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How I Got Here: Why biomedical optics researcher Alistair Lewis left Bangalore for Philly

The grad student describes a typical day in data collection and analysis, and how he overcame homesickness through supports at Penn.

Alistair Lewis. (Photo via Campus Philly)

This article appears as part of the Most Diverse Tech Hub initiative, underwritten by the City of Philadelphia Department of Commerce. It was first published on project partner Campus Philly's website and is republished here with permission.

The adoption of a “growth mindset” can be applied to any major life change — from moving to a new country to pursuing a new career. Sometimes, it lives at the intersection of both.

Alistair Lewis grew up in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, he moved continents to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. His Ph.D. is in the field of biomedical optics (think pulse oximeters) where he seeks to develop non-invasive tools for better prediction of the severity of carbon monoxide poisoning. He is also working on developing tools for detection of water in tissues which has huge potential in treating diseases where there is build-up of fluid in tissues.

Outside his graduate studies, he loves to travel — he’s checked off 16 states off in the time he’s been in the U.S. — exploring Philly’s neighborhoods and food scene, or just spending a quiet day listening to or reading a book.

Campus Philly interviewed Lewis about his research, why he picked Philly and how he overcame homesickness through supports at Penn.


You studied chemistry in India prior to coming to University of Pennsylvania to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical optics. What made you choose Philly, and what do you like most about the region?

At the end of the application cycle for the Ph.D. program, I had two offers, one at Texas A&M and one at Penn. Penn Chemistry had more professors whose work I was interested in. Penn Chemistry also had the most diverse faculty among all the schools I applied to. Half of the cohort was also international, which was very comforting to me as an international student. Prior to moving to Philly, I had spent almost my entire life in Bangalore, which is a big city with a population of 10 million people. Moving to Philly, which is also a fairly large city, was very attractive to me.

The thing that I like the most about the region is its diversity. I’ve never ever felt out of place in this city as a person of color or as an international student. The variety of cuisines I have access to is mind boggling! I also really love how passionate Philadelphians are towards their sport teams. For someone who has always loved sports, it’s awesome to be in a place with such passionate fans.

What’s one problem that you’re hoping to solve through your biomedical optics research?

One of the problems that I’m working on for my thesis is to understand carbon monoxide poisoning. The current techniques confirm just exposure but have limited utility in predicting the severity of the condition. My hope is that at the end of the project we can find non-invasive, optical markers to make more informed decisions of the severity of the disease and thus offer better ways of treating the condition. I find this problem intellectually stimulating as well as socially fulfilling since Philly has a significant number of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.

As an international student, it’s a huge adjustment moving to the other side of the world. When did you begin to feel like you found your fit in Philadelphia?

My first semester in Philly was very hard. Having never lived outside Bangalore, I was hit by severe homesickness in the middle of the semester. And without any local social networks to rely on, the academic stress was a little too much to take. Without the Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn and my therapist there, I would have found it next to impossible to make it to the end of the semester. I was also extremely fortunate to be in a supportive Penn Chemistry graduate program which understands mental health issues faced by graduate students. In particular, I’m grateful to my graduate chair Zahra Fakhraii and graduate coordinator Kristen Simon for helping me pull through that period.

I think I found my fit in my second semester in Philly when I became more familiar with the nature of the program. I also visited my friends in other cities more often and they were (and will always be) pillars of support to me. Also, being part of a lab (since we join a lab in the second semester) meant that I had people to just talk to so that things didn’t get too bad. I also started exploring different restaurants and parts of the city with my roommate which helped me build more familiarity with the city. There wasn’t really a fixed moment, but a gradual process through which I became adjusted to the city.

Alistair Lewis. (Photo via Campus Philly)

You earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry, and could have gone in many different directions from there. What influenced your decision to focus on biomedical optics?

When I started the program at Penn Chemistry, I wanted to work on spectroscopy (a technique that analyzes how a material interacts with light) and other optical techniques. As part of my coursework, I had taken a graduate level course in optics taught by Professor Arjun Yodh in the physics department. I initially started out in a biophysics lab in the chemistry department which used two very cool optical techniques, but after six months I decided to switch fields since I wanted to do research that was more applied in nature.

At this time, I wrote to Arjun. Arjun’s research really excited me (and still does) because of the direct impact it has. The research is very translational in nature and unlike basic science research, the research reaches the patients in need in a much shorter span of time. After a round of interviews and discussions, he offered me a position in his lab which would be made permanent after four months if progress made was good. And here I am after a year and a half!

What’s a typical day like for you (if there is one)?

My work can be roughly divided into three parts: instrumentation, collecting data during animal experiments, and data analysis. So, I have three “typical” days, so to speak. On the days I spend on instrumentation, I’m in the instrument lab, coding for the interface with instruments, calibrating them or collecting test data. When I’m collecting data during animal experiments, I’m usually in the animal lab by 6 a.m., setting up for the experiment. On an average I will end up spending eight to nine hours in the lab on these days.

For data analysis, I’m usually at home. I write code to process the data collected and see if what is getting processed makes sense scientifically. On these days, my day would start at 10 a.m. and end somewhere around 7 to 7:30 p.m. In a typical week, I would have one or two animal experiment days and the other days I would either be doing data analysis or instrumentation work. I’m also always keeping up with scientific literature and attending group meetings.

If you were to give one piece of advice to an aspiring tech professional in college right now, what would it be?

I think the most important thing is to have a growth mindset. Keep an open mind and be open to learning new things and take up projects or internships that push you outside your intellectual comfort zone. It takes years to be an expert at something which happens through a process of continuous learning.

Companies: Campus Philly / University of Pennsylvania
Series: Tech + Health Month 2021 / PHL: Most Diverse Tech Hub / How I Got Here

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