The applications of light in the field of healthcare is growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to technologies such as Laser Therapy and Biophotonics .

Syam Mohan, our next pathbreaker, Medical Device Engineer & Researcher at The University of Edinburgh, UK, works on developing a treatment (Via Photodynamic Therapy) and diagnostic (via fluorescence imaging) device for bacterial/fungal infections in the eye.

Syam talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on the Confocal Microscope which was selected in the prime minister’s ‘Make in India’ scheme and his PhD in Biophotonics to enhance the applications of ultrafast lasers in minimally invasive colon surgery.

For students, if you want to be a technologist, strive towards developing frugal medical technologies that can make healthcare accessible for the economically backward without compromising quality !

Syam, Your background?

Hello friends! My name is Syam Mohan and I am an Engineering Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh, UK, working in the field of frugal medical device development. I was born and brought up in Pandalam, a small municipal town in Kerala, India. I studied in two schools, Govt. LPS Cherickal –where I completed my primary schooling and Govt. HSS Thottakkonam, where I completed my secondary school studies in the science stream. I used to take part in writing, quiz and drama competitions, was an active member of the Manorama balajana sakhyam and Mathrubhumi study circle. I was very much interested in studying Physics at school, which helped me to choose my career. I never had a mentor during my school days to shape my academic career except for my chemistry teacher Sreelatha, who told me to appear for the engineering/medicine entrance examinations. I had a different perception regarding engineering colleges, which was purely related to my financial background. 

I am very fortunate to have a fantastic family to support me. My father was a daily wage worker, and my mother was a homemaker. My wife Amal Rani holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing and is currently working in Edinburgh. My Kids are studying at a primary school in Edinburgh, UK. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For my under-graduation (BSc) in Electronics I went to IHRD College of Applied Sciences, Mavelikkara. Immediately after that, I went for my Master’s in Electronics from the IHRD College of Applied Sciences, Puthuppally, Kottayam. I received a postgraduate diploma in professional development from CREST Calicut. I did another post graduation (M. Tech) in optoelectronics and optical communication from the Dept. of Optoelectronics, University of Kerala. 

I did my PhD from Heriot-Watt University in Picosecond laser procedures to enhance the efficacy of tissue resection with a James Watt Scholarship.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

In my 12th Grade physics class, we had a small chapter about digital electronics. My interest in electronics acted as a catalyst for my inclination towards electronics as an under-graduate specialization. During my bachelors, I came to realize the different prospects and scope of electronics, which naturally led to my masters. In my Masters, I had studied a subject named fibre optic technology, which paved my way to the combination of optics and electronics studies. During my postgraduate diploma course, prof. B Rameswaran advised me to write the GATE exam and join M. Tech in optoelectronics. That was a huge step in my career.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?  Tell us about your career path

In the second year of my M. Tech studies, I did my thesis work in fibre optic chemical sensor at the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute (CSIR-CGCRI), Kolkata under the guidance of Dr. Tarun Kumar Gangopadhyay (principal scientist), who planted the seeds of research in my academic career. 

In this study, a fibre loop cavity resonator has been theoretically modelled and the shift of cavity resonances due to change of the refractive index of the external medium is presented. The theoretical predictions are compared with experimental results. It is observed that when the sample is applied to the evanescent field interaction block (EAB), the cavity resonances remained symmetric while the width of the signal is increased as expected from finesse degradation, which is primarily used to measure and detect volatile petroleum constituents, such as benzene, ethylbenzene, and chlorinated volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in water or air. I attended different conferences and photonics workshops during my project at Kolkata. Interaction with different professors, scientists and students helped me to understand the research culture, that led me to choose research and development of optical instruments as my career.

Later, I joined Vinvish Technologies Pvt. Ltd. (2011-2014) India (Development Centre for Nuphoton Technologies USA) as an Optics engineer, where I worked on the design and development of photodynamic therapy laser, development of Supercontinuum laser and design and development of confocal microscope in collaboration with Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute (CSIR-CGCRI), Kolkata, DBT Govt. of India, RCC Trivandrum, ICMR India. Later, this confocal microscope was selected in the prime minister’s ‘Make in India’ scheme. Confocal microscope can be used for the three-dimensional imaging of a tissue. A supercontinuum laser source was used as the input source for this confocal microscope, as a result we had to use achromatic components to develop the microscope. CSIR-India funded the project under the scheme of New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI).  Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) laser was used to treat early stage skin cancers in combination with photo-sensitizers. This project was in collaboration with regional cancer centre, Trivandrum.   

Later, I joined the National Centre for Laser Applications (NCLA-NUIG), Galway, Ireland as a researcher in laser technology (2014-2015), where I developed my interest in bio-photonics (“Anti biofilm technology for indwelling catheters using UV light” in collaboration with Teleflex medical USA. Catheter-associated urinary tract infections are the most common hospital-acquired infection, for which Escherichia coli is the leading cause. This study investigated the efficacy of 385 nm and 420 nm light for inactivation of E. coli attached to the silicone matrix of a urinary catheter

My work on “Ultrafast laser processing of FFR catheter tip” was in collaboration with Medtronic USA).  In this work, I was concentrated on the ablation of the polymer tip in the catheter using ultrafast UV laser.

