The current in vivo preclinical drug testing models use animals during the pharmaceutical drug development process, which is a middleground between in vitro experiments and human trials, primarily from a risk vs benefit perspective.

Divyasree Prabhakaran, our next pathbreaker, R&D Manager at Cherry Biotech (France), works on technological solutions to improve the efficiency of the pharmaceutical drug development process by developing a reliable alternative to using animal models.

Divyasree talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being amazed by the vast potential of Biotechnology & Nanoscience, and receiving the Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship to pursue research in Medical Biotechnology, particularly related to sensors.

For students, multi-disciplinary technologies are disrupting healthcare through efficient solutions to difficult problems, which ultimately benefit the society !

Divyasree, can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in Dubai, U.A.E., though I was born in the northern part of Kerala, Taliparamba, Kannur. My parents are in Dubai where my father works as a Plant Manager in the food industry and my mother is a homemaker. I also have a younger brother who had also completed his schooling in Dubai, graduated in India and now working in Hyderabad, India.

My interest in science was infused in me by the wonderful teachers who taught me at the Our Own English High School, Dubai. Both my parents are not science graduates, however, I remember, I always desired to become a medical doctor or a scientist. I’m very thankful to my parents for being very supportive in every career related choice that I made that has helped me throughout my journey to achieve my career goals. Apart from academics, I participated in intra and inter school athletics, enjoy drawing and have also learned Indian classical dance and music to a certain extent. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my B.Tech in Biotechnology Engineering, from Sahrdaya College of Engineering and Technology, Kerala, affiliated to the University of Calicut; M.Tech in Nano Medical Sciences from Amrita Center for Nanosciences and Molecular Medicine (ACNSMM), Kerala; and PhD in Environmental Biotechnology from Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore

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

From the moment I was exposed to the fascinating, emerging and expanding fields of Biotechnology Engineering and Nanoscience, I was driven to comprehensively understand these two vast fields and was constantly amazed by the promising potential of these fields in bringing about advancement in science and technology and eventually benefit the society.  

I feel that certain decisions we take in life will be influenced by a person(s) or a situation(s). In my case, I would say that my parents are my key influencers, as well as all the teachers who had taught/mentored me right from my school days and instilled in me the passion for acquiring knowledge. And of course, my ultimate motivator is the passionate scientist and “People’s President”, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. I was always quite amazed by how he tried to motivate young minds to chase their dreams. 

I would say the turning point towards my dream career was when I chose to study science stream at school, followed by graduating and post-graduating in two new, upcoming and promising fields of Biotechnology Engineering and Nanoscience. Finally, my experience as a research student at IISc, Bangalore, was the major milestone in my career.

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 strong inclination towards pursuing a scientific/medical career impelled me to write the Kerala medical and engineering entrance exams after completing grade 12. I cleared the Kerala engineering entrance with a good rank and joined Biotechnology Engineering at the Sahrdaya College of Engineering and Technology in Kerala affiliated to the University of Calicut. Biotechnology at that time was a very new field and students were a bit skeptical to opt for this branch. However, with the little research I did, I understood that it could, to some extent, match with my dream of pursuing a career in medical sciences or biology. Following graduation, I chanced upon another emerging and interesting field, Nanoscience, and ended up completing my masters in Nano Medical Sciences from Amrita Center for Nanosciences and Molecular Medicine in Kochi, Kerala. 

As I progressed through my educational journey, having had the opportunity to explore new, developing and promising fields of Biotechnology Engineering and Nanosciences, I understood I’m on the right path towards my dream research career. A comprehensive training of the diverse courses as part of the B.Tech curriculum by experienced faculty members helped me gain an in-depth knowledge of the scope of biotechnology in different applications. Some subjects related to the Chemical Engineering field also formed a major part of the B.Tech Biotechnology Engineering curriculum. It was while doing my masters that I was exposed to a research environment and got trained under eminent and experienced mentors at ACNSMM, which is India’s first Nano-bio center that houses state-of-the-art research facilities. My final year masters thesis was related to a pharmaceutical industry based project that involved developing anti-leukemic drug encapsulated polymer nanoparticles using emulsion techniques. Soon after obtaining my master’s degree, I joined the Department of Materials Engineering, IISc, Bangalore for a PhD, where I carried out research related to Environmental Biotechnology and development of electrochemical biosensors for environmental applications under the mentorship of Professor S. Subramanian. 

My PhD was focused on the application of biotechnological processes to address environmental issues related to water pollution caused by toxic chromium ions. As part of the project which was funded by Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research (IFCPAR/CEFIPRA), I also had the opportunity of gaining an international research experience by being able to visit the French collaborator-Professor Yann Sivry’s Environmental Biogeochemistry team at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), Paris, France. Apart from acquiring research and technical skills, a PhD journey will impart you with communication skills (written and spoken), project management skills, leadership/mentoring skills, critical thinking skills (problem-analysing-and-solving), creativity and innovation skills, as well as the ability to deal/manage with failures.  

The educational journey to achieve your dream career may not be that easy due to the costs involved. My personal opinion is that all students should aim to win scholarships to pursue their education, which will not only help gain confidence in the talent/skills you possess but will also help reduce the financial burden. As far as I know, there are many national and international scholarships that students can apply for to chase your dreams of achieving your career goals. I joined B.Tech Biotechnology Engineering after clearing and securing a good rank in the Kerala Engineering Entrance Exam. I then completed my PhD by the scholarship granted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India. After obtaining my PhD degree, I continued in IISc for a few more years as a Research Associate. During this time, I got the opportunity to assist in mentoring undergraduate and master students in their final year research projects. Also, I gained experience in writing scientific articles and project proposals. I’m currently working as R&D Manager at Cherry Biotech, France, upon receiving the prestigious European Commission’s Marie Curie Individual Fellowship.  

