The Air We Breathe: The Link Between COPD and Pollutants in the Air

What's going in our city air? Join us in episode 11 as we chat to Chahat Suri of the LHI, Helmholtz Zentrum in Munich, about her research into chronic lung disease. Is airborne pollution doing more harm than we realise? Plus, a familiar issue for hardworking academics – impostor syndrome – and we get real on what they don't tell you about coming to Europe to study.
Chahat Suri

Full transcription of the interview


Jordan: Hello, and a very warm welcome to The Research Beat, with me your host, Jordan Kruszynski. If you live in a big city, you’re probably familiar with the problem of pollution in the air. Now we’re going to be talking a little bit about that today with our guest, Chahat Suri. Chahat is a Master’s Student at HK Schuler University of Applied Sciences.

Chahat, a very warm welcome to the show.

Chahat: Hi. Thank you for having me. It’s a great opportunity. Thank you!

Jordan: Chahat:


Could you start by telling us a little bit about your research?


Chahat: Sure. So I am currently investigating, some of the genes that act as regulatory, genes which are responsible for the pathogenesis of a disease named COPD, which I’m gonna explain in a minute what it is and what it does in the human body. And once we find some of these relevant genes in the body, we are gonna, use the CRISPR AAV method to no them out, and then use them as novel therapeutic [00:01:00] targets. So my thesis is all around finding some novel genes to be precise.

Jordan: Let’s break this down.


What is the “COPD”? Can you tell us about it?


Chahat: Yes. Yes. So COPD is chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. As the name states, it’s an umbrella of a term that’s given to three major distractions in the body. One is emphysema. Which you might have heard of while, you know, these smoking advertisements must have come up or something.
So emphysema is basically the breaking down of your avular regions, these regions that help you exchange, carbon dioxide and oxygen in the lungs. These are minute wall like structures that help you exchange these guesses. So these structures start to disintegrate or damage, that’s called in.
And then there’s chronic, a chronic bronchitis, which is an inflammation in your bronchus region of the lung, which kind of makes you shorten [00:02:00] of breath. You might have to, you know, breathe longer. And then, all of those things that, old age people might feel, when they exercise a little bit more because their lungs are weak.
And, , that’s. Inflammation in the lung. That’s all because of that. And the third is sometimes these people, who have C O P D also are associated with a little asthma. So that’s not proven yet, the connection. But, sometimes the umbrella consists of these three major terms, emphysema, bronchitis, and seldom asthma.
So that’s COPD for you.

Jordan: So these three afflictions:


What exactly is causing them to happen in the first place?


Chahat: Right. So there are so many, , researchers done on why CoPD is being, , caused in the first place, and most of them are, , smoking, , pollutants in the air or any other antioxidants that are bo. Body usually comes across while we are just, you know, outside in the environment.
Even inside [00:03:00] there have been, , some researchers that even inside your house, there are so many antigens that are foreign bodies, , in the air that you regularly inhale and are exposed to without any control of your own. So majorly these are the factors. And then there’s a third, , hereditary factor that, , someone might, , be affected because of their genes that they inherit from their parents.
So that’s another, , umbrella. But yeah, the broader regions,, still remain to be smoking and, , pollutants in the air that we usually.

Jordan: And would you say that smoking is the biggest cause or is it thought to be the biggest cause…

Chahat: Yes, currently it’s thought to be one of the biggest causes, but I would also like to add , , that not all smokers develop COPD. In fact, 70% of the smokers do not develop COPD. And yet we say that smoking is one of the major , reasons for developing COPD.

Jordan: And so when [00:04:00] somebody’s smoking, they’re obviously taking quite a load of chemicals into their lungs, into their body. But when we are breathing the air normally, particularly if we live in a city, , are we also breathing in lots of things that might be harmful?

Chahat: Mm-hmm. ? Yeah, of course. , I mean, I come from two very different, , areas of the world. One which has, , the air index of, uh, really polluted area. I come from that and then I came here in Germany, which has the, I don’t know, the cleanest air to breathe or something. So I really felt the difference between these two cities that I was living in. , and I can. Vouch for it, that the air that we breathe does make a difference.

I could not walk probably in Delhi that I’m talking about it for about an hour and , not get tired, but here I can walk all day and [00:05:00] then probably I’d get exhausted because of, you know, the kind of, um the walking that I’m doing, but not because of the.



So the pollution in a city like Delhi seems to have a significant effect on your ability to exercise even?