I applied to 10 universities and got accepted to four universities. I chose Heriot Watt University for 3 reasons: 1. Heriot Watt University is one of the best universities in the world for research in optical science 2. My main interest was in the biophotonics research and the topic available in Heriot Watt was perfectly aligned with my interests. 3. I was awarded a James Watt Scholarship for 3.5 years including tuition fee of £17k/annum and a stipend of tax free £1250/month. The cost of living and my wife’s job opportunity are other factors to select Edinburgh City. After one year tenure in Ireland I moved to Heriot Watt University, UK, to pursue my PhD in Biophotonics. Here I need to mention my Professor Dr. V.P. Mahadevan Pillai (Currently, Vice Chancellor, University of Kerala), who wrote my recommendation letters to National university of Ireland and Heriot watt University for my PhD.  

The aim of my PhD was to enhance the applications of ultrafast lasers in minimally invasive colon surgery procedures for potentially easier and precise removal of polyps/cancerous tissue with minimal thermal damage (bowel perforation) to surrounding tissue. The ability of ultrashort pulsed picosecond lasers to perform high precision resection of colon and lung tissue has been successfully demonstrated in ex-vivo animal models. My PhD adviser Dr. Jonathan Shephard helped me a lot to achieve my PhD. He sent me to the Photonics West conference, held at San Francisco, USA to present my research findings. His guidance, motivation and patience during my PhD was remarkable.

Here is an animated video on my PhD work:

After my PhD, I got selected in University of Michigan, Nanyang Technological University and University of Edinburgh to continue my academic career as a postdoctoral research associate. I chose Edinburgh because the group is the best in the UK for fibre optic bacterial imaging of the lungs (obviously my love towards the city too). 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was my first job as an optical engineer at Vinvish Technologies, Technopark, Trivandrum.  During my Masters project at CSIR-CGCRI Kolkata, Dr. Ramdas Pillai (MD, Vinvish Technologies) visited our lab (He was planning a collaborative project with CGCRI at that time). He was interested in my work and offered me a job at Vinvish technologies. 

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

In my case, the primary challenge was financial issues. I always addressed those things first before I got into education/jobs. Studying after marriage is not a normal thing, especially for a man if he has no other income. I did my PhD after my marriage, my wife and father in-law supported me a lot in following my dreams. This is one of the main reasons I searched for a PhD with full scholarship. I submitted my PhD thesis in the last month of my PhD scholarship and I took up part-time teaching assistant jobs/other jobs for survival until my PhD interview.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I work in the Centre for inflammation research based in Queens Medical Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh, UK. My work is to develop a treatment (Via Photodynamic Therapy) and diagnostic (via fluorescence imaging) device for bacterial/fungal infections in the eye. Recent developments have enabled the use of single board computers to power fluorescence imaging devices. Used in conjunction with specific imaging agents, “smart probes”, this produces a low cost, highly effective, specific and robust package for the detection of bacteria. The aim of this work is to translate this principle into an economical point of care testing device as an alternative to current high-priced bacterial imaging devices without compromising imaging quality. This project is in collaboration with Aravind Eye Care Systems based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India. For the work, I need a comprehensive knowledge of optics, lasers, LEDs and optical instrumentation. I was also involved in the designing of a prototype using Autodesk inventor software. It took me a lot of time and effort to acquire the knowledge and skills for this work through my Job as optics engineer, researcher in laser technology and my PhD work. 

How does your work benefit society?

My research in frugal medical device development for the treatment and early diagnosis of bacterial/fungal infections in the eye will help the society through reduced treatment cost compared to the current system. My PhD work is also very beneficial to society. Surgery in the bowel requires high precision and minimal damage to tissue to avoid severe complications such as perforation. Precise control of the width of tissue damage and depth of resection are of paramount importance to avoid bowel perforation. We proved that fibre-based ultrafast laser scalpel has the capability to excise early-stage lesions in the inner lining of the bowel without any damage. We demonstrated a promising route towards implementing picosecond laser surgery in a minimally invasive modality via hollow core fibre. 

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

The most memorable work was my PhD research.  I used to visit the Dryden farm at Roslin institute, Edinburgh to collect pig colon samples. The first cloned sheep ‘Dolly’ was born in Dryden, Roslin Institute. In my PhD work I demonstrated that the hollow core fibre delivered ultrashort laser pulses can be used to resect the colon tissue. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The first and foremost advice is, be persistent, there will be hurdles that seem tough, but you need to find a way to overcome that. Don’t give up. Do not compare yourself with others and their work. The situations and skills are different for everyone, try to work hard and improve your skills. You must learn how to work in a group and how to take criticism. Exercise regularly, eat well, Drink water and be social. 

Future Plans?

I wish to be an outstanding biophotonics scientist/team leader within three years. I’d like to manage larger teams and continue advancing as a leader.