Fiction as it may seem, a day is just around the corner when we will fix our bodies using the tiny microbes that we may otherwise fear. While we already have probiotics that help us with digestive problems, soon, we will have curds and microbial cocktails to cure anxiety, depression, heart issues and many more.
Dr Karthik Raman’s interest lies in these tiny beings! He loves to study these bugs that reside in our body to understand their interactions, complex machinery, and how they function in toto. He has been researching these bugs for a long time, to understand how they function via large networks and to find out ways in which we can tweak these networks to derive maximum benefit from them. Microbes, however, form Karthik’s second interest—his first love is computing and mathematical modelling, which he employs as a means to study these tiny beings.
Karthik’s journey in biotechnology began with his BTech degree in Chemical Technology at ICT Mumbai, during which he got exposed to food engineering as a subject. Inspired by the works and accolades of his Grand Uncle, Prof. E V Krishnamurthy, who was an eminent computer scientist and a Bhatnagar awardee, Karthik got interested in walking the long and tiring but exciting road of discoveries and inventions. Always passionate about computing and math, Karthik got admitted to the Indian Institute of Science for a master’s degree in computational science, where he learned various aspects of computing such as high-performance computing, parallel programming, numerical methods and so on. Karthik’s interest in systems biology was piqued by a course taught by Prof. Nagasuma Chandra.
“I was quite enamoured by ‘computational protein engineering’ at the time and had collected a boatload of research papers on the topic”, recalls Karthik. “But when Prof. Chandra suggested a project on systems biology, I jumped at it immediately. Turned out great for me, and one couldn’t ask for a better PhD mentor than Prof. Suma!”
Karthik quickly signed up to work on a systems biology project on modelling the TB pathogen with Prof. Chandra, which soon matured into his PhD thesis topic, where he combined his computing skills to model a pathway in the tuberculosis-causing bacterium to find out proteins that should be targeted by drugs to kill this disease-causing bacterium. This was one of the first systems biology theses in the country, employing a systems biology approach to study pathogenic bacteria, which was not being employed by Indian scientists. After his successful PhD stint, Karthik moved to the University of Zurich (UZH), Switzerland, to gain international exposure and learn more tools and techniques in systems biology. At UZH, Karthik worked with Prof. Andreas Wagner, whom Karthik reckons as one of the most creative and enthusiastic scientists he has ever come across, and yet another wonderful mentor and role model. In the year 2011, he moved back to his metropolitan hometown—Chennai—as an Assistant Professor at the world-renowned IIT Madras.
While research and teaching remain his primary duties at IITM, Karthik dons various hats like co-founder and director at his startup qBiome Research Private Limited, advisor at the office of global engagement at IIT Madras, Co-ordinator at the Centre for Integrative Biology and Systems Medicine (IBSE) at IIT Madras and a core faculty at the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (RBC-DSAI). Though these various roles make him satisfied at different angles, he says that teaching is one role that gives him immense satisfaction and happiness. Hand-holding students in their initial years, looking at their excitement for his subject and their gratitude-filled emails and messages years after they have left the Institute is what touches his heart the most. While teaching is where his heart finds solace, he is most passionate about his role as a co-ordinator for IBSE, which is a unique interdisciplinary Centre handling many exciting research projects and churning out fantastic students. Recently, Karthik fulfilled his long-standing dream of authoring a textbook that is a kickstart for students interested in learning Computational Systems Biology.
Karthik’s laboratory is handling many exciting research projects. Of late, his team has been studying the microbiome of the International Space Station based on the dataset they received from NASA to find out how these microbes survive in such extreme conditions. Another study underway seeks to study microbes that inhabit the extreme conditions of hydrothermal vents. His startup, qBiome Research Private limited, exploits key research from Karthik’s lab and those of his colleagues at IIT Bombay/IISc, to cater to industries who are looking for novel products from microbes or wish to increase the yield of a particular product from the microbes. Through this startup, Karthik has been able to build industry linkages and ensure that the fruits of his research reach the masses. Alongside colleagues from RBCDSAI, he has also tried to contribute to the fight against COVID-19 by developing models and visualisations to study the surge of COVID-19 cases in Tamil Nadu.
In his free time, he loves to proofread and typeset Sanskrit texts using his computing knowledge. Sounds geeky, no?
To know more about his research visit his lab’s webpage.