The field of electrochemistry has a myriad of applications in the world of inter-disciplinary research, as it cuts across disciplines of electrical engineering, material sciences & biochemistry to name a few!

Gaurab Datta (PhD), our next pathbreaker, General Engineer & Visiting Scientist at FDA (Food & Drug Administration, Washington DC), primarily works with physicians to determine the eligibility of any new medical device to be marketed in the U.S.

Gaurab talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being an electrical engineer by training, but doing his doctoral research on developing a neurosensor for sensing chemical messengers in the brain that could help in understanding neurostimulation mechanisms in different regions of the brain.

For students, scientific research does not have any boundaries, the only boundaries are your ability to learn what it takes to accomplish your goals !

Gaurab, Your background?

I grew up in a government housing complex named S.M Nagar Housing estate in the 24 Parganas (South) district, near the southern part of greater Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Since childhood, I have been curious about understanding how life is created and thrives on the earth, the science behind our existence. Growing up with friends and cousins was a fascinating and enjoyable childhood. I used to have a lot of fun in the summer while visiting my maternal uncle’s house or exploring old Kolkata’s allies with my uncle Mr. Santanu Ghosh or Father. My father, Mr. Gurupada Dutta, and my Mother, Mrs. Karabi Dutta, were in the medical profession in the government of West Bengal. During childhood, I watched patients receive treatment or different auxiliary clinical work such as laboratory testing at my parents’ workplace. Since then, I have become interested in science, specifically clinical/medical science. As a student, I was fascinated by the collaboration of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics in medical science, a very diverse and interdisciplinary field. Initially, I wanted to become a doctor. However, life had some other plans for me.

Since childhood, I have had myopic eyes with thick glasses, but that never stopped or diluted my passion for playing cricket, football, and other games with my friends. I particularly loved to play football. I was blessed to have great friends and companions who were instrumental in shaping me during my childhood and adolescence. Besides, watching “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” on television in childhood with my friends and neighbors was also fun. It was a typical middle-class experience from an early 90’s Indian household coupled with immense enjoyment and gala time that I miss today. I loved looking at nature and was always fond of rhythmic music. I used to draw sketches of warriors running chariots after watching “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” on television. Seeing my interest in drawing, my parents sent me to a drawing school in my neighborhood. My drawing teacher introduced me to the world of colors and shades of sketches, which was a mesmerizing experience; It was fascinating, and I gradually fell in love with drawing. I also liked to hear recitations of Bengali poems by Sambhu Mitra and old Bengali melodies from musicians like S.D. Burman, Shyamal Mitra, and Salil Chowdhury. My maternal uncle, Mr.  Bratindranath Ghosh, used to play the violin, and my maternal aunt Madhabi Basu introduced me to tabla. I learned tabla from my tutor Shri Satya Ranjan Dutta Banik, for almost five years. All these extracurricular activities infused a sense of discipline and self-confidence, and I still cherish my journey from childhood to adolescence. I firmly believe this journey shaped me into who I am today.

I completed my bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Netaji Subhash Engineering College, Kolkata, in 2008. I worked in the Power industry in different cities in India for almost five years as an Engineer. However, I always wanted to pursue higher studies in the U.S. So, in 2012, I started studying for GRE while working as a faculty member in Techno India, Salt Lake. I changed my job from industry to academia to gain some teaching experience, which helped me secure a good scholarship and a teaching assistantship during my Ph.D. in the U.S. I started my Ph.D. in 2013 at Louisiana Tech University. During my doctoral study, my wife, Dr. Nabamita Pal, was a constant source of inspiration and support who helped me to overcome those challenging times. Many of my achievements would not have been possible today if she was not beside me. 

I studied my secondary and higher secondary education in Bengali (Regional language). I initially had difficulty learning my post-secondary subjects in English as I was more comfortable looking in my mother tongue. Still,  the fear of learning a foreign language never stopped me from dreaming about pursuing higher studies in the U.S. My friend Dr. Rajarshi Chakraborty kept me motivated and helped me a lot when I was preparing to come to the U.S. to pursue my Ph.D. My middle-class upbringing, broader outlook on life, patience, self-confidence, and ability to cope with rudimentary hurdles helped me reach wherever I am today. Developing pedagogical knowledge, having life experience, and learning from that are equally crucial to a successful career. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After completing high school, I started my engineering education by pursuing a diploma in electrical engineering (Polytechnic college) under the West Bengal State Council of Technical Education. Later, I finished my bachelor’s in electrical engineering at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad University Of Technology (formerly the West Bengal University of Technology). I did my master’s in Electrical Engineering from Louisiana Tech University and Completed my Ph.D. in engineering (concentration on micro and nanoscale engineering) from Louisiana Tech University, USA, in 2017.

