Nature astounds us not just by its sheer vastness but also by the complex biological secrets hidden within its diverse environments. Examining DNA and RNA directly from the environment could help in uncovering those secrets.

Dr Soumya Biswas, our next pathbreaker, Lead Scientist at Gaiagen Technologies, researches and develops eco-friendly products to fulfill unmet needs for applications in Biocontrol, Biofertilizers, and Bioremediation.

Dr Soumya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his expedition to Antarctica, walking on the ice shelf and the excitement of growing and isolating microorganisms from permafrost soil, lake sediments, and studying the biology of extreme environments.

For students, Metagenomics is a powerful molecular tool to study the genomic diversity of nature.

Dr. Soumya, tell us about your background?

I have spent most of my life exploring and understanding biology, the science of life. However, I come from a family, and even generations, of artists. I have spent all my childhood and most of my life amidst paintings, sculptures, music and more. No one in my family was a scholar of science. Yet I have been a votary of science all my life.

I was born in Ranchi, Bihar (now Jharkhand), in 1983 but grew up in Santiniketan, West Bengal. I did my schooling from an exceptional school named Patha-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In 1901, Tagore started a ‘Brahmacharyaashrama,’ and it came to be known as Patha Bhavana from 1925. At Patha-Bhavana, most classes were held open air on the ground or grass under the trees, exposed to nature all the time.

I believe my constant and deep connection with nature and life forms from grass to grasshopper since early childhood made me curious about living organisms.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After my unique schooling experience, I did my further studies from the Visva-Bharati University, India, including Bachelor of Science in Life Sciences with Chemistry and Physics; and Masters of Science in Botany specializing in Mycology and Plant Pathology. After that, I worked on several research projects in India, Denmark, and Antarctica (South Polar region) on fascinating microorganisms of various kinds. Then I did my Doctoral research and studies in Metagenomics and Molecular Biology of Microorganisms living in a soda lake formed in a Meteorite impact crater at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany with a scholarship from the European Commission. It is an internationally renowned research university founded in 1737. 45 Nobel Prize winners have been affiliated with the University of Göttingen as alumni, faculty members, or researchers till 2019. I was fortunate enough to receive the training I needed from one of the best universities in the world.

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

It is not that I consciously choose any career. I simply found my passion and followed it to wherever and whenever it took me. My professional achievements are only a spinoff of that journey. My passion and mission are to solve problems by exploring the science of life, in all its complexity and diversity. Stay curious towards developing new understanding, as well as look at older ideas from a new perspective. 

I have spent most of my life exploring and understanding biology, the science of life. I examine DNA and RNA directly from the environment (as well as patients), which is metagenomics. I explore the interactions between DNA, RNA, proteins, and their biosynthesis, as well as the regulation of these interactions, that is molecular biology. I study biochemistry, physiology, cell biology, ecology, evolution, and industrial as well as clinical aspects of microscopic organisms like archaea, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which is microbiology. I love working at the bench. I enjoy wrangling with data. I like writing, discussing, and debating new ideas.

However, one thing that may have contributed to the direction of my journey is the support of my family in whatever I decided to pursue. I also believe my grandfather had a huge influence on my character.

Apart from that, some of my teachers from school days to professors in the universities as well as mentors during my journey so far shaped the way I think and my curiosity towards science. The encouragement and guidance that I received from Mr. Sudeep Das, Patha-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, and Mr. Sunil Mandal, Uttar Siksha Sadana, Visva-Bharati University during schooling and Prof. Dr. Narayan Chandra Mandal, HOD, Department of Botany, Visva-Bharati University, India; Prof. Dr. Kai Finster, Department of Bioscience, Microbiology, Aarhus University, Denmark; Prof. Dr. Rolf Daniel, HOD, Dept. of Genomic and Applied Microbiology & Göttingen Genomics Laboratory, Georg August University Göttingen, Germany during my Bachelor, Master and Doctoral studies and research was pivotal in keeping my curiosity alive.

Tell us about your career path.

As I said earlier that it is not that I consciously choose any career. I was able to identify a direction, an area of interest, at an early age, about which I was extremely curious and deeply passionate about; it still continues to excite and amaze me every day.  I just followed where my inquisitiveness took me.

After 10th grade, I chose science with Life Sciences as one of the major subjects during my pre-degree studies (12th grade). After that, I started a very focused study on living organisms.

