Neuroscientist at TMU:

Raising a Family and Solving Chemokine Ligand 5

Source: Office of Global Engagement

Published on 2022-05-24

Reni Ajoy spent most of her childhood in Dubai. At 18 she returned to Kerala, India, and pursued an interest in clinical psychology. She earned a Master’s degree at Calicut University, worked for a time in clinical and school settings. When her husband was offered a chance to advance his engineering career in Taiwan, Ajoy saw the chance to advance her education at the same time.

She, her husband, and one-year-old daughter moved to Taipei. Previous clinical work with psychotherapy and psychiatric symptoms provided a background in teasing out the underpinnings of various psychiatric symptoms, but the “soft” psychotherapeutic approach could be frustrating for someone more interested in the biochemical side of specific brain-related diseases. Searching for a suitable place to dive into the “hardcore science” of the brain, Ajoy found TMU’s PhD program in Neural Regenerative Medicine a good match with her aspiration.

It would be a challenge to shift from a therapist’s office to a lab, but the risk brought with it considerable personal and economic benefits. There was a deal to catch up on, but with a comprehensive of background courses and support from professors Ajoy quickly found her footing. Networking early, she also found her supervisor, Dr. Szu-Yi Chou, associate professor and researcher at TMU’s Neuroscience Center.

Adjusting to a new working environment and unfamiliar language while putting in long nights at the lab and caring for a one-year old could have clashed with a demanding program. The adjustment required of Ajoy was luckily made easier by helpful professors, and by keeping social and active; Ajoy joined likeminded students from India to perform with the Indian dance group Spectrum Divas. Two years in, things were rolling along.

Then a second child came into the picture. It was a family decision, but still one that risked putting a PhD on permanent hold. But with the support of her husband, supervisor, and daughter, Ajoy was able to find balance between study and family while budgeting for student life. Taiwan’s childcare services were a big part of that equation. Both Ajoy’s daughter and young son quickly found a second home at daycare and school, which she describes as “…simply awesome.”

“We’ve only had good experiences. Childcare is the biggest blessing we’ve had… besides the bubble tea.”
The confidence that her kids were being well cared for allowed Ajoy to focus on research when she was in the lab.

Team Reni: the kids support Dr. Ajoy

That research was looking at CCL5, a neuroinflammation-linked chemokine that had only recently gained attention for its role in neurodegenerative diseases. With at least five receptors and multiple actions in different parts of the brain, no one was clear what exactly it did. It was Ajoy’s job to find out. She’d figured out that one of CCL5’s receptors in the hypothalamus was related to insulin-resistance disorders. She’d also found CCL5’s connection to memory disorders through a receptor in the hippocampus and down-expression of memory-related proteins. Then, by increasing CCL5 expression and improving cognitive performance in both CCL5 deficient and normal mice, she proved the chemokine’s role in memory – a groundbreaking finding published this year in Molecular Psychiatry.

Her research was a resounding success, though a few grey hairs may have appeared along the way. TMU faculty were always supportive of Ajoy and her family. So supportive, in fact, that after completing an intensive course where she successfully grew heart tissue from stem cells (and for which TMU built a whole new P2 biosafety lab), the five-month pregnant Ajoy was presented with two certificates; one for her, and one for her son. He had attended the entire course, after all.

It took dedication and commitment to complete a PhD while raising two children, but the results of hard work speak for themselves: Ajoy received three job offers before even graduating. And after six years balancing academia and a growing family, she’s ready to explore the industry side of research. She’s just accepted a position at one of Taiwan’s burgeoning biotech companies, where she’ll use next-gen sequencing to develop treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy.

Even though the long hours and being held to a high standard of excellence could feel “like the military” at times, the training and support is something for which Ajoy is “…really grateful, and I will be for the rest of my career.”

Photo of Dr. Ajoy performing at TMU Cultural Night

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