One of the most intriguing aspects of physics has been the study of light and its miraculous properties. Light continues to push the boundaries of applied research, especially in healthcare.

Praveen Ashok, our next pathbreaker, develops retinal imaging devices that help in early identification of eye disease based on the principles of Photonics, study of light particles.

Praveen talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about learning science subjects in his mother tongue that helped understand science and math concepts better and his accidental brush with Photonics that veered him towards a career in BioPhotonics.

This interview is a great read for students about the role of mentors in shaping careers and trusting your mentors to guide you on a better path when you aren’t sure of your goals initially!

Praveen, tell us about your initial years?

I grew up in a city called Ernakulam in Kerala. My parents were specific about me getting my education in my mother tongue. So, I studied in a government aided Malayalam medium school till my high school. My father is a lawyer specialized in labour law and my mother did her masters in marine biology. 

I grew up in an environment where both in my family and at my school, I was encouraged to ask questions. This helped me develop my critical and logical thinking ability. This was a key formative period for me to develop scientific temper, which is the most important tool that helped me in my career. 

Learning science subjects in my mother tongue helped me cultivate a firm understanding of basic scientific principles and mathematics. Once the concepts were thorough, switching to English for my higher education was not a big challenge. 

Although I was a good student overall, in the early years, I was not particularly interested in science subjects. My first nudge towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects was a summer school I attended at Centre for Science in Society (CSiS) at Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT).  The Student Talent Development Program (STDP) run by CSiS involved hands on science experiments from all branches of science and technology along with a dedicated science project. This was my first exposure to performing a science project systematically. Prof. K. G. Nair and Prof. V. P. N. Nampoori were two people who inspired me by showing how science and technology is connected to our day-to-day life and the fact that STEM subjects have a social responsibility to improve people’s quality of life. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For my higher education, I did a 5 year integrated masters course in Photonics from Cochin University of Science and Technology, followed by PhD in Physics from university of St Andrews in the field of biophotonics. 

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

After my school, I was keen to pursue a career in law due to my family background. Prof. V. P. N. Nampoori was the person who convinced me to pursue a career in science. I was never keen on following the usual rat race for entrance exams. I never spent much time preparing for any entrance examination, especially did not attend any coaching classes. Rather, I focused on studying my science subjects thoroughly during my higher secondary years. While I was getting prepared to join BSc Physics in an arts and science college, Prof. Nampoori informed me of a relatively new program in his department – Integrated MSc in Photonics. 

I gave the entrance exam for CUSAT and got admitted to the MSc program. This program being at its inception, there was no clarity on the job prospects. Also, there were challenges in terms of facilities. However, the content of this course was interesting. Those challenges, along with a multi-cultural and self-motivated bunch of batch mates sealed my interest in the field of photonics. 

During my university days, I got lots of opportunities to connect with peers in the field of photonics. One key event was my involvement in organizing an international conference in photonics, which helped me understand what academia is and how it works. 

During my university days, I received couple of scholarship to do summer internship in institutions like Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT). These experiences enhanced my research skills. Also, my experience in RRCAT helped me in narrowing down my field of research to biophotonics. 

Photonics is the field that uses optics and light for various applications. Biophotonics is the sub-field where optical technologies are applied in the field of biology, medicine and healthcare. One of the simplest biophotonics technology everyone knows is the microscope, which is used to probe the microscopic world and made a huge impact in the field of biology in the 20th century. The field of microscopy itself has advanced so much that we can now push the limits of physics and explore the nanoscopic world using light (super resolution microscopy). This directly translates to drug and therapeutic development. Another notable application in biophotonics is medical imaging that can be used in disease diagnosis and treatment planning. 

Another great exposure was my involvement with a photonics fraternity called SPIE. SPIE sponsors student chapters. I was the president of our student chapter for a year. This also gave me the opportunity to attend my first international conference in SanDiego, US. This is the same conference at which I met my future PhD supervisor, for the first time. 

The last semester of the MSc Photonics course was a project, to be done in an external institution. I went back to RRCAT, where I did my summer internship before and worked on a technology called Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). I got an opportunity to attend a winter school in Italy where I presented my summer project work, I did at RRCAT. My future PhD supervisor was at the audience during that presentation. 

