Nature India | Indigenus

Away from home: Using science for societal good

Our ‘Away from home’ interactive map features 50 bright Indian postdocs from around the world. Write to us at to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.

Saidulu Mattapally, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA, is enamoured by the translational aspect of science. From exploring coronary genetic defects to unraveling the secrets locked in India’s traditional system of medicine, this molecular geneticist from Osmania University, Hyderabad, strives to do application-based science that has immediate benefits for people.

Saidulu Mattapally

Driven by the relevance of science

Molecular genetics is not just a fascinating field of science but also offers immediate medicinal applications. This therapeutic relevance triggered my early interest in the field. I tried to explore the molecular and hereditary premise of coronary illness in my graduate and doctoral studies.

Scientific investigation helps shape the broader questions we ask – for me an investigative approach is also a state of mind. From a young age, I have been inspired to think of the broader relevance of things. Science has been eternally interesting to me and I always wanted to be in research.

After a bachelor’s from Osmania University, Hyderabad, I got into a master’s course in genetics at the same university learning advanced experimental techniques in molecular biology, biochemistry, immunology and genetics. I was selected as a research scientist in the pharmacology division of CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad, one of the best chemical technology institutes in India.  My Ph.D. under Sanjay K. Banerjee at the same institute involved genetics (Sanger sequencing).

I also got the opportunity to work with Kumarasamy Thangaraj and Lalji Singh’s group at CSIR-Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad. They published two papers in Nature, which was a great learning experience.

Combining molecular genetic and pharmacology

Though my interest was in the molecular and genetic basis of congenital heart disease, I spent a year to learn advanced molecular genetic techniques. During this time I worked on a project exploring malaria risk among ancestral Indian tribal populations. We needed to collaborate with a hospital to get samples. Although CCMB scientists were helpful, doctors were not convinced except in one Hyderabad hospital, which gave us the opportunity to work with congenital heart disease samples.  My supervisor urged me to explore the work of two Indian origin scientists Deepak Srivastava and Aravinda Chakravarti. We wrote a grant on their work for the Indian scenario, and although we didn’t get funded, we continued to work on the project.

During Ph.D., I got the opportunity to present this work at the prestigious international conferences of the American Society of Human Genetics in 2013 and 2014. There I met Aravinda Chakravarti, the scientist who had influenced my project. Around the same time, I got an opportunity to attend a next-generation sequencing event in Boston. There, I heard a lecture by Eric Topol, one of best-individualized medicine and genome and digital technologies researchers. A five-minute chat with him and later his book ‘The Creative Destruction of Medicine’ continue to inspire me.

I was also awarded a DBT travel grant in 2015 to attend the next American Society of Human Genetics meeting in San Diego. In addition to molecular biology and genetics, I learned an immense lot about pharmacology, development of different types of animal models to study different diseases, and pharmacological screening of small molecules. My doctoral stint had already convinced me of the strong relationship between molecular genetics and pharmacology.

During my doctoral stint with Dr. Banerjee, we traced a genetic mutation associated with congenital heart disease in south India. Our work shed light on a very important aspect of gene mutation as we reported a novel mutation associated with ventricular septal defect (VSD).

Postdoc years – when life and career intertwine

Around this time, my father and best friend Yellaiah Mattapally passed away when he fell from a toddy (palm) tree. He was a farmer and always talked about the problems he faced in his agricultural practices on account of being illiterate. He would always egg me on to become a scientist and work for the society.

Fulfilling my father’s dreams, I finished my Ph.D. in 2014. I got married the same year and received a postdoc opportunity from the University of Minnesota in Dr. Nobuaki Kikyo’s lab soon after. I decided to take my spouse along though we couldn’t go since my visa didn’t arrive in time. Following many ups and downs, one year later, I took up an offer from Dr. Jianyi (Jay) Zhang at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Our son was born that year.

In life as in a postdoc career, many problems come interspersed with solutions – and a lesson I learned was that one should be mentally prepared for these years when both personal and professional lives face a lot of changes. In the end, they work out fine.

As a postdoctoral student, I trained in CRISPR-Cas9 in skeletal muscle cells and mouse induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) culture. I studied how gene expression and epigenetic modification change during differentiation of mouse skeletal muscle cells. I have completed 3 years of post-doctoral work and hope to wrap it up by end of 2018. In the first year, I tested the hypothesis that fetal genes linked to congenital heart defects can treat adult heart failure (myocardial infarction). We reported the effectiveness of transplanted, human iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes in the treatment of ischemic myocardial injury. Currently, I am working on the development of universal human iPSC by CRISPR-cas9 mediated Knockout MHC class I and MHC class II expression. Also, the differentiation of these cells into three lineages – cardiomyocytes (iPSC-CM), endothelial cells (iPSC-EC) and smooth muscle cells (iPSC-SMC) – to treat myocardial infarction in swine.

Traditional knowledge needs more exploring

Though medical practice in India majorly involves western medicine, the Indian traditional system of medicine Ayurveda is now being practiced and accepted all over the globe.

I remember my mother Ankulamma treating abdominal pain with medicinal plants. She also talked of Ayurvedic formulations to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes.  In Telangana, where I was born, we celebrated the annual floral festival of Bathukamma, when we brothers brought home beautiful yellow flowers of the native tree Senna auriculata and other flowers for our sisters. Interestingly enough, when I recently started researching Ayurveda I learned that Senna auriculata is used for the treatment of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

I strongly feel that these traditional knowledge linkages need more scientific exploring.

During my undergraduate years, I used to help my father in our cotton and rice fields. I haven’t gone back to the fields in a long time. I wish to come back someday and work for my homeland, and dig deeper into the traditional knowledge wealth that India is so rich in.


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