Medical and Engineering are generally regarded as two parallel career tracks that never meet. You choose one or the other, not both. But if you look closer, the healthcare sector is dependent on several instruments, devices and technologies that help in diagnosis and treatment.
Giriesh Santhanam, our next pathbreaker, works on research and developmental initiatives that get translated into Biomedical products based on microfluidics, optics and photonics technologies, with the mission of developing intelligent engineering solutions to support healthcare needs.
Giriesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his initial interest in Electronics and Physics and their applications in healthcare that led to Biomedical Instrumentation as career choice
For students, medical and engineering are not separate careers. Biomedical Engineering relies on concepts in Biology and Engineering to address complex problems in healthcare.
Giriesh, tell us about your background?
I am an engineer by graduation. I grew up in Chennai, completing my school education at Zion Matriculation and went on to graduate from St Joseph’s Engineering College. Science has always been my interest and it came as no surprise when I decided to do my Engineering.
As a young chap, I spent most of my childhood days playing Cricket and learning how to play the musical instrument, Mridangam. I also spent holidays watching science shows that kindled my interest in Physics and Electronics in general. It started from dismantling and building things that I could lay my eyes on.
I am inquisitive by nature and that paved the way for my career in Research, right from when I was in college. I liked collaborating with professors, indulging in small instrumentation projects that were both fun and informative.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I was confident that I wanted to be an Engineer and that Electronics would always be a part of my career choice. So, I decided to pursue Electronics & Instrumentation Engineering for my under-graduation. As I was about to complete my UG, I was more involved in one of the subjects – Instrumentation in the field of biomedical sciences. An instrumentation engineer’s outlook of medical devices was always fascinating and the solutions to challenges faced in the medical field looked closer from this point of view.
This intrigued me into continuing my education to a Master’s degree in Biomedical Instrumentation, from the University of Sussex in the UK.
What made you choose this career?
Like I mentioned earlier, I was always into the research and development of novel devices. While the first step into considering a career in R&D was my graduation, my professor at Sussex was a key reason for motivating me. Dr. Lionel Ripley, who was the head of the Engineering department at the University of Sussex, was a great influence and my mentor. His knowledge and experience in engineering cost-effective devices inspired me into choosing R&D as my career path. A major turning point was one of the projects which involved developing a simple screening device that can map the human visual field, which in turn can be used to pre-diagnose glaucoma.
While designing various parts of this device, I understood the simplicity in implementing and in coming up with solutions for problems in the healthcare field.
India needs young minds that can solve the many problems faced by the healthcare industry.
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
We all have ambitions while growing up. To achieve what we aim for, it is really important to plan. Things might change as we plan, but we can ensure not to deviate from our original ambition. For instance, I always aimed to be an engineer in the bigger picture and made sure that i took small steps in achieving that. This included talking to my school teachers about the various branches in engineering, and trying to understand what my career would be like if I ventured into each one. That helped me have a vision of what I wanted to become. Having selected the branch of engineering I was interested in, I tried to excel in it to the best of my abilities.
In that process, it was easier to find my true interest which was developing new devices for the healthcare industry. I was involved in projects and visited hospitals to pursue internships. This wasn’t limited to the understanding of different medical devices and their functions. Inspired by the different functionalities of the medical industry, I chose to study further and specialize in Biomedical Instrumentation. Choosing to study abroad was one of the best decisions I made. This was because it helped me experience different cultures, meet engineers from different backgrounds and countries. It gave me a fresh perspective on career choices. Communication is the key to becoming successful in any career. Never missing an opportunity to interact with fellow students, professors, and other professionals through mediums like LinkedIn.
My first job was in the field of Photonics which means detection of light and light particles.
In applications like cell detection, nuclear fusion, aerospace, missile warning systems, and many others, photonics and optics play an important part. Looking at the bigger picture, light detectors like Photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) which are vacuum tubes, convert incident photons from any particle to proportional photoelectrons. This detection is then amplified internally, through secondary electron emission. This concept plays a pivotal role in detecting particles and objects that emit very weak light i.e ranging from single to a few hundred photons. The amplified electrons are then accumulated as charge (q) that are then converted to an electric current with the equation,
i = q / t
i is the current (in amperes)
q is the Charge (in coulombs)
t is the Time (in seconds)
Applications that utilize photonics become complete systems with regards to what needs to be detected.
Photonics is something that we come across in our everyday life, ranging from solar cells that produce electricity, the biometric sensor at the workplace or a CCTV camera we see regularly to advance systems like missile defense systems, Flow cytometry, Nuclear fusion, etc;
How did you get your first break?
