneration. So, what we’re studying in the BrightFocus-funded project is how cells that are first affected in age-related macular degeneration release these small packets that can send, you can think of it as spyware or malware that can infect your computers, for instance. So, send these small packets of information that disturb the environment in the light sensing part of the eye, and then how it causes disease. And we're also interested in figuring out a drug that can stop these cells from sending out these harmful packages of information.

    Rachel: That's a good way of looking at it. Someone who doesn't understand the science as well to relate to that. What prompted you to become a scientist? What, why did you go into it?

    Dr. Lakkaraju: So, you know, like most people who are scientists, I think, I was as a child, very curious about how things work. My dad and I used to take apart things at home, like the air conditioning, and bring them back, but I also used to love solving puzzles. And I think science has the best combination of that because you understand how the body works, how it falls apart during disease, and to figure out ways to stop that, is like solving the most intricate puzzle. And I… It also gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, especially vision science, because finding out ways to preserve healthy vision will have a tremendous real-world impact [on] improving the quality of life of people.

    Rachel: So, did you do puzzles as a kid?

    Dr. Lakkaraju: Yes, I'm still very addicted to crossword puzzles. And I, I, yeah…

    Rachel: —It's a good hobby to have sometimes. Can you like give us like a day in the like the lab that was just like an aha [moment]?

    Dr. Lakkaraju: So, one of the most recent things that happened in our lab was… so, one thing that people with AMD have is these deposits that happen in the back of the eye called drusen. And that there are these globs of fat and protein that accumulate. And people really don't understand why they accumulate, how they accumulate and how they destroy our sight. So, what if, we had this crazy theory that something happens in the first cells that are affected in age-related macular degeneration, then they just start glomming up together, and then somehow, this ends up forming this drusen. So, my graduate student tested out this, this experiment. She actually made it work. We saw these, these things glomming up together, and then we added a drug that could break it apart. So, it was really amazing and now we are focusing more on that.

    Rachel: Yeah, I mean, it's good like when you figure something out, and it works…

    Dr. Lakkaraju: Exactly, so it was a completely crazy idea and it actually worked.

    Rachel: Awesome!

    Dr. Lakkaraju: —So, very excited about that…

    Rachel: So, what do you do when you're not in the lab, like on, as a hobby or some personal interests?

    Dr. Lakkaraju: So, I love… I'm a big reader. I love to read. I love to travel, explore new cultures, [and] new cuisines. And, you know, go on long hikes and things like that. But most of the time right now, out of the lab, is spent with my 11-year-old daughter. We, we do poetry together. We play badminton. We learn the violin together. She's better than me in all those things. Yeah. So that's pretty much what I do out of the lab.

    Rachel: I understand that you do some public outreach.

    Dr. Lakkaraju: —Yes.

    Rachel: Can you explain more about that?

    Dr. Lakkaraju: So, it actually came up. So, before I moved to the University of California, San Francisco, I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And there, I began to speak a lot to non-science audiences, like the Women's Health Initiative. Wisconsin Public Television had a Wednesday night at the lab series where scientists would come up and give talks to lay audiences that would then be broadcasted in the public, local public television channel. And I really began to enjoy my interactions with people explaining what we do in the lab in a way that nonscientists find [it] easy to grasp. I found those interactions very rewarding and it takes us out of our ivory tower. And helps us, you know, really think about why you're doing what you're doing. So, every time that I'm given an opportunity to do that, I do take that up.

    Rachel: And helps raise awareness as well…

    Dr. Lakkaraju: —Exactly!

    Rachel: —Of the diseases…

    Dr. Lakkaraju: Exactly! And you know, people who have some of these eye diseases, they're very scary, right, because they're losing vision. And so, if they understand exactly what's going on, I think it gives them a lot of confidence about they know what to do [and] what's going on in their eyes.

    Rachel: Right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us.

    Dr. Lakkaraju: Absolutely!

    Rachel: It's really nice to meet you.

    Dr. Lakkaraju: Nice to meet you too. Thank you.

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