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Krishna Mohan Vattipalli: Life's Early Lessons

Obstacle or opportunity – Krishna Vattipalli approaches both with the optimism gained from his life's early lessons in perseverance. He is ready to pay forward the support he has received to students in need of guidance, physicians and patients in want of answers and colleagues in search of collaboration.


"A lot of people have challenges that are either a stumbling stone or a stepping stone. It depends on how you look at the stones, how they are aligned or how the pattern is formed," says Krishna Mohan Vattipalli, M.S., M.Sc., Ph.D., a three-time SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award recipient and an SLAS2012 Student Poster Competition presenter. "If you like the pattern, they are stepping stones. If you don't, they can be the worst stumbling stones that you can encounter."

As a postdoctoral research associate at The University of Texas Dallas (UT Dallas), Vattipalli carefully counsels students because his own academic journey was filled with challenges. Guidance from admired mentors and support from SLAS made his trip easier.

When Vattipalli came to the U.S. in 2001, differences between the education system in his native India and the U.S. caused a few roadblocks for the scholar. "The learning curve was steep. I came from a yearly academic calendar in India to a quarterly system at Portland State University. I had a tough start but once I got used to it I was sailing fine," he explains. He had already earned bachelor's and master's degrees in electronics from Andhra University in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India. His plan upon coming to the U.S. was to expand his education by earning a master's degree in electrical engineering from Portland State, Portland, OR, and to continue on with a doctoral program.

By keeping a good perspective about his goals, he was able to navigate the new system, and complete his master's degree in only five quarters. "I give credit to my dad. He was the one who guided me and said ‘you can do this,' " says Vattipalli.

Coping financially with what he took on academically was another challenge, particularly as he worked toward his doctorate. Vattipalli discovered support through SLAS after his post-doctoral advisor at Portland State, Eric Sánchez, Ph.D., recommended that Vattipalli submit research to the 2005 LabAutomation student poster competition and apply for a travel award. Sánchez knew that this would be a significant step in getting the scholar's work before a broad audience, while minimizing the costs of traveling to an international conference.

That first year, Vattipalli did not receive a travel award. Instead, Sánchez stepped in and paid Vattipalli's expenses to attend this career-changing event, an act that earned Vattipalli's immense gratitude. Attending the conference was an extraordinary experience.

"SLAS was my first international conference. It was wonderful. It was a dream come true!" says Vattipalli. "What I like best at SLAS conferences is the mixture of scientists, academics and industry people representing small and emerging companies. All companies, regardless of size, are interesting and exciting to see. When I called people I met after I got back to my lab, they were always friendly and helpful. The interaction I get at SLAS is the best."

Such interactions were a big help as he completed his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Portland State in 2009. Happily after that first conference, Vattipalli was selected three times for travel awards, including LabAutomation2011, SLAS2012 and the upcoming SLAS2013 conference. The travel award has provided a means to get to the events and therefore support his research through continuing collaboration.

He appreciated the travel award and the opportunity to present a poster at SLAS2012. The poster represented three years of postdoctoral research conducted at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS, and UT Dallas.

SLAS member Shalini Prasad, Ph.D., observes that the multidisciplinary environment of SLAS conferences has helped Vattipalli understand how his research impacts other industries and what he needs to accomplish to make it more commercially acceptable.

"The kind of exposure offered by SLAS is not easy to achieve in a purely academic environment," says Prasad, under whose guidance Vattipalli has worked at both Wichita State and UT Dallas. She, too, knows the value of entering and winning poster presentations, as a multiple winner of student poster competitions, a 2007 ALA Innovation Award finalist and chair of the SLAS2012 Student Poster Competition. "SLAS truly makes the effort to give students and young professionals help to strengthen their scientific foundation and achieve rapid and successful growth in their careers."

Vattipalli agrees. "SLAS is the best possible place to expand your career. For students to have that opportunity to apply SLAS information to their research, posters or podium presentations is invaluable," he says, adding that programs such as the Tony B. Travel award are great perks. "I know how hard the financial aspects are for students. Not all students get an award, but they should take the opportunity and get the best presentation of their research possible."

