Sometimes your artistic side could define your career in scientific research, because working with colours, shades, depth of details does have some similarities with analyzing images of lots and lots of neurons and human brain tissues !

Madhavi Tippani, our next pathbreaker, Staff Scientist at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, applies advanced image processing techniques to analyze human brain and neuronal cell culture images from various microscopes and different experiments.

Madhavi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about merging her interests in Tissue Engineering (wet bench) with Medical Imaging (dry bench) to pursue a career in Biomedical Image processing.

For students, Biomedical imaging is all about uncovering the mysteries behind human health using image processing and reconstruction technologies.

Madhavi, Your background? 

I am from south India, born and was brought up in Hyderabad. I never explored any place outside of Hyderabad until I moved to the US. I grew up in a very traditional and conservative environment, where women/ girls are not given a chance to question anything, which indeed boosted my curiosity with “???” in mind for everything that interested me. 

From what I remember, I can definitely say I was an inquisitive student throughout my schooling, a trait inherited from my father, probably. He was the one with a mind full of questions about the universe, earth, air, human body – its organs, tissues, cells and what not. He stopped his education at the age of 12 and always wondered if all his questions were answered in our science classes. He always expected answers from me as I am the eldest of 3 siblings (I have 2 naughty younger brothers). All these questions and curiosity drove me to pursue a career in science. I take pride in calling myself a “Biomedical Image Scientist” – currently analyzing images of lots and lots of neurons and human brain tissues. My hobbies – arts, arts and arts! I love painting – those colors, shades and the depth of details you can get to! I also sketch happy faces and make miniature arts. I miss making these creative arts, as my little munchkin takes up all my free time showcasing her developing creativity. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

Though I always wanted to become a ‘Doctor’, just like any other 90’s kid (in India), time constraints and finances were my hurdles. Hence I chose Biomedical Engineering for my undergrad, which is a very closely related engineering field to Medicine. I did my masters in Bioengineering with Medical Imaging as my research area. Tissue Engineering – weighted towards wet bench, and Medical Imaging – weighted towards dry bench were the dominant fields at the university during my masters, and hence I chose Medical Imaging purely out of my interest in image recreation that came from my artistic side. If I get a chance, I wish to pursue (at-least a part time) a PhD in Machine Learning focused on Image Processing. 

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

Looking back, though my dad was not fully supportive of higher education, he is the key to all my thoughts, questions and thinking. His repetitive questioning of what happens inside a human body provoked interest in me for science. All my family members (Tippanis, Gaddams & Gudipellis) encouraged me to develop the skills I have acquired today. My mom is the main pillar of strength, as she constantly pushed me to achieve something professionally great apart from being a great woman/mom/daughter/sister/ etc. My husband and my friends (from masters) paved my path to research in Biomedical Science.

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 

I always wanted to be in the medical field or at least something close to it, which is why I chose Biomedical Engineering. But I never knew I would end up on the research side, with image analysis as my core skill. I always chose what interested me and if I connect the dots back from where I am now to where I started, I can see that my interests in image reconstruction, the pixel shades, my passion for the medical field, and my inherited inquisitiveness, drove me to become a Biomedical Image Scientist. It was never the other way; I never chose what my final position/destination should be. I worked on my interests, continued learning to gain more knowledge, and was ready to work hard, as a result of which the rewards came by themself. 

I was awarded scholarships and financial assistance throughout my schooling, undergrad and grad education; not because I worked or applied for it, but because my mentors at every level recognized my hard work and interests and hence referred me. 

I started my career in the US by volunteering for Dr. Hanli Liu’s Medical Imaging lab at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) during my initial days of masters. I led the project on ‘prostate cancer detection’, it involved designing a probe (similar to an ultrasound probe) with increased surface area accommodating as many laser diodes as possible to accurately detect the cancerous tissue. Any cancerous tissue that is not dissected out during the prostate cancer surgery can cause the cancer to regrow, thus the need for the design of these complex and compact probes to assist surgeons in the detection and removal process. I also designed phantoms (semi solid and liquid mediums) that mimic human tissues to test the efficiency of different probe designs. Every tissue in the human body has certain absorption and scattering strengths for light rays with different wavelengths, for example different parts of the body absorb the x-rays in varying degrees, dense bone absorbs much of the radiation while soft tissue (skin, muscle, fat, organs) allow more of the x-rays to pass through them. As a result, bones appear white on the x-ray, soft tissue show up in shades of gray and air appears black. Similarly, the normal tissue and cancer tissue absorb and scatter the infrared rays from the laser diodes differently, which allows cancer to be detected. I also volunteered for the EEG (Electroencephalogram to measure brain activity, i.e., brain produces different signals when sleeping, working, thinking, etc. which can be captured by EEG) project during the employment gap after graduation. I analyzed EEG data acquired from participants before and after certain treatments to interpret if the treatment had positive or negative effects on participants. 

After graduation, I was offered a ‘Research Assistant’ position in Dr. Matthew Petroll’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) to develop algorithms and tools for keratocyte (corneal cells) studies along with developing some tissue engineering skills. 

