Dr Jyaysi Desai studies the mechanism of white blood cells and autoimmune reactions

Leiden University, TU Delft, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Leiden University Medical Center and Erasmus Medical Center are collaborating to attract international scientific talent through the LEaDing Fellows postdoc programme. One of them is Dr Jyaysi Desai, postdoc at the Leiden University Medical Center. Dr Desai studies the mechanism of white blood cells and autoimmune reactions.

'I started in January 2018 as a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Rheumatology at Leiden University Medical Center.'

Jyaysi Desai

'I grew up in Ahmedabad, a city of almost six million inhabitants in the state of Gujarat in western India. My parents always encouraged me and my sister to get a good education, not just in terms of having ‘a degree’ but also in terms of having the freedom to explore, take our own decisions, be confident and, importantly, to become good human beings. I became increasingly interested in science through my childhood and always dreamed of becoming a scientist. After doing a Bachelor’s in Biochemistry at St. Xavier’s College, a renowned institution in my city, I decided to move to the UK to do a Master’s at King’s College London.

'My next step was Germany, the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where I was awarded my PhD Magna Cum Laude in Immunology. I had a wonderful time at LMU Munich, working in professor Hans Joachim Anders’ lab. Being part of a nice and inspiring group of international scientists brings out the best in you. Together with these colleagues, I published several articles about my research on neutrophils - the most abundant white blood cells in our bodies - in leading scientific journals, such as European Journal of Immunology, Nature Communications, Trends in Molecular Medicine, etc.'

   Being part of a nice and inspiring group of international scientists brings out the best in you as a researcher.

Jyaysi Desai

'Over the years, I have become interested in understanding why, in the case of ‘autoimmune diseases’, our own white blood cells sometimes attack and destroy our own bodies.'

A clinical setting with researchers, doctors and patients

'This research question led to me receiving the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie-Actions co-funded LEaDing Fellows postdoctoral grant; this in turn resulted in my appointment at the Rheumatology department of Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) under the mentorship of professor René Toes and professor Tom Huizinga. One of the reasons I wanted to work at LUMC was that it is known around the world for its scientific output. Also, as a researcher there, you are able to work in a clinical setting, around doctors and patients and carry out multidisciplinary research.'

Understanding the role of immune cells to Rheumatoid Arthritis

'Around 1% of the world population suffers from the systemic chronic inflammatory disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). It is an autoimmune disease leading to severe inflammation due to the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking  multiple joints. Why our own immune system, which usually protects our health by fighting foreign substances (i.e. bacterial or viral infection) becomes reactive to own joints, is yet unknown. My project focuses on understanding the role of the different immune cells (white blood cells) that are involved in generating inflammation in the joints of RA patients.'

Neutrophil extracellular traps lead to autoimmune responses 

'More specifically, I work on neutrophils which are the first white blood cells to reach the site of infection/injury and identify ‘fighting enemies’ such as bacteria. These neutrophils employ a special strategy to fight infection which was only recently discovered. Upon contact with an invading microbe, neutrophils explode and release their own DNA to form net-like structures known as neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) which trap and kill the microbes. NETs are beneficial during infections but, in case of autoimmune diseases like RA, false triggers can cause these NETs to be formed. In cases such as these, they are extremely harmful because the NETs contain dangerous molecules which can kill surrounding tissue and lead to inflammation. I want to find out which molecular mechanisms of neutrophil extracellular traps lead to autoimmune responses, so as to target treatment at autoimmune diseases like RA.'

   I want to find out which molecular mechanisms lead to autoimmune responses, so as to find new treatments for diseases like RA.

Jyaysi Desai

What will be the next step in my career? I would like to become an independent principal investigator and eventually have my own research lab. Now that my husband has moved to the Netherlands too, I wish to stay in Dutch academia for at least few more years. I am planning to apply for a NWO Veni grant next year. The LEaDing Fellows programme offers me all kinds of opportunities for personal development. I am very much interested in science communication and have participated in various science public-outreach events, for example the FameLab and the Erasmus University Science Hotel. I also attended one module of a Master’s course in Science Communication at Leiden University, because I am very interested in visualising science in order to explain it. In connection with this, a group of friends and I developed a website to illustrate molecular biology through art: Moleculart.

Explaining research to the non-scientific community

'I think that because scientists work on very specialised topics, they are sometimes not optimally trained in explaining their research to the non-scientific community. I think a lot about bridging these communication gaps, for example by explaining my research work to my family back in India in a manner they understand. One such effort involved explaining my PhD by making a video for a competition “Dance your PhD” held by the renowned journal, Science. My video was chosen as the best one in the Chemistry category and also was given an audience-choice award.' Have a look!