India Alliance Fellow Spotlight: Shankar Manoharan, IIT Jodhpur

29 Jan 2020

India Alliance Fellow Spotlight: Shankar Manoharan, IIT Jodhpur

In this interview, we meet India Alliance Early Career Fellow Dr Shankar Manoharan – who often describes himself as “a biologist in a technical institute” – and talk about his professional journey, his views on public engagement with science and more.

Can you tell us about your professional journey so far?

I hold a master’s degree in genomics and a doctoral degree in microbiology from Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU). While attempting to understand bacterial communication in the rice rhizosphere, my doctoral research unraveled the molecular communications at play between a rice root colonizing bacterium, Enterobacter cloacae and the host. We showed that the host could modulate bacterial gene expression by synthesizing signal mimics that bacteria use to communicate among each other.

This cross-Kingdom regulation of gene expression sparked an interest in pursuing further research on the regulation of bacterial gene expression. I soon took up a postdoctoral position with Dr. Indranil Biswas at the University of Kansas Medical Center, where I studied two-component systems, regulatory proteins and regulatory RNA in Streptococcus mutans, a dental pathogen. After completing three years of postdoctoral training, when I was about to return to India, I applied to be considered for the India Alliance Early Career Fellowship. I had also applied to various science and technical research Institutes across India, where research in the area of my interest was not being pursued, but would be relevant.

In 2017, I was awarded the Early Career Fellowship to be activated at my former host institution VIT, Vellore. A couple of months later, I was also offered a Faculty position at the Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur. As always, India Alliance was extremely supportive, recognized the potential career advancement and permitted my move from VIT to IIT Jodhpur.

Since then, I've been working at the Department of Bioscience & Bioengineering as an Assistant Professor and an India Alliance Early Career Fellow. The Microbial Physiology Laboratory has been setup and is slowly evolving at IIT Jodhpur.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I'm studying the regulation of virulence genes in Klebsiella pneumoniae, a hospital associated pathogen. Of particular interest to us is the role of bacterial small RNA in the regulation of virulence. We are in the process of cataloging virulence regulators in K. pneumoniae to better understand the molecular processes at play.

What impact do you think your work will have?

With antimicrobial resistance emerging as one of the biggest global threats, I am positive that there will come a time, when alternatives to antibiotics will be needed. Anti-virulence strategies have been a paradigm shift and have shown promise in the past. Our research is focused in this direction, where we wish to understand how important virulence factors are regulated in bacteria, so that we can use this information to prevent their production. Without virulence factors, pathogens cannot survive the onslaught of the immune system.  What is currently needed is a better understanding of what key virulence factors are in each pathogen, how virulence is regulated in different pathogens and a detailed catalog of these regulatory networks.

You often describe yourself as "a biologist in a technical institute". How easy or challenging has it been?

The major challenge about pursuing biology in a technical institute is the lack of understanding about biology among engineers and vice versa. This includes poor understanding of each other’s potentials and problems. Such a situation usually leads to independent research in silos with no or very little collaborative efforts.

Fortunately for IIT Jodhpur, the philosophy for research has been thoroughly revamped with dedicated funding and specialized Inter Disciplinary Research Programs (IDRP). One such program is IIT Jodhpur's Smart Healthcare initiative, which brings in expertise from both the engineering and biology research groups to recognize each other’s problems and come up with unique solutions.

Has the India Alliance fellowship been helpful for you?

Absolutely. Being an India alliance fellow has provided the exposure I needed to the top-notch research that is being pursued across India as well as the globe. I've been able to connect with various researchers and potential collaborators thereby expanding my professional network. I also like the way that India Alliance nurtures it's fellows into responsible researchers. I have attended and benefited from training programs organized by them and was also nominated to attend the DELTAS meeting in Dakar, Senegal, where I was exposed to a spectrum of socially relevant research problems. Overall, I would go on to say that the India Alliance fellowship has been a game changer as far as my career is concerned.

You recently hosted and participated in the Explorer Series by India Alliance at IIT Jodhpur. How was the experience?

Bringing the Explorer Series to Jodhpur was a fantastic learning experience for me. Getting something done on this scale at Jodhpur, which is geographically disadvantaged, as one of my good friends put it, was the challenge. However, thanks to the excellent volunteer support I had from my Department, we managed to get delegations from local schools and undergraduate students from IIT Jodhpur attend and benefit from the series. I would like to thank the entire India Alliance team for all their efforts including those to get great speakers like Dr. Geeta Trilok, Dr. Kavita Babu and Dr. Tavpritesh Sethi to IIT Jodhpur.

What do you wish public understood better about scientists, and vice versa?

Apart from the occasionally sensationalized news flash, scientists always remain in the background toiling night and day pursuing research that someday is going to impact lives. I wish that the public knew more about what we do, why we do it and the choices we make, personal and professional, for the betterment of science. As a scientist, I would be glad to know how my research problem is perceived by the public. I believe that having the public’s view on a research proposal will help scientists deliver what is expected of them by the public. After all, most of us pursue our research funded by public money.

Finally, if not a scientist, you would be a…

There were so many options at various instances in life so far, where I could have taken a different trajectory, each one as unlikely as the next. Had I not chosen a career in science, I could have probably been an author, an editor, a hotelier or a professional chef.