How I got here: Why biomedical optics researcher Alistair Lewis left Bangalore for Philly
Adopting a “growth mindset” can be applied to any major life change – from moving to a new country to pursuing a new career. Sometimes he lives at the intersection of the two.
Alistair lewis grew up in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. After obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, he moved from one continent to another to pursue a doctorate. to University of Pennsylvania. His doctorate is in the field of biomedical optics (think pulse oximeters) where he seeks to develop non-invasive tools for better prediction of the severity of carbon monoxide poisoning. He is also working on the development of tools for the detection of water in tissues, which has enormous potential in the treatment of diseases where there is an accumulation of fluid in the tissues.
Outside of graduate school, he loves to travel – he’s checked 16 states since he’s been in the United States – exploring the neighborhoods and food scene of Philly, or just spending a quiet day listening or reading a book.
Philly Campus interviewed Lewis about his research, why he chose Philly, and how he overcame homesickness with the support of Penn.
You studied chemistry in India before coming to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a doctorate. in biomedical optics. What made you choose Philly and what do you like most about the area?
At the end of the doctoral application cycle. program, I had two offers, one to Texas A&M and one at Penn. Penn Chemistry I had more teachers whose work interested me. Penn Chemistry also had the most diverse faculty of any school I applied to. Half of the cohort was also international, which was very heartwarming for me as an international student. Before moving to Philly, I had spent most of my life in Bangalore, which is a large city of 10 million people. Moving to Philly, which is also a fairly large city, was very appealing to me.
What I like most about the region is its diversity. I have never felt out of place in this city as a person of color or as an international student. The variety of cuisines to which I have access is mind-boggling! I also really like the Philadelphians’ passion for their sports teams. For someone who has always loved sports, it’s great to be in a place with such passionate fans.
What problem do you hope to solve with your research in biomedical optics?
One of the issues I’m working on for my thesis is understanding carbon monoxide poisoning. Current techniques only confirm exposure but have limited utility in predicting disease severity. I hope that at the end of the project, we can find non-invasive optical markers to make more informed decisions about the severity of the disease and thus offer better ways to treat the disease. I find this problem intellectually stimulating as well as socially fulfilling since Philly has a significant number of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.
As an international student, it’s a huge adjustment to move halfway around the world. When did you start to feel like you had found your place in Philadelphia?
My first semester in Philly was very tough. Having never lived outside of Bangalore, I was struck by severe homesickness in the middle of the semester. And with no local social network to lean on, the school stress was a little too much to bear. Without the Psychological counseling and services at Penn and my therapist there, I would have found it almost impossible to make it to the end of the semester. I have also been extremely fortunate to participate in a Penn Chemistry graduate program that understands the mental health issues facing graduate students. In particular, I thank my chair of graduate studies Zahra Fakhrai and graduate studies coordinator Kristen simon for helping me through this time.
I think I found my place during my second semester in Philly, when I got to grips with the nature of the program. I also visited my friends more often in other cities and they were (and always will be) pillars of support for me. Also, being part of a lab (since we joined a lab in the second semester) meant I had people to talk to so things didn’t go too badly. I also started exploring different restaurants and areas of the city with my roommate, which helped me become more familiar with the city. There wasn’t really a fixed time, but a gradual process by which I adapted to the city.
You got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in chemistry and you could have gone in many directions. What influenced your decision to focus on biomedical optics?
When I started the program at Penn Chemistry, I wanted to work on spectroscopy (a technique that analyzes how a material interacts with light) and other optical techniques. As part of my classes, I had taken a graduate course in optics taught by the professor Arjun Yodh in the physics department. I first started in a biophysics lab in the chemistry department that used two very interesting optical techniques, but after six months I decided to change fields because I wanted to do more applied research in nature. .
At that time, I wrote to Arjun. Arjun’s research really turned me on (and still does) because of the direct impact it has. Research is very translational in nature and unlike basic scientific research, research reaches patients in need in a much shorter time frame. After a series of interviews and discussions, he offered me a position in his laboratory which would become permanent after four months if the progress made was satisfactory. And here I am after a year and a half!
What does a typical day look like for you (if there is one)?
My work can be roughly divided into three parts: instrumentation, data collection in animal experiments, and data analysis. So I have three “typical” days, so to speak. On the days I spend on instrumentation, I am in the instrument lab, coding to interface with instruments, calibrating them, or collecting test data. When I collect data in animal experiments, I’m usually in the animal lab at 6 a.m., getting ready for the experiment. On average, I’ll end up spending eight to nine hours in the lab on these days.
For data analysis, I am usually at home. I write code to process the collected data and see if what is being processed makes scientific sense. On those days my day would start at 10 am and end between 7 pm and 7:30 pm In a typical week I would have one or two days of animal testing and the other days I would either do some chores. data or instrumentation analysis. I am also always up to date with scientific literature and attend group meetings.
If you had to give one piece of advice to an aspiring tech professional in college, what would it be?
I think the most important thing is to have a growth mindset. Keep an open mind and be open to learning new things and taking on projects or internships that push you out of your intellectual comfort zone. It takes years to be an expert at something that goes through a process of lifelong learning.