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

Since my childhood, I was always intrigued by reading about the life stories of freedom fighters and scientists. One thing that stuck with me till now is how after facing thousands of obstacles and difficulties, those freedom fighters and scientists were able to rise and walk toward their dreams. I think this is the similarity between freedom fighters and scientists worldwide. Over time, I realized nothing is impossible if my steps are driven by passion, and I understand the big picture of what I want to achieve. I realized as I grew up that my dreams and desires were also evolving. Since childhood, I dreamt of being a doctor but was unaware of the hurdles I needed to overcome to become one. I tried to absorb different scientific topics related to physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology and tried to understand which one excited me the most. Because of my initial training in drawing, I liked Biology and biology-related sketches. Still, I was equally excited about physics, mathematics, and chemistry. My family, specifically my school friends Subhamay Bhattacharya and Jishnu Bhattacharya, always motivated me during this time. As time progressed, while pursuing a diploma in electrical engineering, I started liking the core electrical engineering and the science behind it. Gradually, my interest grew in electrical engineering. My overall interest in different science sectors helped immensely in my doctoral research because it made me confident when choosing an interdisciplinary research project involving electrical engineering, biology, chemistry, and physics.

Initially, I was overwhelmed with the span and breadth of technicalities required for my doctoral research project, and while pursuing doctoral research, I failed in several experiments and approaches. But I was never skeptical about my ability to become a Doctor of Philosophy. It took me a diploma and bachelor’s in engineering and working in the engineering field in India for five years to save some money for GRE/TOEFL and survival in the U.S. My parents immensely supported my choices in professional and educational aspects. My maternal aunts, Mrs. Madhabi Basu and Dr. Malati Ghosh, cousin Dr. Pallab Basu, and my uncle Mr. Biswanath Basu were instrumental and crucial in shaping my passion for exploring a career in science and boosted my abilities regarding such explorations. My family members and friends were part of my educational journey and impacted it hugely to help me to be where I am. 

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

As iterated earlier, I started my electrical engineering diploma after high school (12th). During this time, I was amazed to experience the basic electrical engineering knowledge used to solve today’s problems at home and in large-scale industries. I started getting more interested in the applied field of electrical engineering. After completing my diploma in 2004, I started working as a junior engineer in a private firm, assisting clients with engineering turn-key-based projects. Side by side, I started preparing for the admission test I needed to take to join the bachelor’s degree program in electrical engineering. 

In 2005, I started my bachelor’s in electrical engineering. With my friend Dr. Rajarshi Chakraborty, I landed a senior year project at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP), Kolkata, a premier research institute in India. Our task was on Zinc oxide nanowire synthesis. This project gave me my first experience working in a laboratory with sophisticated instruments and using my engineering knowledge to solve a complex scientific problem step-by-step. Gradually, this project fueled my passion for becoming a scientist or researcher. As I completed my bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 2008 during an economic turmoil in India, I did several electrical engineering jobs to support my family and to save money to pursue higher study in the U.S. After completing my bachelor’s in electrical engineering. I worked at the Hindustan national glass, where I was exposed to hands-on techniques from senior technicians to solve electrical equipment-related issues, from cutting-edge to old ones. It made me more confident about my abilities to solve high-end engineering-related problems. Such an experience bolstered my self-confidence, thanks to my problem-solving skills. Eventually, I landed a faculty position at Techno India Engineering college in Kolkata, where I met my now-wife, Dr. Nabamita Pal. Nabamita was one of my colleagues there, and we both were passionate about pursuing Ph.D. in the U.S. My friend Dr. Rajarshi Chakraborty and my uncle Mr. Biswanath Basu actively helped me and kept me motivated during my final days of preparation for the GRE and TOEFL and helped me during the application process for Ph.D. programs in different universities, such as writing my statement of purpose, emails to professors in universities expressing my interest and willingness to work with them in their lab, etc. 

I got an offer of admission from Louisiana Tech University with a full tuition waiver and a scholarship to support my postgraduate studies. I initially joined for only a Ph.D., but later converted it to an integrated M.S./Ph.D. program. For most of my doctoral studies, I worked as a research assistant in various scientific research projects funded by the national science foundation, USA. My primary assignment was to develop a sensor that can detect neurotransmitters in real-time and, long-term, a chemical messenger that helps transport signals in multiple brain regions. Our group explored a particular class of carbon-based nanomaterials, i.e., ultra-nanocrystalline diamond, thin films, as a possible sensor material for neurotransmitter sensing. Diamonds are inherently insulators and are not able to conduct any charge. However, we developed a particular type of diamond by adding boron as an impurity via a unique thermochemical process, making those artificial diamonds conductive. These diamonds are called ultra-nanocrystalline diamonds. We eventually demonstrated that the ultra-nanocrystalline diamond thin films were a much better sensing material than the current gold standard for neurotransmitter sensing in brain research. My doctoral research work gave me the experience of conducting hands-on experiments related to electrochemistry, material science, biology, and surface chemistry. After I completed my Ph.D., I pursued postdoctoral research for a few years at the University of New Hampshire and the University of California, Los Angeles. 

