Smiti Bhattacharya Selected to Participate in 2022 Kidney TREKS, the American Society of Nephrology (ASN) Tutored Research and Education for Kidney Scholars Program

Jun 20 2022

Smiti Bhattacharya, a seventh-year doctoral candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, was selected to participate in the 2022 American Society of Nephrology (ASN) Tutored Research and Education for Kidney Scholars (TREKS) program.  The Kidney TREKS program is designed to foster interest in careers in nephrology and research through a week-long research course retreat and long-term mentorship program.

“The TREKS program offers the unique opportunity of scientific learning along with the invaluable support of mentors in the field,” said Ms. Bhattacharya, who also won a spot in Kidney TREKS in 2020.  “This invaluable program will propel my ongoing research into the development of a novel nanotechnology platform for drug discovery in end-stage renal disease, a life-threatening condition that affects millions of Americans.”

Ms. Bhattacharya’s research focuses on the creation of a nanotechnology platform that mimics the microenvironment of the podocyte, a highly specialized kidney cell that has been implicated in kidney disease, in a dish. Working with professors James Hone, the Wang Fong-Jen Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University, and Evren Azeloglu, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS), Ms. Bhattacharya aims to use the biomimetic platform to develop targeted medical treatments that address a patient’s unique needs.

“The field of nephrology has not seen targeted therapies in the past two decades, so we hope to be the change that it needs,” said Ms. Bhattacharya.  “As the first to build this type of platform, we hope it can be used as a tool for high throughput and high content drug discovery, specifically in the space of precision medicine, so that we can use it to ultimately discover patient-specific drugs.”

For instance, in the case of focal segmented glomerular sclerosis (FSGS), a rare disease that causes loss of filtration function leading to kidney failure, physicians currently use a trial-and-error approach to finding a drug that works for an individual. “If the patient doesn’t respond to one drug, the physician will move on to the next drug, and so on,” she explained. “Clearly, this approach to treatment is without a biological basis and is less than ideal because it can result in unwanted off target effects.

Throughout her graduate studies, Ms. Bhattacharya received support as a recipient of the ASN’s Kidney STARS (Students and Residents American Society of Nephrology) award in 2017, 2019 and 2021 as well as a National Institutes of Health pre-doctoral fellowship. “I was fortunate to have attended ASN’s Kidney Week conference all three years,” she said. “The program assigns you to mentors and other peer researchers to communicate and share ideas on the science, and it also increases awareness of the social aspects of the field.”

As she journeys closer to her post-doctoral studies, Ms. Bhattacharya considers her participation in 2022 Kidney TREKS invaluable. “My goals with TREKS are to walk away with at least one new scientific skill, meet my peers in the field, and to create connections with future mentors,” said Ms. Bhattacharya.  “As one moves through a career, navigating from the cusp of one to the beginning of another can be unnerving with so many options out there, even within the field of nephrology. Having an established mentor in the field as a sounding board is priceless.”

“What’s most exciting about the TREKS program is its modular approach,” she continued. “It gives you a flavor of various avenues of research, most importantly through experimentation. I’m excited to learn and try something new that’s not theoretical. In research, exposure to different techniques is critical, because one never knows where the next inspiration or the ‘aha’ moment will come from. There are so many elegant ways to solve a problem!”

Smiti Bhattacharya, a seventh-year doctoral candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, was selected to participate in the 2022 American Society of Nephrology (ASN) Tutored Research and Education for Kidney Scholars (TREKS) program.  The Kidney TREKS program is designed to foster interest in careers in nephrology and research through a week-long research course retreat and long-term mentorship program.

“The TREKS program offers the unique opportunity of scientific learning along with the invaluable support of mentors in the field,” said Ms. Bhattacharya, who also won a spot in Kidney TREKS in 2020.  “This invaluable program will propel my ongoing research into the development of a novel nanotechnology platform for drug discovery in end-stage renal disease, a life-threatening condition that affects millions of Americans.”

Ms. Bhattacharya’s research focuses on the creation of a nanotechnology platform that mimics the microenvironment of the podocyte, a highly specialized kidney cell that has been implicated in kidney disease, in a dish. Working with professors James Hone, the Wang Fong-Jen Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University, and Evren Azeloglu, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS), Ms. Bhattacharya aims to use the biomimetic platform to develop targeted medical treatments that address a patient’s unique needs.

“The field of nephrology has not seen targeted therapies in the past two decades, so we hope to be the change that it needs,” said Ms. Bhattacharya.  “As the first to build this type of platform, we hope it can be used as a tool for high throughput and high content drug discovery, specifically in the space of precision medicine, so that we can use it to ultimately discover patient-specific drugs.”

For instance, in the case of focal segmented glomerular sclerosis (FSGS), a rare disease that causes loss of filtration function leading to kidney failure, physicians currently use a trial-and-error approach to finding a drug that works for an individual. “If the patient doesn’t respond to one drug, the physician will move on to the next drug, and so on,” she explained. “Clearly, this approach to treatment is without a biological basis and is less than ideal because it can result in unwanted off target effects.

Throughout her graduate studies, Ms. Bhattacharya received support as a recipient of the ASN’s Kidney STARS (Students and Residents American Society of Nephrology) award in 2017, 2019 and 2021 as well as a National Institutes of Health pre-doctoral fellowship. “I was fortunate to have attended ASN’s Kidney Week conference all three years,” she said. “The program assigns you to mentors and other peer researchers to communicate and share ideas on the science, and it also increases awareness of the social aspects of the field.”

As she journeys closer to her post-doctoral studies, Ms. Bhattacharya considers her participation in 2022 Kidney TREKS invaluable. “My goals with TREKS are to walk away with at least one new scientific skill, meet my peers in the field, and to create connections with future mentors,” said Ms. Bhattacharya.  “As one moves through a career, navigating from the cusp of one to the beginning of another can be unnerving with so many options out there, even within the field of nephrology. Having an established mentor in the field as a sounding board is priceless.”

“What’s most exciting about the TREKS program is its modular approach,” she continued. “It gives you a flavor of various avenues of research, most importantly through experimentation. I’m excited to learn and try something new that’s not theoretical. In research, exposure to different techniques is critical, because one never knows where the next inspiration or the ‘aha’ moment will come from. There are so many elegant ways to solve a problem!”