Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine graduate student Souvik Patra won with an oral presentation that is part of his bigger mission.
Souvik Patra developed a personal mission as a teenager.
When his uncle received a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, his family did not believe it would be too serious. He began normal treatments with prescribed medications, but his condition began to worsen as he developed obesity and cardiovascular problems.
“His blood pressure was really high,” Patra said. “On top of that, he had a high blood glucose level and that led to a stroke at the end.”
Patra, a second-year graduate student at Texas Tech University's School of Veterinary Medicine, was only 15 when he lost his uncle, to whom he was close. Just a few years shy from college, he decided he did not want others to suffer from similar health issues.
“If people are doing something to change this, or at least manage these conditions, then I can be a part of those organizations or teams who lead this kind of research,” he said.
By 2012, Patra was well on his way to doing that. He was earning his Master of Science in Biotechnology from the Vellore Institute of Technology, where he was taught many factors of human and animal medicine. From there, he began to focus on the cardiovascular system and metabolism.
“I developed my interest in diseases like stroke,” he said. “I wanted to focus on finding a good treatment to manage these diseases.”
Immediately after he received his master's, Patra became “laser focused” on his doctorate, particularly to find a faculty member working with metabolism and nutrition.
That is how he met Prasanth Chelikani, assistant dean and professor of physiology at the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine.
At the time, it was 2019 and Chelikani ran a lab at the University of Calgary that primarily used animal models to gain insights into the mechanisms by which dietary, pharmacological and surgical interventions promote weight loss and improve metabolic health using a range of physiological and molecular techniques.
Patra decided to join the lab and take on an effort that hit close to home: researching diabetic cats.
“In diabetes, there is high expression of glucose in the blood,” Patra said. “We have a hormone called insulin that takes care of this elevated blood glucose level. My focus was basically looking into the pathway with dysregulating insulin.”
During his research, Patra and the lab members observed that diabetic cats experience high blood glucose levels, frequent urination, excessive thirst and some instances of weight loss and lethargy. Pushing into the molecular mechanisms that affect feline diabetes, they hypothesized that the condition could be linked to dysfunction in insulin signaling, mostly in the muscle and pancreas.
For the study, they collected samples of mainly liver, pancreas, and muscle to analyze how much fat was present along with biomarkers of insulin signaling. The results showed the biomarkers of the insulin pathway were downregulated compared to a normal healthy cat.
“In the diabetic cat, we see that the tissues like the liver, muscle and pancreas, have a higher deposition of fat in them,” he said. “The overall conclusion from that study showed a higher adiposity in those tissues, and the dysfunction in insulin signaling pathway is linked to diabetes in cats.”
Patra worked within the lab for two years when Chelikani accepted his roles at the Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine.
“I also got to explore the opportunities at Texas Tech, and so I moved with him,” he said.
That is how the feline diabetes project became a collaboration between the University of Calgary in Canada and Texas Tech that Patra has worked on for more than three years. Since the project is part of his thesis work, Patra hopes to graduate with peer-reviewed publications. He also is working on a manuscript about the findings.
“It will be more focused on how we can better manage and treat diabetes,” he said. “Once we know that this dysfunction in the insulin pathway is linked, we hope to achieve a much better pharmaceutical approach.”
The project could even lead to more collaborative opportunities that opened after he competed in the Alpha Iota Chapter of the Society of Phi Zeta National's inaugural Research Day on Feb. 24.
Patra wanted to gain more public speaking experience in front of a large audience, so he decided to enter the competition. Initially, students submitted an abstract: a short summary of their research. Patra's abstract was selected as one of the top eight that advanced to oral presentations, and the remaining 15 were offered a spot in the poster competition that was judged on a scale that included completeness and clarity.
The oral presentations consisted of eight minutes of speeches followed by two minutes of questions. After listening to the others, Patra was convinced he would not win.
But he was unable to hear the reactions to his own presentation, like Jennifer Koziol did.
“Patra is very knowledgeable about his subject,” said Koziol, associate professor of Food Animal Medicine and Surgery and the secretary treasurer of Phi Zeta. “Everybody was very impressed by his overall presentation and how bold he was about his area of research.”
Patra was able to grab attention from the start as he gave a brief overview of the statistics of feline diabetes in the United States, which he said has increased in prevalence by 18% since 2006. He also included the cost that owners face while caring for a diabetic cat, which could be anywhere from $50 to $150 per month.
By the time he concluded his presentation, Patra was met with an unexpected amount of questions and feedback.
“A couple of faculty researchers reached out to me and asked, ‘If it is possible in felines, then can we do something in horses or maybe dairy cattle?'” he said. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, for sure. The technique remains the same. It's just the way you are collecting samples would be different.'”
While Patra was surprised to be selected at the top Research Day oral presentation, it provided validation about the importance of his work.
But there were some who never doubted he would win – those who understood the motivation behind his drive.
“My wife was very excited, as well as my parents and other friends and family,” he said. “They told me to keep doing the good work, because what I'm doing is actually helping indirectly or directly to the human health side.”