In 2022, I received a job offer from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA sponsored my H1B visa through which I can legally work and pursue my job in the USA for my current employer.

How did you get your first break?

As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Los Angeles, I developed a sensor for continuous glucose monitoring in humans, which aimed for a marketing application in the USA. We were planning to assess the basic safety profile of our sensor. While leading the project, I visited the FDA website frequently to learn about their current policies and regulations. I came across different expedited programs offered by the FDA, like the Breakthrough Devices Program, Investigational device exemption, and the newly started safer technology transfer program. Such programs help patients in the U.S. to have more timely access to path-breaking medical devices/technologies by expediting their development, assessment, and review-timeline of the marketing applications via engaging with R&D departments of various medical device companies and confirming the device safety and efficacy in humans. These programs are very encouraging for researchers like us. I started gathering knowledge from websites and other publicly available sources regarding such programs and early feasibility studies for assessing the safety and efficacy of glucose sensors in humans. I immediately got interested in the overall procedure of how the FDA works to protect and promote public health, with encouragement and motivation from my peers and my wife. I applied for an advertised job in FDA. Eventually, to my surprise, I was called for an interview and selected as a Visiting Scientist at FDA.

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

Challenge 1: During my doctoral research project, I had to learn about different aspects of science since my research was interdisciplinary. As I was my Ph.D. advisor’s first student, there were few people to guide me on how to kick-start my research process. I had to gather knowledge about different aspects of brain physiology, brain electrochemistry, bioelectric signal transduction, material science, and material synthesis to implement the methodology of developing ultra-nanocrystalline diamonds. Though I took some courses, I also self-taught myself through YouTube videos, books, lectures, and every other resource available. Without any readymade study material, exploring unknown resources to gather knowledge about my research field was challenging and exciting. I also read relevant scientific journals related to my research, which helped me focus on areas I needed to gather knowledge on while addressing any issues specific to my research. These were initial challenging moments and times during my doctoral study.

Challenge 2: During my Ph.D., we were among the initial demonstrators of long-term (more than 40 hours) monitoring capabilities of dopamine, a critical neurotransmitter in the brain, using stable ultra-nanocrystalline diamond sensors with comparable resolution. A subsequent first-author publication challenged a crucial paradigm of long-term monitoring of dopamine using more stable boron-doped ultra-nanocrystalline diamond microsensors compared to the current gold standard, such as carbon fibers and carbon nanotubes. It was a challenging moment because we went through a process of extensive rebuttal from scientific reviewers. Eventually, my research was a featured article in a distinguished material science journal. It was a challenging and crucial moment in my doctoral research.

Challenge 3: After my Ph.D., during my first postdoctoral research at the University of New Hampshire, we tried to develop a polymer-based sensor for neurotransmitter sensing in different brain regions. Such polymers were heterogenous and consisted of small chains which were sub-nanometers in dimensions that cannot be visible to human eyes. We were using radicals, so I had to learn how to synthesize smart polymers via RAFT polymerization, a kind of organic radical polymerization. With no previous knowledge or experience in this field, I had to learn a lot about the fundamentals of polymer chemistry and organic synthesis. My Advisor, Dr. Edward Song, and Collaborator, Dr. Rudolf Seitz, helped me immensely in this process. He motivated me and allowed me to train myself to perform the innovative polymer synthesis process. Being an electrical engineer by training, this was challenging for me. I enjoyed every part of the process, from my initial failures to the successful synthesis of innovative polymers. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

Currently, I work in U.S. food and drug administration as a visiting scientist in the office of Clinical Evidence and Analysis under the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH). 

I primarily work with different FDA policies related to clinical studies and expedited approval programs like breakthrough designation and safer technology programs. 

I work with many physicians in my team at FDA. I am involved in determining the eligibility of any new medical device to be marketed in the U.S.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

My work requires skills like critical and analytical thinking with an ability to understand technical and scientific data with a capacity to lead workgroups across different offices in FDA. My work requires bringing project teams to consensus and project completion. I prioritize and multi-task concurrent projects according to the need. I work with various industry guidance documents and analyze, evaluate, and interpret complex Federal statutes and regulations. A part of my job involves communicating policy-related background information regarding clinical studies during medical device development to subject matter experts, managerial personnel, and others in the industry. All these skills are inherently translational, which I acquired over time through my educational, professional, and research journey.

What’s a typical day like?

Communicating with external stakeholders and internal project teams is a big part of my job. On a typical day, I generally work on my ongoing projects with team members and write communications for the team and the external stakeholders. I also work on existing FDA policies and help the project teams with policy-related interpretations and analysis.

