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Interview with Dr. Sandeep Raha


📷 Raha Lab


Journalist: Omer Choudhry


Omer Choudhry

Welcome back to the show, everyone. Today we are joined by Dr. Sandeep Raha, who is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McMaster University. He is also the head of a research group, Raha Lab, which studies the interface of biology and technology. Dr. Raha is also the co-founder of the Children and Youth University at McMaster. It's a pleasure to have you. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?


Dr. Sandeep Raha

Sure. Thank you, Omer, for inviting me and I look forward to chatting with you. I think I will start with my PhD from the University of Toronto. So after finishing my PhD, surprisingly even then I was a little bit unsure about what kind of directions I wanted to go. Whether I wanted to go to medical school or do something else was still in my mind and unclear. But then I got an incredible opportunity to work with a start up biotech. So essentially building a lab in an empty warehouse to develop diagnostic devices. And I think that was an incredible opportunity for me. I worked there for about three years. I learned a lot about business, and it was challenging for me because I had no formal business training. But I came out of that with one main lesson, that I was not geared for the business sector. I didn't like being entirely profit motivated, not to say that everybody in business is, but that line of inquiry wasn't suitable for me.


Dr. Sandeep Raha

And so from there, I sort of transitioned back to the University setting, working for a little bit at U of T and then getting the opportunity to work here at McMaster. So I've been at McMaster since about 2007 running my own lab. I'm in the Department of Pediatrics, which might be kind of strange because I don't have an MD. I'm a PhD. So there's about four or five of us that do basic science research or non clinical research in that Department. And I'm one of those people. One of the interesting things was that after about four or five years into my position, essentially doing lab based research, I realized that I really missed interacting with humans. My research is primarily animal based and working with cells and I really wanted that human factor. I wanted to be able to work with kids. I get a real thrill when kids ask interesting questions, and that sort of led to the founding of the Children's University program. And so that's sort of how I came to do the kinds of things that I'm doing right now within the Department of Pediatrics at McMaster.


Omer Choudhry

That's a great introduction and I look forward to talking with you about the many things you mentioned throughout the interview. So my first question is surrounding how you are the head of your own lab. Would you mind explaining the focus of your research to our audience for those who might not necessarily be science listeners but still tuning into the show?


Dr. Sandeep Raha

Sure. My research actually focuses in three very distinct areas. Two of them are related. I'll start with those. So my main research area focuses around how stress affects pregnancy. And in particular, I'm really interested in cellular effects. We do follow through with bigger sort of whole animal type effects, but that's sort of peripheral to my research. My main research focuses on how various stress affects cells and how that stress might change the programming or the cell's fate, which in turn will affect the animal's development, the kinds of diseases the animal is susceptible to. And when I say animal, I mean, we study animal models, but obviously we're trying to apply it to humans. So that area of research broadly is referred to as the developmental origins of health and disease, or DOHAD. Very specifically, my work right now focuses on how cannabis, very popular, legalized recently, how the bioactive components of cannabis affect the cells in the placenta. So the stem cells that are resident within the placenta are affected. That actually changes the kinds of growth hormones, the kinds of inflammatory molecules the placenta releases, and the baby gets exposed to. And there's a lot of research demonstrating that these kinds of changes result in a lot of adverse outcomes to the baby in later life, but we still don't understand how that process works.



Dr. Sandeep Raha

What are the mechanisms involved in going from mom being exposed to cannabis to baby having an adverse effect? In the past, we've worked with obesity during pregnancy, so we were really looking at how adipose tissue or fat cells within the mom would affect the placenta. Now we're specifically looking at these drugs and what happened. So that's one main area of research related to that. We're also interested in developing better models to study these kinds of diseases. So one of the projects that sort of partially wrapped up in my lab, but continuing in collaboration with others is the development of an in vitro or a cell culture based model of the human placenta. So here we bring a bunch of cells together that are important for placental function. And we build that model through various engineering techniques for the purpose of studying how these cells interact, but also for allowing more effective screening of drugs, testing of environmental toxins. And part of the rationale for this is to reduce the failure rate that we normally see when we go from these in vitro or cell culture-based models to animals and to also reduce the use of animals in testing.



Dr. Sandeep Raha

Those are the long term goals of a project like this. But those two models, those two areas of research come together to help us study how environmental toxins might affect moms and their babies. And the final area of research is sort of very unrelated to those and comes out of some of the work we do, outreach work we do with kids and that is how do we help kids understand science? How do we get them thinking about what they're hearing in the news, the critical thinking process, and then in doing that kind of work we have to train our undergrads and grad students to be able to interact with the kids. And so we've got some research looking at the kinds of skills our postsecondary students develop when they interact with kids and try to communicate this information to the kids about how to interpret science. Those are sort of the main areas of research that are going on in my group.



