Analyzing chemical/biological reactions, understanding ingredients and developing formulations in order to translate abstract ideas into safe and efficacious products, is nothing short of intriguing !

Gayathri Subramanyam (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Lead Scientist at ITC Life Sciences & Technology Centre, researches & develops personal care products (facewash, bodywash, skin creams, lotions, shampoos etc), balancing market needs with safety and regulatory requirements.

Gayathri talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always being a science buff, and having the dual satisfaction of putting her scientific knowledge to good use as well as enjoying her daily play with chemicals!!

For students, there is chemistry behind every skin care and hair care product you use, and the benefits of those products come through chemical interactions. Be a chemist if you want to pursue exploratory research !

Gayathri, tell us about Your initial years?

Hi students! My name is Gayathri. I was born and brought up in the cultural & traditional city of Chennai. As a child, I was exposed to Carnatic music & English literature at home & also loved Science.  My dad had a passion for chemistry and was the first entrepreneur in our family. He created his own small manufacturing unit in Chennai where he created formulations for textile processing such as textile softeners. It was a one-man show and I was often his assistant observing him develop formulations. I got some early lessons on the wonders of Chemistry. At school, I equally liked Biology and often dreamt big of using molecules and chemical bonds to create new scientific discoveries. My mom used to work in the admin section of a reputed Corporate and my younger brother was the intellectual at home who could handle any topic – anything from music to sports with equal ease. He chose to play his flute while I pursued Science thus establishing an equilibrium at home.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I chose to study Chemistry (with Math & Physics as ancillary subjects) for my Graduation [BSc, Chemistry] followed by my Post-Graduation in Chemistry from IIT, Madras [MSc, Chemistry]. I later went on to do my research & doctoral degree through a Scholarship program at National University of Singapore [PhD, NUS].

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

Given my passion for Science, a world of opportunities opened up when I went to study at IIT Madras. We had our Professors teach us from current research articles, getting us to know the trends, research arenas & research groups around the world. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a Scientist who can not only understand the workings of nature but also create new things – new molecules, new products and so on.

I had always wanted to learn both Chemical & Biological Sciences. Moreover, undergrad courses in ‘Biochemistry’ were getting introduced in city colleges those days. One of the turning points in my life was an advice from a Professor that I choose General Chemistry for my undergraduation (rather than directly choosing a specialization such as Biochemistry). This opened up options for me when I had to choose my field for Doctoral research as the base was wide & not restrictive and I could branch-out as I learnt more about my own interests along the way. My PhD work was across both the fields of Chemistry & Biological Sciences and I could handle it with ease because of the broad General Chemistry background as advised by the Prof earlier.

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

Just after my Master’s degree, I started working in the industry for a few months to understand how it feels being a part of a Corporate & working on consumer goods. I was in the ‘Analytical Division’ of Cavinkare R&D Centre at Chennai for a few months learning to perform measurements on raw-material analysis & design specifications. In the meantime, my GRE results had come out and I also had a scholarship offer from the National University of Singapore for my PhD. The scholarship covered tuition & living expenses. Also, the infrastructure at the University was great for scientific research.

My doctoral research was in the area of ‘Biomineralization’. I studied how invertebrates made their skeletons through calcification, a biological process aided by special proteins. The vision for this project was that: Once we identify the sequence and structure of the proteins that aid mineralization, we would be able to produce the relevant parts of the protein synthetically (small peptides) that can be used to aid calcification in human tissues too (such as bone grafts).  So, my work was about isolating the proteins from shell/ skeletal tissues, characterizing them using various biophysical techniques (such as chromatographic & spectrophotometric tools) & later testing their role in the biological process by designing in-vitro mineralization experiments. This gave me an exposure to a plethora of testing methods that could be employed for various kinds of substrates.

Though I was lured by the freedom that academic research offers, I was also interested in being a part of the industry as you can see your work translate into products (a direct application of what you had learnt). 

Hence, post my doctoral degree, I came back to Chennai and once again applied to Cavinkare R&D where I took on a role to lead the group called ‘Product Performance’. There we devised novel methods to understand how efficacious a product is and also support product claims. I thoroughly enjoyed this role where you can merge your scientific knowledge & expertise together with your creativity. 

