Rocio.jpg

Divya Mehta

Principal Research Fellow

Queensland University Of Technology

And - Team Leader, Stress Genomics, Queensland University of Technology

,,

The key in life is to be honest (to yourself and to others), believe in yourself and work hard towards your goals.

,,

WHAT DO YOU DO?

“Can we be the drivers of our own mental health and well-being?” Yes, we can!

I am a geneticist who analyses big data to better understand how our genes contribute towards our health. Our mental health and well-being depend on both our genes and our environment. We inherit our DNA code from our parents, and this does not change during our lives. What changes however is the levels or activity of our genes and genes can be turned on or off in response to changes in our environment and lifestyle. The impact can be seen on our physical and psychological health.

My research suggests that positive lifestyle factors such as good diet, regular exercise and increased social support can reduce and even reverse some of the negative effects of stress on our genes. For example, among paramedic students exposed to stress, those reporting higher levels of social support responded better to stress in terms of gene activity of stress-related genes and reduced rates of mental health disorders than those who did not.

We cannot change our DNA code, but we can alter our environment and by doing so we can drive our own mental health in a positive direction.

Born in India, I followed my dream to study and work in genetics through highly competitive scholarships throughout my career in the U.K (Sheffield, Imperial College London), Germany (Technical University Munich, Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry) and Australia (UQ, QUT). I lead the ‘Stress genomics’ group at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia, mentoring 2 Postdocs and 6 students and teach Genetics to over 800 students as Unit Coordinator and Lecturer in Biomedical sciences Undergraduate and Master’s. My research has identified key stress-response genes and has been implemented internationally in 5 patents and 6 public policies.

I have received 25 research awards including the 2021-22 Science and Technology Australia Superstars of STEM and 2021 Australian Institute of Policy and Science Young Tall Poppy Award. International awards include 2016 Rafaelson Young Investigator Award and 2014 European Psychiatric Association Research Prize. I have received $3.7M of research funding including an Australian Government 2021 National Health and Medical Research Council grant ($1.14M) to lead an international team on a world-first study investigating stress response in Australian emergency responders.

My milestone study of how early experiences shape our genome and drive our mental health was published in PNAS (lead author, 2013), leading to a personal interview in the TIME magazine. My stress research in Australian veterans and paramedics has gained significant media attention including a TV Interview in Channel 7 News QLD (2017), Brisbane Times and Sydney morning herald interviews (2020) and ABC national radio Health show interview (2021).

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?

I have always been fascinated with science since childhood. Biology was my favourite subject in school, and I had a fantastic biology teacher who inspired me and encouraged me to work hard. Since a child, I wanted to work in the medical sciences area and make a difference - by treating diseases, helping people and saving lives.

I love being a scientist - my passion for science and communication, diverse background and ability to instantly connect with people make me stand out from the crowd. I want to be an ambassador and advocate for women in STEM and am a Science and Technology Australia’s 2021-22 Superstar of STEM and a 2021 Australian Institute of Policy and Science Young Tall Poppy Awardee. Through these awards and my leadership roles, I am dedicated to communicating my research to a wide range of audiences ranging from school children, University students, politicians, scientists and the general public. Translating scientific jargon in a language that is understood by the public is a skill and an art which is important for all scientists to develop.

HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?

The most significant roadblock I have had professionally was to choose to give up a career in medicine. Whilst having secured a position in a medical program through a highly competitive process in India, I was unable to pursue this due to financial constraints. Instead, I decided to take up a fully funded scholarship for a Genetics program which I was also very interested in and thus began my career in Genetics. I regretted this move for some time as I always wanted to help people and saving lives, a goal I thought only possible via a career in Medicine.

Whilst my initial research was mostly basic genetics research I soon started shifting towards a more translational area of research – psychiatric genomics. I lead national and international projects aimed at identification of genes associated with mental health diagnosis and treatment outcomes. My research has been instrumental in development of new treatments and public policies for mental health, thereby generating real world impact.

Being a scientist is very satisfying as there so much to learn and discover. Through my translational research, I am fulfilling my life goal of helping people, by impacting their health and well-being through my scientific findings.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"

I wish I had known that there is more to life than studying and working all the time. It’s the people around us and what we do in our lives and how we live it that makes a big difference. I wish I would have been able to spend more time with my grandparents and really cherish and enjoy every moment, every story and every word of wisdom from them. Coming from a rich and diverse culture, I wish I had been more attentive and taken in every experience that I have had in my younger days. Nevertheless, I am happy that I have come to these realisations early on and have the opportunity to instil the same values and love for family and community in my own daughter.

WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?

STEM plays an integral role in our life. What we eat, what we do, where we go - everything has STEM aspects embedded within. When we think about it - STEM fields are the root for creativity, critical thinking and innovation - areas that women naturally excel in. STEM provides a holistic approach to learning and armors us with the tools and techniques and skills necessary for working in different sectors, and more, hence by pursuing a career in STEM will make an important contribution to society.

My own STEM journey has been my greatest achievement so far. I am a Science and Technology Australia’s 2021-2022 'Superstars of STEM', through a nation-wide competitive search for impressive women academics. As a Superstar of STEM, I actively advocate for STEM in schools, parliamentary forums, public events and media. My profile and research are showcased in Queensland University of Technology, Australia’s STEM the Tide 2021 campaign, which highlights STEM women leaders through QUT media interviews, posters and billboard banners across Brisbane. As the Queensland Women in STEM Prize People’s Choice Award finalist in 2020, my research video was viewed over 13k times internationally and broadcasted in the Queensland Museum.

I have worked across 4 different Continents and established strong collaborative networks around the world. Through these collaborations and with the guidance of my mentors, we have identified novel genes and pathways for mental health disorders including posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and schizophrenia. This new knowledge has provided us with a deeper understanding of mental health disorders and have been translated to treatments and public policies.

BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?

The key in life is to be honest (to yourself and to others), believe in yourself and work hard towards your goals.

Find a role model - someone who inspires who and work hard and try to be like that person!!

Build strong and meaningful personal and professional networks - life is all about the connections we make with people.

Every day I try to incorporate my favourite quote into my daily life “Vision without action is a dream, action without vision passes the time but vision with action can change the world”.

INSPIRATION

A quote that inspires me and something I have in my email signature is

"Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world!"