Degree: Ph.D. Physics
College: College of Arts, Sciences & Education, School of Integrated Science and Humanity
When COVID-19 shut down most of the world, Nisha Bhattarai was working with FIU’s physicists to uncover why the virus was such an effective spreader — a fitting endeavor for a doctoral student who focused her studies on discovering how viral proteins function.
Nisha was lead author of a study that found coronavirus variants were more adept at breaking into human cells compared to the original COVID-19 virus. Because the variants are better at manipulating a particular protein, they can more easily enter a human cell and replicate. Her work was on the cover of the Journal of Physical Chemistry B.
For Nisha, the initial love she developed for biology while growing up in Nepal shifted in high school to physics. It was the formulas — devastatingly tricky for some — that made physics an exciting challenge to decipher.
When she joined FIU as a physics Ph.D. student in 2016, Nisha worked closely with Professors Prem Chapagain and Bernard Gerstman, two physicists who use computer modeling to visualize how viruses interact with human cells and the drugs meant to stop them.
First, she modeled the Ebola, Marburg and Zika viruses. She marveled at how something that’s inactive outside the human body comes to life, using only seven proteins to accomplish everything it needs to survive and multiply. She continued to produce research at a high level. Her 13 peer-reviewed studies appeared in highly reputable journals and she has many more publications in the pipeline.
Today, Nisha is working as a postdoctoral research associate at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio where she investigates the roles proteins play in causing epilepsy and other neurological disorders.
By Chrystian Tejedor
College of Arts, Sciences & Education