Margdarshi Fellowship
2016

Professor Sandhya S. Visweswariah

About Fellow

Indian Institute of Science

Astra Zeneca, Bangalore, India
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

My excitement in doing science and specifically research in biological sciences, was kindled during my MSc in Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.  The teachers shared their excitement in research along with insisting on students understanding the basics of anything that they studied.  I would like to highlight how much Prof. S. Chandrasekharan, at that time a new faculty member in IIT Kanpur, showed me how to be a ‘guide’ to students.  I was delighted when he later moved to the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, where I completed my PhD in the Department of Biochemistry, working with the late Prof. P.R. Adiga.  I became a mother during my PhD, and realized that the challenges one faces, managing a family as well as a career, could be overcome with enough support and motivation.

Unlike most students at that time, I did not go abroad for a post-doctoral fellowship but chose a stint in industry, joining the newly established Astra Research Centre, right next to IISc.  This was a new experiment where an international pharmaceutical company supported applied research in infectious diseases. I enjoyed the experience of working in an industry for a few years, but realized that my heart lay in asking fundamental questions, that may or may not lead to direct application in the immediate future.  I was fortunate to return to IISc as a faculty member in the erstwhile Centre for Reproductive Biology and Molecular Endocrinology, where I started my own laboratory focusing on a receptor for a toxin that was one of the major causes of watery diarrhoea in young children and travelers to developing countries.  I had worked on this receptor while at Astra, and they allowed me to pursue such studies in IISc, since the Company was no longer interested in that area. 

I learnt a lot during my stay in Astra, and most importantly, the need to focus on a specific task, set deadlines and try to achieve them in the time envisaged.  I was fortunate to have outstanding students join my laboratory, who seemed to imbibe this somewhat ‘disciplined’ way of doing research, but still ready to take on new avenues should they emerge.  This flexibility of doing what you want to do, but evaluating the importance of what you set out to do, is a question I keep asking myself as I discuss research activities with my students.

The Indian Institute of Science is an amazing place and I have been fortunate to establish my career there.  The freedom to ‘do you own thing’ with little interference from the  administration allows one to rise to their full potential.  The credit for whatever I have achieved in my scientific area of research rests largely on many wonderful students, post doctoral fellows and project staff, who I have had the good fortune to work with on this journey.

After many years, one’s laboratory gets into periods of auto pilot mode, which allow the PI to explore other avenues of activity.  During interactions with engineers on campus, it was apparent that there was a great deal of interest in establishing a focused research activity where engineering approaches could contribute to biology. I was involved along with Prof. G.K. Anantasuresh, a mechanical engineer, in the establishment of a new Centre for Biosystems Science and Engineering in IISc, and we are pleased to see that is has flourished into a strong academic activity on Campus.

In the last few years, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with clinicians in Norway and Austria in my area of research, and realized that a major lacuna lies in trained clinicians embarking on research activities in India.  It is with this aim in mind, along with trying to establish another new initiative in IISc, that I applied to the Wellcome-DBT India Alliance to set up a Medical Research Hub in the Centre for Biosystems Science and Engineering, with support from the Margdarshi Fellowship.  The idea was met with some concerns, given past experiences in India, but fortunately, the Margdarshi Committee felt that the idea may see fruition at this time.  We will focus on establishing closer interactions with Christian Medical College, Vellore, where an MOU between the two institutions will allow joint supervision of MD students to work towards a PhD in the Indian Institute of Science.  Specifically, we will also embark on research projects that are clinician driven, in that they are identified by Clinicians at CMC Vellore, based on their needs.  We will also facilitate the visit of MBBS students to spend up to a month in IISc associated with research laboratories, to give them a flavor of research in a laboratory environment.  Finally, we will host Clinicians in the Centre for short periods of time so that research collaborations can be identified along with faculty in IISc.