Up close with professional mutant Dr. Gayatri Saberwal
Please meet our guest Dr. Gayatri Saberwal, Scientist and Dean at Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology, Bangalore, India, sharing her views today with all of you. She completed her PhD from Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology-India, after which she gained post-doctoral research experience in Biophysics from Cornell University. Dr. Gayatri’s accomplishments are mainly associated with her studies of the Healthcare, Biotech and Pharma Industries. Her vision is to boost biomedical entrepreneurship in India through policy research. She has many publications in top national and international journals.
She is a scientist, manager and mentor. She calls herself a “Professional mutant”. Find out the reason for it in the following Q&A session.
Q&A session with Dr. Gayatri Saberwal
BS: You call yourself as “Professional mutant”. Can you brief us on what is ““Professional mutant” and why you call yourself as one?
GS: I don’t know if others in my situation call themselves by this term. I just cooked it up! I trained as a biologist (including for my PhD and post-doctoral work), but then, after a gap of several years, became a policy researcher. So, there is a 10-year gap in my publications – the ones up to 1996 relate to science and the ones from 2006 onwards relate to policy research.
BS: Any recent read or discovery that you admire most?
GS: Yes, ‘Making individualized drugs a reality’ by Schellekens et al, that appeared in Nature Biotechnology ealier this month. It talks about ‘magistral production’ of biologics, that is in a pharmacy like compounders do. The cost would be a very small fraction of what biologics cost today, and they would be personalized for each patient.
BS: Your current research is attentive on global biotech & Pharma companies focusing on healthcare. What have you learned through your research so far?
GS: Our work is ’empirical’ in nature. We pose certain questions and then examine large datasets (such as those available at the US Patent and Trademark Office, or ClinicalTrials.gov or the US Food and Drug Administration) and try to answer them. Because we seek answers in such large datasets, the answers should be convincing! Some examples of work we have done are: (a) although the number of patents assigned to drug discovery companies can range from 0 to over 400, for most companies it is less than 40. There was no correlation between the number of products and number of patents for a given company; (b) most patents that protect products are maintained, whereas far fewer (although still a high fraction) of patents issued to companies are maintained; and (c) very little innovative patent-worthy has been outsourced to India (at least in the bio field, as of the date of the work, 2012).
BS: What are your other activities outside of IBAB?
GS: Most of my time is taken up with work for the institute and my own research. Aside from that, I serve on a few committees such as the Karnataka Knowledge Commission/Karnataka Jnana Aayoga, that of BIRAC’s Bioincubator Support Scheme, the Academic and Research Council of the Trans-Disciplinary University, IIT Madras Bioincubator Advisory Council and so on.
BS: What is the current status of biotechnology and startup ecosystem in India?
GS: I can only comment upon the latter. There is a sea-change from a few years ago. There is more financial support from BIRAC and others, there are more incubators, there are more mentors… As a result, there are many, many more first time entrepreneurs and also a few second-timers. Each of these factors will strengthen the ecosystem for the newbies.
BS: We noted that you blog at “Trade Secrets” as an author. Tell us how did that happened?
GS: I had submitted a regular article to Nature Biotechnology. Although they have accepted several of my articles in the past, this time they said they could only accept it for their blog, TradeSecrets. We (the two authors) were agreeable, so the editor chopped up one article into four blog pieces. The journals’ business editor was closely involved in rewriting the piece to fit the style of blog pieces.
Other than that, I wrote a book review of Mythbreaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech. I thought Trade Secrets would be a good venue for publishing it, and the editor accepted the piece.
So, there’ve just been a few blogs. I don’t blog regularly.
BS: As a woman, have you ever faced intolerance or some form of discrimination in your career?
GS: I think young women, in particular, are more vulnerable to being bullied, especially by older male colleagues. When I was, a young professional I faced this with one particular person. But he was a bully to men too, so it was not specific to me. I’ve been lucky to have worked in very enlightened institutions, so I’ve had an easy time of it on this count. Women should remember that many bullies are also cowards. If you are able to not be cowed down and somehow confront the person, he may never bully you again.
BS: Where do women in India fall to compete with men in science and technology?
GS: Since I am not actively in science or technology, I cannot comment on this directly. What I can say, however, is that women have to somehow throw off the shackles imposed by society. Find a spouse who is willing to share the household chores, get as much help in child-rearing as possible, try and get out of social functions, get someone else to run the kitchen… Basically try and live a ‘traditional male’ life, that is one where someone else does all these tasks. That is what will free up time and energy to excel at whatever we are trying to do, in science or otherwise. It is only when our efforts equal or exceed the men’s can we begin to make equal or better contributions.
BS: Any advice to upcoming women scientist?
GS: Build a strong support system, to enable you to focus.