Every time Praveen Talari bumped into his professor Sravanti Uppaluri in the University’s corridors, she would greet him with a “how are your friends?” The first time he was asked, Praveen answered with a somewhat confused “uh, they are fine”.
Soon enough, he understood that Sravanti was not talking about his human friends but his vermian ones — the flatworms or Planaria that were growing under his watchful eye in the biology lab. The survival of these ‘friends’ would determine the fate of Praveen’s ongoing research project; both teacher and student knew this only too well. “Oh, those friends! They are doing great,” he would correct himself, with a laugh.
Now working as a genome analyst at a Bengaluru-based bioinformatics company, Praveen recognises that he has come a long way since his undergraduate years at Azim Premji University. “I had just completed grade XII (pre-university course) in Hyderabad when I came to the University. Everything was new and it was a culture shock. I didn’t know how to isolate DNA or how PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) works,” he said. It was during his third semester that Praveen used a pipette for the first time. “I remember doing gel electrophoresis and observing orange bands in UV light. It was fascinating. That’s when I felt ‘this is my field of interest’.”
Praveen didn’t begin his college life with grand ambitions of research so early in his scientific education. However, his biology professor Sravanti noticed a spark in him and offered him an opportunity to do a project with her. “Praveen had a really good memory and I felt that he could benefit from some research experience. But I insisted that he really think about it because it would have to be a commitment. Finally, he said yes.”
Initially, Praveen doubted himself. “Sravanti asked me to come up with a [research] question. I was clueless, so she gave me an idea to perform RNA interference with planaria,” he recalled. Now it was left to him to figure out how to alter or ‘transform’ the genetic material of these flatworms and develop an experiment protocol. “I had to do a lot of reading as I was the first person in the University to be working on this. Sravanti had full trust in me — she said ‘you can do it, you can do it.’”
I remember doing gel electrophoresis and observing orange bands in UV light. It was fascinating. That’s when I felt ‘this is my field of interest’.
Following Sravanti’s advice, Praveen stayed back in the University that summer. During the holidays, he learnt all about transformation and finalised a protocol. He had to undertake multiple trips across Bengaluru city, to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) to collect the bacterial colonies that would do the job of knocking out specific genes of his planaria.
He and his labmate Anjali then had to figure out a way to create a comfortable and nutritious media for the planaria to live in. “We would take our cycles and go to Sarjapura to collect beef liver. Then we would crush the liver and store it in tubes for the worms to feed on,” Praveen reminisced fondly. “It was the first time I got to choose an organism and become familiar with it.”
Meanwhile, Sravanti was observing her mentee carefully. “It was really cool to see him be so empowered. He became really close friends with the other students in the lab. I think the experience really changed him,” she said. During one of the University’s Open Days, Sravanti witnessed Praveen enthusiastically explaining his work to visiting students. “I took a photograph of that and kept it for the longest time because I felt so moved by it.”
Often students don’t take pride in their work. They don’t bother with how the documents look — right from the grammar to the aesthetic. You have to show that you have put effort into your work and this is something I always forced on my students, including Praveen. By the time he came out and presented his poster [at a national undergraduate research conference held by the University that year], it was really well done.
A valuable lesson Praveen learned along the way was the importance of presenting his work effectively.“I had to take images of the planaria every alternate day to monitor their growth, and keep records. But I did not know how to pictorially represent this information. Sravanti sat with me and made me draw tables, and place images at the right places… then things started to make sense! How you present your results matters because that’s what people see. They won’t see your experiment, only your paper.”
Sravanti would be heartened to hear this from her former student because good documentation is something very important to her.“Often students don’t take pride in their work. They don’t bother with how the documents look — right from the grammar to the aesthetic. You have to show that you have put effort into your work and this is something I always forced on my students, including Praveen. By the time he came out and presented his poster [at a national undergraduate research conference held by the University that year], it was really well done.”
In retrospect, Praveen truly acknowledges the amount of support he received at the University. It prepared him for his Master’s degree at the Centre for Human Genetics (CHG), Bengaluru, where he found himself pushed off the deep end. There would be no more handholding.
“It wasn’t such an informal atmosphere at CHG, but I learned a lot. First I worked with Drosophila, a higher organism. I used all that Sravanti taught me to make that project successful,” he recollected with a laugh. For his postgraduate dissertation, Praveen got to move on to human cells, and that was a big step forward for him.“Working with humans was great for me!”
At Praveen’s current workplace, he is part of a team that analyses patient DNA using next-generation sequencing techniques to help doctors make accurate diagnoses and provide the right treatment to their patients. This is a shift for him, not just from academia to the industry, but also from wet lab to dry lab.“I had been doing wet lab techniques for so long so I wanted to try my hand at bioinformatics, which I was also trained in. If I like the corporate life and if I can grow here, I will continue. If not, academia is always there for me!”
About the Author
Nandita Jayaraj is a Science writer and Communications Consultant at Azim Premji University.
Know more about the BSc Biology programme and the Dual degree in Science and Education (BSc BEd) programme at Azim Premji University.