Wet lab experiments in biology may be slow but the work is futuristic and exciting.



Early Life

I belong to Udaipur, which is this small town in Rajasthan. I did my schooling from St Mary’s Convent until 8th grade and finished 12th grade from Maharana Mewar Public school, set up in a horse stable of the palace of the city. My father had started a small cattle feed company but since he was also holding a job, my mother took it over and ran the business. She was a hardworking lady who managed both work and a family with three kids quite well. I would see her running around all the time, making sure that our needs were met in terms of food and studies. She is one of my biggest inspirations. There were only two options for good students back then. You go for medical studies or engineering. Although my parents wanted me Harvard Commencement – A fantastic journey ended with a crown on my head to become a doctor, I felt that I had to follow a trend set by my father and elder brothers, who are all graduates from various IITs. And when I saw my elder brother preparing for JEE, he became my role model. I said, “I want to do the same thing.”

Life at IIT Bombay

I was the only girl in a Metallurgical Engineering class of 45 students. There was no fixed seating. I would sit alone on an entire bench, every day. I was also quite shy, which made things worse. The feeling of isolation affected my academics, apart from other things. In the 4th year, after we had gone on a couple of industry visits, I got to know my classmates better and overcame my inhibitions. I started feeling more ‘myself’. The girls who come to IIT today are so much more fortunate - they are a big gang in their respective classes now. Luckily in the hostel, I had very good friends (Rachna and Vaishnavi) - we would eat, drink, sleep, fight, cry and laugh together. Best memories were going to the coffee shack for Maggi or Maggi bonda, or to the middle gate at 11 in the night to buy biscuits and junk food. In my 3rd year, I participated in the Inter-IIT sports meet held at Kharagpur. We put together women’s basketball team just a month before the tournament. I still remember the slogans from our cheering squad during the sports meet! I also met my future husband, Dinesh Balachandran, at IITB. He was my classmate and from the same department. We got married six years after graduating from IIT. When we visited the campus after the wedding with a box of sweets, a couple of our professors indicated that they were aware of our courtship :). I did not have a stellar academic record in my department, however, when I did my Seminar and B.Tech. project with Prof. M.P. Dixit and Prof. T.R. Rama Mohan respectively, I realized that academics is more than just attending classes and preparing for exams. This is when I got a glimpse of research through reading some journal papers and doing some wet lab experiments.

Professional Journey

After my undergrad, I had a short stint in a software company and soon figured out that is not what I wanted to do. I went on to do my Master’s in Materials Science from the University of Delaware and that’s when I got interested in academics again and was exposed to the research aspect of it. My Master’s project involved developing a sensor that was modelled as an electrical circuit having resistive and inductive components and was validated with experiments. I realized that I liked doing wet lab experiments and wanted to work more in the field of materials. I decided to apply for PhD and went on to pursue it at Harvard in the broad area of Applied Physics and Bioengineering. My PhD journey at Harvard also started in an unconventional manner. I had written up a project which was based on a technique called two photon polymerisation, a sort of 3D printing technique. I approached Prof. Eric Mazur, who was working in this area and I told him that I would like to apply this technique in the field of biology. He was a Professor in the Physics department and was equally excited when I discussed my idea with him. He gave me full freedom to work on it. Coincidentally, just that year, Prof. David Mooney from University of Michigan Ann Arbor moved to Harvard’s Bioengineering Department. So we collaborated with him and I started my career at the intersection of Physics and Biology. After finishing my PhD and postdoctoral stint at Harvard, my husband and I decided to move closer to our families in India, despite having green cards. At the same time, we were also clear that we would return only if I got a position at IIT Bombay. Once that was confirmed, we moved back permanently.

Frontiers of Science

I have set up the Cell and Tissue Engineering lab at IIT Bombay, wherein we use materials to do application-oriented work in the field of biology. We are developing material-based platforms for tissue engineering, immunotherapy and 3D in vitro models for drug-screening and understanding cellular mechanisms in diseased and pathological conditions. For tissue engineering, 3D printing is currently the most advanced technique which allows incorporation of cells and matrices required to build a tissue or an organ outside the human body. In 5 to 10 years we may see complete organs grown outside the body and implanted in humans. In our lab, we are working on skin tissue engineering, as well as cancer and auto-immune diseases. To take our technology to the next level, it needs to be tested on larger animals and human trials need to be conducted. Wet lab experiments in the field of biology may be slow and need to be extremely methodical. However, the anticipated outcome of our research keeps us going and makes it exciting for us to work!

Challenges as a Woman

I do not remember having any female professor in my own department when studying at IIT and a couple that I knew were in the Humanities Department. Today, the ratio of female to male professors has certainly improved, however, parity may be a distant dream. I haven’t faced any issues owing to my gender yet, though I wonder if I might have become blind to them or accepted them over so many years of being in minority. Academic life is rigorous, no matter where you are. Apart from being good at teaching and research, one has to excel the art of multi-tasking.

Work-Life Balance

I have two daughters, 8 and 12 years old. Managing home and career has never been very easy. One of the two always takes a hit at any point of time. However, my husband and I try to balance spending time with kids and have organically divided our tasks with respect to that.

Advice to Young Women

Try to experience and explore as much as possible. It’s hard to decide or know initially what one wants to do, but as you go along you will find something of interest. Just follow through – and then leave no stone unturned to pursue.