Chahat: Absolutely. Absolutely. Even for walking and not even for physical, , exertion or something, just walking, you know, outside in the city, , you can’t do it for more than an hour without getting tired or without, , straining your body, which is a big deal



If pollutants in the air are there and they’re harmful, are they having a measurable effect on the onset of COPD as well?


Chahat: Yeah. , which is why, , patients with COPD are, , first of all, , They absolutely need to quit smoking. Their advice to quit smoking as soon as they can.
And then, , if they live in a city that has, , pollutants higher than the normal, , you know, the WHO regulated rate, they are [00:06:00] also. Advice to move from that city or, , be in a environment that is regulated in a hospital environment or something that is regulated with clean air and, , constantly looked upon , the number of pollutants that the person is in taking.
So definitely it has a impact, major impact on what our lungs, , are exposed to and how COPD progress.

Jordan: So the clinical advice actually might be to somebody suffering from this, you really need to move city or you really need to get out of where you are at the moment.

Chahat: Yeah.

Jordan: It must be difficult for most people to have access to a location where you can regulate the air. So this kind of location would be something like a hospital like you mentioned?

Chahat: It must be because, , I mean, again, coming from a city like Delhi, there are. A lot of people, like a lot, a lot of people and not as many hospitals.
And also, , if you, , just think about the economic status of it, it’s, it’s not feasible for [00:07:00] everyone to just get admitted in a hospital and spend the rest of their lives there. That’s not possible.

Jordan: In terms of improving this problem:


Is there something that the government could do?


For example, if we’re talking about industrial pollutants in the air? Mm-hmm. , is it possible for ordinary people to have an effect on that from their everyday behavior?

Chahat: Yes, it is possible. But, to be really honest about this question, I don’t think I can have a take on what government can do about the problems because every day, every time I read about what government is doing, , be it government of India, be it government of, , Germany whatever they’re doing is always for the betterment of the environment. , none of the policies are for,, you know, that there shouldn’t be any change or everything is good. Nobody’s saying that everyone is for the change.
So it’s not the government that needs to probably make some bigger policies. I mean , us [00:08:00] as,, people of the city that needs to look at it as a problem and not something that the government should do. For us, it’s our problem. So we should be the ones that contribute to the change with tiny things, but not even like a huge, , change in your day or schedule or something.
But with really tiny things you can, I think, contribute.

Jordan: Turning back to your research specifically, you are trying to identify specific genes so that you can help people who are already suffering from COPD…

Chahat: Yep. Identify and then functionally validate that these are the genes that are responsible for, , the worsening of the disease.

So, can you tell us a little something about what CRISPR is and how you use it for this genetic validation?

Chahat: So CRISPR as a term is one of the very adapted techniques, right now in molecular biology, [00:09:00] which is being used to specifically cut a section off the gene, whichever gene basically I want, I can just literally select a gene, , design a CRISPR ca system for it, and then take that gene out of the system and then functionally validate what happens if that gene is not there in the system.

So , this is the, whole idea behind CRISPR, so the CRISPR is actually a bacterial defense mechanism against viruses that infect that bacteria. So, , to explain it a little better, I would just call it, , guiding scissor method, , so, let’s.
Look at CAS-9 e as the scissor and CRISPR, the guide RNA as a guide or your hand to the si. So , this could be a directional cutting mechanism of a particular gene. And what I’m doing here is I already build a ca nine system , in a single cell [00:10:00] flow. Uh, I. CAS-9 protein, and I build this whole system of CAS-9.

So my scissor is now ready. What I need right now is a direction of the scissor to cut a particular gene. So all I need to do is to have a guide RNA or, , the gene, which is like the guide RNA specific to that particular gene that I’m interested in.
It would go. With the CAS-9, it would cut that particular gene out, and then I would validate in that particular knockout, , system, whether it has the same impact on a COPD progression or not, which is how I functionally validate these genes.

Jordan: And in terms of applying this to a person. When you talk about removing or rocking out the gene mm-hmm. , at what kind of level would you be doing that? Within the tissue of the lungs or,

Chahat: Yes. So that’s a very good question because I was lost there in the [00:11:00] start of my thesis as well, because I can. Do it very well with cells in my hand and I can make clones and I can cut whatever I want from those clones and then build a system with knockout.

