Researchers and medical practitioners come from different perspectives/ backgrounds, shaped by their own experiences in the lab and the real world respectively! But healthcare innovation requires a pragmatic and nuanced approach balancing both viewpoints.

Our next pathbreaker, Dr Arun Sasidharan, Neuroscientist, went on to pursue research after completing his MBBS, to figure out ways to translate novel ideas from the lab into products for the real world.

Arun talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pursuing Neuroscience as an applied research career to develop new and affordable technologies that work in a low resource settings and improve mental wellbeing.

A very interesting interview from a medical practitioner on the need for research to meet the practical needs of the real world !

Arun, tell us about your background?

I was born in Ras Al Khaimah (a province of UAE), where I spent my entire childhood. I did my schooling (up to class 12) at two Indian schools. Mine was a 4-member middle-class family from Kerala. My father (Mr. V. Sasidharan) was a technical and maintenance in-charge and later Production Manager at a Concrete block factory, and my mother (Mrs. Geetha Sasidharan) was a homemaker. I was inspired by my father’s dedication to work and skill to solve problems using out-of-the-box thinking. My mother inspired me to adjust to any situation and respect other’s viewpoints. My younger sister (Dr. Archana Sasidharan) always helped to bring out the best in me. I am grateful that my parents believed in me and my sister, and allowed us to do our entire schooling without going for tuitions (most students at our schools went for tuitions). I feel this was critical in making me self-disciplined, not resorting to mugging up and laid the foundation for my future. Believing that science and maths need to be learned together, I had taken up both the subjects for my class 12. This also fulfilled my parent’s dream of me becoming a doctor or engineer (like most parents do).     

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After returning from UAE, though I cleared both engineering and medical entrance exams, i took up MBBS at Govt Medical College, Kottayam, Kerala. Though the MBBS curriculum is structured with extensive theoretical and practical sessions, I felt that it relied mainly on one’s information cramming skills. Immediately after MBBS, I had to serve 1-year compulsory rural service, which I felt was unfair, as I wanted to prepare for Post-graduation entrance exams. But I realized that the skillsets and experience gained during this period was invaluable as a doctor, and gave me great work satisfaction. I subsequently shifted focus to research instead of a medical specialization, enrolled for PhD in Neurophysiology at NIMHANS in 2010, and completed it in 2015.           

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Though my parents influenced me during my early phase of life, the key influencer after I switched to research has been my wife and fellow Neuroscientist (Dr Vrinda M). Research discussions with her, continue to be a constant source of inspiration at each level in my career. 

My physics teacher at school inspired and advised me to become a Scientist. Though I didn’t know, that advice stayed with me even after my medical education when I decided to pursue that path.

Two people shaped my career path though their books. Dr. B. M. Hegde’s book (“What Doctors don’t get to study in Medical School”) inspired me to think outside medical school. Dr. V. S. Ramachandran’s book (“Phantoms in the brain”) inspired me to choose Neuroscience as my research path. 

As an H1N1 Control cell doctor, I met an officer from CDC, USA. She introduced me to a course in the US where medical degree and PhD could be done within a period of 8 years. This prompted me to research the prospects of doing a PhD after MBBS, and helped me make a decision to do a PhD before doing a post-graduate course in medicine.    

To my email query regarding an opportunity to do a PhD in Neuroscience after MBBS, I received positive replies from two prominent researchers at TIFR, Mumbai (Prof. Shubha Tole & Prof. Basuthkar J. Rao). This provided the final push required to go ahead with my decision and to target selected institutes where such courses are offered.  

At NIMHANS PhD entrance, I came third (only 2 seats available), but fortunately for me, the second rank holder turned down the interview (he wanted to try for MD/DM), and I got the seat.

During my first meeting with Prof. Bindu M Kutty of Neurophysiology department, she helped me decide my research area and kindly accepted my request to be my PhD guide. Besides guidance, the freedom and opportunities she gave me paved the way to my current career path. 

My PhD contemporary (Dr Ajay Kumar Nair) has been instrumental in improving my research rigor and critical thinking. Jointly, we could make several changes in the level of research at our research lab.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Towards the end of my PhD, I started realizing that conventional academic research focuses more on publications and I would need better ways to take my research to practical levels. So, I started looking into design studies, data acquisition methods (more affordable and available devices) and analysis algorithms (low-resource, easily accessible open-source software) for my research.

Immediately after PhD, I joined as a Scientist (Senior Research Officer and Research Program Manager) at a Research and Development Lab of a Private Medical Device Manufacturing Company (Axxonet Brain Research Lab, Axxonet System Technologies Pvt Ltd, Bengaluru). This is a Research and Development work where one needs to come out with novel Neuroscience ideas and figure out ways to translate them into products and services. It involves working alongside expert Engineers, providing inputs on EEG device development, creating novel EEG analysis algorithms, etc. It also includes training students, conducting EEG workshops, managing research collaborations with premier research institutes, etc.

Smaller clinics, NGOs and other health reform groups do valuable work, which need support from Neuroscience researchers. Such contacts have started to influence my research ideas. 