I did two projects with two groups within the biomedical department in RRCAT. First a summer project and the second my masters project. My summer project was in the field of optical micromanipulation or optical tweezers. The idea is to use laser beams as tweezers to move around objects. While it sounds like science fiction, light does insert a force when it hits objects. However this force is very small and we can’t feel this in our day-to-day life. But in the microscopic world this force is sufficient to manipulate objects. This force can be used in the field of biophotonics to probe microscopic objects such as cells and sub-cellular components to study bio-mechanical properties of cells and to sort cells. For my masters thesis I did a project on a bio-imaging technique called Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). OCT is a medical imaging technology  that generates three dimensional structural image of tissues. This technique was invented in early nineties that saw an effective translation to medical application and made a significant impact in medical diagnosis, especially in the field of ophthalmic imaging. 

I graduated with an MSc Photonics with first rank and was hunting for PhD opportunities in the field of biophotonics. I managed to get around 7 PhD offers from all around the world. I finally chose to go to University of St Andrews in Scotland to work with Prof. Kishan Dholakia. 

Just like how I chose to do MSc in photonics trusting my mentor Prof. Nampoori and trusting the content of the course, I chose to go to St Andrews relying on Prof. Dholakia’s track record in research and due to my interest in that topic.

I have engaged in a lot of science outreach activities during my university days. Especially as part of SPIE student chapter activities I have organized science fairs for school students, aimed at developing interest in STEM subjects for school students. I continued such activities during my PhD days as well. Science outreach activities were an enjoyable and rewarding experience for me, which helped me develop my leadership and communication skills. Trying to explain scientific principles in a layman’s language was a key skill that helped me in the latter part of my career when I have had to work in a multi-disciplinary environment including people from a non-scientific background.

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

One of the privileges I had during my PhD was the freedom my supervisor gave to explore and work with a variety of techniques. This is a recipe for success if one is self-motivated. I was always motivated to deliver my best. Publishing articles being the measure of success in academia, I completed my PhD in three years with more than 10 published papers in reputed international journals. 

During my PhD I worked in a variety of technologies. My first project was a combination of optical micromanipulation and microfluidics. Microfluidics is a field of technology where the idea is to shrink analytical techniques into a small chip. This approach is called “lab on a chip”, which means an analytical technique that requires big machines in a lab can be shrunk into a small chip. This idea also translates to the medical diagnostic fields with a concept called “point of care” where the idea is to use small amount of sample to diagnose diseases then and there. One real life example of this technology which is popular now is the hand-held blood glucose measurement device. My project was aimed at sorting microparticles and cells in a microfluidic chip using the optical force excreted by a laser.  Another technology I developed was microfluidic Raman spectroscopy. Raman spectroscopy (invented by Sir C. V. Raman) is a spectroscopy technology capable of identifying very distinct spectroscopic signature of various materials. The way it works is that a laser beam is shone on the sample being interrogated and the light coming back from the material is collected. A few photons within this collected light would have undergone a specific light matter interaction called Raman scattering. The challenge is to detect these photons spectroscopically which gives the unique signature of that material. Using this technique we can understand the composition of a sample. My work involved combining Raman spectroscopic techniques with microfluidics so that a very small volume of sample can be analysed using Raman spectroscopy. 

During my short period of PostDoc I was involved in a European Union project which was aimed at developing a surgical robot. My involvement was to develop optical detection techniques that can be integrated to this robot. Specifically I developed an optical fiber based Raman spectroscopy probe. The prospectus was to use this probe during surgical procedures to detect tumour margins for surgical planning. 

However, I was always a pragmatist, who would like to see the benefit of my work directly impacting the society. Academic research was a bit too far away from real applications in society. Hence when an opportunity came up to move to industrial R&D I chose to pursue that. 

I started my industrial career in the research division of a company. My interest in working on topics that are close to end users motivated me to move more towards product development where I get the best of both worlds – science and technology that excites me and be in a position to act on the direct feedback from the end-user. 

