India’s rich biodiversity always reminds us of our magnificent mountains, dense forests and majestic species like the tiger. But the biodiversity that lies beneath our oceans is vast and largely unexplored, in terms of beauty and potential. 

Deepthi Hebbale, our next pathbreaker, Marine Biotechnologist at IISc Bangalore, works with marine microorganisms exploring their potential to make our planet greener through Biofuels.

Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal talks to Deepthi about how her interest in Biology and passion for everything marine lead her to this unique career.

Deepthi, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Bangalore but my native is Kodogu (Coorg). My father hails from this town, Hebbale (hence the surname) in Somwarpet taluk. He did his MA in Kannada literature from Mysore and retired as Deputy Director from PU Education Board, Karnataka. My mom is from Mandya district, she finished her BA LLB from Bangalore and retired as Assistant Account officer from GPO. My parents and my brother have been my source of strength and encouragement.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

My mom had been NCC cadet in her college years. She not only encouraged my brother and me in studies but also to take part in activities related to Scouts/Guides and NCC during our school. During my Scouts and Guides activity, I used to go to camps to different places and we had to build our own tent using staffs and ropes, carry out cooking in the wild with minimal ingredients and participate in group activities etc. All these helped me become more outgoing and cultivated interests in me to explore and learn new things. I did my Schooling at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Hebbal (from 1st to 12th std). During my School days, I loved science, especially biology. I felt biology is one such subject that has so much to offer and it had a lot of relevance to our environment. I initially aspired to be a doctor, but after my 12th results, my dad and I had a chat, and he advised me to take up engineering instead of medical as it was just a 4 years course and as a parent, he did not want to put me through the stress taking up medical. I decided to go ahead with my dad’s decision but on one condition that I will do engineering only in a biology related subject and hence took up BE Biotechnology at M S Ramaiah Institute of Technology. This was the best decision I made as it helped me to be where I am today. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I fell completely in love with Biotechnology and in the 5th semester, I had a subject on Environmental Biotechnology that mainly dealt with employing microorganisms in various applications for human benefit. I still remember this one particular application of microorganism in oil rigs for extraction of oils from pockets which otherwise are inaccessible, this completely fascinated me; imagine that a tiny organisms can be tweaked for a greater good. I even carried out a mini project on Biofuel production from Water Hyacinth and submitted it for ABEL India. During the course work, we had to deliver a presentation on application of technology in science. For this presentation, I did my research and tumbled upon coral reef restoration using artificial substrates deployed into the sea. This artificial substrate (mostly calcium carbonate) was generated by electrolysis process inside the water where corals are attached. After this presentation, my inclination towards marine studies became stronger. I was very clear on doing my further study in environmental engineering mostly specializing in marine studies.

Tell us about your career path

During my last semester of engineering, I applied for masters in Environmental Engineering to six universities in UK. My father intervened again and asked me to apply to Indian Institutes, as he was very reluctant to send me abroad. Therefore I listened to him, reluctantly applied and to my surprise, i got through the interview at Indian Institute of Science and registered for the MSc (Engineering) Research program at Centre for Sustainable Technologies. This was the second best advice my father had given me.

I joined IISc in 2011, and my guide specialized in ecotoxicology and guess what, i carried out research in coral reef diversity, disease outbreaks and restoration. My study area was in Narara Marine National Park, Jamnagar, Gujarat. I visited this place after 8 months of intense literature review in 2012, the first time I touched corals in the intertidal zone I was speechless as I had read so much about how they look, their habitat, their life cycle etc and here I was experiencing it at first hand, it was just surreal. Not many people know this, that corals are found in intertidal zone as well and you need not go scuba diving for viewing this in Gulf of Kutch. Science just enthralls you. My whole field visit experience is rich with not only science but of people that I met and interacted, and the place, food, its culture and so much more.

I presented my first study on corals at Indian Biodiversity Congress 2012 and was awarded the best paper presentation; this further boosted my confidence and I rooted strongly to achieve something in this field.

