Bringing tech and life sciences together to hack into new ideas

11 Oct 2022

Image: Dr Venkata Vamsi B Yallapragada

Dr Venkata Vamsi B Yallapragada explains how multidisciplinary research is like making a movie and the challenge of getting lost in translation.

Dr Venkata Vamsi B Yallapragada is an interdisciplinary researcher who wants to bridge the gap between technology and life sciences. He has a background in synthetic biology, bio-photonics and hardware for biomedical applications.

In 2015, he received an award from Indian National Academy of Engineering (INAE) for his invention of a DNA-based cryptographic pen. He went on to receive his MSc and PhD from University College Cork, gaining expertise in computationally designing and modelling proteins with special optical imaging properties for targeted therapeutic and diagnostic applications.

He is now a postdoctoral researcher based at CAPPA, the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Process Analysis at Munster Technological University in Cork. He enjoys exploring how tech can be deployed in life sciences applications, and has experience working with teams specialising in AI, machine learning, virtual reality, photonics and hardware.

‘Every discipline of science has its own vocabulary and ways of doing things. It might sometimes feel like biologists and engineers talk an entirely different language’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

Imagine a great piece of cinema – it is a compilation of extraordinary efforts from various technical teams. There is music, screenplay, graphics, editing, acting and various other aspects. The person making the movie assesses the right mix of technical elements that are required to bring the story to its big screen glory.

This can be the case in science as well. Currently, life sciences present a fantastic canvas of opportunities to improve human life and environmental sustainability. While recent advancements in optics, electronics and engineering have provided us with an incredible technological arsenal, it is the role of multidisciplinary researchers like me to bring these opportunities together and find a new box office blockbuster.

My research has asked, can I monitor bacterial growth remotely from my couch? Life inside a microbiology lab can be quite laborious. Imagine working late on a Friday evening to finish time points of your bacterial growth curve or having to rush through your sandwich at lunch to induce your bacteria at an exact optical density (OD). These are no exaggerations. I have spent numerous hours in a lab doing these repetitive procedures, and I understand the pain and the frustration well.

I explained how I perform bacterial growth curves and OD measurements to a colleague and good friend of mine, Dr Chinna Devarapu. At that moment, Chinna was hacking fitness trackers to repurpose as swarm robots. He pointed out that a typical fitness tracker has a photodiode, Bluetooth module and a rechargeable battery. With the help of just an external LED, we can use the fitness tracker to measure optical density.

We spent the following weekend quickly sourcing an LED and 3D-printing an enclosure for holding a falcon tube that I used to grow my bacterial cells. We teamed up with another good friend, Dr Uday Gowda, and made our first working prototype. We hacked a $25 fitness tracker to continuously measure bacterial growth in a shaking incubator.

A few months later, we tested it extensively and published a paper. The response we received encouraged us to pursue this idea further. We have received requests from numerous researchers admitting the same problem and appreciating what difference this could make in everyday experiments. Currently I am working further on developing and extending this technology to other live remote monitoring applications.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Remote monitoring of bacterial growth and a few other live parameters reduces consumables, removes the need for sampling, minimises the risk of contamination, increases productivity and work efficacy. These add huge benefits to almost every research lab. Growing cells and measuring OD is a fundamental task in various academic and industrial labs.

We foresee significant reduction in costs and hours spent directly and indirectly on growth monitoring. Having complete remote access and a rechargeable battery allows the device to be taken anywhere for on-field measurements in remote locations.

Although our initial target application is to monitor bacterial growth through OD, the same technology platform could be extended for water quality assessment, point-of-care, at-home and near-patient diagnostics.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I draw a lot of inspiration from science fiction. Reading books like Brave New World, watching Star Wars and science-themed cartoons sparked my interest in science.

I later received a national award for my DNA pen invention. To prevent counterfeiting, a colleague and I managed to add some cryptic DNA into a specially formulated ink, that could be used for signing documents.

This was a milestone for me and provided a foundation for my scientific research career.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Getting lost in translation! Being a multidisciplinary researcher, I work with researchers with backgrounds such as biology, physics or computer science. Every discipline of science has its own vocabulary and ways of doing things. It might sometimes feel like biologists and engineers talk an entirely different language.

However, the essence of bridging two disciplines is in breaking down the problem into its fundamental components and translating the problem to respective scientific terminologies. This is quite challenging. If the translation between the technical teams isn’t good, we might end up making a product that no one wants.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Covid-19 had a big and significant impact on public engagement in science. Since the start of my career in biotech and synbio, I always found it challenging to explain my research to public. Explaining the concepts of genes and proteins, protein design and clinical testing were not general knowledge for the public.

However, within a year this changed. I saw my friends and family suddenly appreciating the pace of scientific work being done to find a vaccine. TV shows and news channels called in scientists to explain the details of the virus.

One of the unforgettable incidents for me was when I was traveling on a bus, a man in his 70s was explaining to his friend that he got the Moderna vaccine and that it is an mRNA vaccine.

People are vigilant and eagerly wanting to learn anything that is related to viruses, bacteria and many transmissible diseases for various reasons. I personally see an increased public engagement with science.

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