But what about humans? So, , I just read, , an article, I don’t know, three or four months back where a CRISPR method was, was used, , to, , cut one of the cancer genes. I can’t recall the name of, but it was, , really. A nice breakthrough when they use CRISPR CAS-9 in the clinical trial. And, , it was approved for a clinical trial, which is a huge deal.
So, , what happens in a human system? Ideally what should happen is that , we have all these genes that we’re testing on in a particular cell, right? So what we do is basically is just induce, , the patients with these genes , the CRISPR Caine systems, we induce them with these. And these could be then the novel therapeutic systems that we’re looking for in humans. So we, we [00:12:00] don’t really make a CAS-9 system out of humans, but we make these as, um, Specific therapeutic, , agents, these genes, and then we give them as therapy to the patients

Jordan: So it would almost be a case of making the system externally and then introducing the system

Chahat: exactly into the human body, just like you do for the immunotherapy. Patient of a cancer, who receives immunotherapy. It kind of is similar to that.

Jordan: at the moment, in a normal situation:


If somebody has COPD. Is there anything they can do , to walk the disease backwards or is it really just a case of , reducing the the symptoms as much as possible?


Chahat: So currently there’s no cure, cure for COPD, but , like you said, we can always reduce the symptoms, and treat the symptoms and not the , causative agents as a whole because we don’t know much about the causative agents.
So, , currently there’s no cure. [00:13:00] Cure, but, , I think we are moving , At a good speed. We’re moving at a really very nice pace for, these therapies because not just, , the institute that I work in, but also other, , pulmonary research labs, they’re doing really well. And we might one day just have a cure for COPD as well.

Jordan: Chahat, in this part of the show, we give you the opportunity to lead the discussion a little bit and introduce some issues that are really important to you in research or academia. I think the first thing that you’ve chosen to talk about is:


Glamorizing the idea of studying in Europe


Chahat: Yeah. Uh, this is actually a bit of a raw nerve, , for me right now because I’m in it, I’m doing it at the moment, and I wanted to be really, careful about what message I wanted to give to everyone who’s starting their journey which is why I also started my own social media handle and, , started [00:14:00] giving tips on what I learned.

So, , here, I I just wanted to highlight one major, , thing that no one probably awares you about or teaches you about at school. Just having the passion for doing what you really want in science specifically is not enough. It’s not going to be enough on some days, so when I, , came from India to study my masters, I, it was all glamorized in my head that, you know, you go there, you, , instantly, uh, you make friends, you have this instant, , dive into a whole new life where it’ll be all science, it’ll be all research, which I love, which I definitely, definitely love.

It’s nothing against science. . But, , you also need other things to survive. You need money, you need friends. You need constant support when you’re out outside of your comfort zone and even miles, miles away from your comfort zone. So, , you need all of [00:15:00] that. You need constant, , help. You need things like to figure out , how legal things, for instance, happens in a place like Germany.

It’s the land of paperwork. So To have all of that together as an information is really important before you move to any city. I’m sure some people are more aware than the other, more are more prepared, more, uh, thinking ahead of time. But even so, even so, you’ve thought everything, , before coming to a new country or any, any place you move to for, for your master studies.

I’m not sure you know everything, because until you start living in that place, you, you might not know everything, whether, whether or not you’ll be emotionally, , stable to talk to someone about your problems or, , even, I mean, you might even feel dumb on some days of your research and you might not be able to speak about it enough.

So all of those things, these contribute to, , just the idea of [00:16:00] how you looked. When you moved abroad so that that shouldn’t happen. You shouldn’t be, , thinking all good things will happen to me in the next few months or everything nice is gonna start, my new life is gonna start. And so yeah, that’s, that’s the major thing I wanted to highlight that, um, being prepared is good, but have realistic expectations for your next journey of your life.

Jordan: And you mentioned feeling dumb on some days. I wanted to ask about that because, is that a kind of question of cultural confidence?

Chahat: Um, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s anything to do with, , the cultural confidence. , but, , everything to do with the imposter syndrome that kicks in whenever you start a new, , scientific journey. And I’ve been in touch with a lot of, , Virtual scientific communicators that, uh, say the same thing, the exact same thing that when they started their PhDs, when they started their masters, they [00:17:00] started to feel, , dumb.

And, uh, they couldn’t talk about it for the longest time to anyone because they, they thought that it’s not, , the right thing to talk about, with your colleagues. And, , the good thing is that I found that, um, pretty. Sooner in my life. And I started to talk about it really openly with everyone in my lab.

