Newton Bhabha placement programme at the University of Birmingham

We're hosting Newton Bhabha PhD students from prestigious Indian institutions to share our expertise and equip the next generation of scholars to solve global challenges.

Surbhi Verma, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi

Surbhi Verma, a previous India Institute Fellow from ICGEB, New Delhi was awarded a Newton Bhabha PhD placement to join Dr Sovan Sarkar in the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

Ms Surbhi Verma is a DST–INSPIRE PhD Fellow, funded by Department of Science and Technology (DST) of Government of India, in the laboratory of Dr Dhiraj Kumar at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi. She is studying the homeostatic and anti-bacterial mechanisms of autophagy in the clearance of mycobacterial TB pathogen, and a core researcher in the collaboration between Dr Sarkar and Dr Kumar. She obtained UoB India Institute Visiting Fellowship for working in Dr Sarkar’s laboratory in 2019. This unique opportunity for progression of the UK-India collaborative work was instrumental for her to receive the prestigious Newton-Bhabha PhD Placement Fund in 2020 for visiting again. 

Dr Sovan Sarkar has an ongoing collaboration with Dr Dhiraj Kumar on autophagy and TB via a joint UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) grant funded by the British Council and DST. Apart from Ms Surbhi Verma in ICGEB, the UoB research team includes Ms Elena Seranova and Ms Congxin Sun, who are PhD students in Dr Sarkar’s laboratory. The overarching aims of this joint project are to investigate the mechanisms of selective pathogen elimination by autophagy in macrophages, and to develop autophagy inducers as anti-TB drugs that are effective in facilitating this process. The research will be undertaken in macrophage cell lines including human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-derived macrophages, which are immune cells that provide the first line of defence against invading pathogens by acting as host cells. Since anti-TB drugs are antibiotics that are prone to antibiotic resistance and pose a major challenge for multi-drug-resistant TB, host-directed mechanisms like stimulation of autophagy is considered an attractive therapeutic strategy.

Somya Vats, PhD student, JNCASR, Bangalore

SomyaSomya Vats, a PhD student from JNCASR Bangalore, was awarded a Newton Bhabha PhD placement to join Dr Sovan Sarkar in the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Somya shares her experience of the programme and gives advice to future applicants to the scheme:

“I was looking out for an opportunity to apply the work that I had done so far in a fresh and experimental environment. This is when I came across the Newton-Bhabha placement programme. This was an ideal option for me because my institution JNCASR Bangalore already had a successful ongoing collaboration with Dr. Sovan Sarkar from the University of Birmingham. Additionally, Dr Sarkar is a renowned researcher in the field of autophagy and I was really interested in the work that his lab has been doing. The primary aim of the project was to test the translational potential of few small molecules in hESC derived cell types such as neurons. We envision that upon completion this would be a novel study testing the autophagy inducing properties of small molecules in hESC derived cell types.

To students who wish to apply for this fellowship, I would like to say that this a unique and prestigious opportunity. It is important to allow plenty of time to prepare the application and think carefully about the project.  Newton – Bhabha programme encourages long-term collaboration and this should be kept in mind while deciding the project and the principal investigator.”

Somya Vats, PhD Student, JNCASR Bangalore

SovanBirmingham Research Fellow Dr Sovan Sarkar describes his experience of the programme as a hosting supervisor and shares his advice for a strong application:

“My lab works on the regulation and therapeutic manipulation of autophagy in human cellular contexts using human stem cell based models. I have ongoing collaborations with research institutions in India, one of which is with Dr Ravi Manjithaya at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore. Ravi’s lab primarily works in yeast model system where they have performed a large chemical screen to identify modulators of autophagy. The next step was to validate the key hits in relevant human cell types for biomedical applications. For undertaking this in my lab, the Newton Bhabha PhD Placement Award to Somya Vats was instrumental. Somya’s work led to generation of new data related to the efficacy of these compounds in human neurons that have been differentiated from human embryonic stem cells, and this platform could be relevant for identifying potential candidate drugs for the treatment of certain neurodegenerative disorders. This study will lead to a joint research paper in the near future, with the possibility of international grant application as well.

The key to this award is strongly based on the collaborative link or potential between the UK and India labs coupled with their complementarity of expertise. Aspiring students should discuss the application with their PhD supervisor and the international collaborator in order to make a strategic case.”

Dr Sovan Sarkar, Research Fellow, University of Birmingham

Vignesh Nayaran, PhD student, Indian Institute of Science

The School of Biosciences welcomed Indian Institute of Science PhD student Vignesh Nayaran as part of the Newton Bhabha PhD placement programme.

The University’s links with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore were initiated with a sandpit funded by the UoB India Travel Fund which included the signing of a MoU with IISc.

This was followed by success in obtaining a UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) thematic partnership to study tuberculosis, a global health problem. The links now continue in the form of incoming Newton Bhabha PhD student Vignesh Nayaran from IISc visiting the School of Biosciences.

“I am working on cell signalling systems of the human pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes the disease tuberculosis. 

“I found out about the Newton Bhabha PhD Placement Programme through my department at the Indian Institute of Science. We have strong research ties with the School of Biosciences through previous joint grants such as the UKIERI and the Newton fund was an opportunity to further strengthen those collaborative efforts.

“The Newton Bhabha programme has been a great experience! I have had no problems with any part of the programme, from the application stage to registering at UoB and accessing the grant money. I have received excellent pastoral and research support at UoB, it has been an enriching experience from multiple perspectives. Regarding my research, the facilities and infrastructure at the School of Biosciences were made open and accessible to me right from the start, the faculty have been welcoming and helpful with experiments. I like the fact that no matter what kind of research problem one encounters, there is always a scientist here with the relevant experience who can help. I would love to come back here for a longer stint if possible, and I will definitely miss the University and the lab here when I return to India.”

Vignesh Nayaran, PhD student, Indian Institute of Science

UBII - Newton Bhaba Placement programme at the University of Birmingham

 The University of Birmingham signed a formal agreement with the Indian Institute of Science in June 2011 (left to right) Dr Apoorva Bhatt, Dr Peter Lund