Newer technologies are being developed every day with a major focus on preventive healthcare, through early detection and screening of disease biomarkers.
Prashanth Ravishankar, our next pathbreaker, Research & Development Scientist at Namida Labs Inc. (Arkansas, USA), conducts cancer biomarker discovery research on tears.
Prashanth talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how the field of Biomedical Engineering has come a long way and evolved into a multidisciplinary subject not only involving medical equipment, but also devices and tools that help understand the basic biological principles.
For students, life is not a race; so finding what you love and making a career out of it might take time, but it ultimately leads to fulfillment and provides you with immense satisfaction in the long run !
Prashanth, what were your early years like?
I was born in Chennai and come from a family of entrepreneurs. I was always passionate about technology and computers as my father had his own IT firm. As a kid, I would spend most of my time in dad’s office which was next door and hang out with the hardware people. They let me handle all the tools at a young age which nurtured my interest in technology. At that point of time, I always wanted to be a Computer Engineer. But, the first pivotal moment I had in life was choosing between pure science major vs computer sciences in high school. I got the best advice from my dad who said, “This is the only time you will be able to study Biology, but you can learn computer science any time in life. So whatever decision you make, we will back you up.” Naturally, I decided to take up pure sciences and ended up falling in love with Biology. I am currently a Research and Development Scientist working for a startup that focuses on utilizing the power of tear proteins for cancer risk screening and diagnostics.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from SRM University. Here, along with my fellow colleagues, I had a chance to work in a research lab where I co-developed a biomaterial using rice husk for bone tissue engineering applications. Upon graduation, I wanted to understand the manufacturing environment to recognize how any product, during the research phase, takes all the manufacturing principles into account to address any scalability issues at a much earlier stage. This led me to pursue a master’s degree in Operation Management at the University of Arkansas. While pursuing my master’s, I still didn’t want to lose touch with biology and so I took up a graduate teaching assistant position where I taught Microbiology labs for undergraduates at the university. When I got closer to master’s graduation, I interviewed with multiple companies in the bio-space but was turned down for not having an advanced degree in Biology or Engineering. Though I was offered admission to a second master’s program, I decided to pursue a PhD in Biomedical Engineering due to the program curriculum and training offered. Additionally, the department was new at that point and had a lot of new upcoming faculty. I was lucky to have an excellent PhD advisor who understood my interests and provided the freedom to explore different research methodologies.
Now, I am working as a R&D Scientist in a startup. I chose to work for a startup due to the inclusiveness of the team and my role’s responsibilities. Being in a startup environment also means wearing a lot of hats and learning beyond research. All these aspects of the job intrigued me and here I am.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I had mentioned my first pivotal moment in high school when I had to choose a specialization. My parents were the first to help me provide the right guidance at that moment in life. The next most influential person in my life would be my biology teacher Ms. Mythili. I studied in the central board medium of secondary education, and this was a big decision since it was a common notion that the central board is harder compared to the state board system. This also meant that there weren’t a lot of students in the biology major (2 including myself). Since there were only 2 students, we received a lot of attention from our teacher who taught us in unconventional ways so that the concepts would stick with us forever. She even took an effort to complete the portions at a much earlier stage and provided us with a platform to explore beyond biology. This instilled a sense of curiosity not only in biology but also in chemistry and physics.
The second turning point came about a year and half in high school. My teacher had fallen ill but still made an effort to finish up the portions before she took a break. The only other classmate/friend I had also fell ill with pneumonia and passed away shortly after. So, I was left alone in class with a lot of time to ponder about life. At this moment, I decided to pursue a degree in biotechnology with merely a thought that I wanted to help create new healthcare tools. I knew that biotech would allow me to link my two passions- biology and technology. I vividly remember my teacher calling me to congratulate me on scoring high in the biology public exam and getting into a college with a major that was of my interest, which was also her biggest goal for me. Ms. Mythili shortly passed away as well. To this day, I still uphold the principles she taught me, and I can’t thank her enough for being my first mentor. All these events at a young age gave me a purpose in life and I am thankful to my friend, teacher, and family for instilling principles that would help others and also for providing the opportunity to explore a career in research.
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
This is a great question, and I can tell you from experience that no amount of meticulous planning would have gotten me into the career I am in right now. In 2005, Steve Jobs gave a graduation commencement speech at Stanford and one of his quotes stuck with me – “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
At the start of my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to get a master’s degree though I never thought about pursuing a PhD. Besides, I majored in a completely different master’s program outside biology, due to the reasons mentioned earlier. When I was teaching at the university, it made me miss science and technology. I had also made a lot of friends who were in the doctorate program and that environment gave me more confidence in pursuing a PhD. My friends helped me explore all the opportunities available and how to navigate academia by sharing valuable information such as getting scholarships and fellowships. All these factors helped me overcome the fear of pursuing a doctorate degree.
During the PhD program, I was working in a multidisciplinary lab where our goal was to develop tools to study the role of mechanical forces on physiology, function and disease. My dissertation was focused on understanding how stem/progenitor cells change their function (differentiate) when they experience mechanical forces, in my case I built tools that would imitate the heartbeat and blood flow forces. Additionally, the skills acquired from working with biomaterials during my undergraduate helped design more complex three-dimensional biomaterials. A majority of my biomaterial work during graduate school focused on using a cotton candy inspired machine to create nanofibers for tissue engineering.