And I found out that everyone feels the same, be it the postdoc, be it a PhD student, and be it anyone, they feel exactly the same. And um, that’s because we’re all trying to learn where no one knows everything. And I don’t think. Can know everything about everything you should aim to, but I don’t think anyone can know everything about everything.
Even for my research, for my project, I don’t think I know a hundred percent of everything. And if I did, I didn’t have to do research anymore. ,

Jordan: Do you think it might be connected to this concept of [00:18:00] imposter syndrome, which quite a few of our guests have talked about in that they end up feeling at least for a period of , their. Research that they’re in the wrong place, that somehow they’re not good enough.

Chahat: Yeah, I, I think it’s absolutely everything to do with imposter syndrome because, , I, I honestly figured it out when I came here, , that I have this syndrome.

Uh, I never knew about it before I started doing my thesis. Because, , I always thought that I have to be this perfect person in everything. Like I have to do everything perfectly or I’m not good enough. it’s either a hundred or nothing. So, and that’s not possible. Like, it’s not humanly possible to be perfect at everything.And, uh, the more, , I started to fail when I came here for, for instance, like, , even writing an internship report, I. Used to fail terribly, like I thought I did perfectly. And when, , I sent it to my supervisor, it came back with a, I don’t know, a hundred thousand red [00:19:00] marks. And I was like, what what just happened?

And , yeah. So that was, that was a big hit for me that I’m not perfect. I’m I, and. That’s when the feeling started to get worse in, because I, I did not talk to, , anyone , any of my colleagues about it. I stopped, , putting in as much effort because I was taken aback by that, that I’m not even good enough for that.

So what, what else can I do? So those feelings kind of push you back instead of taking you forward. So you really have to start talking about them, start acknowledging them, and then, , you know, do as much, do the best that you can and not just be perfect all the time. I still, I still have it. I mean, I mean, I’m not, uh, done having it.
I don’t think you can ever be done with this, , feeling of having a perfect, perfect, , everything. But yeah, I think it has something to do.

Jordan: So Chahat, I think you’d also like to talk a little [00:20:00] bit about:


The financial elements of research


Chahat: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. Because, , it’s pretty important to know what you are, , getting at. Because we know that money is important to just survive in a new country, or even in your home country. You need the money.But what I see as of now is that you’re not paid enough, even as a PhD student and forget master students, you’re not paid for your thesis in some, , institutes. In some, , companies you’re paid in, some private companies, you’re paid for it, but most of the, , government, public universities, you’re not paid for your thesis.

So I had to manage my, , expenses on my own by doing some odd jobs. And, , I tried getting some heavy jobs as well in my university. , but because there were always, , some language value issues and some, availability issues. And I needed money instantly, like every month to pay the loans that I took to pay the rent and everything.

So, [00:21:00] that, that really hit, , all of my experience that made my experience even more challenging. So I really wish , if I. Tell my nine month, , ago chart something, I would tell her that this is going to be. Really tough and you should be prepared about getting your finances right, getting a budget right and spending only as much as you need, although I still do, and I used to do that also.

But just being prepared for your financial, , situation really will help you in your studies as well, because you’ll have a calm mind, you’ll have a, , better environment to focus more and do better in your research. And even as a PhD, if you choose to be in this field, , for longer in academy, even for PhD in Europe, , at least, , they are not enough to live a lavish life.They’re only enough to just sustain a mediocre, , you know, living expenses. , and if you [00:22:00] need, like, like I’m someone who needs the extra money to get my loans off my head and, , send money back home. So I need the scholarships in hand, , that are available and there are pretty many of them, so you can apply for them, but know your options is what I’m trying to say.

Jordan: So Chahat, in the final section, we would like to get to know you a little better as a person:


How has your master’s degree helped you to grow as a person?


Chahat: Wow. In one word, I don’t think I can explain it in one word how it’s helped me to grow as a person. I think it’s made me a solution oriented person if I would call myself that.

So, all along my thesis, I had this huge, , I don’t know, challenge, , to self learn and to. Just encounter problems on everyday basis.

Like, , this [00:23:00] experiment’s not working. Why, what, what is the tiny detail that I could change in the protocol? And all of this I was doing, like I had supervision, but I was mostly on my own.

And that’s how it’s going to be. For my PhD, , journey as well, and I, I, I’m sure everyone who’s doing their PhD is already on their own. And, uh, the little details of, , science that no one tells you about. So that was the really challenging part and. Earlier in , first two, three months, I was always lost, always thinking about, , what did I do wrong?

