The winner of the 2019 ANU Three Minute Thesis competition's research may well have wide-spread implications for heart disease treatment. But on the face of it, he cultivates, feeds and looks after heart cells in a lab like a good parent.
Lithin Louis, who is doing his PhD in Medical Science with a focus on molecular RNA biology, at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, delivered his award-winning 3MT presentation Mysteries of a beating heart to a full house at Llewellyn Hall on Wednesday night (4 September).
His research relates to the interactions between a protein found in heart cells, called SERCA (or Sarco Endoplasmic Reticulum Calcium ATPase), and RNA (known as Ribonucleic Acid) the genetic biomolecule that decodes and manifest the information present in DNA.
"SERCA plays a very important role in heart muscle cells by removing the calcium, allowing them to contract causing the heart beat," Lithin says.
"But when SERCA fails in removing the calcium, it could lead to cell death. For the very first time we here at ANU discovered that SERCA interacts with RNA and that this RNA could possibly regulate the function of SERCA. My research is about trying to understand which RNA interacts with SERCA, and its functional relevance."
Using Ultraviolet light, Lithin can create chemical bond between the protein and RNA forming a complex, before purifying the complex and identifying the RNA
The PhD student says his research has widespread importance for humans across the globe.
"The knowledge of biomolecular interactions could hold the secrets to treat heart disease."
Back in his home country of India, Lithin studied biology at high school before delving into biotechnology for his undergraduate degree, and then completed his masters in stem cell biology.
"I happened to come across one of Thomas Preiss' papers, which focused on moonlighting - or multitasking - proteins and I thought it was pretty cool that a single protein could do multiple functions.
"So I applied to him and I got the scholarship and that's how I ended up here at ANU."
Lithin says all contestants in the 3MT final were brilliant.
"All ten of them were incredibly supportive. I couldn't have asked for anything better. It was quite nice have them around."
Each of the other presentations left their mark on Lithin as well.
"3MT was an eye opener for me. There are things that we all or at least me, conveniently ignore, like how refuges are treated, or the untold stories about war and oppression.
"I am well aware about these matters, but I never took the time to think and reflect or act. So when other contestants were presenting their research on such issues, it spoke directly to my heart! I am very proud of my fellow contestants and their research."
After winning at the school level, Lithin says he had a meeting with Inger Mewburn and Victoria Firth-Smith. At that time, Lithin described some of the technical aspects of what he does, but that was met with comments relating to it not explaining what he does on a daily basis.
"That's when I started talking about growing cells - I grow these beating, beautiful heart cells on a plate - I feed them, I clean them, I make sure they behave and beat well, I basically mother them.
"Though for me it seemed very trivial, they were excited and interested to know what I do with them. Their support and enthusiasm sort of made me realise that I am doing something special and important and worth spending my 3-4 years of life.
"I think that happens to a lot of PhD students - we start with so much ambition and motivation and we end up losing them at some point.
"So for me 3MT was a great moment of realisation and self-motivation. More than anything I would do it all over again for the experience alone."
Lithin says he can't remember what was running through his mind when they called his name as the 2019 champion.
"I liked the fact that people enjoyed listening to me and had a good laugh. And the fact that a lot of people came to me and said they didn't know how the heart works and now they know one or two things about it was quite rewarding."
Lithin will now participate in the Asia-Pacific final of the 3MT, at the University of Queensland, on 4 October.
For more information on the 3MT program and its benefits, head to https://services.anu.edu.au/training/anu-research-skills-training-program.