I am always keen to look at the big picture, the technical term for which is “systems thinking”. This was one of the key elements for the success I had so far in my career. I was never satisfied with a narrow view of the world. I always wanted to understand a system or product end-to-end. This helps me in effective problem solving and creating appropriate development strategies. This quality helped me to move towards leadership role within the organization. 

How did you get your first break?

I never had a single event that can be called first break. Key opportunities presented themselves at every phase of my career. I was ready to recognize them and embrace them.

While it is not quite a break or something that helped me much in my career, I was fortunate to get global media publicity during my days in St Andrews on the research work I did on developing a device to detect quality of Scotch Whisky. This was even featured in a BBC science show.

I used the microfluidic Raman spectroscopic device I developed for this application. The idea was to load a drop of whisky into the microfluidic chip and record the Raman spectroscopic signature of whisky. This can be used to quantify the amount of alcohol (ethanol) and other components within a type of whisky. Using machine learning techniques it was possible to  distinguish between different types of whisky based on its brand, age or location of origin. An extension of this work was to detect the amount of methanol in alcoholic drinks. Methanol exist in a very small proportion in alcoholic drinks.  However if this proportion is higher, this can lead to blindness which happens across the world due to uncontrolled manufacturing procedures (moonshine). The device was very sensitive to quantify methanol within an alcoholic beverage.

What were the challenges in your career path? How did you address them?

There is no single challenge I can think of that shaped my career. I treat them as a series of challenges. I prefer to see challenges as opportunities to prove myself and develop my skills. 

Where do you work now? 

I currently work as Engineering Manager – Systems in Optos which is part of Nikon corporation. We develop retinal imaging devices. The unique aspect of the devices we develop is that we can image almost 80% of the retina. This helps in early identification of retinal disease which develop in the periphery. The standard diagnostic practice only images 20% of the retina around the vision center. If retinal disease develops in the periphery, it would be too late by the time it becomes visible in the standard fundus imaging techniques. 

What problems do you solve?

Being the systems manager, I am responsible for architecting the products we develop at a high level. There are three key elements to this responsibility. First is to define what the system should be. This means defining what we are going to develop at a high level and this information is disseminated across R&D. Next is bringing the systems together (system integration). This means, once the cross functional teams develop various components, modules and sub-systems that make the system, we bring them together. Finally we need to confirm that the system works as it is supposed to work (system verification). Once the system is built, we ensure that it behaves as it was intended to behave, which was defined in the first stage. Being in regulated medical device industry, all these tasks needs to be appropriately documented to ensure compliance.  

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

As mentioned before one of the key skills required is systems thinking, the ability to see the bigger picture. 

Then a strong domain knowledge. The field in which I did my masters project is one of the key technologies we are developing. 

In a generic sense, scientific temper is a key skill. Scientific temper is not a skill one can develop just to make a career. It is rather a way of life. 

What is a typical day like?

My typical day involves working with my team and working with R&D to make sure the development activities are going in the correct direction.  Sometimes it involves performing experiments in the lab. Documenting our work appropriately is another activity that takes up part of my time. Then there would be a bit of people management.   

What is it you love about this job? 

Being where I am in my career, I get to work with a cross-functional team. That is quite exciting. Every day is a problem-solving session – a real life puzzle game. It is also motivating to see that the product that we develop makes a difference to the world. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

We develop retinal imaging devices that can detect diseases which would otherwise go unnoticed. Our devices help to save sight which is one of the most important enabling sense for a human being.  

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

I joined Optos in the research team to work on a new medical device product. Releasing that product was a proud moment for me. This was a challenging project and my career to some extent followed that product. I moved from research to product development along with this product and the challenges in this project was my opportunity to demonstrate my technical and leadership skills. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I never had a long-term goal for my career.  However, I always kept my eyes open so that when an opportunity presented itself, I was ready to jump on it. At every turning point in my academic life and career, there were difficult decisions to make where there were lots of unknowns. I always tried to make rational decisions based on the information I had, not worrying too much about the unknowns. I always recommend, only worry about what you can control. What is beyond your control is not your worry.   

Future Plans?

Applying system engineering practices for medical device development has been my focus for last couple of years. I am keen in developing my skills and experience in this area along with developing new products that makes a difference to people’s lives.