Medical innovation can impact human health at a global level and at scale only if it is cleverly designed to meet the needs of a larger spectrum of the target population

Supriya Balaji Ramachandran, our next pathbreaker, Biomedical R&D engineer at Analog Devices, helps solve medical problems using fundamental science, physiology, engineering and clinical skills through wearable devices that monitor vital signs.

Supriya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about making the decision to be involved in medical research and development after taking up a “Teach for India” fellowship and realising the fundamental need for socially impactful healthcare.

For students, developing healthcare products for the Indian market presents a unique challenge from an economic perspective. However, with frugality and discipline it is possible to still have your profit and pay those who clearly make the impact. 

Supriya, please tell us about your background?

I grew up in several parts of Chennai, India. Science and Math came easily to me and my keen interest was in the languages and music. My family was of very modest means and there was a general tendency to lean towards language, arts or music. These were not eclectic interests but rather natural inclinations. My late grand aunt Ms T Padmasini Asuri was an admirable lady who did a lot of grassroots level work to help AIDS afflicted rural farmer women in then recently independent India. She herself was a woman of limited economic stature but had a raging fire burning in her heart to help other women and was an early childhood influence on me. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I got a PhD in Bioengineering from University of Missouri-Columbia. My undergraduate degree (BTech) was in Electrical and Electronics engineering. 

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

I was selected and funded to be part of the sought after Jagriti Yatra during which I traveled all over India with 400 youth to study social enterprises such as Aravind Eye Care. I learnt a lot about what it takes to start a socially impactful and sustainably profitable business that will benefit the immediate environment it is built in. In this Yatra, I met Shaheen Mistri who is the founder of Teach For India, an educational initiative that impacts and transforms India’s primary school education specifically in under resourced parts of the country. Her talk inspired me to apply to the fellowship because a lot of my angst about the state of India’s education system was reflected in her thoughts. I already had a job lined up to build software for TCS, after a year at the company I took a sabbatical to be a TFI fellow. The fellowship is not limited to teaching in the classroom, I usually visited my students’ homes in urban-slum areas of Pune to understand how I could aid them better in school. It became very clear to me that without proper health/nutritional access to educational/teaching innovation did not matter to children who were coming to school only to eat one time a day when the free midday meal was provided, or to children who were walking in sick to school because their only access to medication is at the meager school first aid station. At that point, I made a decision to be involved in medical innovation- specifically point of care diagnostics, which was the most interesting to me. I began to feel an urge to learn technology really well from an expert in the field. This is in practical contrast to Brain altering electrode interfaces and genetic manipulation techniques that I used to read about and dream of working in while I was an undergrad. I applied to and got into an NIH grant funded PhD program in Bioengineering. My PhD took me deep into fundamental biophysics and broadly across high throughput diagnostic sensors. 

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.

My first job out of grad school was in a grant funded small-business that was spun out of the academic lab where I received my PhD. The business takes science and tech out of bench research and into the commercial world. The firm’s goal is to develop robust and easy to use products that can assay secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters from individual cells that fold faster and cheaper than current approaches. The devices will greatly accelerate the pace of medical research to understand how pharmaceuticals alter neuronal secretion

It was fascinating to watch all parts of the product coming together and impacting the advancement of medical innovation. 

I later moved to a semiconductor stalwart company that is beginning to make big strides in Healthcare. 

How did you get your first break?

My first job out of grad school happened organically because there was a natural opportunity for expanding upon my research to enable technology transfer to the commercial space. 

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

Typical challenges for women in engineering and technology are: having their ideas overlooked, their strengths dismissed and being perceived as weak. Other challenges for women of color include lack of role models and mentorship. The political landscape of the United States exacerbated many unjust disadvantages faced by women in general. I have a deep desire to be the change and have routinely engaged in STEM advocacy for women. I have started mentoring young girls in my home country and intend to expand my support to girls and even women over the world who are usually yearning not just for economic empowerment but an escape from oppressive conditions. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work in a semiconductor company as a Biomedical R&D engineer in the healthcare business. I help solve medical problems using fundamental science, physiology, engineering and clinical skills. A typical day involves alternating between solving various problems, interaction with businesses selling solutions and internal interactions with several stakeholders. The job gives me the opportunity to create impact in both my immediate and extended ecosystems and still allows room to “zone out” on an intricate bio-physical mechanism or concept of physiology that I find fascinating.  

Vital sign measurement solutions (chip-level solutions) are integrated in novel sensor interfaces to offer higher-order diagnostic solutions to chronic and acute diseases, as well as for wellness management through wearable devices.

How does your work benefit society? 

Medical innovation impacts human health on a global level. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw effectively said that the business is not meant to be about a billion dollars but about a billion patients. Practically speaking, it is still possible with frugal innovation, to trade an expensive 100K valued technology for a cleverly designed 1K valued device that impacts and pays in scale. With complacence and abundance, technology gets unnecessarily expensive. However, with frugality and discipline it is possible to save the world and still have your profit pay those who clearly make the impact. 

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

My current work across the spectrum of vital signs monitoring, ranging from physiological system level sensors to nano level in-vitro sensors is highly engaging and the largest fulfilment comes from ensuring that novel ideas come to fruition through products that impact healthcare at a large scale.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Learn from first principles, balance economic needs with your natural flairs for certain fields. Not everybody is well situated in a supportive economy, but anybody can get out of that if the drive persists. 

To girl students: economic empowerment is very important for a woman to live safely and freely, use your intellect to gain that empowerment and use your earnings to hone your intellect. 

Future Plans?

Irrespective of my own plans, when the time is right, I want to enable and empower others who are trapped in unwarranted and unfair circumstances.