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Can you tell us what you do? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconvetional and uncommon career?

 I am a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on novel diagnostics strategies for infectious disease. Every small incident in your life leaves its mark on you and influences your decisions. Growing up in a developing country ravaged by disease has clearly left a mark on my thought process, as is evident from my chosen vocation.

Your background?

I was born in Chennai, a busy city in Southern India, to a moderately affluent family with good access to medical care. Despite that, I suffered from mumps as a child, and knew children that suffered from other infectious diseases that could have easily been prevented by vaccination. Perhaps a lasting memory is that of our gardener coughing persistently as he worked. I did not know then that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that would claim his life a decade later.

 What did you study?

As a child I was—and I still am–interested in dancing and drama. But when I did well in 10th grade, my family and friends pushed me to pursue a degree in science. I enrolled as an undergraduate in microbiology at the University of Delhi, and found myself enjoying the curriculum. My education was primarily theoretical, with no research experience whatsoever. I enjoyed what I learned, but was not passionate about the science.

After my undergraduate degree, still wavering between science and the performing arts, and decided to pursue a master’s degree in microbiology, while performing at drama clubs and learning Indian dance. My masters program at National Institute of Immunology changed my outlook on science. I was fortunate enough to do my dissertation work at the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi, India. Working in a research institution on real world problems was challenging, inspiring, and exciting. I enjoyed laboratory work and practically lived in the lab during that time, resulting in a well-received masters thesis project.

By then, I had no doubt that I wanted to pursue graduate studies in Biomedical Sciences. I came to the University of New Mexico in 1998 to pursue my Ph. D. Studying in the United States was a completely new experience. I enjoyed the open and questioning culture, the casual approach to teaching, and the helpful nature of my professors.

What was your career path after Phd?

I then joined QTL Biosystems Ltd in Santa Fe. I developed hand-held sensors for detection of biowarfare agents. It was an amazing experience, translating the lessons learned in school to actual applied products. But I realized that I enjoyed basic science more. So, I decided to join the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow. There I have been developing assays for tuberculosis detection, traveling to endemic populations, and working with people in the field. I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoy my work and the challenges it presents. And I still dance and perform every year.

I work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the chemistry division.

I’m a microbiologist by training, and right now I work on developing diagnostics and surveillance tools for infectious disease. It involves a lot of the microbiology that I bring in from my training. This effort is multidisciplinary in that we work at the interface of chemistry and engineering and computational solutions, as well as microbiology and human anatomy and physiology, to build real-world solutions that can be used in clinics and hospitals — that is, at the point of care.

We also work on trying to develop solutions for the surveillance of infectious diseases so that when there’s an outbreak or a new disease, we’ll be in a position to better deal with it and handle it, as well as to have more timely responses to minimize the impact or the effect that those kinds of diseases might have on the population.

What do you like about your job?

Perhaps one of the greatest things about being a scientist is that you get to learn new things every day. I enjoy mentoring students and post-doctoral fellows and watching a new era of inspired scientists rise. My ultimate goal is to develop better diagnostics for infectious disease, especially ones that have developed resistance. Well… if you aim for the stars, you may at least reach the Moon!