Polymers and Biomaterials will dominate our future, just like various materials have dominated different ages of our civilization !

Narasimha Ragahavan, our next pathbreaker, is a dental surgeon (running his own clinic) and freelance scientist, offering consultations to industries and academic institutions on research related to Biomaterials, Tissue Engineering, Product Development, Biomedical/Dental instrumentation etc.

Narasimha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about applying his research background (PhD) in Biomaterials to address pressing challenges in Healthcare, Environment and other industries through rigorous testing and analysis.

For students, be inquisitive about everything around you. Application driven thinking is as important as foundational knowledge !

Narasimha, Your background?

I hail from Chennai. I finished my school and joined a dental surgery course in Sree Balaji  Dental College. From the very beginning, I had an inquisitive nature that often led to a wide range of interests and knowledge. I am literally curious about everything I see. I had a deep passion for chemistry and biology. I am a voracious reader and I read “everything”  I come across. My interest in chemistry gave me a deep foundation, which though I was unaware of at that time, shaped my future. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After completing my BDS, I was filled with thoughts about ways to earn. Observing my seniors drove me to think that morning college job and evening clinic is “the” way to succeed. I observed that all branches of MDS were being saturated and I needed a unique course to obtain a proper job. After a long search, I ended up in Saveetha Dental College, which offered Msc in Biomaterials Science.

What were the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

As I said earlier, the pursuit to obtain a job drove me to search for unusual degrees. Through the search I have met a lot of people. However, the search began with my professors who encouraged me to pursue non-MDS courses. From the outside world, a lot of new ideas started to pour in once the bandage to the usual safe path was broken. I don’t have a specific person who influenced or mentored me, but I consider every rendezvous  with a  knowledgeable person as a mentoring experience and turning point. Destiny assumed many forms in teaching me.

The MSc course is a 3 year full time course that involves training on various aspects of Biomaterials Science such as physics, chemistry, mechanical sciences, tissue response and degradation of biomaterials. My PG thesis was on effects of silane on setting time and temperature of PMMA bone cements. With regard to its relation to dentistry, I feel that it is basically a generalization of Dental Materials Science subject in the BDS course. I had decided to do a PhD before joining the BDS course, and since a PG is needed to do a PhD in India, I took up this course and continued with the PhD.

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

After finishing my PG, I enrolled for a PhD at CSIR-CLRI, under DST-Inspire Fellowship. The period was a great one that enriched my capabilities. I worked under a guide who gave me complete freedom that promoted my thinking and learning. I exposed myself to all aspects of biomaterials science from materials design to testing. 

I proceeded to do a PhD where I addressed the problem pertaining to bioactivity of sulfonated poly-ether-ketones when used as bone biomaterial. Through my work, I tried to address as many aspects of biomaterials as possible as they are the future of mankind. The statement may seem a little exaggerated but materials define the name of the civilization, say stone age, iron age and so on. Now I feel that we are in the “Polymer Age”. Huge research is being conducted on various polymers to address  a multitude of purposes including the biodegradation challenges. Therefore, biomaterials science, especially polymers are bound to dominate the market in the future. For instance, 10 years ago, I had to prove that polymers can be used as dental implants, but today they are on the verge of being marketed. Therefore, this field has huge potential in varied industries.

This added to my versatility that I possess today. Then I joined a Lab Animal Facility in Sathyabama University, where I worked for 3 years. 

After that stint, certain unforeseen situations arose due to which I shifted my career from being a worker to owner. 

At that stage, I was advised by learned people that my capabilities are much beyond what I was doing in my regular job. Apparently, my uniqueness lies in my versatility and swift correlation of results of various studies to form meaningful conclusions. This, I found, was well appreciated in Industries that test biomaterials. Then, from academic institutions, my focus shifted to core materials development in industries. I have visited numerous industries and academic institutions as a consultant for continual improvement of materials and testing of materials in lab animals.

How did you get your first break?

The first job, apparently my last job too, was offered by people as a result of long mutual acquaintances. My skills were well known in the circle and hence I was employed for the job.

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

With regard to challenges, my job is a kind of “Everyday is a new day”. I come across new materials and unique requirements everyday. As said, my versatility and application oriented thinking paved the way for success on an everyday basis. 

Where do you work now? What is your role in RNR Research Services?

I work as director of my own concern called RNR Research Services. In this job, I help researchers design and execute their research according to global standards. 

When I gained my PhD, it was not just about materials as I said earlier. I acquired a wide repertoire. All those skills are being used in RNR Research Services. My clients are from varied backgrounds like Pharma Industries that manufacture biomaterials as well as scientists, research scholars and postgraduate students. 

In industries, I am usually called when there is a need to analyze a biomaterial and interpret its result. For example, there was a problem with regard to changing the internal structure of a ceramic biomaterial. I devised a technique to achieve the desired physical configuration of the material. This is one of the examples in my business.  This is also an example of continual improvement of the material. That is, the company is already marketing the material, however, they have found a clinical need to modify the material for a specific application.  

In case of lab animal testing, I am generally called for tesing bone biomaterials in small animals like rats and rabbits. I have expertise in surgically placing the test material in the proper position in these animals. This skill is unique and not taught in regular veterinary science courses. I had acquired this from experienced veterinary surgeons during my PhD days. Therefore, I have trained a few young vets and scientists on these techniques. I regularly perform these surgeries in various companies and universities. As I have engaged in research, I don’t have a private dental practice now, however, I do attend if there is a need, where my  old clients need treatment.

What are the skills required for your work?

I also perform statistical analysis. My typical day would go in mostly writing and statistical analysis. Writing would be about consolidation of the executed research. Certainly, when you enter this broad field of research, one has to have a considerable amount of versatility and wide range of knowledge. Every day, unique problems are met and solved effectively. Over a period of time, due to skill and accumulated experience, the “problem solving” becomes less stressful for me! Specifically, skills needed would be the following:

1. Good English knowledge – vocabulary and grammar. This can be acquired from voracious reading of both fiction and scientific papers. Fiction books help us to improve the writing part and scientific papers provide a basis for our actual business.

2. Acquiring a PhD is essential to have a complete outlook towards any research work.

3. Statistical knowledge

4. Skills needed to serve the “research segment”  that we are trying to help are essential. Every scientific discipline may have unique needs and it has to be understood to deliver effective reports and manuscripts.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day in RNR would be 5-6 hours. The mind would be completely fatigued while writing. I usually keep this time flexible to allow for travel for collecting and supplying samples. I love this job due to multiple reasons. Primarily, I have all the perks of being an entrepreneur like freedom, flexibility etc. Another major advantage is that I do not have major investments and can do my job from anywhere. 

How does your work benefit society?

With regard to benefit to society, my work essentially delivers better quality research leading to faster translation from research to application. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

To students I would say three points

1. Have profound applied knowledge in whatever you learn.

2. Quality of learning is more important than quantity of learning

3. Start learning business skills, entrepreneurship, Finance, economics and other life skills  early in life.

Future Plans?

Obviously, I would expand to cater more disciplines of research for both design and execution. 

Thanks for the opportunity to share my views.