Pavitra Krishnaswamy
Pavitra Krishnaswamy
PhD Candidate, Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Division

Our ‘Day in the Life’ series of blog posts by some of Wiley’s young science advisers continues – this time with a day in the life of Pavitra Krishnaswamy, a PhD Candidate at the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Division.


MRI of the brain
Source: Wenht / Thinkstock

I am a PhD Candidate in Medical Engineering and Medical Physics at the Neuroscience Statistics Research Laboratory and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MIT and the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). One large effort in the Center is aimed at advancing imaging techniques to enable studies of brain function in a variety of cognitive and clinical states (like anesthesia, sleep, epilepsy and depression). A big challenge limiting these studies is the inadequate spatial and temporal resolution of existing non-invasive techniques to image brain function. My PhD research advances computational techniques to enhance the resolution with which we can image human brain activity. Further, I am involved in applying these techniques to study how anesthetic drugs modify brain activity and eliminate conscious perception – a commonplace occurrence during millions of surgeries each year. My project is exciting to me because it requires me to work at the intersection of computational and clinical science, and to integrate math, physics, physiology, and medicine in unique ways.


Behind-the-scenes, my research day typically involves working with brain imaging and time series data acquired using varied measurement techniques, developing visualizations and mathematically intensive algorithms to analyze these data, writing manuscripts, and collaborating with diverse experts at the university or the hospital. At times, I spend most of the day doing math and statistical inference at the whiteboard by my desk, and muddling through equations, either by myself or with pre/postdoctoral associates. Some days are spent on literature review and thinking about the nature of information contained in imaging measurements and how that information can be exploited to enhance resolution. This usually involves linking the physics driving the imaging modality and the physiology underlying brain function. Sometimes I also observe procedures in the hospital to understand the clinical context within which the data is collected. Many days involve extensive coding, debugging, and implementing data analysis streams – often using open-source software tools. These tasks have the interesting dichotomy that they require a creative flow of ideas, while staying organized and tracking how things evolve clearly and carefully. Work days are long (10-12 hours) but flexible. Most days, I work from home at night and can log on remotely into the computational cluster, to start overnight simulations or time consuming runs – it is fun that I can program my work to continue while I go to meetings, happy hours, or sleep.


The lab I work in is spread across institutions with very different characters. For instance, the setup at MIT has the feel of an innovative technologically oriented institution with an intensely entrepreneurial culture -- everyone around here is always starting up something cool and exciting! On the other hand, MGH research is more oriented to patients and medical needs – interacting with patients, doctors and academic medical specialists offers a clinical perspective and often a reality check to when technology can impact medicine positively and more importantly when it cannot! The imaging center within MGH where I work has a number of like-minded engineers and physicists working on research that will have impact on patient care. The diversity of environments and the people I work with is energizing and always allows a chance to refresh when the math is not working out or the algorithm is generating errors. Sometimes, the seamless transitions between these environments makes me believe I am living in a bubble – but other times, when I spend hours on shuttle buses navigating Boston roads to make it in time for meetings at distinct locations, I am jolted back into reality.


My research activities are often interspersed with attending lab meetings, seminar talks, and discussing projects with colleagues. As my colleagues include mathematicians, doctors, scientists, and engineers, I have learned to speak their respective languages and focus the conversation to learn the most from their special areas of expertise. Often, I also spend time discussing my work with my advisors or presenting to collaborators in the Electrical Engineering or Neuroscience departments within MIT or the Radiology and Anesthesia departments at MGH. Often, the goal is to understand the way data was collected, or get inputs on how the algorithms I develop are working, or the clinical perspective on how to interpret the findings. Through these interactions, I have learned how to gain tremendous value from data collected routinely within a healthcare organization. And, it is these very collaborative interactions where new projects begin; for example I was able to build on an existing collaboration to link up with doctors and conduct a novel observational study during a clinical rotation. While the collaborative setup enables a lot of unforeseen unimaginable scientific and learning opportunities, I have had to learn to accept and navigate the differences in culture, timescales and motivations that drive the working of different institutions.


Beyond research, my program, MIT, MGH, Harvard Medical School and Boston in general are teeming with talks, seminars, and opportunities to gain exposure to the clinical and business side of translational medical research. Whether it is getting involved with helping a local startup, attending a hack-a-thon with physicians to understand problems in the clinical world, or attending a seminar on heath economics, everything is within reach of a busy and overworked graduate student. All it takes is deciding to set aside a few hours in the evenings or on weekends to take advantage of these opportunities! These activities have helped me learn a tremendous amount about opportunities for innovation in clinical research and the overall healthcare enterprise – specifically what opportunities are within the reach of technology or science, and what aspects require regulatory or business factors to drive impact.


Overall, my research projects, collegial interactions, work environment and professional involvements have enabled me to discover my professional self, my working style, when I operate optimally and how I can create the best conditions for myself. I have really relished the creative process of solving challenging problems, analyzing data, and communicating findings. I have grown to recognize that sometimes non-scientific challenges such as paperwork requirements, getting access to the right collaborator, or rallying people towards a particular idea, can influence progress of projects more than scientific ones, and I have been able to hone my skills in these soft, subjective and essential aspects of science, research and life. Social opportunities that abound within my study and work environments have enabled me to make many friends, to get to know inspiring colleagues and alumni, and to connect personally with faculty members who are often kind enough to open their homes for potlucks with students! Overall, my professional endeavors and social involvements have truly connected me with people who have helped me work past the most challenging times of research, helped me define my career goals, and kept my drive to explore the mysteries of the mind and world alive and kicking!


Pavitra is a member of Wiley Advisors, a program for early career researchers and professionals to serve as a voice for their communities. For more information, please visit Wiley Advisors online or on twitter @WileyAdvisors.