Omer Choudhry

Awesome. That sounds very interesting, especially looking at in particular how you mentioned a lot about animal models. That's definitely interesting to see how you can translate things from different living organisms to see how they are affected by certain things and as well as studying how the cannabis, for example, can have long term effects on development and then the different types of effects that these things can have. I wanted to ask you, is there any sort of ongoing projects within your lab? I know with COVID there have been a lot of changes, but is there anything that you're excited about that's coming?



Dr. Sandeep Raha

Yeah, we've been working in our lab very recently on some specific effects of cannabis. So THC is the main bio component of cannabis and it's sold separately. Cannabidiol is another important bioactive component of cannabis and that is also sold separately, and people take it for anti inflammatory purposes. Pain relief, this kind of thing. But the amount of actual critical biomedical evidence that these compounds would be having these kinds of pain-relieving effects in general is less clear. There is a lot of hearsay, and the number of people that say these things happen are large. Our lab has been working specifically on the cellular effects on the placenta recently. We published a couple of papers now that show especially the THC having profound effects on the mitochondria within the cell. The mitochondria are the bioenergetic factories within the cell. If those get affected then the amount of energy available to the cell is affected, and so our research is showing that THC causes a lot of stress to the mitochondria. We are working to find out what this means to the animal, since we are using animal models. We are interested in looking at the downstream effects of the cellular impacts caused by the THC. So I am very excited to have that research come out, some of it is already out as I mentioned, and some is forthcoming.



Omer Choudhry

That sounds like an interesting study! It will be great to read about it and see what exactly was found. My next question has multiple perspectives you could answer from, as you are a professor teaching students but also a researcher working in labs. How have you found COVID-19 has impacted the productivity of groups you work in? How can we keep ourselves motivated in an all online environment?



Dr. Sandeep Raha

Yeah that’s a great question Omer. We have been dealing with that from two perspectives. Some of the work we have been doing through our Childrens University program has suggested that even younger kids are facing challenges with self motivation when no teachers or colleagues are around to work with you. It is difficult for kids but I'm not sure it's any less difficult for adults although the theory says it should be. Within the context of the lab,. I found it was important to reach out to students more purposefully. In the days before COVID I could go into the lab and have informal chats. Now we need to purposefully schedule these informal chats, and a lot of times students come but sometimes they don’t. It's challenging because they have to come to the lab so I could go in and check on them, but they do not have to come to the meetings online. So keeping tabs has been challenging but I have got a really good team and lines of communication are very open which is one of the things I’ve been trying to do since COVID started. The other thing I had to make my students aware of that I did not even realize was that the scope of the impact of COVID-19 has been so profound that I think at the beginning of the pandemic we didn’t actually think about these things. But now we see the entire world is shut down and we are finding that supply chains are so profoundly impacted that we can’t actually get some of our reagents that we need to do our lab work. This has also caused stress among students so we have been trying to teach them to be proactive and anticipate what they need several months down the line because it may take that long. When you’re working with each other you really need to map things out because things can sometimes not work the way you think. The experience can teach you lessons. So while this is okay for my grad students because they're still in the lab now rotating managing with physical distancing. My undergraduates have been forbidden to go into the lab just because that's the way a lot of courses are running. We have to keep physical distancing possible for the grad students. So it's really hard to keep the undergrads motivated and productive. And so we've had lots of meetings sort of laying out this is what you need to do sometimes tasking them to find interesting bits of information that might be related to their work. So trying to keep the experience interesting for them has been a lot of effort. And luckily, as I said, I have a great team, and they've been working together to hopefully provide a positive experience for children



Omer Choudhry

Definitely. And a lot of the things you mentioned, in particular the stress factor of when things are disrupted because of COVID which is affecting external things that aren't as in control in the lab as they used to be, it's definitely important to have those other activities. Like you mentioned, the drop ins to speak with students that kind of increase morale, if you will, in all of the students that you're working with. And so I think that's definitely really great to hear. And honestly, it's something that we might need more if COVID continues, just because of the sense that if you're constantly interacting and only speaking about work, it does get a little bit exhausting when that's your only topic of conversation. But it sounds definitely like you are doing a great job of helping keep your team motivated. And they sound like really great individuals, too.



