Student Spotlight: Nidhi Walia

| Thu, 05/18/23
Nidhi Walia
Nidhi Walia. Courtesy photo.

Nidhi Walia is a doctoral student pursuing a degree in biological science through Florida State University’s Department of Biological Science, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2015, Walia earned her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar National Institute of Technology in Jalandhar, India. As a graduate research assistant in the Stroupe Group, Walia studies microbial sulfur reduction, a process that impacts both human and environmental health. She was also awarded the 2023 Student Research Achievement award from the Biophysical Society.

What year are you in school, and when do you expect to graduate?

I’m a third-year doctoral student planning to graduate in Spring 2024. After one year as a master’s student, I transferred into a combined master’s/doctoral program in Fall 2020.

Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to FSU.

I’m from Patiala, a beautiful, small city in northern India. I enjoyed chemistry and biology in high school, which led me to pursue my undergraduate degree in biotechnology. I’m the first woman in my family to choose a STEM career and pursue a doctoral degree in the U.S.

I chose to attend FSU because the Department of Biological Science’s research is highly impressive. I also liked the curriculum and strong faculty profiles and the nice Tallahassee weather.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in biology?

My dad, an engineer with Indian Railways, used to let me visit railway workshops with him when I was younger — that’s when I began to understand the importance of science and technology. When I was in high school, my older brother started doctoral research in cancer biology in the U.S. His experience motivated me, and I want to give credit to my family for helping me in every way and supporting my dreams.

Tell us about your graduate research assistantship with the Stroupe Group.

I’ve worked with professor of biology M. Elizabeth Stroupe, who uses biochemical and biophysical techniques to research sulfur metabolism, in her lab since my first year at FSU. I’m currently working to understand the structure-function relationship of sulfite reductase enzymes.

I’ve learned three major biophysical techniques — X-Ray crystallography, cryo-electron microscopy and neutron scattering — in the last three years with the Stroupe Group. For neutron scattering, I’m working in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and I had the opportunity to visit ORNL in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for data collection last year. That was my first experience working at a federal scientific facility, and I’m excited for our upcoming experiments.

Although I am a biology student, the lab is situated at FSU’s Institute of Molecular Biophysics, so I am also an IMB student.

What does a typical day in the lab look like?

It depends on the type of experiment. For structural analysis, we need a lot of proteins, so we grow six liters of bacterial cultures under controlled, suitable laboratory conditions, which vary for every protein. For protein purification, we perform high-performance liquid chromatography, a technique used to separate, identify, and quantify each component in a mixture. The purification process usually takes a week, and much is done inside a cold room, around four degrees, as proteins degrade at room temperature. After purification, the protein is ready to use for structural studies.

What do you want the public to know about your research?

Sulfite reductase enzymes play a crucial role in the biogeological sulfur cycle by performing electron reductions and converting sulfite to sulfide. Sulfide, the most biologically available form of sulfur, is critical for assimilation of sulfur into amino acids, cofactors and vitamins. Sulfur-reducing bacteria in our digestive systems use sulfite reductase enzymes to produce hydrogen sulfide, which helps fight inflammation and promotes tissue repair in the gastrointestinal tract, but the excess amount of sulfide can cause severe inflammatory bowel diseases.

There is another class of sulfite reductases that convert sulfite to sulfide and produce toxic environmental pollutants. Understanding sulfite reductase enzymes’ structure and functioning will not only help in generating therapeutic approaches to cure these diseases but will also help generate novel enzymes, which eliminate sulfur-related environmental problems such as harming plants by damaging foliage and slowing growth.

What on-campus resources have helped you achieve success?

I’ve benefited from FSU’s Information Technology Services, as they provide free software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Additionally, the College of Arts and Sciences provides Bio Render, a commonly used tool to create scientific figures. I use these to write scientific manuscripts and prepare graphical images.

Are there any faculty or staff who have helped or inspired you?

My adviser, Dr. Stroupe, is a great mentor. She’s a major influence in my life, guiding my research career and encouraging me to participate in seminars and workshops.

Associate professor of biology Jonathan Dennis also helped me immensely during my first semester at FSU. At that time, I was completely lost, and I didn’t know which courses to pick, as settling into a new country and adjusting to the American education style was overwhelming. There’s typically a set curriculum in India, so we can’t choose our major courses. Additionally, international students need to take at least nine credit hours to maintain our visa status. Dr. Dennis supported me a lot in navigating this new system.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects or goals you’re working towards?

I’ve recently been accepted into the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Graduate Research program, which gives me the opportunity to work on my upcoming projects for three months at the ORNL facility. I’ll use ORNL’s technologies to prepare my samples and use neutron scattering techniques to advance our understanding of the sulfite reductase enzyme.

Following your graduation, what are your plans? Even though you might miss FSU, what are you looking forward to once you graduate?

I’m hoping to find a postdoctoral structural biology job. I’m also open to positions at national labs or research scientist positions in the industry. My geographic location doesn’t matter if I’m doing good science.