Modelling mitochondrial mutations and a sense of home

  • 26 March 2024
  • 2 minutes

Nikita Kozhushko (Medical Sciences PhD 2023) has quickly settled into life at and is an active member of the postgraduate community. 

Her research focus is on  the interplay of autophagy and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations, both in healthy ageing and neurodegenerative disease at the University of Cambridge - Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biology Unit. 

“At the moment I’m modelling Parkinson’s Disease in cells and Drosophila melanogaster, trying to understand how accumulation of mtDNA mutations affects mitochondrial biogenesis, membrane dynamics, reciprocal interactions of mtDNA and nuclear DNA instability as well as the progression of the neurodegenerative disease as a whole,” she says. 

Nikita developed her keen interest and knowledge in neurodegenerative disease during her undergraduate degree in human physiology and subsequent master’s in medical biotechnology. She then consolidated this with a two-year research fellowship at National Institute of Health in the United States.

This was not her first time living in America. She says: “I’ve been everywhere! I was born in America, but I’m ethnically Ukrainian and Russian. When I was little, we moved to Latvia, where my grandparents lived. I left home at 15 and moved to Denmark to finish my high school education, and then the UK.”

She adds: “The question ‘where are you from?’ is something I struggle with. I say ‘well…’ It’s quite difficult to give a straightforward answer.

“I do long for the feeling of home. at the moment is here, in the UK, but I also call Ukraine and Latvia home. I closely relate to my Eastern European identity.”

Nikita’s sister did a PhD at Cambridge, but not at Caius, and she knew she also wanted to study here. Like her sister, she wanted an “authentic Cambridge experience”. Despite the intensity of her research, she has embraced many academic and extra-curricular opportunities, including joining the AFL (Australian Rules Football) team and the MCR Committee. She was elected co-Vice-President last month.

 “Caius offers a vastly diverse community, especially in the MCR, which is refreshing, but we still get to enjoy the traditional side of Cambridge,” she adds. 

The postgraduate accommodation has also been a highlight of her time at Caius, being close both to Addenbrooke’s and the city centre, “so you are never too far from the action,” Nikita says.

Nikita has a clear plan for the future.

She says: “I’m hoping to run my own neurodegenerative research lab at some point as well as build on my interest in entrepreneurship. Cambridge has a lot to offer, both in industry and academia, especially for a woman in STEM. Sometimes we lack that confidence to seek out those opportunities, but the environment here provides all the necessary support to help you evolve and develop qualities that of a high-achieving researcher.”