Dr. Shruti Naik originally wanted to become an actress or standup comic, a far cry from her current role as Assistant Professor at the NYU Langone Medical Center. While watching a PBS documentary featuring prominent molecular biologist Dr. Bonnie Bassler, Naik became so enamored by her research about bacterial communication that she enrolled in a microbiology class. Fast forwarding a few years, Naik now leads her own laboratory and has already positioned herself as a pioneer in the fields of immunology and stem cell research.
Naik moved to the United States from India at the age of twelve, and later graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a bachelor’s degree in Cell and Molecular Biology. During her time as an undergraduate, she spent time conducting hands-on research in the Food and Drug Administration laboratory on her campus. Naik then spent two years after graduation as a research assistant at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. There, she studied how the immune system responds to traumatic brain injury, and developed an interest in immunology. This led her to pursue a PhD in Immunology through the University of Pennsylvania-National Institutes of Health Graduate Partnership Program. She conducted her doctoral studies under the mentorship of Dr. Yasmine Belkaid, who strongly supported Naik’s decision to focus on how skin bacteria, also known as commensals, educates our immune system to better protect us against pathogens.
Naik’s doctoral work would explore how immune cells in the skin cooperate with microbes to prevent disease. This positioned her for a postdoctoral position as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Elaine Fuchs at the Rockefeller University. During her time at the Rockefeller University, Naik would continue to publish influential papers focusing on how inflammation can imprint tissue with a memory of past injuries. Similar to how our adaptive immune system retains a memory of previous infections, Naik revealed that other cell types, specifically stem cells, can remember these past experiences by altering their DNA. These genetic changes better poise stem cells to respond to future injury by influencing their regenerative capacity. Thus, Naik’s discoveries have become relevant for improving therapeutic strategies for several epithelial diseases, including psioriasis, eczema, and skin cancer.
Aside from conducted groundbreaking research, Naik is also a staunch advocate for gender and racial equality in science, a cause which directly mpacts her as a female scientist of color. She was involved in the Women in Science at Rockefeller (WISER) organization during her postdoctoral studies. And she continues to emphasize the importance of not only increasing representation of women in the biological sciences, but also the necessity for making strides in improving retention of women in these fields.
Her growing list of awards and honors include the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award, the 2018 Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists, Takeda’s 2019 Innovators in Science Award, and the 2020 Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research Award.
Photo Source: https://med.nyu.edu/faculty/shruti-naik
- Turning point: Microbe detective. Nature. 2017. https://www.nature.com/articles/nj7639-129a