What happened? Why is it not working? And all of those things. But, , later when I started to look at those problems as.

Opportunities for me solving them. It started to grow on me. It started to make me a person who really, really knows science and thinks science. So that’s something that has changed immensely in me, and I think that’s, [00:24:00] One of the best things that happened to me, because if there was enough supervision and I was always told what to do, I would never get this, , you know, opportunity to make myself into this person. So, yeah, that’s, that’s one thing that really has changed a lot in me.

Jordan: It’s wonderful to hear that you really confronted those initial difficulties you found, and that they forged you into the person that you are today.

Chahat: Apart from all the knowledge that I’m gaining. I mean, that’s all too huge. But yeah, that’s, that’s one thing that has changed as a person. Yeah.



When you’re not busy in the lab, you actually create art. Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Chahat: Yes. So I actually have been, , creating art as long as I remember for, um, I started as a child, as a hobby, and then I started taking my art a little more seriously.

Um, I created, , some [00:25:00] social media handles, started minting NFTs when they, , came into the picture. And yeah, that, that really helps me keep sane, you know, I mean, Except everything that’s changing in my life that this is one thing that has always been with me, always kept me who I am. I really like to, , illustrate, , what’s going on in my mind and situations that I’m in through some cartoons, through some, , sketches , through people, , and through their minds. So, yeah, so that’s the ideology behind it, but it’s mostly to keep me sane and it’s for me.

Jordan: Do you think that research students need a big hobby like that? Something to take them away from the research from time to time?

Chahat: I don’t think everyone functions like that, but yeah, definitely like reading books or, , just traveling, having, , I don’t know, whatever hobby they want to have, they, that really kind [00:26:00] of takes you away from, , your daily schedule.
So yeah, I think that really helps. And , the more you are in touch with yourself, I think that that makes all the difference, right? Otherwise, we’re all researching, we’re all doing science, we’re all reading papers, we’re all doing everything we can for, , science, but. That one thing that makes you, you, I don’t think any, anyone should, , take that away from you, not even science.



Who or what inspires you on your research journey?


Chahat: , I think it’s not a person or any situation that is inspiring, , that inspired me to do my research, but, , I think I should say , that five or six years ago I was, , reading something about cancer and, , that’s when it hit me. That’s when I kind of found my “ikigai”, if you call it [00:27:00] that, to find a cure for cancer.

That was, my go-to for everything. I started reading up more about cancer. I started, , brushing up on my, , topics that I used to read at school and basically anything that can help. People not suffer that pain, that that, I think that feeling of pain and, um, hopelessness about not being able to do anything for your family, , that are, , you know, suffering from cancer, any kind of cancer, that feeling is actually what pushes me every day to go back to lab.

And not someone, like a person or a situation, because that’s what I, I haven’t known someone who has cancer. , but I have known people who have dealt with the pain. And I’m a very empathetic person if, , I know myself, but I can, I could feel what they were feeling kind of. So, , I don’t want people to go through.

Ever again, [00:28:00] and that’s one of the major reasons that I go to lab every day, learn a new technique and find new answers to that. Even if I contribute like 1% to find the cure of cancer, I think, I think I would be the happiest person. In science, even if I don’t make a breakthrough discovery or , any novel therapeutic target for cancer or something, even if I contribute to it 1% I think I’ll be the happiest.

So that, that’s what inspires me to do better every day.

Jordan: So for you, it’s a very personal drive.

Chahat: Yeah.

Jordan: it’s really taking you every day go and do what you need to do to work in the lab.

Chahat: Right.

I think that this idea of making even, even if it’s a tiny contribution is something that’s really important to you and you want to make that contribution because, scientists, researchers generally are working as individuals, but also working as a kind [00:29:00] of team, even if they’re not speaking to one another.

Exactly. Everybody’s working to make a contribution and build up the bigger picture.

Chahat: Mm-hmm. It’s never a 1% one, individual thing. It’s never that. Science is about teams, about collaboration and, and it’s always a group of people contributing to one thing and never one person.

Jordan: So finally, Chahat:


How can our listeners get in contact with you?


Chahat: I’m a very socially active person, so LinkedIn, Instagram… My art account is also on Instagram and Facebook. My art account is @drawinginpeace, the other is @canceronmymind. My LinkedIn is also just with my name.

Jordan: Chahat, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a really fascinating conversation!

Chahat: I was wonderful talking to you about the research and, [00:30:00] it was really fun having this conversation with you

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