By enrolling in the undergraduate courses (B.Sc) at Visva-Bharati University, I learned different concepts, techniques, and methodologies for studying different organisms from a different perspective ranging from their role in the ecosystem to their exploitation in industrial processes. In the early years of my studies, I came in contact with different research groups like Microbiology Group (Prof. S.C. Pal, Prof. Sukanta Sen, and Prof. Narayan C. Mandal) Algae & Cyanobacteria Group (Prof. S. Ray) and Environmental Science Group (Prof. K.N. Bhattacharya) where I got introduced to the basics of Life Science. Soon I discovered my interest in studying fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms.  I also found myself interested in how to use those concepts and techniques starting from searching for enzymes that can be exploited in industrial processes to investigating the cause for loss of crops due to plant pathogens and its control. 

While attending undergraduate courses, I understood the need for acquiring technical skills to design and perform experiments, and for that reason, I started to join in different workshops and summer training as much as possible. 

Enrolling in the Masters of Science (M.Sc) was a natural choice in order to keep working with microorganisms. During my last year in the M.Sc course I got involved in the planning of an Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica and participated in the 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition. I started some fundamental studies with soil microorganisms of Antarctica. For example, isolation and study of some good cold-active amylase producers, protease producers, and some nitrogen fixers as well as phosphate solubilizer. This experience gave me a taste for research within the field of extremophilic biology.

I was looking forward to continuing my study of life in the extreme and was contacting different research groups working in related subjects. Soon I found the Mars Simulation Laboratory of University of Aarhus, Denmark. Fortunately enough, I got an invitation from Dr.  Kai W. Finster, Department of Biological Sciences – Microbiology Section, Aarhus University for a project on Extreemophilic microbiology.

Once you leave the protective magnetic field and ozone layer of Earth, you are exposing yourself to various cosmic radiation. This is also true for Mars. We were trying to see if microbes of Arctic and Antarctica can survive on Mars. I worked on two aspects. One, I worked on developing a protocol to create a single layer of a bacterial cell on an inert surface that could be exposed to simulated Martian environment and investigated further for their survival. Two, I standardized a protocol to measure UV induced DNA damage in microbes that could be used to compare relative DNA damage in different microbes from Arctic and Antarctica.

After that, I worked for a while in India for the University Grant Commission (UGC), Govt. of India, Major Project, entitled “Exploitation of free-living phosphate solubilizing rhizobia for improvement of soil fertility and promotion of plant growth” before pursuing my doctoral degree in Germany.

I earned my Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Biology, from Georg-August University of Goettingen, Germany, after working on “Prokaryotic Biodiversity of Lonar Meteorite Crater Soda Lake Sediment and Community Dynamics During Microenvironmental pH Homeostasis by Metagenomics.”

After my doctoral study, I worked at different organizations, including the Personalized Medicine Institute, Kolkata, India, as well as a freelancer.

During my time with the Personalized Medicine Institute, I focused on two aspects. Please allow me to explain.

First issue-

A large proportion of infectious diseases remain undiagnosed. Failure to precisely diagnose and treat diseases results in continued transmission and increased mortality in hospitalized patients. Despite extensive testing and evaluation, the cause, etiology, of Encephalitis stays unexplained in more than 60% cases. In the case of Pneumonia, the exact causes in 62 % of cases are never found. Up to 60 % cases of Sepsis do not have a microbiologically documented infection. These are not just numbers on a paper. They are real people with family and friends, with hopes and dreams. The question was what are we going to do about it? The answer is Precision Diagnosis. I developed a method using metagenomics to do just that. Metagenomic shotgun sequencing of nucleic acids can identify nearly all microbes. Any infection caused by Bacteria, Fungi, Viruses, and parasites can be diagnosed conclusively using metagenomics.

Second issue-

You have 60 new mutations that your parents did not have. Your 0.1% DNA is unique; it does not match with anyone. If we are all different, have you ever wondered how come same drugs work on all of us? Well, they don’t. Several variables like genetic predisposition, epigenetic factors, early versus late stage of the disease, heterogeneity of cohorts and ethnicity, and slow versus fast metabolizers decides whether a patient will be a ‘good’ or ‘poor’ responder. In 2001, Spear and colleagues reported an efficacy rate as low as 25% for some instances, which is worse than flipping a coin (50%) and hoping you would win. They found that the effectiveness of treatment using drugs (pharmacotherapy) varies significantly, because of the natural patient variability. This is exactly where we were working; getting the relevant part of the patient’s genome sequenced to provide enough information to a physician so that he or she can make sure that the drug being prescribed will be safe and effective. 

I have received 4 scholarships, fellowships, and grants from the Georg-August University of Goettingen, Germany; University of Aarhus, Denmark; and European Commission. I have achieved in-depth domain knowledge from more than 10 workshops, seminars, and training on Genomics, Recombinant DNA Technology, Microbial Resources, PCR Applications, and Molecular Biology Techniques in India, Germany, and France.

