Cross-functional research is fascinating, due to its myriad applications in pharmaceuticals, automotives, consumer products and several other industries through innovations in Nanomaterials, Biomaterials, Polymers and Green Chemistry.

Sri Ranga, our next pathbreaker, Research fellow at Monash University, works in an academic setting, developing novel materials for industrial clients.

Sri Ranga talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being exposed to chemical synthesis through a research project at CSIR-IICT which paved the way to an industry funded PhD through a collaboration between Monash University and CSIRO, Australia.

For students, when you look at the bigger picture, you realise the significance of bio-materials and nano-materials in our everyday life and our health. Take up a career in materials research !

Sri Ranga, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Andhra Pradesh, India. Like many students in Intermediate (+2), my initial interest was in MBBS (Doctor). However, I could not make it in the entrance exam. I studied in Pondicherry University for my bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After my first attempt, I tried preparing for the medical entrance exam again (long term coaching). After 3 months of coaching, I lost interest in preparing for one more year and hence joined Pondicherry University for my undergraduate education in Pharmaceutical Sciences. Both my parents were employees in Andhra Pradesh. 

I selected Pondicherry University for many reasons. I heard tons of fascinating stories about the University and the place from my elder brother who is another Pondicherry university Engineering graduate. It is a government central university with high standards of education and several highly achieving alumni, but with only limited seats for students from other states (other than Pondicherry).

I did Bachelors in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Masters in Medicinal Chemistry and PhD in Materials Engineering, working for brief periods in India and overseas.

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

I chose this career path partly by plan and partly by circumstances. One of the key influencers in my career was my brother, who advised me often to pursue my interest in research rather than pursuing a salaried job. I was lucky to be mentored by many people until now, including my seniors during master’s and PhD. My biggest turning points in my career are cracking GPAT and working for a research project at CSIR-IICT during my masters at NIPER- Hyderabad.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job in India after my Masters in Dr. Reddy’s Labs as a junior research scientist through an online job advertisement. I always had the idea of pursuing a PhD after Masters, but only after gaining some work experience. However, after 5 months into my job, I got an offer from Monash University and my manager suggested that i discontinue and complete my PhD as it is a better option for my future. 

Tell us about your career path

During my bachelor’s education, I had to do a compulsory internship which i did at Aurobindo Pharma Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad, India. I spoke to scientists working there and asked for some career advice. One common suggestion I got was to complete a master’s degree and then move into the work force since a bachelor’s degree in the Pharmaceutical industry is less valued compared to a Masters/ PhD degree. I was always interested in making new things/ medicines during my undergraduate degree and hence worked in Medicinal Chemistry (branch of pharmaceutical sciences dealing with making new medicines) in my final year of my bachelor’s degree. After completing my bachelor’s degree in 2011 from Pondicherry University, I decided to go for a master’s degree. I preferred doing it in my own state as I had already spent 5 years away from home. Due to differences in times of admissions in Andhra Pradesh, I utilised the additional time to prepare for my master’s entrance exam. I cleared all India entrance exams for Pharmaceutical admissions (GPAT and NIPER) in 2014. 

During my masters at NIPER- Hyderabad, i spent one year of my program on a full-time research project. All students were encouraged to pursue a research project either in the Industry or at an academic organisation such as IICT or at NIPER itself. I completed my project from Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT).

I was lucky to select my project at IICT, wherein I was working with prominent scientists in cutting edge research fields paving the way for my plans for a PhD in future. Being a Medicinal Chemistry student, I worked on a research project focused on designing hybrid anti-cancer compounds with anti-diabetic activity using high throughput design techniques, then synthesising them in a chemical laboratory and testing them for their pharmacological activity. I owe all my Pharmaceutical Chemistry based theoretical knowledge to my professors at NIPER- Hyderabad, who helped us learn in a systematic manner. However, practical knowledge in chemical synthesis is entirely different from the theoretical knowledge, which i owe to my seniors and research professor at IICT who taught me all the practical aspects of Chemistry and made me think independently as a Chemist. They helped me come up with novel protocols for using a variety of chemical synthesis methodologies and learn some advanced technologies which helped me not only in my masters, but also in the later parts of my career. 