Dr. Sandeep Raha

Yeah, that's the challenging thing, is when you're working with a larger team. Like, I have about eight undergraduates that I mentor trying to make sure that everybody is sort of getting equal amount of attention, keeping them moving forward. Some students need more attention than others. Some students just need to talk. They just need someone to listen to. Right. And they don't have each other as much as they would if they were all in the lab together. And so finding ways to substitute for that. I've been encouraging team members to connect with each other just so that they have contact and they're sharing information and they're talking to each other. These kinds of things, I think, are important. They take effort. That's the only thing. It's not as organic. We're just not used to that, I think. And hopefully when we come out of COVID these experiences will mean that we'll just be more able to keep in touch with each other both virtually and in person. I'm hoping that we learn those kinds of lessons coming out of this lockdown phase.


Omer Choudhry

Yeah, for sure. That's a really great perspective, actually, to look at how this might affect future interactions, because on the other side of the spectrum, there could only ever be in person interactions. And what if someone doesn't have someone to talk to outside of the lab? So definitely two different perspectives. And so my next question and final question is going towards something that you've mentioned throughout the interview, and I think is really interesting and more people may want to know about is the McMaster Children and Youth University. And so just in terms of that, would you mind explaining what knowledge translation activities are and how they kind of play a role in your work?



Dr. Sandeep Raha

Yeah. I mean, there's knowledge translation that we do a little bit out of our main biomedical research, which is really trying to get the information we uncover about cannabis and its effects out to clinicians. We work with clinical partners to do that, developing information brochures or packages to share with mom so they know a little bit more about what cannabis exposure means. And so that's one piece we do. But we're ramping up for that our main area of knowledge translation. And it's less knowledge translation and more sort of science education that we do with the McMaster Children and Youth University. And this is really focused around not only science. We have folks from all across campus that are involved with this program. It's been running now for about ten years. Before COVID, we used to have in person lectures where we get faculty to talk to family. And the whole premise behind this program is to really inspire kids to ask questions. So our tagline for the program is "question, discover, create". And this is really to make kids and young people understand that we all want to ask questions, and we use those questions to try to find answers and those answers and the information that comes from that can help us to create solutions for the future.



Dr. Sandeep Raha

And so with that premise in mind, we started realizing that asking people to come on campus really meant we ended up catering to an audience that could come on a campus that had access to resources to come on campus and the time to come on campus. So about two or three years after we started the main program, we decided we needed to go out to local schools and groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton to really expose the kids that couldn't come on campus to some of the information to let them talk to some of our undergrads and grad students. So we also developed a training program for our students, which we've now rolled into two undergrad courses. And I'm going to throw a plug in for those courses. There's a community engagement 2CM3 and a community engagement, 2DM3 and those two courses together help students understand sort of the critical skills necessary to work with young people. It provides them a lot of transferable skill training. And I can tell you that for the undergrad and grad students, there's no better way to fine tune your communication delivery than to talk to a bunch of kids because they're brutally honest.



Dr. Sandeep Raha

If you're boring, you'll know you're boring within minutes. Those are the kinds of skills we offer. And we're starting now slowly to develop some research in the context of MCYU, doing research into how this kind of training affects undergrads, but also doing research into how teaching young kids at elementary school levels, we target primarily grades four through eight, bringing critical thinking skills down to them to that level. What does that mean? How does it prepare them to better accept and advance science that's happening in our communities? And so promoting the thinking part of understanding the exposure not only to science, but to all sorts of other information that they get dumped on with. And so when we've seen that a lot, we see that a lot on TV now in terms of accepting science. So I think this is something really important that we need to bring down to the very early grades. And so that's sort of the mission of MCYU.



Omer Choudhry

It sounds like a really nice thing to have, especially. I know I would have loved to have been a part of something like this, and I know it's benefited many people by the stories you've told. So it's definitely great to see how stuff like this is happening. And it can seem daunting to people that McMaster University is associated with it, "oh I don't know if I want to go there yet". But at the same time, like you said, the most important thing about it is that it's exposing them to the field, any field, really, and kind of letting them know at an early age what they may be interested in. And I'm sure that a lot more people could also benefit from programs like this.


Dr. Sandeep Raha

Yeah we get some really motivational stories occasionally that help keep driving this. There is a story I recall of a young lady when she was 7 years old coming to this program and when she was 11 years old her dad proudly brought her to me and she had a McMaster hoodie on and said “this is my university!” and that was amazing to see. Similarly, a lot of undergrads who were solely interested in medicine have gotten the chance to work with kids and realized that they enjoy being around them. This has made them consider teachers college or other occupations where they would be mentoring and working with kids more closely. These kinds of things help motivate my team and support the work we are doing. Those kinds of stories are always great to hear.


Omer Choudhry

Definitely. That concludes this week's segment, I really appreciate you taking the time to join us Dr. Raha! I think you gave us all a lot to think about and it was a great discussion that our viewers will be able to benefit from.


Dr. Sandeep Raha

Thank you for having me! It was a distinct pleasure speaking with you.