Dr Taranjit Singh Rai is a lecturer in Cellular Ageing at Ulster University’s School of Biomedical Sciences at Magee, and Altnagelvin Hospital’s Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre (C-TRIC). Born in India’s Punjab state, Dr Rai has more than a decade’s experience researching ageing, cancer and ageing-associated diseases. He received a PhD from the PGIMER institute, Chandigarh, studied entrepreneurship at Babson College Boston, and completed postdoctoral training at Glasgow’s Beatson Institute of Cancer Research before moving to Derry in 2018.
What attracted you to C-TRIC, and to Derry?
The appeal of working directly with patients at Altnagelvin Hospital, and the grant that Professor Tony Bjourson [UU Professor of Genomics and C-TRIC founding member] had secured, provided a good launch pad to do my age-associated diseases research. So it was the independence of doing what I want to do, and the funds that were available. The second thing was that, before I accepted the role, I stayed in the city centre and I really loved the people. I thought they were great, very friendly and helpful. Life in Glasgow is very fast-paced and I thought that overall, the work-life balance would be good here.
The City Deal reached an important milestone recently with the signing of the Heads of Terms. What does the City Deal mean to C-TRIC?
It will be excellent. We have outgrown ourselves and we really need a new cutting-edge facility. The City Deal with the Thrive [health innovation] project will provide us with much-needed space. It will also provide us with so much capital to get the right equipment, hire the right people, and attract publicity, both locally and nationally. We really need to attract talent to Derry; that’s really, really important to execute the plan. The Medical School will also bring so many students. There will be several elite fields that will thrive because of the City Deal.
What would you say to people thinking of moving to the North West?
I would say that if you are looking for a balanced life, in 15 minutes you can reach the city centre, all the good schools, facilities like Altnagelvin Hospital, Foyle Arena, your place of work. In half an hour, you can reach golden beaches, mountains, walking trails.
Your wife and three children also relocated to Derry. Do you have any advice for people moving with children?
I really wanted my son to go to a grammar school but I had significant challenges because he hadn’t moved over yet so was not living physically with me. Children who are resident in Northern Ireland get preference, so people who are moving with children, if their child is transitioning to secondary school, do need to understand this and prepare for how to deal with that. Thankfully, I’m a problem solver! Good sense prevailed and he received a conditional offer. I also had to fly back every Thursday to Glasgow to prepare him for the entrance exam then fly back Sunday evening. My kids do miss their old friends in Glasgow but football and sports have been excellent ways to make friends here.
What do you miss about Punjab?
My parents are still there and a lot of relatives and friends. Before the pandemic, we used to visit every year. Of course, this year we haven’t been able to go. People also ask if I mind the cold and wet weather here, but I can walk to Altnagelvin from my home and it’s just a drizzle. Back home in monsoon season streets will be flooded. In the summer it will be 45 degrees Celsius and in winters it will be -8 so Derry’s weather is not bad to be honest.
What tips do you have for ageing well or ageing healthily?
Studies have been done on a population clusters in Japan/Italy and many other countries where many, many people live to 100 years; they drink wine and smoke, no problem, the main thing is their life is centred around community – no issues whatsoever in Derry, everyone knows everyone! – but they also eat very healthily and walk a lot. So minor things can actually have a big impact on ageing. Mental health is very important too – I’ve now started to think in terms of emotional ‘hygiene’.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
I work on a process called cell senescence. Cells, when they encounter damage, stop dividing or they enter into a state we call cell senescence. It’s a stress response in a way. As we grow old, we start to accumulate these cells. These cells aren’t idle and quiet, they secrete proteins and they can cause many age associated diseases. We can detect these proteins several years in advance of development of disease, so one of the projects is predicting the risk of cardiovascular disease based upon the levels of these proteins. We are trying to predict who’s going to get a heart attack, just by looking at a combination of some of the proteins, then combining it with artificial intelligence and machine learning. With 99% accuracy, the algorithm is predicting the correct scenarios.
It’s not a good idea to have these cells accumulating in our body, so we also do high throughput drug screens that selectively kill these cells. We want to keep the healthy cells as they are, and if there are senescent cells, we want to target them, eliminate them, and study them. Studies are showing that senolytics [the branch of medicine that tackles these cells] works, even in the context of Alzheimer’s, motor neurone disease, many associated diseases.
You’re a weekend YouTuber too! Tell us about that.
I’ve started a YouTube channel teaching people about capital, labour, small investments, healthy eating and also responsible drinking. People think entrepreneurship is wealth-given, that is absolutely incorrect, entrepreneurialism can be taught. 88% of the world’s wealth creators are self-made. I’m always a big believer in whenever opportunity presents, you should take it. In 3 weeks since I started it, it has gone crazy with 2K subscribers so must be doing something correct.