My first job was as an Electronics Test Engineer at Photek Ltd in the UK.
This job will always be memorable in my career since this was where I was introduced to Photonics. Testing optical detectors that fit in major systems in various fields in various countries was the core of my job. This gave me a complete sense of testing and quality assurance which are considered key elements in R&D and till today help me in analyzing and solving problems.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
As far as working in R&D is concerned, every day is a rising challenge. Technical challenges, logistical challenges, financial challenges are a few. When I started as a Test Engineer right after completing my masters, my knowledge in Electronics was sound while the field Photonics was completely new. Being in a job, understanding what it takes to complete the task that lies in front is the most challenging task one faces. I took upon this challenge by putting in extra hours to learn more about Photonics, optical detection methods, design, and function. This was simply possible by maintaining a cordial relationship with coworkers, interacting with them and seeking answers to questions I had. Knowledge is the best entity and nothing makes us feel worthy than being able to share knowledge. This can help in facing any challenge.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work
I am currently with Jiva Sciences, a bioengineering company based in Bengaluru. I am responsible for handling the photonics division of our projects. Jiva Sciences is a start-up with the mission of developing intelligent engineering solutions. My day begins with planning and discussing project milestones and analyzing where we stand. I continue conducting experiments with prototypes, evaluating and documenting results. I then carry on to discuss the results with my team which is a multi-disciplinary team with members from different backgrounds. This interaction makes working in R&D all the more interesting and intriguing.
Niche fields in India such as microfluidics, photonics, etc, are emerging technologies. When these technologies are taken to a product line which is one step ahead of research, it benefits the society..
Our aim at Jiva Sciences is to develop products that help in cell identification, detection of target cells and sorting them based on their intrinsic properties using high-powered lasers.
This is a multi-disciplinary project that involves expertise in various fields such as microfluidics, biology, optics and photonics, VLSI, electronics and mechanics.
The major role of Photonics and Optics in this project:
Microscopic cells need to be separated based on their properties using fluorescence emission.
To acquire fluorescence, we need a source of excitation which in this case is a laser. The laser provides the optical energy to excite these cells to obtain fluorescence. This fluorescence is then captured by high-speed optical detection methods as the cells flow at high velocity in a microfluidic chamber. These cells are then interrogated using high-speed electronics and then sorted using high power laser based on the signal acquired using the FPGA system.
This concept can be used in a variety of applications that require cell sorting and identification including minimally invasive diagnostic systems.
In my previous experience in the UK, our company was responsible for providing detection solutions for the field of Nuclear fusion, Silicon wafer inspection systems, and Aerospace, etc;
We have also worked closely with ISRO in providing Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope(UVIT) which is present in ASTROSAT (India’s first space observatory) which involves Multiwavelength monitoring of intensity variations in a broad range of cosmic sources.
Education gives us the power to think and this power can be used in our jobs to acquire skills. Some skills we achieve by education while others we achieve by observation and learning on the job. In R&D, the most important skills are analytical and decision making, among others. We are looking for answers every day and this requires a lot of analysis, then choosing the right way to proceed.
I strongly believe in the fact that there is a lot out there to be searched and researched. Every day is a new day that gives us a chance to explore new things. As a Research Engineer, I get to experiment on things I feel are imperative in my project and when each experiment succeeds, I get boundless joy and more questions that need to be answered.
How does your work benefit society?
As it is with any work, engineers in R&D contribute to society concerning the nature of the problem they solve. The work that I am currently involved in, deals with solving problems with demand and supply of a particular essential commodity- addressing this issue from its very core. The project I am working on currently helps our Indian farmers to maximize dairy productivity with the use of state of the art technology. This is in collaboration with a governmental organization where our research and developmental initiative gets translated into a complete product.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
The project which was the thesis of my Master’s remains close to me through all these years. It was this project that made me realize the importance of developing new devices and solutions to various engineering problems. We had named the device ‘A simple perimeter’ and as the name stands, it was based on the concept called ‘Perimetry’ in the field of ophthalmology. I am grateful to have worked under Dr. Ripley who gave me the insights to analyze and tackle challenges. This device was developed to be portable, to run on minimum power and to be produced with limited manpower. This will serve as a screening device for Glaucoma which is India’s growing problem amidst diabetes and cancer.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Never stop learning. Learning doesn’t stop with graduation. It is a process that travels with us throughout our lifetime. Learning raises questions, questions lead to research and research takes us to develop solutions. This is the best contribution one can do to society.
I have a few ideas in mind that I would like to take shape in the form of research projects. I also have a great interest in forming my own company and encourage Photonics and Biomedical Engineering as specific fields to work.