Be Patient in Your Research

There is nothing Vattipalli enjoys more than a challenge in the laboratory. "It is much easier to discuss research obstacles," Vattipalli says with a laugh. "I love research obstacles. Without those, I cannot breathe! I have to have several problems each day to solve."

He encourages students to focus on research. "Don't give up on it. I have seen a few people who were not so patient. They did not survive in research," Vattipalli says. "Patience is one of the key ingredients we need to put in research, just as you would add salt in cooking." At the same time, he encourages students to take some time to enjoy life.

"Believe, relax and breathe!" he says, enthusiastically. "I think that is the most important aspect of anyone's life. Take time to get things started and dream about what you can do. It's going to happen."

For Vattipalli, a lot began to happen when he collaborated with Prasad. In 2010 at Wichita State, they worked on biosensors using electro-chemical approaches. Their research involved early-disease detection using a rapid, ultra-sensitive, nanoporous/ nanochannel biosensor – in other words, a "Lab-on-a-chip."

In 2011, he accepted the position he now holds at UT Dallas, eagerly following Prasad and the groundbreaking research she continued there. "I am excited to be a part of it. I am able to do the research as well as teach and mentor students," Vattipalli explains. "I want to teach them basic things such as how to characterize a signal and how to filter out the noise from the signal that we collect. Training them and getting interaction from students is one of the most interesting opportunities I have here."

Prasad, director of the Biomedical Microdevices and Nanotechnology Laboratory, an associate professor in bioengineering and the Cecil and Ida Green Professor in Systems Biology at UT Dallas, notes that prior to working in her lab Vattipalli's post doctoral view of research was more conventional.

"My lab has a multi-disciplinary research focus with the goal of developing biomedical micro- and nanodevices," Prasad says. "Krishna's Ph.D. training was in the area of nano-optics which was not an exact fit. Over time he's had an opportunity to get a global perspective of research and now understands how the various pieces of the interdisciplinary puzzle come together to make the big picture. I think working in my lab has been a great training ground for him to make the transition from performing independent research to collaborative research as he starts his search for an assistant professor position."

Vattipalli sees his UT Dallas work as a complement to his Ph.D. research. "I am using a mixture of both of these to get to my picture of early diagnostics," he says. He also feels that his life experiences have further inspired his research. His personal knowledge of the pain and suffering caused by disease motivates much of what he is trying to accomplish.

"My family has a diabetes history, and cancer is a disease that is affecting almost everyone. When I was working on my Ph.D., I lost a close friend to acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML requires a very invasive, painful treatment. She was close to me, and her death was hard for me to overcome," he explains.

"What is in my mind right now is to create an optical sensor that anyone with bare-minimum knowledge can use," Vattipalli says, adding that his goal is to create a technique that requires less power, low cost and low volumes of test samples. His research is supporting this goal.

Vattipalli's SLAS2013 podium presentation, Performance Comparison of Nanomonitor against Elisa on Patient Pool Samples, details his work in the early diagnosis of cardiac markers that may enhance patient outcomes. In his presentation, Vattipalli will describe how the UT Dallas team uses an electrochemical-based nanomonitor that is setup on a 1x3-inch printed circuit board with concentric gold patterns. The device requires mere drops of blood to test for Troponin-T, a representative biomarker sometimes present in cardiac events or stroke. It is a continuation of research he conducted and presented as a poster at SLAS2012. In that poster, Vattipalli describes creating an electrochemical sensor for rapidly monitoring cerebrospinal fluid levels (CSF) of oligomeric alpha-synuclein and beta-amyloid, which are biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

"Moving from a poster to a podium presentation gives my work very good exposure and gives me increased interaction with SLAS members," says Vattipalli, who calls his research "the pursuit of the un-seeable thing" in the electromagnetic spectrum.

"The ultimate objective of the electrical device that we presented in the poster is to get to final optical sensing, but the device we presented is an electrical characterization that we got from different frequencies which we cannot see," he explains, adding that his work with Prasad at Wichita State was what first sparked his interest in electrical characterizations. "I have a bank of characterization techniques and now I want to build on top of that and grow further in the research." Understanding the electromagnetic signals and all the optics add up together, he asserts. It simply takes patience to sort out the data.

"This is a long process," Vattipalli comments. "There are a lot of researchers out there in the field who are active in this area. Developing diagnostics is interesting and challenging."