The role at Cavinkare on ‘Product performance testing’ was about developing new methods to assess efficacy of products with skin/ hair as substrates. We use biophysical probes to understand moisture, sebum & pH levels of skin. There are industry standard testing methods such as miniature tensile testers and some imaging-based tools adopted from Dermatology to study hair related parameters such as the mechanical strength of hair, hair growth, etc. We often also use advanced tools from the domain of Material Science such as the SEM, AFM, etc for imaging.

Due to my husband having a job transfer to Bangalore, I moved to Himalaya Herbal Healthcare and thereafter ITC. Over the years, my role in R&D has spanned across measurements, claims, product development and in each of these, I had new learnings & a sense of achievement. 

Being able to fully achieve your potential and enjoy what you do is very important in choosing a career path. It is important to play to your strengths. Understand what you enjoy doing & what comes to you naturally. A career aligned with these interests can make your everyday not just enjoyable but fulfilling.

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was through a campus session at IIT, Madras by a Prof at NUS (where I went on to do my PhD). He explained the benefits of studying in Singapore, the scholarship offered, the excellent infrastructure and advised students to consider Singapore (at that time, most students would opt for US or Germany) for higher education, especially research. All that was required for the admission was regular GRE. I was impressed by the photographs, videos of the laboratories, opportunities provided to students to live, earn & carry out their own research and hence decided to apply for the same. Living all alone in a different country and working on your own ideas was transformational for me.

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

Challenge 1: Time-management: 

During initial days of my PhD, it was about managing time to complete your courses vs designing and executing experiments in the laboratory. I was able to address the challenge because of the support that I had from Post-doc students who acted as mentors and helped us with vetting research proposals & guiding us through the whole process of settling in.

Challenge 2: Building Confidence: 

When I joined a workplace, it was about understanding the new role, expectations & industry atmosphere. As the role was completely new to me, I understood that it was very important to reach out to people who knew – peers, experienced employees, even non-technical staff and talk about things when you are stuck. Honest feedback (constructive criticism) from people helped me build & rectify wherever required and soon I settled in well.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I presently work at ITC Life Sciences & Technology Centre in Bangalore

I work on developing personal care products such as facewash, bodywash, skin creams, lotions, shampoos etc. To develop good high-performing products, you need to understand the biology of our skin, the chemistry of ingredients (excipients and bioactives), their safety, regulations and mode of action. The problems we solve are regarding balancing the formula design, testing, scale-up & market roll-out where the application of scientific knowledge is important at every stage.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

The primary skill is that you need to be a subject matter expert with strong fundamentals in Chemistry [understanding chemicals, functional groups & molecules] in order to understand properties & behavior of ingredients. When you concoct them into a formula, you must be able to predict the interactions they would have with one another in the recipe/mix. You must understand regulatory norms to ensure safety & efficacy of the products that you design. Most of the time, you acquire these skills through on-the-job learning.

A secondary skill: When you are a hard-core Scientist and have to take up translation roles, you need to be aware of industry trends, consumer insights, financial implications, etc to get across your proposal to the Business side. Even when you have a great Technology/ Product, it is important to make a good pitch so that the Business Leaders take note and you get to implement the idea. Again, on this, one can upskill themselves by attending workshops/ seminars on these varied topics & put them to practice wherever applicable.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day for me is to look through lots of data and experiments and attend stakeholder meetings. The part of the day I enjoy the most is when I am in the laboratory evaluating our creations.

Being a science buff, I love that my job allows me to not just put my scientific knowledge to good use for humanity but also that I enjoy my everyday-play with chemicals!! 

How does your work benefit society? 

Making safe and efficacious products for the people of our country gives me immense pride. A chemist can create new things, preserve what is good and destroy bad things (like harmful bacteria) through their creations. I’m happy that my everyday work results in creations that can be used across all age-groups – my family, friends and everybody else. 

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

All the products that we have created are close to my heart. I also enjoy writing scientific articles based on data generated in the laboratory. So every piece of work – designing products, creating measurement methods or publishing research articles – each and every one of them, to me, is memorable.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Know yourself – your likes and dislikes very well. Convert your passion into your profession so that you enjoy doing what you do & that comes to you effortlessly. You will continue to build on your interest and follow your dreams!

Future Plans?

  • Learn & delve deep into areas related to Chemistry, Biochemistry and Pharmaceuticals.
  • Continue developing safe & efficacious products.
  • Build a knowledge base by doing experiments that answer basic questions.
  • Once I grow older, I may take up teaching (for atleast an hour or so) to young interested students. I immensely enjoyed teaching undergrad students during my PhD days.