“No needles no prescription, yet a DOCTOR by description!”
These are the words that Dr Abhilasha (Abhi) Tiwari keeps hearing since she learned of her special place in the history of research at Deakin - the first person to complete their PhD under the DIRI (Deakin India Research Initiative) scheme.
“The number ‘one' is always special and I feel very privileged to be the first person to graduate under this program,”Abhi said.
“However, being the first also comes with its own set of challenges and uncertainty.
“My supervisor in India often said that I had to learn it all the hard way and hence at times, he referred to me as a guinea pig but at the same time he also acknowledged that I pioneered the work in his lab.
“On the brighter side, every challenge comes with opportunities and after overcoming them all I can proudly say that every bit was worth it.
“Overall, it was a great learning experience and I will cherish it for the rest of my life.
“So I cannot help but quote the words which have been ringing in my head ever since I got my PhD result “No needles, no prescription; yet a doctor by description.”
DIRI, which operates out of Deakin’s office in New Delhi, is responsible for supporting Collaborative Research Programs and Higher Degrees by Research for students largely based in India and jointly supervised by an Australian and Indian supervisor.
The initiative provides advantages for both countries but particularly for the young researchers, who gain valuable international experience working with Australian researchers.
“Of course this is a great result for Abhi and she has my heartiest congratulations,” said Deakin University’s Professor Peter Hodgson, one the main drivers behind DIRI.
“But it is also a great result for Deakin.
“We saw an opportunity to set up this relationship with India with so many mutual benefits.
“And to have reached this stage, with so many more young researchers also coming through, it’s just fantastic.
“As a result of DIRI, India is getting the talented new PhDs it needs to meet the demands of its growing economy, while through these people Australian industries can gain access to a host of new markets.”
Abhi became part of DIRI after completing her B. Tech in Biotechnology at Sam Higginbottom Institute of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences, formerly known as AAI-DU.
“I was working as a Junior Research Fellow at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in India,” she said.
“Around that time CCMB advertised on its website two PhD scholarships in collaboration with Deakin University.
“It became the talk of the town as it was a great opportunity for every biotech research student in India.
“I was quite fascinated by stem cell research so I applied for the position and the rest is history.”
Abhi’s PhD research models the bone marrow hematopoietic stem cell (HSC) niche by using decellularised extracellular matrices (ECMs) for the expansion of cord blood derived HSCs.
More than 2000 cord blood transplants are being performed world-wide per year for treatment of blood and immune system disorders.
However, the small quantity of blood limits its use for transplantation into children.
This can be overcome by expanding these cells in the laboratory.
“The ECM scaffolds prepared in my PhD research replicate many of the properties of HSC niches in vivo, providing insights into expansion of HSCs that may have several applications in translational medicine,” Abhi said.
The visit to Australia as part of DIRI was also a highlight for Abhi.
“Australia was my first overseas destination and I was very anxious when I first landed here,” she said.
“However, that did not last very long because my colleagues and staff were very friendly and supportive.
“The administration had taken care of everything right from picking me up from the airport to arranging my accommodation.
“In the very early days, to make me comfortable and cheer me up, one of my colleagues, Anna Bleazby, took me for a breathtaking ride on the Great Ocean Road.
“I was very humbled by the gesture and can never forget that experience.
“That was just the beginning and I got many more opportunities to appreciate the natural beauty of Australia which complimented my study and stay at Deakin University.
“I really like the diversity of population in Australia which gives an opportunity to know different people, culture and food that otherwise would only happen by travelling around the world.
“The best part during the course of my research was that I met my soul mate (who is my husband now), Dr Ajendra Dwivedi, during my stay in Australia.”
Abhi also paid tribute to her supervisors, Dr Gopal Pande, Associate Professor Mark Kirkland and Professor Kevin Nicholas and also to Professor Andrew Parratt who helped introduce her to DIRI.
“I could not have imagined treading this path of research without their technical supervision and moral support,” she said.
“Since I spent most of my time at CCMB, Dr Gopal Pande had a greater influence on me, not just as a supervisor but also as a guardian, for which I owe him a special thanks.
“I also appreciate the efforts of Dr Lalji Singh, the ex-director of CCMB, who started this collaborative program and who encouraged me constantly throughout my candidature.
"Last but not the least, the sense of accomplishment cannot be complete without acknowledging the endless love, support and blessings of my family."
Abhi has no hesitation about offering her own encouragement to other Indian students to participate in DIRI.
“The best thing about DIRI is the opportunity to work in two great institutes, both in Australia and India,” she said.
“It is like getting the best of both the worlds.
“It has given me the ability to solve both administrative and scientific problems.
“I got exposure to the real scientific world by presenting my research work in domestic and international conferences and also won Best Presentation Award in one of them.
“Deakin University supported my travel to the USA to present my work in American Society of Cell Biology.
“Being a part of CCMB, I got an additional travel grant from Department of Science and Technology in India.
“The list can go on but the gist of it all is that DIRI has been a life-changing experience for me.
“Overall, the program taught me to work both independently and collaboratively in a multi-disciplinary environment to lead my PhD research to completion within an appropriate timeframe.”
Abhi has plans to undertake postdoctoral research, building on her PhD project.
“I am hoping to get on board a new project that will focus on the in vivo experiments and clinical applications of HSCs expanded on other scaffolds,” she said.
“In simple terms, I will get an opportunity to work on practical applications of my PhD research and I am very much looking forward to it.”