What is it you love about this job? 

My job profile exposes me to a medical device’s total life cycle, from clinical studies to post-approval studies. Thus, I am involved in a product’s pre- and post-market cycles. It is inspiring to see a device developing over time, getting FDA approval, and being used in the real world by the public in the U.S. I feel, as an FDA employee, I have a rare opportunity to protect and promote public health.

Besides working full-time in FDA, I am involved in voluntary research with Dr. Erica Murray’s group from Louisiana Tech University. In Dr. Erica Murray’s group, I am engaged in a National Science foundation-funded research project on determining the corrosion characteristics of 3D-printed steel. Apart from that, I am also a voluntary peer reviewer for esteemed publishing houses like MDPI and Elsevier. In 2020, I was one of the winners of ”’2020 MDPI Top Reviewer and was awarded among 300k+ reviewers globally who served MDPI that year.

How does your work benefit society

My doctoral research on developing a sensor for sensing chemical messengers in the brain would benefit in refining brain modeling and signal pathways, understanding neurostimulation mechanisms in different regions of the brain, and accelerating new therapeutics for brain-related disorders such as Schizophrenia, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease, etc. My work during my Ph.D. resulted in a few nationally acclaimed grants for my lab at Louisiana Tech University. My research on innovative biocompatible polymer-based neurotransmitters opened an avenue for molecular-level detection of neurotransmitters in the brain, a novel technique. Currently, I am a visiting scientist at FDA. My work includes developing and implementing policies and regulations to foster new research and developments in the medical device industry through clinical evidence development initiatives such as breakthrough programs, safer technology programs, investigational device exemption programs, and real-world evidence programs. My work directly ensures assessing the safety and effectiveness of any new, state-of-the-art medical device before it reaches the public. Thus, my work protects and promotes public health in the U.S. and globally.

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

My postdoctoral research on developing an innovative polymer-based sensor for neurotransmitter sensing, as mentioned in the 3rd challenge, is close to me. As an electrical engineer by training, I was challenged to perform an organic chemistry task entirely out of my expertise. I needed to visit many of the basics of organic chemistry I studied during high school while preparing to be a doctor in India. I gradually realized how those essential organic reactions worked together to allow us to get the sub-nano dimension of smart polymers used for neurotransmitter sensing. We were able to publish it in one of the reputed peer review scientific journals of the American chemical society and later applied for a patent. That research involved polymer chemistry, material science, electrochemistry, an understanding of brain biology, and electrical engineering. It completed my desire to become interdisciplinary in my scientific exploration. Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, the great social welfare leader, and famous American activist, once said, “You don’t have to know everything, but you should learn how and where to find the things you need and want to know.” I think it captures the true essence of becoming interdisciplinary in my scientific endeavor. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I have always tried to learn from my failures or impediments. Because they always taught me clearly about the don’ts for my next move in life. I suggest not to fear momentary failures/hurdles while walking towards your dream. My exam scores were not very high during my high school studies. I could not secure a good rank in my medical entrance exam to become a doctor, but that didn’t stop me from gaining vital knowledge about human biology, chemistry, and physics, which immensely helped me during my doctoral research. I joined the Diploma engineering program, thinking I would get time to prepare for the medical entrance exam for the following year. I again failed to secure a good rank. The scenarios were such that I was gradually becoming skeptical about my abilities in my journey of scientific exploration, as sometimes the over-competitive Indian education system may make you feel that way. 

Today I work with so many physicians in my team at FDA. I am involved in determining whether a medical device is eligible for marketing in the United States. From my nursery to my Ph.D., 22 years of study taught me so much about life, whether it was science, engineering, literature, or my cultural heritage. I am still learning and will continue to learn till my last breath. I realized that learning from my failures made me more confident regarding my qualities and abilities to pursue engineering and a scientific career. One always needs to remember that failure and success go hand in hand. Becoming patient and prudent will eventually lead you to achieve your goals. That realization mentally prepared me to take reasonable steps and build my inner character to take on life’s challenges. Also, I believe instances of failure or hurdles passively teach us how to become patient, calm, and composed during difficult moments and silently prepare ourselves for the time when we will be achieving success and enjoying it to its fullest. Moments of failure improve your ability to judge a situation holistically, improve your thought process towards life, and enhance your passion for achieving your goals. So, I think to be able to value your success truly, failure is a must. Besides studies, engaging in extracurricular activities played a significant part in shaping my character and teaching me how to perform in a team, ways of relieving stress, and ways to rate life beyond the lose and gain tally.

Future Plans?

In the future, I see myself working in FDA and learning as much as possible from my job. I am also engaged in electrochemistry-related research with Dr. Erica P Murray’s group from Louisiana Tech University, and I will continue to pursue that as well. I will also continue serving prestigious journals as a voluntary peer reviewer and editor.