Curiosity Directs the Scholar

His life-long fascination with how things work was inspired by his mother, a primary-school science teacher, and his father, an engineer. "I was curious and needed to understand things," Vattipalli explains. "I wanted to get into the science behind things."

His youthful interests included mechanical devices. "My dad bought a television with extra long antennae. That intrigued me: How do we get a signal out of there? How do we receive it?" Vattipalli says. "My dad tried to put the antennae question in perspective for me. I understood it a little bit."

While his dad put mechanisms into perspective, Vattipalli's mother taught him how to visualize science and make purposeful observations. "I feel that I am blessed by my parents to be patient in my research," he asserts. "My mom taught that you had to be persistent, patient and have the ability to re-do the same thing again and again. Research is not something that is a switch that you turn on and off. It is repeated searching. Patience is the key!"

Another inspiration for Vattipalli was his mother's brother, who died as a young man after completing his Ph.D. in biochemistry the 1970s. "I have always been very proud of him, even though I never had a chance to meet him," he says, adding that he is proud to share the same profession as his uncle.

And he can't talk about mentors without coming back to Erik Sánchez at Portland State, who paid Vattipalli's way to that first SLAS conference. "The first person I really admired after my dad was Erik," he says. "He has a vast knowledge of science and his help was invaluable to me." Vattipalli describes his studies with Sánchez as continually opening his eyes to new experiences in the field of science.

"He showed me how to be extremely creative with just a small piece of metal. He made me build a Raman/multi-photon fluorescence scanning microscope from scratch!" says Vattipalli. "That was an awesome lifetime experience. I'm sure he is still having students do this. I could not use the microscope because it was not made with industry-precision alignment, but I had it as a proof of confidence."

The Joy of Cooking and Giving Something Back

While work sometimes consumes his imagination, Vattipalli also recognizes the importance of taking a step back from it. Beyond the bench, Vattipalli would like to give back more. When he finds more time in his schedule, he would eventually like to volunteer in a hospital. "I want to pitch in with physicians and help with roadblocks they may be facing in making patient diagnosis," he says. He would also like to work in the hospital environment to motivate patients to lifestyle changes.

For the present, Vattipalli continues to make more time at home with his wife, Sai Sowmya. Newlyweds since August 2012, Vattipalli and Sai Sowmya enjoy what free time they have as they cultivate one career and get the other launched. Sai Sowmya, who holds an integrated master's degree from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) in Pilani, Rajasthan, India, is on a job hunt focusing on instrumentation and electronics in the IT field.

Vattipalli knows that seeking a job and being far from family can be a stressful. "I want to make sure that she doesn't feel lonely," he says, noting that nothing counteracts homesickness like a good home-cooked meal. Vattipalli serves up an entire special evening when he has the chance. "I tell her ‘This is my evening to cook. You sit and relax.' Then I get her comfortable with some cushions and prepare food in the most traditional way because that's how my mom cooks," he says. The couple enjoys both Northern and Southern Indian cuisine, with occasional forays into Chinese cooking.

"Cooking is an art of bringing in the tastes," he says. "You add a bit of salt and bring the right balance – just like in life. Balance is a really good thing that one should be looking for in life."

Striking a balance between work and environmental consciousness is another area that interests Vattipalli. He supports a green chemistry approach whenever he can. "If we can have something from nature that is a good substitute and try to modify it, then we don't have to use harsh chemicals that leave traces behind in the environment. We should cooperate with nature and leave a smaller carbon footprint."

For example, he had considered using solar power in his optical sensing work. "The cells I have made are a bit iffy in terms of being green," he muses. "You must balance the fact of efficacy with a more earth-friendly approach. A green chemistry path can be a slower journey to getting results, but moving faster sometimes requires a larger impact on the environment." He also considers the broader picture of how the things he uses in his work are created and packaged as well.

Perhaps the area that he most values is his opportunity to contribute to SLAS. Presenting his work to increasingly larger audiences is important because of the give and take that happens when scientists come together. "My career has evolved with SLAS," Vattipalli concludes. "It plugged me into the work of research scholars and gave me the opportunity to meet with some of them one-on-one. When I interact with researchers I share my ideas and they share their data. It's an ongoing process."

January 10, 2013