Ph.D. student works to find cure for alcohol abuse

As a little girl in West Bengal, India, Tiyash Parira would sit at night and watch the stars and dream of becoming an astronaut. Then when she was in seventh grade her mom got sick and the illness piqued her interest in medicine and research. But after fainting three times at the sight of blood, becoming a physician was clearly not in the stars for Parira. She would become a researcher.

Tiyash Parira in the lab at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

Tiyash Parira in the lab at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

Parira chose the FIU Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM) partly because of the opportunity to interact with medical students.

“In our first and second year we sit side by side with medical students,” Parira says. “You get to see how your work in the lab is translated to apply to patients and save lives.”

In 2014, armed with a master’s degree in biotechnology, Parira applied for and received the FIU University Graduate School (UGS) Presidential Fellowship for outstanding Ph.D.-track students. This year, she was awarded an FIU Graduate School Dissertation Year Fellowship.

The 27-year-old says she is grateful for both the financial and research support she has received from FIU.

“Last year I was able to publish my first authored research article in Scientific Reports,” she says. The work – a collaboration between the Department of Immunology at HWCOM and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the College of Arts, Sciences & Education – won the 2018 UGS Provost Award for Outstanding Paper or Manuscript (STEM).

The paper is part of the ongoing work Parira is doing in the lab of her mentor Marisela Agudelo, where they are studying the effects of alcohol and synthetic cannabinoids on the human immune system using cutting-edge technology such as imaging flow cytometry.

“Not everything is completely known about how alcohol actually works,” Parira says. “We have ways of coping with alcoholism. We have therapies and drugs to cope with the addiction, but no cures.”

The National Cancer Institute warns “that drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, and liver in men and women and of breast cancer in women.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, and college students are among those feeling the serious consequences of alcohol misuse. According to the NIAAA, researchers estimate that each year:

  • 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.
  • 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
  • 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
  • About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers and receiving lower grades overall.

“Prevention is always best, but what about people already addicted?” Parira says.

One day, she wants to find a cure.