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BMMB Graduate Program
BMMB Features: Neeraja Marathe
Image of Neeraja Marathe

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) Department is fortunate to have a multitude of exceptional graduate students within its Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Program dedicated to developing their research and teaching skills.  Our students are making discoveries and generating independent knowledge through their research within our labs.

Meet Neeraja Marathe, a graduate student working towards earning her Ph.D. in the BMMB Program.  Originally from India, she is the only child of Nitin and Ranjana Marathe.  Like most children, Neeraja grew up a curious child always asking questions about the things around her.  Seeing her inherent curiosity about the world around her, her parents encouraged her to read books containing scientific anecdotes, which began to fuel her love of science.  

Neeraja attended Saint Xavier’s College in Kolkata, India, for both her undergraduate and master’s degrees where she chose to study Microbiology.  Although having a number of amazing professors while an undergraduate student, Neeraja credits one professor in particular, Assistant Professor of Biotechnology and Microbiology, Mahasweta Mitra Ghosh, for cultivating her love and understanding of molecular biology.  “She made the subject more interesting and was very approachable in terms of more inquisitive questions about the subject,” said Neeraja.  “She made learning very interesting, almost like reading an adventure book.”

Neeraja also credits her opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate student for further helping to develop her interest in molecular biology.  “In order to get a better idea [of what the field of molecular biology held] I did a three-month summer internship in a molecular biology/neurobiology lab which I thoroughly enjoyed,” said Neeraja.  “I followed this with a year-long full-time internship in an RNA biology lab which confirmed my gravitation towards the subject [of RNA biology] and the field in general.”

When deciding on where to continue her studies and pursue her Ph.D. Neeraja took into account many different factors.  Her research had shown that Penn State had a lengthy list of faculty currently working in the field of RNA biology, and that the University was among the top in the world for RNA biology research.  For these reasons Neeraja chose Penn State for her graduate studies and made the transition from Kolkata, India, to University Park, Pennsylvania.

As a graduate student Neeraja works in the Keiler Laboratory under the guidance of Kenneth Keiler, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Associate Department Head for Graduate Education.  The mission of the Keiler Laboratory is to understand how protein quality control is maintained during stress responses and homeostasis by trans-translation and alternative pathways.  The laboratory’s goal is to characterize the fundamental biochemistry, genetics, and cell biology of these systems, and to use this knowledge to develop antibiotics and tools for basic research.

Neeraja’s research focuses on understanding why ribosome rescue has evolved to become indispensable for all bacterial species utilizing small molecules known to target the trans-translation pathway.  There are two applications for these small molecules.  The first utilizes these inhibitors to understand the down-stream implications of inhibiting ribosome rescue.  This will provide insight into the machinery at work at molecular level. Neeraja is utilizing a technique called ribosome profiling to check whether ribosomes accumulate on the mRNA in samples grown in the presence of these trans-translation targeting compound.  If this is found to be true, she believes it would be worthwhile to determine whether the mRNA is in proportion to the mRNA abundance or if there are certain sites that are prone to ribosome stalling indicating specificity of mRNA for ribosome rescue. 

The second application Neeraja is investigating is the identification of these small molecules’ molecular targets.  She plans to do this by cross-linking compound derived probes to their cellular target followed by clicking with reporter molecules.  Neeraja believes her work can help in the target identification process and can ultimately assist in the design of drugs with high specificity and potency.

Outside of the laboratory Neeraja has a passion for art and enjoys sketching.  For as far back as she can remember she has always loved to dabble and doodle.  “I had a large collection of colors, paints and coloring books as a kid, courtesy of my parent who used to love getting me those,” said Neeraja.  Being a single child, she enjoyed being creative and doing projects on her own.  “Also, being from a major city, I was more confined to my house as I did not have a lot of access to play around. So, art became a good way to pass the time,” she said.

See below examples of Neeraja's passion for art

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A silhouette painting of a horse
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A sketch drawn by Neeraja Marathe of a man stroking a woman's hair in loving embrace
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A sketch by Neeraja Marathe of a crow in a tree at night
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A sketch by Neeraja Marathe of a man and a woman in loving embrace
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Image of Neeraja Marathe at the beach

Neeraja also considers herself an avid foodie and loves every aspect of food, whether it be cooking, eating, feeding others, or exploring new restaurants.  Born into an inter-cultural family, with parents from two very different regions of India, she gew up with the opportunity to eat different kinds of Indian cuisine.  “I was never a fussy eater and was always willing to try anything put in front of me,” Neeraja said.  “My mom and aunt are pretty adventurous in cooking and I became their unofficial food taster which developed my idea about flavors!”  

After coming to the United States, Neeraja was thrust into the situation of having to cook for herself, which allowed her to develop her creativity and further enhanced her love of food.  “I have a huge sweet tooth and love all forms of desserts,” she said.  “In terms of cuisines, my favorite foods are Mughlai [derived from middle eastern food and adapted in Indian food], French, and South East Asian.

Reading has also been a lasting hobby since childhood, although she admits,” [reading as a hobby] has reduced due to all the scientific readings that now have to be incorporated into my schedule.”  To counter the busy schedule of a graduate student she has become a fan of audio books, as well as listening to conversations on podcasts.

Additionally, Neeraja loves traveling, and more specifically traveling alone.   “I love walking all around a new city and experiencing it’s culture and traditions,” she said.  One of her favorite trips was while an undergraduate student, traveling with friends to Dooars, located in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain ranges.  “It was my first trip to a national park and I thoroughly enjoyed the safari ride in the forests, said Neeraja.  

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Image of Neeraja Marathe with friends on a safari trip

Neeraja is one of our many graduate students that has found success both inside and outside of the laboratory.  Her dedication to her research and drive to be at the forefront of scientific discovery, coupled with her passion to discover and experience the world around her makes her a truly amazing individual.  The Department is extremely fortunate to have her!