The field of Biomedical Engineering has come a long way since I was first made aware of the major as an undergrad. It has evolved into a multidisciplinary subject that not only works on medical equipment, but also involves building devices and tools that would help understand the basic biological principles. Additionally, the most insightful moment was when I networked with other professionals in Mechanical, Chemical, and Electrical Engineering. This made me realize that all the fields coexist at so many levels and that collaborations are crucial in order to create novel and ground-breaking innovations. I had access to the best resources and met people from all parts of the world. Not only did I learn a lot about the thought process of smart engineers and scientists, but I also learned a lot about different cultures. I traveled to conferences and met influential people in my field. I had and still have several mentors who taught me the importance of translational research skills. During these training sessions, I realized an important skill – you will never get help if you don’t seek it. That gave me a one-up in my networking game and I started to learn more from people outside academia which helped me navigate the job market when I got closer to graduation.
During my PhD, I also took up a role with Dextrose Technologies, which was more on the consulting/guiding side where I helped train undergraduates in their final projects. It was an unpaid position, and an initiative to help students. The story behind the starting of Dextrose Technologies is an interesting one that is close to my heart. During undergrad, it was hard to find final year projects and gaining hands-on lab experience. So, Aravind, one of my few close friends from undergrad, came up with an idea to start a company that will train students acquire the hands-on experience and learn skills that the industry seeks and requires as addition to their workforce. A few other close friends got together to start the company which Aravind now runs full-time as the CEO. The lab is located in Bangalore, and they have a lot of tie-ups with Indian universities where students come to learn new skills and complete their final year projects. Some of the project plans have also materialized into commercial products. You can find more information on https://www.dextrosetech.com/
How did you get your first break?
My first break was in undergrad when my colleagues and I received the best undergraduate research award for our final year project on the bone biomaterial. We even published our work in a high impact journal. All thanks to my mentors in the lab- our Professor and two PhD students.
The next big break came when I was offered a teaching position at the university. This meant that I was fully funded for my master’s program. My PhD was also fully funded, and my standardized test GRE scores helped me get additional fellowship beyond the graduate assistantship. I owe most of this confidence to a mentor I had back in Chennai. He trained me in such a way that whatever I do beyond the undergraduate program, it should be on my own accord and not rely on my parents for educational funds.
Whenever one pursues an undergraduate or advanced degree in the US, you are eligible to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). This training is valid for a period of one year after graduation that allows you to gain real world experience in the field that you majored in. Also, if you majored in one of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees, you are given an additional 2 years to gain further training experience, and this is called a STEM OPT. This is what all foreign nationals do upon graduation. Beyond that period, you will need a work visa such as H1B to continue working.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
One of the first biggest challenges was moving from India to the US, after spending nearly 21 years in Chennai with my family. I had mentioned that I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s program when I started undergrad. So, to help myself and my family, I stayed with a few friends near my college for my final year and visited home over the weekend. In case you were wondering, my college was located 55 Kms (one way) from home and I used to commute a total of 3.5 hours every day for the first three years in college. This final year transition helped ease the big move to the US when the time for it came. Also, living and working in a new environment all by myself was transformational and a big learning curve. This meant being an independent adult, learning new cultures, cooking, doing your own chores, and taking care of your finances. This gave me a great sense of independence and responsibility.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as an R&D Scientist?
I am a R&D Scientist at Namida Lab in Arkansas, USA. Here I conduct cancer biomarker discovery research on tears and help develop novel risk assessment, screening, and diagnostic tools. Currently, our work is focused on breast cancer risk assessment but active research is underway, which involves conducting clinical research studies on other types of cancers.
The surface of your eye has a plethora of proteins and genetic materials that can be assessed using traditional and relatively new technologies. My PhD work was focused on heart valve tissue engineering and most of my molecular biology and biochemistry skills learned during my undergraduate and PhD program serve as transferrable skills for my current work. My work requires me to read a lot of research articles to aid in the R&D process. This also helps me design experimental studies and clinical research studies. Apart from conducting research, I also write grants and research articles that go through rigorous peer-review processes before being awarded or published in journals. Most of these skills were obtained during my PhD. Lastly, the best part of working for a startup is that you get to learn about marketing and other business processes beyond research.
How does your work benefit society?
Newer technologies are being developed every day with a major focus on personalized healthcare. These technologies are becoming more mainstream and provide a plethora of useful information. In the field of cancer biomarker discovery, I leverage these tools to identify crucial biomarkers and conduct clinical research to validate them. Our future goal is to identify biomarkers in an individual’s tears that can serve in detecting cancers at an early stage. Early detection and screening would increase the chances for successful cancer treatment.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
My most memorable work is the first time I got to have my hands on a microscope in high school. As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time in my father’s office working with engineers who were designing hardware. So, the first time I got to work with a microscope, it felt like I found a whole new miniature world and it fascinated me as I thought of the microscopic world as micro-scale machines.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I am extremely privileged to be a part of this interview and helping the younger generation to explore opportunities beyond traditional careers. My biggest advice for students out there would be to do their due diligence in seeking out people who might be in a role of your interest and asking them thoughtful questions that would help you find crucial answers to pursue your interest. Take your time to figure out what your interests are, even if it means taking a gap-year. Life is not a race; so finding what you love and making a career out of it leads to fulfillment and provides you with immense satisfaction. The interview portal’s pathbreakers blog has a plethora of information from individuals/professionals who have shared their experiences, and this is a great starting tool to explore.
I am a lifelong learner, so I plan to continue learning, improving my skills, and expanding my knowledge with the goal to direct high-level R&D operations. Additionally, I am rediscovering a few lost hobbies- video games, gardening, and relearning Japanese.