B.TECH, CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, 1993
ASSOCIATE VICE PRESIDENT FOR RESEARCH AT IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY
ANSON MARSTON DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR, AND CAROL VOHS CHAIR PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL ENGINEERING
I was in Mumbai when I was very young but my parents moved to Chennai when I was in 2nd standard. I always enjoyed math and chemistry but I didn’t really have any engineers in my family. So I didn’t have a whole lot of background in terms of encouraging me to go into engineering. But education was always given a lot of importance in my family. I studied in Adarsh Vidyalaya until 10th standard and in P.S. Senior Secondary School for class 11 and 12. My parents have been a wonderful influence on my life, and my father especially always told me, “Just let us know what you want to do, we’ll support you in that”. My parents were my inspiration. When the JEE result came, I ranked in the mid-600s. It would have been natural for me to join IIT Madras but IIT Bombay was the best for chemical engineering, so I chose Bombay.
I was 16 when I left home and it was definitely a very life-changing experience. I credit my current success to my IITB days and everything that I have learned, not just from my professors, but from friends and peers. And it’s not just chemical engineering but how to live your life. We had 17 girls in our batch, which was one of the highest at that time. We were extremely close and we still are. We even had a name for our group of 17 – ‘Nizzies’. In my chemical engineering class, there were four women, which was much more than in other disciplines. We supported each other quite a bit. In my first year, I stayed back during the Diwali break while most of the students had gone home. So we hung out near the Vihar Lake and suddenly, a dog bit me and ran away. I had to get 14 rabies shots in my tummy which was not at all pleasant. I’m working on vaccines now, in part due to this personal experience of having to take a sub-optimal and painful rabies vaccine. I completed my seminar project in my 3rd year with Dr. Bellare. My B.Tech. project in the 4th year with Dr Suresh was actually related to drug delivery. I really enjoyed both experiences with my two mentors and wanted to continue doing research in this area. That’s why I decided to go to Purdue where I had a wonderful mentor for my PhD, Dr Nicholas Peppas. My postdoctoral advisor at MIT was Prof. Bob Langer, who went on to co-found Moderna. Both my mentors had this wonderful mindset that you have to work Surya Mallapragada with husband Balaji Narasimhan, also an IITB alum on problems that are important and make an impact.
My work mostly focuses on materials for biomedical applications. My first significant exposure to working on biomedical applications started at IITB, as my B.Tech. project was focused on drug delivery. My interest area is biomaterial development for different biomedical applications, such as drug delivery, neural tissue engineering and vaccines. Conventional vaccines are made from live or inactivated viruses whereas mRNA vaccines use mRNA and lipids. Similarly, in our work, we take proteins from the pathogen and put them in polymer nanoparticles. So it’s essentially a virus- mimicking particle, if you will. What we are trying to do is to change the degradation rate so that there is slow release of this protein to get longer immunity. Like mRNA vaccines, it’s more of a platform technology which can be used to target a variety of pathogens. Right now, we’re working on what we hope is a universal influenza nanovaccine to provide long lasting protection. Our vaccine work is a collaborative effort with my husband Balaji Narasimhan, who is also an IITB graduate. Another area close to my heart is neural tissue engineering. Can we electrically stimulate stem cells to get them into one state or another, such that they are able to regenerate? We track various cellular parameters with sensors in real time to understand this. And then the idea is to use the data to build models and make sense of it all. I’m an introvert, according to the Myers-Briggs test. But you evolve with time, right? Going in front of a class and teaching, and also handling administration duties, has forced me to get out of my comfort zone to some extent.
All my projects are collaborative and interdisciplinary, this has been a very rewarding experience. To give you an example, just last year, we moved into a new research space at Iowa State University, which is on the fifth floor of a building. It’s an open lab concept where we have chemical engineers, immunologists, neuroscientists - people from many different backgrounds. We’ve seen the magic of the graduate students working all together, talking to each other over coffee or something like that, to see if new avenues of research result. So promoting an environment which allows for that exchange of ideas is important. The key is a problem solving mindset. It really doesn’t matter what aspect you come to this problem from, there are so many different ways you can try to solve it. For instance, some of our patents focus on development of new polymeric biomaterials that are specifically designed to be ideal drug delivery carriers and overcome the limitations of existing technologies. With research, it’s delayed gratification because things take time to come to fruition. And then you have the teaching part. That’s instant gratification. So I think I have the best of both worlds to keep me going. Also, anything new that you develop, you have to look at it from an ethical, legal and social standpoint.
My husband is also from IIT Bombay, chemical engineering, one year my senior. But I didn’t know him well when I was on campus. Only when I was accepted to grad school at Purdue, I reached out to him. He had just started graduate school at Purdue the previous year. He was my only contact and he came to pick me up at the airport. 11 years later, we were married! When we decided to have kids, I had already been promoted to full professor. My kids are in high school right now, so they’re still at home. It’s always a juggling effort with their after-school activities and looking at my own calendar and things like that. But I just decided to use the time-honored method where grandparents help out. So my parents have been living with me for the last few years. Prior to having kids, I had more time for hobbies. Right now, the kids are involved in several activities, so that takes up a lot of time and provides us a great deal of enjoyment.
Believe in yourself. There were times when I doubted myself but I had a great support system in my parents and friends and that pushed me in the right direction. With a chemical engineering degree, you can do so many different things, you can go into the semiconductor industry, go into the traditional petrochemicals or alternative fuels like biofuels, vaccines or human health – the opportunities are unlimited. We’re working on how to deliver combination therapies for pancreatic cancer, for instance. There are so many different important problems that you can work on. But remember that in research, you don’t know if things will work or not. There are lots of unknowns.