Chitvan Mittal

Postdoctoral Scientist at Cornell University

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Never be afraid to ask questions and explore whatever options pique your interest.

What do you do?

The overall goal of our laboratory is to improve our understanding of the principles that govern regulation of our genetic material (DNA). Simply put, what are the factors that regulate how our genes are turned on or off (a process we refer to as transcription). By using Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker's yeast) as a working model, I am investigating how various factors such as environmental stresses can change the way our genetic material is utilized. Some of these changes can be nearly instantaneous, which often gives us key insights into the mechanisms at play. With this being the overall area of research, my current focus is on a large protein complex called SAGA which works in a variety of ways to regulate transcription. For example, it can chemically modify the proteins bound to our DNA thereby altering the structure and function of these protein-DNA machineries. It can also interact with a special class of proteins called ‘activators’, which impart specificity towards genes being utilized at a given time. By utilizing the CRSPR-Cas9 mediated genome manipulation, I have been able to characterize all the activities embedded within SAGA, which has given us some new insights into the function of this complex. SAGA is conserved in humans as well, and is often misregulated in cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. With the lessons that I am learning using the yeast system, I hope to apply my understanding in human systems in near future.

Why did you choose this field?

I have always been intrigued by human physiology and biology, in general. Growing up, I was fascinated by the power of Science and medicine to improve our lives in so many ways. I was hooked on forensic shows, which solved murder mysteries using biological sciences. It was during college time that I started realizing how important scientific research is towards shaping up our society as a whole. Initially, I got trained as a protein biochemist in the lab of Dr. Suneel Kateriya (Delhi University) and was planning on continuing along that path during graduate school. I was fortunate to rotate in Dr. Michael Shogren-Knaak's lab at ISU, which works in the area of chromatin biology. Chromatin is the protein-DNA complexes I was referring to, earlier. Even though the rotation was was ~4 weeks, it opened up my mind to so many new possibilities and challenges, and I knew I had to get my training as a graduate student in that particular field. My interest in chromatin continued past grad school and brought me to the lab of Dr. B. Franklin Pugh (PSU and Cornell), where I learned (and still learning) the latest and the most cutting edge technologies in the field.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

While there are quite a few such moments, getting my doctorate degree was a very satisfying and validating experience for me. Research is often challenging and isolating, in ways that you never imagine. Being far away from family was stressful, but it also opened me up towards new friendships and above all, taught me to believe in myself more than ever.

Why do you love working in STEM?

The opportunity to solve outstanding problems and to challenge yourself in new ways is quite exciting. Doing research constantly pushes your boundaries and every time you do something that you thought you couldn't, is something that keeps me going.

Best advice for next generation?

Never be afraid to ask questions and explore whatever options peak your interest, no matter how silly they might seem. And don't forget to be your own cheerleaders along the way.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new." - Albert Einstein

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