My professor and senior PhD students working at IICT suggested that i move overseas to pursue PhD so that I can gain a different perspective on research and gain work experience. I applied for different research groups in the field of Medicinal Chemistry. I narrowed down on the countries where I wanted to do research based on the supervisor’s research work and group, as well as those that had an Industry funded PhD. Luckily, I found a similar position being advertised in Australia and I applied for it. I got selected for an industrial funded PhD with CSIRO (Industry) and Monash University (academic university) in 2015. I graduated in 2019 from Monash University and have been working as a research fellow for an industrial project at Monash University since then. 

I selected an industrial funded PhD as I wanted to experience both academic and industry aspects of a research project. My PhD was funded by CSIRO (Australian government research agency known for many key inventions; one such is Wi-Fi). I was selected for this specific project due to my background knowledge of Pharmaceuticals, and Synthetic Chemistry. I was lucky to be mentored by both Monash University and CSIRO experts and owe all my knowledge of biopolymers/ biomaterials to my expert supervisors during PhD. In my PhD, I worked on a CSIRO proprietary polymer engineering technology to create some small molecule (drug/ dye) conjugated monomers for use in synthesising a library of biopolymers/ nano-materials with pharmaceutical applications. There were large number of challenges in the synthesis, characterisation of these biomaterials and testing their biological activity in cell lines and eventually in animal models. However, I overcame these with the help of excellent supervision from my academic and industrial supervisors who helped me think independently and nudged me in right directions to come up with some excellent solutions.   

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

Challenge 1: I found applying and getting a position in academic research (for a PhD) quite difficult, especially applying from India. The research work I did at IICT and my cover letter and work experience helped me get a position eventually.

Challenge 2: PhD is a very daunting and ongoing experience with a mix of emotions and a lot of discouraging experiences. But I understood it needs to be taken as a learning experience and learnt that a PhD can be done with persistence.   

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I currently work as a Research Fellow at Monash University. It is a similar job to a research scientist in Industry, however in an academic setting. I work on developing some novel materials for an industrial client using Monash facilities and my previous expertise. I also teach undergraduate students completing their final year research projects. Skills needed for this job are trouble shooting, researching, data analysis and making conclusions. A typical day would involve laboratory experiments, collecting and analyzing data, meeting students, and helping them in their research problems, presenting work to industrial clients and internal supervisors. I love all those “aha” moments in my work whenever I learnt something new and came to some excellent conclusions based on experimental data. I am really intrigued when these previous conclusions of mine are proven to be right or wrong with further experimental results and conclusions.  

I am currently working as a part of a team of researchers, preparing some polymer coatings for an external industrial client. These coatings have a range of applications in our daily life such as on car exteriors, wind turbines etc. One important aspect of this research project is to modify only some physical properties of the coatings selectively without disturbing the overall integrity of the coatings. We as a team are trying to achieve this by chemically modifying the coatings using the principles of chemistry, polymers and biomaterials. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

I am a Pharmaceutical Chemist by profession and hence trying to make something small so that it is a part of a bigger thing in a bigger picture, which can help bring a change in patient’s life. 

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

During the final days of my PhD and after working for 2.8 years, I failed in some major experiments. I was very discouraged at this point with no direction in that particular part of PhD project. While travelling from my University back home, I met one of my previous University seniors on public transport. With his help, I came to know that I could modify my work instead of it being a total loss. I completed my work in the next 3 months and submitted it on time. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Have a plan, but always have a plan B. Persistence, networking and excellent professional and personal contacts are invaluable in my opinion. Accept things which come in your path even if you do not know how to use them (there is nothing to be scared of) as you will eventually be learning (this is the advice given by my PhD supervisor as well).

Future Plans?

At present, I am interested in moving into a full-time industrial research position from academic research and eventually into a research management role for future. I would also like to do some volunteering and involve in not for profit activities.