UCI’s Resident Fulbright Scholar

It is 6 in the morning. The sun has not yet risen, the campus has not yet awaken. But Cuckoo Mahapatra is already up and running in her immaculate apartment.

She is cooking, and the decadent smell fills the space as she stays true to her own vegetarian diet. Her computer is open with Skype patiently waiting – she talks with her family in India every morning and evening.

At 10 o’clock, four hours later, she is at the lab of principal investigator Dr. David Gardiner, a professor of developmental and cell biology at UCI. Under his guidance, his team conducts research in regeneration.

Mahapatra is one member of his team – a doctorate student, hailing from India, who chose to come to Irvine to research under his discretion.

“Dr. Gardiner is one of the pioneers in regenerative research,” Mahapatra said. “It has been an inspiration for me to study under him and gain more training, experience and insights.”

What is more impressive, though, is the journey that led Mahapatra here. She is a Fulbright scholar, one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world.

The Fulbright program is an international exchange program that is sponsored by the United States government, with the primary goal of enhancing the relations between Americans and the global community.

Mahapatra is a part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program, in which grants are given to either lecture or, in Mahapatra’s case, conduct postdoctoral research at U.S. institutions for up to one full academic year.

Since arriving in September, Mahapatra has been avidly studying limb regeneration in frogs. Specifically, she looks at mechanisms and pattern formation, mainly in axolotl models.

Axolotls, which are tiny salamanders, are used extensively in scientific research because they are able to regenerate most of their body parts. What is of critical interest to Mahapatra is how they regenerate their limbs.

“From everyday accidents to wars, the reality is that people are losing hands, legs, limbs. If you see an amphibian model, which is not related to human society, it shows that they really can regenerate. Studying them provides important insight that will help further medical research,” Mahapatra said.

Humans cannot regenerate any part of their bodies, but Mahapatra wants to find out why exactly these salamanders can, for the animals she studies actually share the same basic biology with humans. For this reason, it is quite likely that we have this ability too, except it remains latent.

“We are trying to understand that animal to figure out how we can stimulate and enhance the regeneration ability within ourselves. I guess we’re attempting to coax these animals into telling us their secrets,” Gardiner explained.

Despite her parents’ lack of interest in the sciences, Mahapatra has always had a great affinity for it, primarily biology. As a child, she consistently did well in those subjects, which furthered her confidence and interest. She studied zoology as both an undergraduate and master’s student at a university in India, and began pursuing her doctorate in developmental biology in 2007 before becoming a Fulbright scholar.

Her husband Dr. Pratyush Mahapatra, who she married in 2009, is also a researcher, although his focus is on snake taxonomy. As if her own research wasn’t enough, she works on his team in India as well. She even recently gave a presentation at a Fulbright enrichment seminar held in Denver on reducing snake-human conflict.

“The Fulbright experience has been so worthwhile. If you take this seminar, I had the opportunity to interact with 150 Fulbright students from 68 countries, all who wanted to learn about global challenges and local solutions,” Mahapatra said.
She advises any Fulbright hopefuls to have a proposal that is clear and to the point and an application that shows your attitude and qualities, which is what made her stand out from the hundreds of thousands of applicants.

“I demonstrated how I can manage outside of my country and what qualities I can bring that will help me to cooperate in a team setting,” she said.

She stresses how critical it is for visiting Fulbright scholars to become “ambassadors” of their respective countries and emphasizes that they have something they can give back to the American society.

For Mahapatra, she not only cooks her motherland’s cuisine extremely well, but she is trained in Odissi dance, which is a classic Indian dance form, showing just how invested she is in her own traditions and history.

Now that she has settled down in this new culture at UCI, Mahapatra is grateful for the differences in the research environment here. She loves using the various top-notch tools and equipment and learning new methods, which involve imaging and molecular techniques.

“UCI is the ultimate,” she said with a bright smile. “They have all the ultimate things in science and regeneration research. Whatever is going on in this lab is recent and not being done anywhere else. Hopefully, there will be a major breakthrough soon in the field of regeneration.”

In June, she will return to India and complete her doctorate in one year. But even though she is only researching at UCI for a mere nine months, Mahapatra has already made a lasting impression.

“It has been a true honor for me to have her in my lab. I think it’s an honor for me and an honor for this diverse campus,” Gardiner said.