Later, I was welcomed at Lieber Institute for Brain Development (LIBD) as a ‘Research Associate’ to process, reconstruct, analyze and quantify images that were related to human and mice brains. I will mention this as my major stepping stone. I was taught to analyze myself, my productivity, my skills. I was given opportunities to tune and improve aspects where I am lagging behind, all thanks to my mentors (Dr. Andrew Jaffe, Dr. Keri Martinowich and Dr. Stephanie Cerceo Page). I then got promoted to ‘Staff Scientist’ – a position with more exciting image processing challenges, specifically in the world of spatial transcriptomics. 

The major takeaway from all my experiences is to have the correct, knowledgeable mentor who knows your abilities as well as your limitations and guides you in the right way so that you can shine. Find a mentor who can find your concealed skills, who provides you opportunities to learn and grow, not just work. 

How did you get your first break? 

During my masters, my advisor (Dr. Hanli Liu @UTA) who was aware of my capabilities referred me to Dr. Petroll @UTSW for a research internship. Though every step in my career is important, I would consider interviewing with Dr. Petroll the turning point, he hired me to develop an image processing tool (https://rc.library.uta.edu/uta-ir/handle/10106/25929) for corneas, which I later defended as my master’s thesis. I never knew until then that I had the ability to develop a biomedical based GUI (Graphical User Interface) solely from scratch, which would never be possible without Dr. Petroll’s step-by-step guidance. 

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

Challenge 1: Landing in US for my master’s 

Being a woman, it was challenging to convince my family to allow me to cross oceans to pursue my passion. It was challenging to adapt to westernized culture coming from a traditional background. Overcoming the regional differences and the insecurity of being brown skinned, was a challenge. But the determination to compete with my peers, the desire to prove that I am capable of achieving what I want, helped me get through the above challenges. 

Challenge 2: Communication 

Through my experience as an international student and worker, I realized that it is easy to communicate your thoughts/work/questions when the other person or the audience is from the same domicile and background. It took time for me to master the skill of presentation to a varied audience and I am still working on it, whether it is answering others or asking questions. I feel presentation is one of the key things in research, and getting your point conveyed in a quick, crisp and correct manner is important. Communicating the message with correct terminology that the audience understand, is what I found useful. You get useful information when your questions are framed correctly and asking questions is important at every stage of career – “never hesitate”. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I am presently working as `Staff Scientist I` at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development. My job is to develop and optimize image processing pipelines and tools for in-house postmortem (occurring or performed after death) human brain and neuronal cell culture images from various microscopes and different experiments. Basically, quantifying all microscopic images and analyzing the quantified data to see differences in individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders versus neurotypical controls, like how your blood tests are converted to numbers and compared to normal/abnormal ranges in a blood report. 

What skills are needed for your job and how did you acquire them? 

Basic skills for my everyday responsibilities include LEARNING, debugging, interpreting results, analyzing and visualizing data, which are skills you develop with practical hands-on experience. 

What is it you love about this job? 

There is a ton to learn and discover, I never felt like there was an end. I am also now switching gears from image analysis to learning transcriptomic analysis, super excited to have another skill added to my list. This abundance of opportunities to learn and explore about the human brain is what I love the most about the job. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The specific work I do now is part of the research on neurodevelopmental disorders that are affecting a significant percentage of the young population all over the world. Therefore, it is important to address these issues and find the correct diagnosis and treatment. Apart from my job, the core of Biomedical Engineering is interlinked with doctors and surgeons who are considered the life saviors. We use a thermometer to measure our body temperature, a stethoscope for heartbeat, sphygmomanometer for blood pressure, CT/MRI to look inside our body, a pacemaker, a hearing aid and many other complex machines exist solely for the human body.

Biomedical Engineers play a predominant role in development of all these diagnostic and therapeutic equipment. A Biomedical Engineer (half doctor/half engineer) eases the life of a doctor as well as the patient. A new discovery, a simple innovation or even a plain process improvement made by a Biomedical Engineer/Scientist can impact thousands of lives around the world. 

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

Every project I worked on is memorable and gave me valuable experience. But the most memorable was when I had to solve the first task at my very first internship in US @UTSW. The task was to import images taken from a microscope that are in ‘.vol’ format into the MATLAB software. I had no idea about the file formats, how to import files, and the software back then did not have any functions to load such kind of data. I was told that there will be weekly update meetings and I assumed I had only one week to solve the task. I went on to contact and meet my seniors at the college who were familiar with the software, but couldn’t offer a solution. I got panicked and stressed as my seniors who had more experience with the software itself could not solve it. I thought I couldn’t do it and I almost lost the job. But observing how my seniors tried to find a solution, I followed their techniques and wrote code from scratch to import the images into MATLAB, and yes, I cracked it in a week. My boss didn’t expect me to solve it in a week. That experience gave me a boost of courage. I realized that everything feels hard only until it’s solved and we should never quit trying. I experienced even harder situations as I progressed in my career, but I never got discouraged or took a step back. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

1. Pursue what you love; success and rewards come by themself.

2. Choose the right mentor which will play a crucial role in your career. 

3. Don’t repeat your mistakes, learn from them. 

4. Never stop learning or asking questions. You stop growing when you stop learning. 

5. Document everything that you are trying out new, you will want to refer back to it at some point. 

Future Plans? 

Learn, gain knowledge and experience more science.