Looking for a place in Prakruthi ( IISc Canteen) on a Sunday morning I came across a couple who politely offered me the empty seat next to them. As the conversation began I came to know that I was sitting with Prof Dipshikha Chakravortty and her husband who themselves were enjoying their morning coffee in the canteen. Asking about my department and area of research, Prof Chakravortty explained the pressing need of interdisciplinary research in 21st century and how she herself was trying for nano-drug delivery systems (her collaborative work on nano-capsules) for her research work. Dr. Dipshikha Chakravortty is an Associate Professor at Centre for Infectious Diseases Research (CIDR),Dept of Micro Biology and Cell Biology (MCB),Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Her research work focuses on infectious disease and host pathogen interaction using bacteria as a model system, understanding the mechanism of bacterial infections, and developing antidote and vaccine strains with excellent memory.
I got an opportunity to discuss with Prof Chakravortty about her research on typhoid vaccine, women in STEM, social issues and youth of India. I am thankful to Prof Chakravortty for giving me her time and for sharing her experiences. Following is the word picture of that conversation along with her childhood and research experiences.
Prof Chakravortty’s lab distinctly works on Salmonella tphyrium-tphyimurium, bacteria responsible for typhoid fever. Enfeebling the host and destroying the immune system Salmonella has been designated as one of the bio-terrorism agents by Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) , United Sates. In 2000, it was estimated that over 2.16 million episodes of typhoid occurred worldwide, claiming 216 000 lives, and with more than 90% of this morbidity and mortality occurred in Asia, typhoid remains as one of the major concerns of developing countries.Data from global burden of disease studies show most cases of typhoid fever to be reported on the Indian subcontinent thus making it most common in India. “It’s no longer a fever which can be dealt with simple antibiotic intervention, Salmonella has come a long way since past hundered years evading our understanding with its stealthiness and resistance to developed and developing drugs”, says Prof Chakravortty.
Owing to weak immunity, pregnant women are susceptible to all kinds of infections. Salmonella bacteria one of such virulents causes typhoid that induces abortion when the bacteria infect the foetus. Recently Prof Chakravortty’s research yielded very potent vaccine candidate against Salmonella typhi which harbors multiple mutations, can induce long-term protection, prevent miscarriage and is needed to be administered in low dose. For this particular work Prof Chakravortty has got a US patent. According to WHO each year unsafe injections cause an estimated 1.3 million premature deaths, the loss of 26 million years of life, and an annual burden of $535 million in direct medical expenses. Prof Chakravortty and team designed a drug delivery system omitting needles and incorporating micro-shock wave technique. IISc team including Gopalan Jagadeesh, Prof Chakravortty , Divya Prakash G., Rakesh S.G., Uday Sankar Allam, M. Gopala Krishna and Sandeepa M. Eswarappa published the paper in the Clinical and Vaccine Immunology. She was featured in Economic Times’ International Women’s Day: Women who have stood out in Bengaluru.
“I have grown up listening stories about my great-grandmother who was a pre-independence era gynaecologist”
Born to Mrs. Bani Chakravortty, a homemaker from a family of doctors and Shri Santosh Kumar Chakravortty, an engineer having a legacy of practicing Ayurvedic medicines, Prof Chakravortty’s foray to the word “microbes” happened at the age of was 7 when she mixed some milk cream with talcum powder and named it as her special cream but as soon as the dark stuff grew over it her mother had to throw it away.”I have grown up listening stories about my great-grandmother, Dr. Kiron Chatterjee who was a pre-independence era gynaecologist. As a very small child, I played with her medical kit which was imported from Germany and was given to my mother by her . My great-grandmother completed her degree in medicine in 1939 at Kolkata Medical College and she was one of the very few lady gynecologists of her time way back in the 1940s. She finally settled in Lucknow. As I have heard the story of my grandmom, the only dream I had was to become a doctor.”
Determined to become a doctor and cut open damaged part of body to fix it Prof Chakravortty had to let go the dream once she was unable to secure good rank in medical examination. Prof Chakravortty opted chemistry, zoology and microbiology for her bachelor degree. “Microbiology was the turning point of my life”, says Prof Chakravortty. “Interestingly my mother introduced me to this subject.My real understanding of science came to me during my graduate and post-graduate studies when I started doing experiments.”
“Mentors are the most important part of research”
Prof Chakravortty completed her PhD from National Centre for Cell Science, then called the National Facility for Animal Tissue and Cell Culture and got her doctorate degree in December 1999, after which she did her post-doctoral studies under Prof Takashi Yokochi at Aichi Medical University in Japan and Prof Michael Hensel in Germany . Recalling her days in PhD and post-doc, Prof Chakravortty emphasises, “I have been extremely blessed to work under my mentors. They never held me back from doing anything and always encouraged me to be an independent researcher, and I believe that’s a great quality of a mentor. If a mentor spoon-feeds his/her students, they come out as glorified technicians not researchers.Under a good mentor students inculcate leadership quality which in-turn reflects in their research thus making them good mentors.”
“Physiologically and mentally women are tuned to handle any situation”
“As a woman I have realised we are the one pulling ourselves down.Look at the physiology of a woman, she can bear a child within her and withstand the pain of labor. It is directly connected to her work capacity and mental state, but when it comes to any other field of work women consider themselves the minority and become vulnerable to condescending attitude of milieu around. We don’t need to create an aura of low self-esteem, we should be confident and determined about our work. From my bachelor course I knew that I want to do research and have my own group. I chose some unusual paths like going to Europe for post-doc rather than US, I was never confused about my goals.” accentuated Prof Chakravortty while talking about women in research and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in general. “Anyone making remarks that women cannot handle certain work are stuck in the quagmire of parochial mindset. We don’t need to bother about them as their words are the reflection of their narrow thinking. We have our strength we should not lock it in a box be it a man or woman.”
“Potential of youth is our strength”
Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has written in Ignited Minds, “Nation consists of people. And with their effort a nation can accomplish all it could ever want. Motivating India’s people, and it’s youth especially is the central theme. Given the freedom and guided properly, I am convinced the young of India can accomplish far more.” Prof Chakravortty totally in agreement of the statement says, “We cannot change the thinking process of grown-ups to an extent but we can stimulate our youth and their potential trapped under the vicious lid of subjugation. They will make a difference if given an opportunity. I have seen students under CHETNA Programme, they don’t have proper supply of electricity, internet for their studies but they are ready for hard work. To watch their enthusiasm is sublime. I always want such students.”
“Every social problem foeticide, infanticide, domestic violence, gender discrimination etc have been known for decades, it’s not the issue of finding the problem it’s about not having the solution. The question is where do we touch? I say let’s start from the root, when a woman is pregnant. Can anybody imagine a world without women or healthy children? For the well-being of the society we should always be careful about the Female to Male ratio (FM Ratio) , the minute this ratio is skewed systems will start collapsing.We can talk what should be done and how everyone should take up their dreams but this discussion is not going anywhere if it is not going out of the closed walls of our air-conditioned offices.We should start fission and fusion of thoughts reaching out everyone explaining the issues and initiating a brainstorm to overcome them. I believe if everyone starts from their own family as an incipient of change, we can have a better place.”, says Prof Chakravortty .
After an hour of our discussion Prof Dipshikha Chakravortty pleasantly accepting my request of clicking a picture together told me, “Put on your research boots, start your journey, do the right stuff and always be FEARLESS !!”