Asia’s Rising Scientists: Arun K. Shukla

Arun K. Shukla is tackling some of the most challenging questions in the field of G protein-coupled receptor biology.

Arun K. Shukla
Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences & Bioengineering
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

AsianScientist (Dec. 22, 2017) – Having grown up in an academically oriented family, Assistant Professor Arun K. Shukla of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur understood from a young age the value of education. But it wasn’t until he undertook his master’s studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi that he discovered his zeal for research.

Resolute to make a difference in the world through science, Shukla left for Germany to pursue his PhD. There, he worked closely with 2012 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Professor Robert Lefkowitz and Professor Brian Kobilka, on G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) biology.

Shukla eventually returned to India and joined IIT Kanpur as faculty in April 2014. In recognition of his passion and ambitions, he was one of four Asian scientists selected from among 224 global applicants for the prestigious EMBO Young Investigator Program in November 2017.

  1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?

    We are trying to understand the structure and function of GPCRs, the largest class of cell surface proteins and drug targets in the human genome.

  2. Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.

    Research is an everlasting process and every question we answer poses several additional questions. It is hard to say when a research project is ‘completed’. I, as the laboratory head, am very proud of and excited about every experiment that we do. Of course, the ones that work reveal something new, and those which do not, also tell us something.

    We, as a lab, are very proud of our recent discoveries of a new GPCR signaling paradigm and a novel strategy to selectively modulate GPCR functions, in the past couple of years. A major shift in GPCR targeted drug discovery has been the concept of biased agonism. Here, the idea is to design a ligand which selectively activates or block only one of the multiple possible signaling pathways downstream of the receptor. This concept has the potential to allow the design of new drugs, or the modification of existing ones, to minimize their side-effects. Our recent research findings have made key contributions towards this shared goal in the field of GPCR biology.

    Going forward, our key focus in the laboratory is to understand the structural aspects of this phenomenon by generating high-resolution images of GPCRs and their signaling complexes using X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy. In addition, we are also very actively engaged in designing synthetic proteins (e.g. antibodies) that can be used to modulate and rewire GPCR signaling.

  3. What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

    Our long-term goal is to develop a better structural understanding of how GPCRs work. That is, how they recognize a diverse set of ligands, how they couple to specific signaling effectors and pathways, and how are they regulated in a highly precise spatio-temporal fashion. We would like to use this information to design novel therapeutics and improve existing ones to minimize or eliminate their side-effects.

    An inherent aspect of our research program is to establish India on the global map of membrane protein structural biology. Highly focused efforts towards generating high-resolution structures of membrane proteins have been almost non-existent in India. One of the key motivations for me to move back to India was to change this scenario, and I am delighted that together with several colleagues at multiple other institutions in India, we are making significant progress in this direction.

  4. Assistant Professor Arun K. Shukla (third from right) and his lab members outside the Department of Biological Sciences & Bioengineering building at IIT Kanpur. Credit: Arun K. Shukla

  5. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

    I belong to a very academically oriented family, and growing up, it was clear to me and my siblings that we have to excel in our studies. My elder brother, Dr. Ashutosh K. Shukla, who is a professor in physics, enlightened and oriented me towards research.

    I believe that it was during my Masters in Biotechnology studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi when I really realized that research was my calling, and the credit goes to my teachers, Professor Rakesh Bhatnagar and Professor Shyamal Goswami.

    It was during my PhD at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt, Germany, where I realized the importance and drug discovery potential of GPCRs, and they continue to fascinate me till this day. I was, of course, very fortunate to work with the two giants in the field, Professor Robert Lefkowitz and Professor Brian Kobilka, who have essentially defined the field of GPCR biology.

  6. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

    If one wants to emerge as a global leader in a particular research area, it is important to be bold and address the most challenging questions in the field. This is what I learnt during my PhD and post-doctoral training, and I try to pass it on to my students and fellows.

    However, the scope is limited with the current research funding landscape in India, and it is frustrating. For example, the quantum of funding provided in typical extramural grants is nowhere close to the levels of the Research Project Grant (R01) of the National Institutes of Health in the US. The typical time-frames of three years of these extramural grants is also not optimal, and a number of stipulations associated with these grants make their usage inefficient.

    I am an optimist with a positive attitude, and therefore, I am very excited about the recent efforts of our government to boost the infrastructure and promote international collaborations. However, we clearly have to do much better. There have to be many more research funding frameworks along the lines of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance that allow us to dare embark on highly challenging and globally competitive research projects.

  7. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?

    Well, there are a number of them, and I can specifically mention a couple that are clearly evident here in India. For example, many among the scientific community in India are still enamored with quantity over quality. Churning out papers, irrespective of their impact, has typically been viewed as a sign of good science. Thankfully, this wrong perspective is changing, and changing fast. However, for Indian science to go to the next level, it has to be completely eliminated from the system.

    Another one for example, is the old practice of time-bound promotion of the faculties (e.g. from the Assistant Professor level to Associate Professor, and so on), where one has to complete a certain number of years at a particular rank before going to the next, irrespective of the productivity. This inculcates a sense of lethargy and negatively impacts the motivation of the individuals who pour their heart and soul into their research. This type of evaluation system needs a serious reconsideration.

    Another example would be the recent enchantment of the funding agencies with research that is translational, product-oriented, and of immediate societal relevance. This is a very welcome step. However, the basic research, which is the foundation of all this, should not be neglected at any cost.

    A large talent pool of highly motivated, enthusiastic and determined scientists have returned to India in the last few years, and many more are seriously considering it. In my personal opinion, we are at the dawn of a new day in Indian science. We, as a community, have to evolve, understand and address the flaws in the current practices, and set new, unbiased, globally competitive standards. Only then will we be poised to dominate globally.

  8. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

    Perhaps, I would have become a journalist or a politician. I had a strong interest in creative writing during my college days and I wrote multiple pieces for many newspapers and magazines. I also considered going into politics and contested the student’s union election in my college.

    Looking back, I think my career aspirations essentially reflect my interest in taking up a leadership position that enables me to address existing problems, contribute towards making the system better, and help the next generation achieve their fullest potential.

  9. Outside of work, what do you do to relax?

    These days, when I am not in the lab, I play with my son who just turned five. I help him with his homework and try to do outdoor activities with him on the weekends. Often, he asks me to compete with him in drawing or coloring, which I very much enjoy. But he always wins because I think the judging panel (his mother and grandparents) is biased.

  10. Assistant Professor Arun K. Shukla with his five-year-old son. Credit: Arun K. Shukla

  11. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

    Well, I would love to find an immediate cure for diseases that are more prevalent among the children and elderly. It is emotionally very difficult to see kids or elderly people suffer from a serious condition because, many a times, they cannot understand and express what they are going through.

    The day my research contributes even a tiny bit towards curing a neurological disorder like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, or pediatric cancer, for example, will be the happiest day of my professional life.

  12. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

    Focus on the big questions and be passionate about whatever you are working on. The only way to dominate globally is to do cutting edge science that shapes the future direction of your field of study.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Arun K. Shukla.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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