In IISc, there is a provision where MSc (Engineering) Research students can upgrade their degree to PhD with a certain GPA criteria. I upgraded my MSc (Engineering) degree to PhD in 2014. So my registration for PhD was considered from the date of joining i.e. 2011. This was my first break or I should say dive into PhD Ocean. 

What were the challenges? How did u address them?

My first challenge was after 4 years, due to certain circumstances all the students under my guide had to shift to a new lab. That is when I chose my current lab Energy and Wetland Research Group (EWRG) and started my PhD from fresh, I had to let go of my research work on corals that I did in the first 4 years, as my new PI (Principal investigator) had no projects related to that. I faced this challenge with lot of strength and excitement because I was still getting to carry out research in marine related studies only in a different geographic location.

I joined EWRG group in 2015 and shifted my base to Kumta Taluk in Uttara Kannada district to carry out my new research work on marine macroalgae. I rented a house there for 2+ years, carried out my extensive fieldwork and exploratory survey along the stretches of Karnataka Coast (200 odd km). I carried out habitat mapping of these macroalgae along the coast and worked on water quality assessment of Aghanshini estuary.

Special mention to my Dr. T. V. Ramachandra, my guide and mentor for taking me into his EWRG group, IISc and constantly encouraging me to excel in my research work and providing me with various platforms be it in workshops or conferences to display my talent.

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working in EWRG, finishing my PhD work. My problem statement is to explore bioethanol prospects from macroalgae for which I have extracted sugars from these algae through chemical and biological process. For biological process, I have isolated marine bacteria, extracted enzyme, and subjected macroalgae for producing sugar. This sugar is further fermented to bioethanol using yeast microorganisms. I have isolated 100+ yeast organisms from various sources to test its efficacy in producing bioethanol. I am also looking into yeast organisms exhibiting broad sugar range for fermentation. Bioethanol is an additive to gasoline and is mixed in certain ratio (E5, E10 r E15) and utilized as sustainable fuel.

Skills required for this research is acute observation skills in field, concept clarity to be able to decipher complex process into a simple method understandable by a nonprofessional. My research involves culturing of microorganisms that requires good laboratory skills in handling microbes in aseptic conditions. There is a lot of floating population in our lab in the form of MSc graduates carrying out dissertation work; we need to be encouraging and patient with them and help them from design of the experiment until execution of the results.

My typical day starts with me trying to fetch new publication related to my research and if I can implement the same process with my samples, as science is all about reproducibility. I am constantly updating my knowledge in understanding how microbes work so miraculously in different environment what are its preferences in these environments.

Apart from carrying out experiment in lab and isolating microbes and testing them, i love presenting papers on novel research carried out by scientists worldwide in our monthly seminar. This is the platform, which helps in building our concept and helps us become more cohesive in reaching out to a diverse audience about our research.

How does your work benefit the society? 

India is an agriculturally rich country, there is lot of residue generated during farming which is either discarded or burnt in large quantities mostly in Northern India. My research aids in placing these residues as feedstock for bioethanol production. The microbes that I have isolated can be employed with these feedstocks to obtained higher yield of bioethanol production and solve country’s energy status.

Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

I was involved in isolating yeast microorganisms from various sources. As i started exploring different sources to isolate yeast, i came across fermented beverages made by various tribes across india. This rich knowledge is not very well documented with respect to microbes and I would love to explore this aspect.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to student is to never stop being curious and always be hungry for knowledge. Do not tie yourself down to one particular subject, be open to the possibilities of different forms of knowledge and experience. Accept change and challenges because that is what sculpts your personality. My personality is built brick by brick from my parents, people, field experiences, books, food and more importantly by science. 

Also now, I have no regrets of not pursuing my education in a foreign university I am happy and content with all the choices I have made during my school and graduation. I would like to advise students to study and take up a career in applied science that will be beneficial to science as well as society.

Future Plans?

In future, i aspire to become a teacher and share my knowledge and rich experience with the coming generations. Also would like to have a lab dedicated to marine studies in India.