Columns Journey of a YI

Learning from a joint lab culture

Prasoon Kumar

Prasoon Kumar is an Assistant Professor at Department of Biotechnology and Medical Engineering in National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, Odisha. In this invited article, he shares his experiences navigating multidisciplinary research as a young investigator in India with a joint engineering-science foundation.

Prasoon Kumar
Prasoon Kumar 

A Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology piqued my interest in biomaterials and their applications. I specialised in Biomechanics and Tissue engineering for my Master’s at IIT Kanpur. My stay at IIT Kanpur pivoted me toward research and made me realise the potential of a joint science and engineering foundation. The experience helped me choose a doctorate in mechanical engineering at IIT Bombay and Monash University, Melbourne. 

I continued the multidisciplinary streak during my postdoctoral training (at IISc Bangalore) and job search. Quite early in my job search, I realised I needed expertise in life science, polymers, design, and engineering under a single roof. NIPER Ahmedabad provided this opportunity of a joint lab and I decided to join.

I appreciated the joint lab culture during my training at IIT and IISc. Most individual labs at IIT Bombay, Monash University, and IIT Kanpur worked on exclusive research problems based on the investigator’s expertise. I observed that researchers working in these silos had limited appreciation for multidisciplinary research. However, labs sharing common facilities, for example, Prof. Chatterjee’s and Prof Bose’s (division of materials engineering at IISc Bangalore), had higher productivity and team spirit. These two labs could bring the expertise of two fields (Biomaterials/​tissue engineering and polymer materials) to solve unique research problems.

Upon joining, the three faculty at the Department of Medical Devices NIPER, including myself, shared common lab facilities. Although PIs had individual research groups, the director encouraged a joint lab system. Although I faced some well-reasoned hesitance from the faculty, they eventually opened up to the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. It has been a good idea for the faculty to share resources, space, and a value system. It led to the catalysis of new scientific ideas. 

I helped the research groups feel comfortable in this new working setup and smoothened minor differences. I was able to put my leadership and team-building skills to good use! 

Students were the primary beneficiaries of the collaborative approach. The culture paved the way for active discussions and collaborations among students belonging to various disciplines. For instance, one of my Ph.D. scholars working on tumouroid formation ideated a novel device for tumour cell growth and drug testing upon discussions with medicinal chemists. This joint work culture across principal investigators and students has shaped an environment for mutual support, benefitting science.

These collaborations have been extensively rewarding for all. I collaborated with the Department of Pharmaceutical Analysis to develop a blood micro sampler and dry eye curing device. The device won a list of innovations awards: Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Student Teams (ABLE-BEST, 2019), Gandhian Young Technology Innovation (GYTI, 2020), and Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) grants.

I am carrying forward the experience of setting up a joint lab in my new position at NIT Rourkela. I have initiated a biodesign and medical device group focussing on interdisciplinary endeavours. We work at the cross-section of intelligent sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, Opto-microfluidics, and microelectromechanical Systems. Despite my lab being new, its productivity has accelerated due to its collaborative approach.

I have collaborated to develop a microneedle-based sensor patch and insulin delivery pump integrated with machine learning to act as an alternative artificial pancreas for diabetic management. My team is also developing a portable flow cytometer for cancer cell sorting and characterisation. Collaboration, open-mindedness, and creativity have been essential to my work on biomedical device development.

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