I have also worked with opinion leaders and investors on 2 projects for founding a innovation-focused enterprise; launching a company. As I was not drawing any salary during that time, I took up paid Scientific Writing. Regarding the Cheeky Scientist Association, it is an association that helps, trains, connects PhDs to move from academia to industry, and even after moving to industry. I joined the association for networking with like-minded, highly-skilled, and highly motivated people. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was getting selected as a Project Fellow in a University Grant Commission (UGC), Govt. of India, Major Project in 2009. It was through a traditional interview, not any networking events or anything like that.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

During my entire academic and professional career, I did not face many severe challenges. However, there is one issue I still find challenging to manage. It is having to make decisions with incomplete information. I am still learning how to do it and how to deal with the uneasiness of having to decide without all the necessary information.

Can you tell us about your current work?

Now I work at Gaiagen Technologies Pvt. Ltd. (Formerly Pest Control (India) Pvt. Ltd.), Bangalore, India as a Lead Scientist, Product Development and Lifecycle Management.

My current responsibilities include driving improvement cycles for existing products and developing new products; reviewing, integrating, and enhancing processes to match business needs, initiatives, and objectives; covering the critical engineering and cross-functional activities; development of training program, user acceptance test, and communication plan for the introduction of new functionalities; acting as the global interface for synergies, best practices sharing and benchmarking (processes, configuration and requirements management, tool integration, and collaboration). Other than those, critical areas of contribution include developing future strategies for customer’s product lines, designing product lines, identifying, supporting and driving product cost management in conjunction with the finance department, introducing changes and improvements necessary to existing product lines that do not meet the requirements of quality with aesthetics, form, fit or functional expectations.

Skills that I find fundamental to have in this role are thorough knowledge in biology, and basic knowledge in chemistry and statistics. Also, to understand other people and their perspective is a must. You should also be able to manage your time very well, prioritize tasks as per need, resolve conflicts, and delegate tasks appropriately.

What I love most about my work is it gives me an opportunity to provide expertise and leadership for eco-friendly product/service development (and research), from ideation to finished product for fulfilling the unmet need for the application of Biocontrol, Biofertilizers, and Bioremediation.

How does your work benefit society?

Conventional synthetic chemical pest control regimens may seem a fast-acting and profitable solution at first. However, with time, pests become resistant to the control measure requiring a repeated application of higher concentration and demand for developing deadlier compounds. Moreover, the active ingredients are most often not readily degraded in nature. Pesticides have been recovered from environmental samples, in physiologically significant concentrations, even after 20 years of its last application. Chemical pesticides show toxicity to other nontarget organisms, including us. They contaminate our environment, including our food, water, and air. In contrast, biological control agents leave behind no long-lasting residues that remain in the environment. They do not leach into groundwater or create resistant strains of insects. Biological control minimizes environmental, legal, and public safety concerns.

The manufacture and application of conventional fertilizers have devastating environmental consequences, including emission of greenhouse gases, acidification, eutrophication, and the depletion of scarce resources. Biofertilizers can reduce the use of conventional fertilizers.

The industrialization has brought the benefits of a comfortable contemporary lifestyle. Things like fertilizers and insecticides; healthcare and pharmaceuticals; fast transportation by land, water, and air; effortless household appliances; lubricants, paints, detergents, synthetic fibers, polythene packaging; televisions, mobile phones, and computers are some of the examples of yields of industrialization. However, as a price, hundreds of millions of tons of hazardous waste, by-products, and unused substances that pollute our air, soil, and water every day. These contaminants expose local communities to high risks (in terms of health and commerce), and over time, its impact can be felt globally. Bioremediation is the diligent use of biodegradative processes to remove or detoxify pollutants that have entered the environment and pose a threat to public health, which relies upon enzymatic activities of living organisms to transform or degrade the offending contaminants from a site. 

I am advocating for ecologically acceptable technologies through my work. Work I do directly affects or affected or will affect the wellbeing of society, and that is a satisfying feeling I can’t describe. I am working for the application of science for Biocontrol, Biofertilizers, and Bioremediation.

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

Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss or disclose any of the work I have done during my current role. However, I can tell you one of the past experiences that is really close to my heart. It was during the expedition to Antarctica. I can still remember vividly the feeling of putting my feet for the first time on the ice shelf after our ship anchored. I also remembered the excitement of growing and isolating microorganisms from permafrost soil, lake sediments, and studying their biology.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I don’t really have any advice as such. However, I would share something with all our students in the audience- never hesitate to ask questions; always be persistent; and focus on the most important thing one can learn that is how to learn new things efficiently.

Future Plans?

I do not have any future plans. I will simply follow my passion for biology, the science of life, and wherever it takes me is exactly where I need to be and where I want to be. 

If you want to know more about me or my work please visit