Developing an integrated system for data production and analysis and training scientific leaders with diverse skill sets that blend biology, applied mathematics, computational linear algebra, and algorithm design, Dr. Parwinder Kaur is passionate about science and discovery.
As the Founding Director of DNA Zoo Australia at The University of Western Australia, Dr. Kaur leads cross-disciplinary biotechnology research investigating Earth’s biodiversity and natural environments to ensure sustainable futures. She implements her expertise to reach people in new ways, connecting them with their surroundings.
Through her diverse research teams at DNA Zoo, Dr. Kaur harnesses STEM to achieve maximized impact. In doing so, she believes this will help us tackle the more significant issues we as a society are facing, bringing about solutions through fresh thinking rather than following usual norms.
Let us understand her journey in-depth.
Growing up, Dr. Kaur was always fascinated by the origin of life and the question of how and where it started. In pursuit of answers, she asked parents, teachers, and anyone else who could offer insight. To her surprise, everyone provided a different answer. However, the bottom line was that the true origin of life is still unknown, whether from a religious or spiritual perspective or a scientific viewpoint. There are many theories, but there is still a lot of experimentation and validation testing in the field. This is where Dr. Parwinder has been spending her time as well.
Throughout her career, Dr. Kaur has been working to unravel the biological mysteries of life through the lens of DNA which contains billions of letters and serves as the blueprint of life. How does this blueprint of life fit inside a tiny nucleus that is only 6 microns in size, yet every single cell of the human body, consisting of approx. 36 trillion cells, has the exact same information coded in? It is a complex subject, but it is also the highest level of programming that has allowed life to exist on this planet.
Her interest in these mysteries has driven Dr. Kaur’s journey from the beginning to their current position as an Associate Professor and Director of DNA Zoo Australia, at the University of Western Australia, one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Dr. Kaur’s journey has taken her to the University of Western Australia, one of the world’s top 100 ranked universities. Situated in Western Australia. Western Australia is one of the first globally recognized biodiversity hotspots and boasts 10% of the world’s biodiversity. This makes it an ideal location for Dr. Parwinder to comprehend the elements of life better. Dr. Parwinder considers it an absolute privilege to be part of this prestigious university with high-caliber faculty spread across several disciplines.
Going Above & Beyond
Dr. Kaur is the director of DNA Zoo Australia, which she established in 2019 as a part of a global consortium site for DNA Zoo. DNA Zoo Australia was established to study the bases of biodiversity through DNA lens for Australia and New Zealand, also known as Australasia, with the goal of having local engagement and access to the technology and knowledge of the global consortium.
According to Dr. Parwinder, there is a pressing need for conservation efforts as there are currently over one million species at risk of extinction. While humans have made great strides in producing the first map of the human genome, the DNA Zoo consortium has made it possible to map the DNA of a species for only $1000, with the same quality as the human genome map that cost $2.7 billion in 2009.
With the technological revolutions and the support of corporate partners like Microsoft and illumina, the vision of DNA Zoo is to provide foundational DNA knowledge towards conservation support. The goal is to provide the foundational resource of DNA information for all species on the planet.
Denting the Universe
According to Dr. Kaur, it takes time to realize the impact of anything. However, the most significant change that DNA Zoo brought about is in terms of making complex data and research accessible to the broader community. Usually, in academic organizations like universities, research is presented in complicated research papers, which are often behind the paywalls of journals. But with DNA Zoo’s global consortium, they decided to release cutting-edge resources and data of several species rapidly by putting out simple blog posts and data in the public domain. This was a big challenge initially, as other academic organizations were hesitant to publish their data without peer reviewed publications in scientific journals. But she believed in leading by example and managed to bring in more partners onboard over time.
Dr. Kaur says, “The most significant impact of DNA Zoo is doing science for all without paywalls in a way that connects people and is accessible to taxpayers who are investing in science. DNA Zoo is doing science in a way that is accessible to the public and for the service of the community and the ecosystems.”
Dr. Kaur states that the DNA Zoo concept involves many different labs and is led by Aiden lab at Baylor College of Medicine, which is the home of 3D sequencing or Hi-C technology and Juicebox Assembly Tools.
In addition, leading a global consortium across nine countries and connecting with different partners was only possible with virtual platforms and tools to share data. Dr. Parwinder states that technology has played a significant role in making the massive vision of the DNA Zoo a reality.
Envisioning the Future
“The long-term goal of the DNA Zoo concept is to have a foundational genomic resource available for every life form that shares the planet with us. This is because having access to this knowledge and information will help them in many ways, including scientifically and medically,” expresses Dr. Kaur
Additionally, Dr. Kaur mentions that studying other forms of life, such as the unique pregnancy-pausing abilities of marsupials in Australia, can lead to a better understanding of the natural abilities and characteristics of these species. There are species that are immune to severe diseases like cancer and some species have anti-ageing fundamentals, which can be examined to explore the facets to find a cure and understand the core aspects. The ultimate goal is not only to help these species but also to help humanity by unlocking the potential of the entire knowledge base and understanding it. Dr. Kaur and the DNA Zoo team are working hard to make this vision a reality.
To the Next Generation
Dr. Kaur believes that the careers of the upcoming generation will be vastly different than what they are now. With the ongoing changes, especially post-COVID, traditional professions such as engineering and IT will change significantly within the next five years. To prepare for these changes, Dr. Kaur advises individuals to be problem solvers and be open to learning everything instead of limiting themselves to a specific discipline.
She believes that problems can come from any field and require a combination of knowledge and skills from various fields to solve. This shift in approach will change the education system, the way people work, and the importance of teamwork. Dr. Kaur encourages individuals to be open to new ideas and seek help when necessary, as collaboration is essential for solving problems.