The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
Sukanya Punthambaker has always had diverse interests – as a child she mixed her artistic talents with her fascination with nature to win a drawing and painting contest held by the Indian Space Research Organization. Later, she pursued a Ph.D. in molecular biology working in a molecular neuroscience lab, while spending her free time on her hobbies: singing and dancing. Now, she’s combining her multidisciplinary expertise and embracing the Wyss’ spirit of collaboration to work with multiple groups on a range of projects from DNA nanotechnology to genetically engineered microbes for sustainability. Learn more about Sukanya and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
I’m most focused on three different projects, working as part of the William Shih, Peng Yin, and George Church labs. In the Shih lab, I’m working on a project called DNA Nanoswitch Calipers, which, in collaboration with Wesley Wong’s group, involves making high-throughput, single-molecule measurements of distances on an analyte at angstrom-level resolution by applying force to a DNA scaffold.
In the Yin lab, and in collaboration with George Church, I’m working primarily with Nikhil Gopalkrishnan on a novel type of next generation imaging by sequencing. We’re using a technology called a DNA nanoscope to measure nanoscale distances between targets and record them into DNA for subsequent readout of the “image” using sequencing. This technology works independently of light and allows us to image things below a microscopic level.
Finally, I am the co-lead on a new Validation Project, advised by Don Ingber and George Church, where we are working to genetically engineer novel microbes and enzymes to break down plastic more efficiently.
What real-world problems do these solve?
The DNA Nanoswitch Calipers can be used to map proteins at a single-molecule level and at angstrom resolution. We can essentially generate a unique “fingerprint” for each protein. We are working to develop a massively parallel technology that can be used in biomarker detection or drug discovery applications.
The next generation “imaging by sequencing” project generates images without relying on light. This allows it to be applied to places inside cells where traditional microscopes cannot image without slicing the cell into thin pieces.
Finally, the Validation Project is working to address plastic pollution, which is a huge global sustainability issue. Each year, more than 360 million tons of plastic waste is generated around the world and more than 75% remains either on land or in the ocean for decades. Disposing of plastic waste by incineration or dumping into landfills has negative ecological and health impacts. Our technology aims to solve this problem by finding a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to break down plastic.
You’ve had the chance to work with so many different faculty members on so many projects during your time here. How has all that collaboration impacted your work?
I joined the Wyss as a postdoc with George Church in 2015. Ever since, collaboration has had a tremendous impact on my work. I get an opportunity to work on different areas of biology, whether it’s DNA nanotechnology or sequencing or sustainability. It makes me feel like a more well-rounded scientist.
The dynamic and collaborative environment at the Wyss grants researchers unique opportunities to learn and collaborate, and the ease of access to expertise and equipment at the Wyss opens the door to approaching a scientific question from different angles and finding the best solution. It’s easy to move forward quickly with your work because of this structure.
What inspired you to get into this field?
As a toddler my favorite toy was the screwdriver tool. I would dismantle a lot of things around the house and manage to put all the pieces back together. My dad thought I would grow up to become an engineer, but I developed varied interests as I grew older including sports, arts, and music. My journey on the path of science began when as a sixth grader I won first prize in a drawing and painting contest held by the Indian Space Research Organization, which is in India is what NASA is in the United States.
Throughout school, I had great biology teachers and was always fascinated with nature in general, so I ended up studying chemistry, botany, and microbiology in undergrad. My masters was in applied botany and biotechnology. When I came to the University of Michigan for my Ph.D., it took a few rotations before I found my niche. Then, I serendipitously ended up in a hardcore molecular neuroscience lab and I absolutely loved it! I had the chance to work with an excellent mentor and advisor, Richard Hume, who trained me in classical electrophysiology. I loved the idea of combining physics and biology to study ion channels.
With such a diverse educational background, I was looking to find a lab for my postdoc research that did not just focus on one area of research. Then I met George Church and the rest is history. I feel extremely lucky to have met him, not only for the tremendous growth it has led to for me as a scientist, but also for the personal evolution I have experienced at many levels from interacting with him.
What continues to motivate and excite you?
Working to solve important, interesting, and difficult problems is extremely motivating. We are doing innovative science to answer real-world questions, contribute something meaningful, and make the world a better place. I am excited by the whole process from brainstorming, to carrying out experiments, to the thrill of figuring something out. Solving a puzzle together piece by piece as a team makes it fun and exciting, and the Wyss’ translational approach to science helps us to have a direct impact on society.
I have always enjoyed working with George Church, and over my time at the Wyss I have also had the opportunity to work and continue to work with the many other Wyss faculty I have mentioned, in addition to Ting Wu and Ed Boyden from MIT. It is deeply enriching and humbling to get to work in a place where I can interact with all the amazing faculty and solve scientific problems.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
There are always challenges with research and experiments. It’s exciting to troubleshoot and overcome those challenges and it’s rewarding once you can do so. In the end, the challenges are important. If it was always smooth sailing, it wouldn’t be exciting.
How have your previous experiences shaped your approach to your work today?
During my Ph.D., for the most part, I was the only graduate student in the lab. Initially, I was apprehensive about not having many senior colleagues around, but then I realized that I had my PI’s full attention and mentorship, and I could learn a lot in a short period of time. I quickly learned to be an effective multitasker and complete things efficiently and independently.
When I first got to the Church lab, I was working on two huge projects – in situ sequencing and nanopore sequencing. Work from both of those projects was recently published, which gave me a great sense of accomplishment.
When you’re not at the Wyss, and you’re not social distancing, how do you like to spend your time?
In my free time, I like to travel. Since my childhood, I have travelled to many places across the world, with one of my favorite destinations being Iceland, where I saw the northern lights. I like to take quick weekend trips to explore new places, cuisines, and cultures, and meet new people.
What is something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your résumé?
I am a music enthusiast. Although never formally trained, I have always been involved in singing and dancing to Bollywood-style music. Then during my Ph.D., I took Argentine tango classes for about 4 years. I also performed with a Bollywood exercise dance group in Ann Arbor, MI and would be invited to sing at various venues around the community and university. My PI would bring in newspaper clippings about my performances and he’d jokingly ask, “When are you going to get famous for your science?”
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
My friends always tell me that I am a good listener. Combining that with my love of neuroscience, I would have probably chosen to be a psychiatrist. Alternatively, I think I would have chosen something in the media and entertainment industry. My grandfather, PS Srinivasa Rao, was an actor/director/producer/filmmaker in the 1930s in British India. Not only was he one of the first actors of South India, but also a renowned music composer and singer, having even had his own music school. I like to believe that’s where I get my musical talent from and maybe I could have followed in his footsteps.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
I feel really grateful and privileged to be working here. The opportunity to be able to take the science into a meaningful direction motivates me to keep trying.