Ritcha Mehra-Chaudhary loves a challenge.
Mehra-Chaudhary has tackled a variety of challenges and switched her fields of study a handful of times throughout her career. She recently joined the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources as an assistant teaching professor of Biochemistry.
She joins CAFNR from The Molecular Interactions Core in the Mizzou Office of Research. She served in a senior research specialist role, providing service and training on protein structure determination.
“I’ve definitely done a little bit of everything,” Mehra-Chaudhary said. “My husband is a physician, so as he worked toward that goal, we moved quite a bit. I always tried to find something related to my field of study, but that wasn’t always possible. Oftentimes I would find something similar or something that looked interesting.”
Mehra-Chaudhary’s first semester (Fall 2018) as an assistant teaching professor was a senior lab with just a few students. She’s in the middle of her second semester (Spring 2019), where she is teaching more than 70 freshmen students.
“It’s definitely been different,” she said. “It’s been really exciting, too. When my main focus was on research, each step of the way was a process. With teaching, there is some instant gratification when you see a student pick up a concept.
“I’ve always had good interactions with students and post-doctoral fellows, so this is a great opportunity.”
Mehra-Chaudhary earned her bachelor’s degree in botany from Delhi University in Delhi, India. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in plant physiology from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, India.
“I have always loved plants,” Mehra-Chaudhary said. “I have a unique and exotic plant collection at home – and they have traveled with me as we’ve moved me. It’s definitely a passion of mine.
“I was really interested in growing plants while I was beginning my bachelor’s degree. I soon realized that a degree in botany doesn’t really help you in terms of growing plants. Even after getting two degrees in plant physiology, I knew the mechanisms that make plants grow but it didn’t help me grow said plants.”
Mehra-Chaudhary’s master’s work was focused on the effect of global warming on wheat production and crop yields. Her Ph.D. work was related to plant pathways. Mehra-Chaudhary continued her work with plants when she and her husband moved to the United States after she completed her degrees.
“We moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I had the opportunity to be a post-doc in Gary Stacey’s lab, before he joined the University of Missouri,” Mehra-Chaudhary said. “I moved from working with field crops to potted plants. We were working with Arabidopsis plants and root transport mutants, and how the plants absorb nutrients through the soil.”
Mehra-Chaudhary’s first work transition came a year after moving to Knoxville. Her family moved to Memphis, and there weren’t any plant science employment options available. Mehra-Chaudhary began to work at a nearby veteran’s hospital, doing research on muscle cell differentiation in mice.
“This was a big transition,” she said. “I had to really switch my mindset. There was definitely a learning curve there. Plant language is different than health science language.”
A new field was becoming more popular while Mehra-Chaudhary was in Memphis – proteomics. Proteomics is the study of proteomes – a set of proteins produced in an organism, system or biological context – and their functions. Mehra-Chaudhary looked at proteomics of muscle cell differentiation.
“Since this was a new field, there were challenges,” she said. “It was exciting, though, because everything was so new.”
Mehra-Chaudhary and her family eventually found their way to Columbia. Once again, Mehra-Chaudhary had a decision to make.
“I really couldn’t find anything in my field when we moved to Columbia,” she said. “I could either stay home or switch fields again. I decided to switch fields.”
Mehra-Chaudhary began training in x-ray crystallography, a technique used for determining the structure of a crystal. She was a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Lesa Beamer, professor of Biochemistry, from 2006-10. She taught a variety of undergraduate laboratory courses during that time as well.
That opportunity led Mehra-Chaudhary to The Molecular Interactions Core.
“Let’s say you are a researcher and you found this interesting protein,” she said. “The researcher would come to us and we would help design constructs, purify the protein or crystallize it. We help give you a structure for the protein.”
Mehra-Chaudhary said she has enjoyed the challenge thus far. To go along with her teaching, she also serves as the faculty advisor for the Vedic Society at MU, an organization that emphasizes the need to care for the spiritual basis of life with stress on value education for a sustained well-being, personal and social, in the spirit of acceptance and harmony.
“I wanted to tackle a new challenge,” Mehra-Chaudhary said. “This has been the perfect one to tackle.”