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Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay

1968

In high school, Biology was not the most favourite subject of Indian computer scientist Prof. Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay. As a matter of fact, she was a bit scared of it; avoiding it for a long time even during her Bachelors in Physics and her Masters in Computer Science. However, while obtaining a PhD in Computer Science at the Indian Statistical Institute - which she obtained in 1998 - she entered the realm of Biology nonetheless. More specifically, her team was asked to recognize patterns in the interaction and interference of small RNA molecules. Ever since, Sanghamitra decided that computational biology, bioinformatics and evolutionary computation should become her line of inquiry. And luckily so, for in 2014, Sanghamitra and her peers identified a new genetic biomarker for breast cancer using the “synergistic relationship between Biology and Computer Science”.

Currently, as the first female director of the same Calcutta- based institute where she obtained her PhD, Sanghamitra continues to work on the optimization of computer algorithms that enable her to automatically search for patterns and knowledge in large biological data sets. “Sifting through them and finding what we can, can only be done computationally, not manually,’’ she claims. Moreover, she has advanced evolutionary algorithms with applications in bioinformatic analysis and gene regulatory networks. This eventually lead to the identification of the previously mentioned biomarker for breast cancer, but it has also resulted in the determination of co-occurrence of HIV-1 and the role of white matter in Alzheimer’s disease.

In order to biologically validate their computational findings, Sanghamitra expresses the importance of collaboration. “But in India”, she claims, “enabling collaborations between biologists, chemists and physicists has proved the be difficult. This is something that needs to be worked out in our Indian culture, because appreciating others’ work and solving problems together are necessary for scientific findings to progress”. Culture-related hindrance is, laudibly, less apparent for reasons of gender. 35% of people with specialist technology roles in India are women, compared to 17% in, for example, the United Kingdom.

Although Sanghamitra shows no sign of slowing down, her contributions to computational biology have already engendered more than 300 research articles and six authored and edited books. In 2010, her zeal got rewarded with the locally-famous Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in Engineering Science. This award is given annually to Indians with notable and outstanding contributions to science. Moreover, Sanghamitra is on the Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council of Prime Minister of India. One might think that this position at last delimits her work space to a single country, for she has equally held university positions in Australia, Germany, China and Mexico - among others.

Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay

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