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Student Spotlight: Heta Parmar finds her true calling
By Rida Gilani
Heta Parmar is a Ph.D. student in the Multidisciplinary Ph.D. Program on the Newark Health Science Campus. She is also the recipient of the prestigious 2020 Victor Stollar Award in Virology. The Victor Stollar award recognizes a graduate student involved in research on virology or immunology. The award is named after a beloved Rutgers professor.
Heta began her journey with an undergraduate degree in Pharmacy and a Master's in Biotechnology. Following this, she joined Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She worked on developing genotype assays that helped determine survival in melanoma patients. Although she enjoyed it tremendously, she knew her real calling was infectious diseases. So, when an opportunity arose, Heta joined Dr. David Alland's lab in Rutgers New Jersey Medical School as a Research Technician. The lab focuses on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, with emphasis on its diagnosis and detection of drug resistance. When Heta joined the lab, they worked on a rapid point-of-care multiplex polymerase chain reaction assay that utilizes sloppy molecular beacon technology called Xpert MTB/RIF Ultra assay. This test had higher sensitivity to detect Mycobacterium tuberculosis than the traditional culture – based test. In addition, this test could also detect rifampicin resistance simultaneously in a single cartridge system. But there was some cross reaction leading to false results due to detection of another strain of mycobacterium called Mycobacterium gordonae, that is ubiquitously found in the environment. Heta played a vital role in optimizing this assay to get rid of cross reactions (read the research article here).
Continuing towards her calling in research, Heta joined the Ph.D. program at Rutgers University. She continued her work on tuberculosis diagnosis and co-authored the manuscript of another assay called Xpert MTB-XDR assay that detects resistance of Mycobacterium tuberculosis to isoniazid, fluoroquinolones, kanamycin, ethionamide, capreomycin and amikacin. Isoniazid resistance is gateway to multi-drug resistance, which indicates need to improved detection and appropriate treatment of isoniazid mono-resistance. In addition, the assay will play a critical role in rapid fluoroquinolone resistance determination, given fluoroquinolone drug's critical role in protecting companion drugs in the regimen (read the research article here).
When COVID -19 hit, Heta able to jump onto the bandwagon predominantly because of her training in the lab. She believes in the power of correct diagnosis, which is fundamental to understanding the disease progression and initiating interventions. A part of her work on COVID-19 focuses on a unique cohort of patients who have symptoms, medical risk factors, and radiographic findings suspicious for COVID-19. These patients present a diagnostic challenge and an opportunity to explore the complementary diagnostic value of serologic detection. Heta is hopeful that her work will highlight diagnostic challenges associated with COVID-19, reduce the likelihood of unnecessary ancillary testing or empiric therapies as well as further enhance the understanding of this novel viral disease.
In her free time, Heta finds it rejuvenating to spend her time in the kitchen. She enjoys coming up with new recipes and trying them out on friends and family. Someday she hopes to publish her own cook book of traditional recipes.