How did you get your first break?

After obtaining my PhD degree, I had thoughts of applying for non-academic jobs and that’s when I stumbled upon the prestigious European Commission’s Marie Curie Fellowship which unlike other fellowships provides the opportunity to do an industrial Postdoc. I was fortunate to receive this highly competitive fellowship after a strict evaluation by the European Commission of the project proposal written by me. I’m currently a Marie Curie Individual Fellow and working as a R&D Manager at Cherry Biotech, France. 

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

It is the moment you start applying for jobs you realise the challenges associated with it. In terms of applying for a fellowship, the challenging part is to write a convincing and novel research/project proposal. Apart from having good writing skills, writing a good research proposal involves choosing a relevant research problem/topic of interest, carrying out a thorough literature review of the topic, preparing a timeline chart that would enable to plan and execute different tasks included in the project, planning the budget required to complete the project, and finally analysing the risk/challenges that may be associated with carrying out the different tasks of the project as well as deciding upon ways to manage them. 

In the case of applying for jobs, you would need to ‘market’ yourself with the talents and skills you possess to get your dream job. Prepare a good/attractive CV and also do not forget to update your LinkedIn profile. Train yourself to face job application rejections boldly and keep trying again and again until you succeed. Apply for your dream job and tackle the interviews in a convincing manner even if you do not possess all the skills mentioned in the job advertisement. Additionally, do not shy away from talking to accomplished people in your field of interest through whom you could get an insight into the job opportunities available. And lastly, you do not have to follow the crowd. Never fear to take the path less travelled and stay motivated and informed of how to achieve your ambitions.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I’m currently working as R&D Manager at Cherry Biotech in France. I got this position on receiving the Marie Curie Individual Fellowship under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme for the project proposal written by me related to Medical Biotechnology. This fellowship provides an opportunity to obtain early career training in an industrial environment in addition to early career training in the academic sector. Cherry Biotech is a deep-tech startup with a mission to develop advanced technological platforms by adopting an interdisciplinary approach involving Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, Cognitive Sciences and Informatics fields to revolutionise the medical sector, in order to provide the best healthcare-based solutions to society. These developed platforms can be a potential alternative to the current in vivo animal preclinical testing models of pharmaceutical drugs during the drug developmental stage. The conventional animal models are unable to predict precisely the interaction between the human immune system and the developed drug owing to the differences between the immune system of animals/mammals and humans. Consequently, it has been found that one out of ten drugs fail in the clinical trials owing to use of such unsuitable in vivo animal models during the preclinical trial stage of the drug developmental process. 

Being able to work in a startup environment, I am exposed to all aspects of the company, be it getting involved in the research and development tasks, communication with the clients as well as getting exposed to after sales service experiences. All these experiences will definitely instill in me managerial and entrepreneurship skills in addition to gaining technical skills. 

My typical day at work would involve managing and performing different types of tasks. I carry out research linked to Medical Biotechnology, particularly related to sensors that would detect tissue integrity as well as metabolites secreted by different 3D organ systems grown in a microfluidic platform (organs-on-a-chip). My aim is to develop sensors that could be integrated in the devices being developed by the R&D team at the company that will help monitor behaviour of different laboratory grown 3D organ systems under normal and diseased conditions. This complete device could be a potential alternative to the conventional preclinical drug testing models that currently uses animals during a pharmaceutical drug development process. Additionally, I also get to liaise with the clients in the academic as well as non-academic sectors and understand their demands/feedback that help improve/customise the developed product/device. Additionally, I am also gaining experience in building/designing devices and also in troubleshooting errors/faults in the developed device. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Biotechnological and Nanotechnological solutions have proven to solve challenges in the medical sector. Considering the ongoing pandemic situation all over the world, I am sure everyone must have understood the importance of a developed and equipped healthcare sector. We, the team at Cherry Biotech, are involved in developing technological solutions to improve the efficiency of the pharmaceutical drug development process and most importantly the major goal is to develop a reliable alternative solution to using animal models for preclinical pharmaceutical drug testing procedures. 

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

In every work/project I was involved in, I had the opportunity to learn new technical skills and got trained to solve scientific challenges by adopting interdisciplinary approaches. In addition to gaining technical skills, getting involved in multidisciplinary research projects have also helped me in gaining good communication, team-building and management skills. I believe that if you do something with passion, every aspect of the work would become enjoyable and memorable.   

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Just want to say: follow your passion. You don’t have to follow the crowd. Stay self-motivated always. Challenges/failures are part of life. You become the champion of your life when you rise up and fight against all these challenges to achieve your life goals.  If you have the strong will to pursue a certain dream career, go ahead, but first of all: gather all the information to attain that goal from the right source (person(s)/website(s)), research about all the challenges you may have to face through the journey to achieve your target career and equip yourself to face them courageously. Try to win scholarships/fellowships to reduce the financial burden. Train yourself to be independent. Additionally, always have a ‘Plan B’, as we all know life is full of unexpected twists and turns.

Future Plans?

Through my years of training and with the experiences I have gained, I would like to transform this skills/knowledge to product(s)/service(s) that can be beneficial to the well-being of the society. Also, my eagerness to learn new things will always remain ignited in me that will help me broaden my horizons and keep me updated about the advancements in science and technology.