Date of Birth: 4 Jun 1982

Education:

  • The University School, St. Augustine
  • St Augustine Girls’ High School
  • BSc Mathematics and BSc Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, 2005
  • IB Mathematics and Natural Sciences Tripos, Cambridge University, United Kingdom, 2003- 2004 (Cambridge MIT Exchange Program)
  • MSc Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, Yale University, USA, 2008
  • PhD Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, Yale University, USA/Stanford University, USA, 2012

Awards:

  • The Frank Rampersad Award for Junior Scientist (Silver), NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
  • Class of 1933 Kimball Scholarship, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001-2003
  • Bronze Medal, International Mathematics Olympiad, 2001
  • Highest Academic Achievement and Best All Around Student, St Augustine Girls’ High
    School, 1998

Current Post:

  • Lecturer, Department of Life Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad
  • VP of Patient Research, Rare Genomics Institute, USA
  • Researcher, Eastern Caribbean Health Outcomes Research Network, USA
Rajini Haraksingh
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4

Dr Rajini Haraksingh is a human geneticist whose studies on genomic variation have yielded information to improve understanding of the effects of this variation on complex human diseases. A graduate of St Augustine Girls’ High School (SAGHS) in Trinidad and Yale University in the United States, she initially pursued studies in math and biology before embarking on a career in genetic research. As a researcher, she has examined genetic variants and their expressions in illnesses varying from hearing loss to schizophrenia.

Dr Haraksingh is currently the vice president of Patient Research at the Rare Genomics Institute, an international non-profit which connects patients suffering from rare diseases to diagnostic and therapeutic solutions using genomic sequencing. Their work has been featured in the cover story of Time magazine as well as Forbes magazine, the Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post, among others.

After completing her training abroad, she returned to Trinidad in 2015 to lecture in the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus and recently joined a team that is exploring the underlying genetics of chronic Caribbean diseases. A true academic, Dr Haraksingh has co-authored several scientific papers and aspires to continue researching the ways in which our genomes define us and sharing this information through teaching and advising.

NIHERST interviews Rajini Haraksingh

Q: What were your early years like?
A: I grew up in St Augustine, Trinidad with my parents who both lectured at UWI. I was quiet but not exactly shy. Education was kind of the prime endeavour in the household. It was expected that I would excel at school. I enjoyed the academic lifestyle and the intellectual freedom that came with it. We always had interesting people visiting. I spent most of my childhood in a five-minute radius. My home, schools and extracurricular activities were in a small geographic space, but I don’t think this limited my view of the world. As an only child I spent a lot of time alone and daydreaming; in fact I still enjoy daydreaming. I was always very active, from dancing and piano to swimming. My parents thought I should reduce the number of activities I did but I was able to balance them and they gave me a true holistic experience.

Q: Tell us about your schooling from primary school onwards.
A: I went to the University School which provided a very well-rounded environment and then to SAGHS which empowered me and gave me a lot of confidence that has helped me to this day. I did drama and dance, I was a prefect, vice-captain and was always involved and
organizing something. One thing I did not like was having to choose eight subjects for O levels. I was very interested in learning and thought narrowing my choices at a young age was ridiculous and unfair, in the end I took 10 subjects for O levels. I then went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to do my degree and spent a year abroad on an exchange program at Cambridge University in the UK.

Q: Do you think that one of the fundamental flaws in our education system is that we almost force kids down an avenue from very early?
A: I’m in two minds about that. I think getting in-depth knowledge of varied subject matters at that age is important, but we have to train people to realise that choosing a particular subject as a teenager does not limit you to that field. Especially nowadays as information is easily accessed through the Internet, you could learn anything you want to learn at any age.

Q: Were you intimidated at all moving from SAGHS to an institution like MIT?
A: I wasn’t. I think my upbringing gave me confidence. I was very involved in the Trinidad Math Olympiad and International Mathematical Olympiad while at SAGHS. Through that I met a lot of my future MIT classmates and Trinidadians who were at MIT. In that way I was able to get a preview of what it would be like. Going to MIT was not a foreign idea; it was something I saw as very attainable. However, when I actually got to MIT things
were a bit different. I was thrown into an environment where everyone was accustomed to being the best but we were now average. There was a lot of pressure to remain the best and that was difficult. In my third year I went to Cambridge on an exchange programme as I had always wanted to go to Cambridge but did not get in when I applied after SAGHS.

Q: How did you deal with that rejection?
A: I felt rejected and sad especially since I expected to get in. Looking back though it was for the best. If I went to Cambridge I would have only been able to study math which would have limited me. The year I spent there was inspiring and fascinating though; the education system was very different from MIT. While they were both very rigorous, at MIT I felt that we studied more in groups while at Cambridge everything was much more individualised.

Q: So when did you narrow down your field to biology and mathematics?
A: At A levels I chose chemistry, biology, mathematics and further mathematics, and I liked mathematics especially. Then at the undergraduate level I wanted to do something more practical so I did biology and mathematics. That was exciting as I started MIT right after the human genome project had just been announced and that propelled me into genetics.

Q: Are there any significant life events or persons that directed you down the path that you’ve taken?
A: My participation in the International Mathematical Olympiad and the International London Youth Science Forum had great influence. I met students from all over the world. International experiences are great for students as they give them confidence to compete on an international level. My parents have been the most influential mentors and my teachers as well. A lot of my inspiration also comes from people I knew who were doing great things, rather than the big names you hear, and that’s why we need to bring scientists into contact with the public. That direct link can inspire young people and help them realise that their dreams are attainable.

