Risha Govind – Genetic research bioinformatics scientist

Risha Govind (front left) durign her graduation at Cranfield University, UK in 2010. Picture: SUPPLIED

GENETICS is something that Risha Govind has always been intrigued by and her work has showcased tremendous display of commitment to achieving research outcomes.
Risha, who was known as Ratisha Narayan, had contributed to a study that strongly linked heart failure, alcohol and genes.
The study was picked up by international media that elaborated further on the research the team had conducted in the UK.
“I played a key role in the study as we looked at whether heart failure (HF) seen in alcoholic cardiomyopathy patients might have a previously unrecognised genetic component. Through other work I was involved in, we knew quite a lot about the genes involved generally heart failure,
so we tested those genes.
“What we saw was a similar genetic profile of mutations as in other forms of heart failure, particularly mutations of the Titin gene.
This is important as it means that these people have an unseen and underlying genetic predisposition to heart failure.
“So, if an alcoholic patient arrives in hospital with a heart failure, they should be given full genetic counselling as their family may also be at risk whether they drink or not. Previously, treatment would have focused on alcohol alone.
“In the study, 13.5 per cent of patients were found to carry the mutation much higher than the proportion of people who carry them in the general population. I generated this number, from months of complex analysis and it was exciting to see that number being quoted in the press.”
She said there was another side to the story.
“We also saw that patients with genetic forms of cardiomyopathy (especially titin) who also drank ‘modest’ levels of alcohol had much worse heart function. So, in both cases genes and environment (alcohol) are acting together somehow,” she said.
“This study also has a wider and very important implication as it suggests that other forms of heart failure previously thought to be due to environmental factors (such as chemotherapy or viral infection) may also have an underlying genetic cause.
“Although I have now moved on, before leaving Imperial College and Brompton, I helped the team look at this and the results looked very promising.”
She said it was the idea of discovering something new that has always intrigued her.
“It is recognising that I am standing at the end of the cliff of knowledge, and at any moment, I could discover something new, that wasn’t known to us before,” she said.
“The human genome project started when I was in primary school and was completed in 2003 when I was in my early years at university.
“Genetics was a big part of my life throughout my school days and my fascination for genetics was from the first time our teacher introduced it to us in high school.
“My Form Six biology teacher William Eliesa was the inspiration that helped me see the excitement within in.”

She said her bioinformatics career started after she completed her Master of Science degree at Cranfield University in 2010 at UK.
“My first job was at Cambridge University where we were studying gene regulation in plants. Like everyone in their first job, I did not really know what I was getting into but I just told myself, what better place to build skills in working with genetic data than in the department of Charles Darwin himself,” she said.
“I never thought that I would fi nd myself living in Cambridge and building cutting edge skills in analysing genetics data produced from next-generation sequencing (NGS).
“NGS is a recent DNA sequencing technology which has revolutionised genomic research. Using NGS an entire human genome can be sequenced within a single day.
“After three years in Cambridge, I came across a job advertisement for a post with Imperial College London and worked at the UK’s largest heart and lung hospital (Royal Brompton Hospital).
“They were looking for someone with my experience to be part of a team of four to set up bioinformatics infrastructure for a clinical genetics lab, funded through a £1.4 ($F3.8) million HICF award.
She said in addition to being the lead developer for this project she was also involved in research.
“For example, I am a co-fi rst author for a recent publication where we studied the link between alcohol, genetics and heart failure,” she
said.
“The clinical lab is now fully functioning with an ISO accreditation. This has been one of the most fulfi lling things I have done, knowing that the code I have written is helping diagnose patients every day.
“Once the clinical lab was set up, I recognised that clinical genetics was branching out towards the direction of precision medicine which is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person. In many ways, that led me to where I am today.
“I have now moved to the Statistical Genetics lab in King’s College London to work on precision medicine projects.”
She said looking back when she just completed high school she was unsure about a lot of things.
“I would look up to people older than me to help me make the right decision. Now I realise, people give advice based on their own experiences and limited awareness of what the world has to offer,” she said.
“The truth is I was looking to others to make the decisions for me because I did not trust myself to make the right decision.
“I needed the focus and courage to believe in myself, that even my confused and unsure self would make a better choice for me than anyone else.
“Learning to do this has been one of the hardest things I have done. Now, I am better at trusting myself when making big decisions.”
She said she was still on a journey.
“I am pursuing my dreams, and to me that is a success. There are obvious things that help like hard work and perseverance but I’d like to give the most gratitude to my support system for making sure that I did not quit,” she said.
“There have been times when I might have done so. A support system is having that close set of family or friends with whom you can be yourself, and can share your insecurities and confusions, and they remind you that it’s OK to feel that way, and that they believe in you when you start doubting yourself.
“People don’t like to hear about emotions and mental health, but in my opinion intellectual capabilities are seldom the reason why people let go of their dreams.
“Having a support system helps you handle your feelings and thoughts in times of challenge and failure. I too have had my own share of setbacks and challenges.
“For example, I was in my early 20’s and in the middle of my BSc education when I got married and before I could complete my BSc, my husband received an exciting offer for a job in London.
“These are difficult choices for anyone but I don’t come from a modern family, I was raised to believe that the most important responsibility in a woman’s life is to be a wife. I was quite young to understand back then as I know now that it is not necessary to generalise this for all women.
“I am pleased that my husband helped me find the courage and wisdom to see that it’s alright to temporarily disappoint those who love us if I know in my heart that I am making the right choice.
“We lived half way across the world from each other for six months so I could finish my BSc, it took a lot of courage to go against the judgements of people around me who thought it was okay to say to me that a woman’s education is not as important as her marriage.
“Obviously today I am mature enough to see there is no merit in such statements. It was my support system that helped me process my thoughts and feelings and focus on what I needed to do.
“I joined my husband as soon as I had finished and we have been together ever since. Now we have settled in the UK, I have met some wonderful people at work who are also scientists and are now key members of my support system.”
For her Master of Science degree, Risha had received partial funding from the Cranfield University’s internal bursary schedule and she received the course co-ordinator’s prize award.
Her doctoral program is fully funded by the Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre (BRC).

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