Diversity Feeds Discovery: Spotlight on Arpita Bose

Oct. 17, 2022

Arpita Bose
Arpita Bose, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Dr. Arpita Bose, Associate Professor of Biology at Washington University, uses environmental microbes to solve challenging problems, like climate change. She credits her unique approach to problem solving, both in and outside of the laboratory, to her diverse background. “Diversity has its benefits,” she explained. “The more mindsets you put to a problem, you will have better solutions, because different people are bringing the language they speak, the food they eat, the people they interact with—they will have answers, that you just don’t."

Part of her work is driven by the “microbial infallibility” hypothesis, which postulates that microbes are capable of degrading any chemical or molecule on Earth. The basis for the hypothesis hinges on the adaptability of microorganisms, which have been on our planet for many years, possess relatively simple (and adaptable) genomes and have been exposed to, or evolved, the ability to metabolize unlikely energy sources.

"Because of my passion about this microbial physiology, if I have a question, I go to nature and ask, ‘Microbe, can you do [XYZ]? I will look for it,’” Bose explained. “I can’t guarantee that I will always find an organism that will be able to [perform a given function], but so far, I have been able to find organisms that do what I think they have the capability of doing."

Bose’s love for microbiology began in India at a young age. “I was lucky that I was introduced to [the subject] in 9th grade,” she shared. “I find out now that it’s actually quite rare that you have that kind of exposure early on.” It was that early introduction that sparked a passion, which has traversed continents, subdisciplines and a menagerie of microorganisms. It has also facilitated the discovery of novel approaches to engineer microbial systems for finding solutions to complex problems, and seeded a desire to support early exposure to STEM, especially for students from underrepresented communities.

There were only a few microbiology programs in India at the time that Bose decided to pursue her undergraduate degree. Fortunately, many of these were centralized in the capital city of New Delhi—Bose’s hometown. She attended Gargi College in the University of Delhi, an all-women’s college, which she shared was very empowering, in part because she was working with peers. “[The university] had a very strong curriculum. And I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of microbes.” Bose took courses in basic and pathogenic microbiology and the human microbiome, but it was the environmental microbiology courses that really captured her attention.

After college, it became clear that the job opportunities for a microbiologist in India were limited. “They were either professorial positions in microbial pathogenesis or you had to go into diagnostics,” Bose explained. At the time, she wasn’t interested in either. Her “love for environmental microbiology was still supreme,” and after completing her master’s degree in India, she began to consider opportunities to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental microbiology in the U.S.

Bose combed through U.S. news rankings and explored faculty groups of top U.S. programs, ultimately selecting the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, due to the high ranking of its microbiology program, and the fact that the university is home to the faculty group who discovered Archaea. She promptly joined an Archaea lab and studied methanogenesis for the next 5 years. “My environmental microbiology fix was finally developed fulfilled,” she stated.

During her graduate studies, a summer course on microbial diversity at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. ignited her curiosity for photosynthetic microbes, an area of research that remains a focus of Bose’s lab to this day. “They were very colorful,” she said, noting that the pinks, and greens of photosynthetic bacteria were in stark contrast to Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the subject of her master’s research) and methanogens (the subjects of her Ph.D. research), which tend to be brown in color.

Today, Bose is an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., studying ways to address global warming with microbial solutions. She still works with photosynthetic microbes, amongst others, and emphasizes the importance of harnessing their diverse functions to help and not hurt the environment.
Arpita Bose at shoreline of Ellis Island.
Arpita Bose. Ph.D., pictured at the shoreline of Ellis Island in the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill.
Source: Joe Angeles, Washington University

One way that Bose and her lab accomplish this is by studying the circular economy. “Microbes can convert things that are of low value to high value,” she explained. After searching for microbes "in the wild" that perform a particular metabolic function, such as interact with electricity or rust, Bose and colleagues investigate ways to synthetically or genetically engineer them to perform that function inside the lab, with the hopes that newly discovered microbial solutions may be scalable to levels that will have global impact. Bose acknowledged that working with microbes collected from their natural environments isn’t easy, and people, especially funders, often get scared by the prospect.

You don’t have as many facile tools,” she shared. For example, “E. coli has a bank of plasmids that people have worked with for many years, but for wild organisms, you have to make your own plasmids.” Still, Bose emphasized that the techniques aren’t really that difficult, if one has the skills, time and money to invest in them. “The unique properties of these microbes are worth the effort and might be the fastest path to solutions for difficult problems. After all, evolution has been working for billions of years. Combining evolution with engineering is a powerful approach.” Bose explained.

While standard questions about the metabolic processes of phototrophic bacteria were being repeatedly investigated, Bose chose to study how electrical systems and geobiologic parameters impact photosynthetic organisms. “These were entirely new questions,” she explained, adding that sometimes it takes a new perspective to break the mold. “I think that’s where diversity and diverse-thinking people bring in ideas. Their experiences actually shape scientific questions that might never have been asked before."

Applying these ideas to global problems like climate change helps illustrate the point further. “We will continue to have the problems we are encountering on a global scale because we do not diversify, and that’s because we do not have a concerted effort across the academic path,” she stated. “Diversifying the academic fabric immediately is key to finding the most impactful solutions. We need to fix the whole problem simultaneously for it to actually not be a problem anymore." 

Elaborating on these ideas, Bose explained that representation and early exposure to the sciences are key to diversifying STEM. “If you’re trying to change STEM, whether diversifying from a gender perspective, or just other biases that people experience, such as low socioeconomic status, first generation students or women and men from different ethnic backgrounds, you have to start early—and you never stop,” she explained. Bose recommended engaging with students in soft ways in elementary or middle school.“Even though they may not get a full lab experience, they see people who look different, and maybe look like [them], and that reinforces that they can also do this. They can see themselves in this educational construct, and that is very important."

She also emphasized that diversification must continue throughout every career stage, noting that while many of her colleagues in graduate school were women, representation in faculty level positions was more sparse. Plugging the leaky pipeline at the entry-level does not solve the problem down the road. “Some people are not making it through to the next level,” Bose explained, adding that it is discouraging to students, “if there is no one on the other side to understand who they are, and they don’t see successful role models throughout their career."

One of the things that Bose is especially passionate about is obtaining flexible research funding, workshop and programmatic opportunities for mid-career level faculty, a group she said is often overlooked and experiencing significant burnout in academia, with many leaving since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She pointed out that while many mid-level faculty members have been working to find creative solutions to global problems and diversifying STEM—building knowledge and experience in this space—they lack the financial support to make a larger impact.

Still, she is encouraged by times in her life when she has seen the needle move. “It will take effort—things like this spotlight series—this is how things start,” she explained “By talking about it, and overcoming the inertia."

Author: Ashley Hagen, M.S.

Ashley Hagen, M.S.
Ashley Hagen, M.S. is the Scientific and Digital Editor for the American Society for Microbiology and host of ASM's Microbial Minutes.