My research approach has shifted to ones that can be applied to real-life, low-resource settings. I have also started looking at conditions that span across diagnostic boundaries (e.g., prediction dysfunction instead of ‘Schizophrenia, ‘Depression’ etc.)

How did you get your first break?

As mentioned earlier, my first break after PhD was given by Axxonet. They were already collaborating with my PhD mentor with regards to customizing hardware and software for animal recording studies. Towards the end of my PhD, I started interacting with their main engineers (Mr. Chetan Mukundan & Mr. Sumit Sharma) regarding technical aspects of human recordings. This would have allowed them to understand my skills and knowledge directly, and hence they absorbed me into their company after my PhD, without much formalities.   

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: 

As a norm, I was expected to do a Post-Doctoral training (“Post-Doc”) at a foreign Research Institute or join a teaching institute in India. People in academic research do not easily acknowledge that vigorous research can happen in an unconventional private R&D lab (unlike Pharma Labs). This also meant, that I would not get funding from agencies, where such researchers are part of the committees.

However, my perseverance paid off and could gain their confidence. I could get multiple research proposals from Government funding, conduct research studies with various institutes, and give presentations and talks at prestigious conferences. I could also contribute to multiple publications, train students and staffs from established research institutes, conduct national workshops across India, etc. 

Where do you work now? 

I recently joined as a Scientist-C (Neuroscience) at the Center for Consciousness Studies, under Department of Neurophysiology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. 

I am a proponent of using non-pharmacological holistic approaches to tackle mental illness and driving them towards wellness. 

In this work I try to understand: How our brain is able to make sense of the world (‘consciousness’); What aspect of this goes wrong in various mental disorders; Study various ways that improve our conscious experience, emotion, sleep, mental disturbances, so on and so forth; Examine the strength of Indian traditional knowledge and practice (like Yoga, Meditation, Music, Culture, Diet) in shaping a healthy mind; Help develop new technologies to improve mental wellbeing; Spread public awareness about the above; Generate data for policy making in these areas;

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

It basically needs an inclination to acquire knowledge across disciplines. You would need strong fundamentals in neuroscience & physiology, some knowledge in psychology, good understanding of data analysis and statistics, strong desire to know how technology works, patient listening to people from fields other than neuroscience (spiritual thinkers, mathematicians, philosophers, businessmen, etc.).

I was fortunate to be in a multi-disciplinary learning (PhD days at NIMHANS) and working (Scientist at Axxonet) environment. This helped me develop the right skill sets and exposure for the current job. 

What is a typical day like?

My typical workday starts around 9am. Being attached to an academic department, I sometimes attend academic presentations by MPhil/PhD students or Guest lectures by prominent Scientists in our field. There will be regular discussions or training among our research team based on each other’s expertise and areas of interest. I also overlook some of our ongoing research work (EEG data acquisitions, data analysis, status reports, etc.), helping out the junior researchers (scholars and fellow researchers). I get calls from researchers from other institutes and help them out with their research problems. Based on the deadlines, I write research proposals in collaboration with other research labs/institutes and prepare manuscripts of already completed research projects. Some days, I would need to serve as invited speaker for scientific meetings and of late, there has been a greater interest to be part of public awareness meets. Being iin a government institute, I am also expected to do some administrative work, which I am told, will increase with my seniority.

What is it you love about this job?

The main highlight for me is the opportunity to work on things that not many have explored and in ways not much examined. As an independent researcher, I also get the freedom to delve into research problems of my choice. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

It also allows me to contribute to the growing evidence that our mind-body can offer solutions to many chronic health conditions, thereby helping reduce our current over-dependence on medications for such issues. My work can help arrive at a more holistic understanding of consciousness, taking insights from both modern neuroscience and Indian knowledge system. The overall motto is that my research should not just stay in lab or a paper, it should be of use to the society at the earliest.

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

I believe that my work is getting more and more satisfying each day. But, if I need to mention a single work as an example of a memorable work, that would be the work on “Sleep ERPs”. This was one of the initial projects after joining Axxonet, and when i was part of a collaborative project with my ‘Alma Mater’ (Prof. Bindu’s Lab, NIMHANS). With the help of the whole team, we managed to detect electrophysiological markers for sleep-stage specific response of brain to external sounds (called ‘event related potentials’ or ERPs). The simplicity of the procedure and the fact that very few labs across the world use this powerful method, makes this a memorable achievement. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

As a Neuroscientist, I am inspired by the strategy used by every brain to learn amidst the bombardment of information. From what it already knows, it probes the new set of information, updates only those aspects of its knowledge based on mismatches or mistakes. So, all information is not examined, and more learning occurs from through repeated probing and making several mistakes. You can see this when you observe toddlers or animals. We somehow lose this from some of the conventional cultural and schooling practices. 

I, therefore, urge students to put more effort in checking out different applications using what you already know (through day-to-day problem solving and creative applications). Thus, what you know becomes stronger and better wired in the brain, if you try to provide more opportunity for making mistakes and solving them using simpler solutions. 

Future Plans?

I wish to explore a change in the conventional approach of academic research. By combining the rigor and systematic approach of academic research with the time-bound and feasibility-oriented approach of industrial research, I hope to empower cognitive neuroscience to solve practical problems better and quicker.