Q: We definitely agree, exposing young scientists to people like you is undoubtedly inspirational. Tell us about your work. What is the link between genomes and phenotypes and how does that impact on your work?
A: I study the human genome which is an individual’s complete set of DNA. DNA is a linear molecule so you can think of it as a long sequence of letters. The human genome consists of almost 3 billion “letters” of DNA sequence arranged in 23 pairs of chromosomes found in the nucleus of each cell in our bodies. We also have mitochondrial DNA that is found in the mitochondria of cells and this very tiny subset of our DNA is responsible for energy production. The sequence of the letters in the DNA is what encodes information about how that cell, and thus that entire individual, is built and functions. What I study is how the information encoded in the DNA translates to phenotypes (physical traits) about cells or organisms. This is fascinating as this information is what drives who you become. Human beings have always had questions about our origins and with the sequencing
of the human genome project we are able to read and understand this information.

Q: What are the implications of this new understanding we have about genetics?
A: Being able to read a genome means that we now have the instruction set to build an organism. In medicine we can now understand what the normal genomes look like versus mutated and diseased genomes, and this helps us understand disease development. With this information we can also engineer plants and animals to provide food and other necessities.

Q: You were involved with the 1000 genome project. Can you tell us more about it?
A: Let’s start with the human genome project. In the 1950s, the structure of DNA was discovered and we knew then that it was the molecule responsible for heritable traits. But we were unable to read what was in that DNA until the human genome project which produced the first whole sequence of a human genome in 2001. The Human Genome project took more than 10 years, hundreds of scientists and almost 3 billion dollars (US). The project was a huge triumph in terms of understanding ourselves genetically. But this was only one genome. After this we started the 1000 genome project to understand the differences among human genomes. We wanted to curate and categorize variation among human genomes. I was one of several hundred scientists and I studied a particular type of variation between genomes known as copy number variation. Copy number variation
encompasses deletions or duplications of large chunks of DNA in one genome relative to another. These variants can result in disease traits or normal benign traits, and many are favoured in evolution, making them quite beneficial.

Q: What are you studying currently?
A: During my PhD I studied methods to map where the copy variations occurred in human genome. We now have a good understanding of even more variations which helps us identify what is normal versus what is pathogenic. We study people with a trait and those without, and then try to figure out what’s different. I just did a study where we were able to see a large per cent of the people with hearing loss actually shared the same deletion of a
particular gene in their genome.

Q: We know that you are involved in a study of personalised medicine. What is that?
A: Personalized medicine refers to a shift in the way that we treat patients. Usually, if you have a particular disease we administer the standard treatment that anyone who has that disease would receive. However, people may have individual rare conditions due to mutations on the molecular level, which cause common illnesses like diabetes. With personalised medicine we investigate what is causing your diabetes at the molecular level and
apply personalized treatment. This has worked in breast cancer patients where, by targeting treatments to the specific molecular mechanism that has gone wrong, we can administer effective treatments with less side effects. We hope that in the near future, in the same way that we know our blood type, we will know our genome sequence. This will transform the way that medical care is given as it will be truly personalized.

Q: How far away do you think are we from personalized medicine becoming the norm?
A: It’s coming! During my PhD we collected my advisor’s genetic information and tried to build a model that could predict occurrences in his body on a molecular level. We detected that he was pre-disposed to diabetes, then through testing over time saw him develop diabetes, and were able to intervene and see at the molecular level that it was resolved. We are seeing personalized medicine trickle into the clinics now especially for sub-typing
cancers and determining more targeted treatments rather than using systemic chemotherapy or radiation.

Q: What other projects are you working on currently?
A: I am currently working on the Eastern Caribbean Health Outcomes Research Network (ECHORN) project. It is a collaboration among several universities designed to understand the role genetic factors play in noncommunicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes which are prevalent in the Caribbean.

Q: How would you describe the field of genetics in Trinidad and Tobago, and what are the future prospects locally?
A: I see a lot of prospects for applied genetics in this country. We already have a living curation of all the cocoa genes that exist on our planet at the International Cocoa Genebank. We have done work on animal breeding, for example the buffalypso. I think one of the biggest prospects for genetics in this country is in the field of medicine. We have a unique population with unique genomes and hence unique genetic variants that may be
responsible for the state of our health. By studying our genomes we should be able to resolve the root molecular causes of many diseases to which our population is particularly prone, such as diabetes and heart disease. This would allow us to develop more personalized clinical diagnostics and treatments for our population. We can also apply genetics to developing treatments to diseases that have become huge public health concerns, such as
the chikungunya virus.

Q: Would you encourage T&T students to venture into genetics?
A: Yes, but first they need to know that genetics is an option and that is why NIHERST’S projects are valuable. They expose students and the public to science, they show them the vast array of options which exist. NIHERST is absolutely critical in the development of science and technology and scientific capacity. The organisation helps people to understand and digest what’s happening in the world.

Q: International statistics show disproportionately fewer women in STEM fields. Have you seen this in genetics and if so, what can be done to address it?
A: In genetics I haven’t faced any discrimination based on my sex but biology is different from the other sciences like mathematics and engineering which are more dominated by men. We have to encourage and allow girls to pursue careers in STEM. They need to know that gender does not matter when it comes to dreams. This is embarrassing, but I didn’t learn to code for some years because I thought coding was for boys. That was very silly
of me. The fact that many women raise families which is a full-time job by itself is also a factor which affects the number of women in high level positions.

Q: Do you have any hobbies outside your field?
A: I like to be active. I’ve been a dancer my whole life and have done a couple half-marathons. Last year I did a US dance tour which was fun but intense. I enjoy being busy and prioritising effectively. I’m learning now in preparation for when I have a family. I also love doing yoga and having
afternoon tea.

 

 

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