Ghanshyam Heda was hoping to visit his mother in India this year.
In fact, when the biology professor at Mississippi University for Women applied for the Fulbright-Nehru Academic Excellence Award in 2017, he even began discussing with his mother the possibility of the program bringing him to his native country.
Heda’s mother, though, passed away in January, less than a month before Heda learned he had indeed won the award.
“First, I was thinking of my mother. She was a big force for what I do, and she was looking forward to me coming there,” Heda said.
What Heda has done for the past 20 years is research cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease where a mutated protein does not reach the cell membrane, causing issues with the lungs, pancreas and other organs. With the Fulbright Award, he will spend six months teaching courses in physiology and protein biochemistry at the University of Hyderabad.
Heda leaves for India in July.
Over the past two decades, he has seen drastic advancements in the medical realm. Forty years ago, someone who suffered from cystic fibrosis usually only lived 4 to 5 years, he said, but now there are people with the disease living into their 40s.
Currently, there is no cure of cystic fibrosis. However, Heda has continued his research in hopes of finding a solution for the malfunctioning protein.
In 2015, Heda spent his sabbatical in the same area of India. From there, he was asked by local universities to return to India to help create research facilities.
“There are other colleges that wanted my help in setting up undergraduate research labs, to which I said, even if I didn’t get an opportunity like Fulbright, I’m sure I could figure something out,” Heda said.
Universities in the area are not as familiar with undergraduate research, so Heda has been wanting to expose students in India to the type of research programs he has seen at MUW.
Heda said there’s a connection between cystic fibrosis, mainly prevalent in individuals of northern European descent, and cholera, mainly prevalent in third world countries including India. He said that his goal is to recognize how the same protein, which contributes to cystic fibrosis and cholera, is either underacting or overreacting and how it can be medicated.
Heda said it is amazing how a person can study the same protein and help medical advancements for two separate diseases.
The Fulbright-Nehru award is given annually to a faculty member, researcher or professional in hopes to strengthen international research and understanding. The award winners will immerse in the host community by engaging in public lectures, research and mentoring students.
Impact at MUW
When Heda is not teaching courses at MUW, he is spending time in his lab studying live human lung cells and seeing how they react to different types of medications. His research lab has allowed undergraduate and graduate students to observe and study along with him.
Lisa Shrestha and Shreva Ghimre, two students graduating from MUW this month, both worked under Heda in his research lab. Ghimre has worked with Heda for three years and has been accepted into a doctoral program and hopes to incorporate cystic fibrosis in her research.
“Working in his lab (and) conducting experiments under his guidance brought out my deep interest in the field,” Ghimre said in an email to The Dispatch.
Shrestha, who has also been accepted into a doctoral program, feels working with Heda gave her a push forward in academia.
“Dr. Heda’s lab provided me with invaluable skills and experiences that help me grow academically and professionally,” Shrestha said. “He is a great mentor.”
Dionne Fortenberry, the MUW department head of mathematics and sciences, is excited about the opportunity Heda has with this type of award. In the end, she said the benefit extends to current and future students at MUW.
“Hopefully, it will let students know that we are doing high quality research in the department and get more students interested in studying STEM and getting into undergraduate research,” said Fortenberry.
Fortenberry said that Heda works well with his students and easily gets them engaged in the classroom and lab. His research at the university shows his passion for his work.
“We are very happy, that Dr. Heda was awarded this honor,” Fortenberry said. “We feel he really deserves it.”