Dr Sakthivel Vaiyapuri is Associate Professor in Cardiovascular & Venom Pharmacology at the University of Reading, and a Royal Society Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellow.
In this uplifting and inspiring Alumni Story, Dr Vaiyapuri tells us about his journey from South India to the UK, the importance of engaging the public in one's research, and becoming a media superstar during the Covid-19 pandemic! Sakthi's ethos for life? The sky is the only limit, so always do your best, and never give up...
Tell us about your early life, and what brought you to the UK from South India.
I was born and raised in a poor family in a small village called Anayampatti [see map] in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. I completed my primary and secondary education in local government schools before achieving my Bachelors in Biochemistry from Thanthai Hans Roever College at Permabalur, followed by a Masters in Biotechnology at the University of Madras, Chennai in Tamil Nadu. After completing my Masters, I worked as a part time lecturer in five different colleges in Chennai.
Due to my passion towards research, I decided to study for a PhD in an area that would directly benefit poor people in rural areas of India and other developing countries. Hence, I proposed snakebite research to the University of Reading, and they accepted me to conduct my research there. I specifically wanted to come to the UK for my PhD due to the quality of research, education system and clear timeline for PhD completion.
Life was extremely difficult at the beginning as I started my PhD as a self-funding student, but things started changing within a year after coming to Reading. I thoroughly enjoyed my PhD research and time at Reading, and produced high quality data, which empowered me to move to the next stage in my career.
When did you first receive BHF funding, and what did this mean to you, your research and your career?
Since viper venoms are haemotoxic in nature, I really wanted to do research in cardiovascular science, as it will help both areas of research. Following a tough selection process, I received an offer to join a Post Doctoral Research Associate (PDRA) position on a BHF-funded project with Professor Jon Gibbins at Reading in March 2009. This was a phenomenal change in my life and career, as if I didn’t get this position, I would have had to go back to India with a young family, and might never have returned to the UK.
Due to my significant progression in my first post-doctoral position, Jon wrote a BHF grant with me as a named PDRA. Luckily, this was funded in time for me to continue my life in the UK alongside my family. If I hadn’t been successful, again, I would have been forced to leave the country immediately due to stringent visa restrictions.
Within the six years of my post-doctoral career in BHF-funded projects, I published several papers in high impact journals including, Circulation, Blood, Nature Communications, ATVB [Editor-in-Chief, BHF Alumnus Professor Alan Daugherty], JTHand JBC. The blend of knowledge and skills that I developed empowered me to secure my lectureship in pharmacology at Reading in March 2015. Again, the BHF supported me by funding my first project grant application, which established my independent research career. Since then, they have funded three more projects.
This has given me confidence in writing grant applications, enabling me to secure more funding from other funding agencies.
So, the BHF didn’t just provide my salary, it provided me a robust platform to develop my career and establish my personal life. Indeed, without the support from the BHF, I wouldn’t have managed to live with my family in the UK, and now I am pleased to see my kids are enjoying their schools and life in the UK. Therefore, the BHF is not just supporting research, it is indeed, as a charity, creating future scientists and high-quality human beings by supporting their personal life. The support from the BHF over the last 11 years has been exceptionally beneficial for me, and I owe a lot to them.
Can you explain, in a bit more detail, how your cardiovascular research and snakebite research are connected?
Viper (some elapid) snake venoms mainly attack our cardiovascular system. Some of the toxins have procoagulant activities, so they induce blood clotting within the vasculature. Other toxins have anticoagulant effects; they prevent the normal blood clotting and induce bleeding from the bite site and other regions. Some toxins are also able to directly activate or inhibit platelet function.
Cardiovascular research is directly linked with venom research, so I was able to combine them in our lab. We have isolated and characterised several venom enzymes with activities on blood coagulation. Similarly, we have identified and characterised a venom-based inhibitor for platelet function. We are currently working on various venoms to identify novel inhibitors to prevent unnecessary activation of platelets in cardiovascular patients.
In my point of view, any research that doesn't reach and/or engage with the end users, mainly members of public, is meaningless. I started my journey in public engagement in 2005 when I started my PhD in the UK. I was educating children and students about the values of scientific research, the significance of snakes and how they can prevent someone’s death by doing CPR during heart attacks. In recent years, I have massively increased the amount of public engagement activities in India to increase public awareness about snakes and snakebites. It is for this work that I received the Research Engagement and Impact Award. This award was a fantastic recognition for my passion, commitment and dedication to research. Indeed, this recognition has enabled me to do more engagement work with various stakeholders for both snakebite and cardiovascular research. Explaining your research in a simple language to lay audience is always an enjoyable art in a research career.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your research?
Whilst the pandemic has affected our research due to a lack of access to blood donors and facilities, personally, it has enabled me to publish nearly 12 papers and submit 6 grant applications! Notably, I have obtained my Royal Society Leverhulme Trust Senior Fellowship during this period. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled me to become a superstar in world media including in the BBC, CNN and Huffington Post by publishing over 100 articles on the hot topic of relationships between blood types and susceptibility to contracting COVID-19. Indeed, this work allowed me to establish a new collaboration with a university in Iraq. So, although there were some drawbacks due to restricted access to lab, this pandemic has provided me a significant amount of time to focus on various aspects of my career and personal life.
What advice would you give to younger researchers who are keen to engage with the public about their research?
I would encourage every single researcher to get involved in public engagement from an early stage in their career. Every research activity should be disseminated to the general public to improve awareness about scientific research, and they should also be aware of how their tax or donation money is being spent in research. People should understand the significance of scientific research all the time, not just when they get life threatening conditions such as COVID-19. There should be a strong link between the researchers and end users in order to identify key issues from them and tackle them through robust scientific research.
If we don’t engage our research outcomes with the public, then we are failing in our duties as researchers.
What does the future hold?
I want to focus on more research activities in thromboinflammation and snakebites. I am also planning to secure large grants and initiate more public engagement work. Simply, I just want to try my best and run as much as I can to achieve more in my research and professional careers. I will take the future as it comes but will try to do my duties on time without any expectations.
Quick Fire Questions
1. What is your proudest moment?
After growing up in a very small village in rural India, I have now achieved several significant milestones in both cardiovascular and snakebite research. This is the proudest moment for me to just to see where I started and where I am now.
2. Is there a life ethos or philosophy that drives your career? What is it?
Always try to do your best and never give up. Do the right thing when the time comes, without any expectations, and success will automatically come to you. The sky is the only limit, so keep trying to fly as high as possible. This is the key ethos that’s driving me all the time.
3. What do you most enjoy about your work?
Making significant contributions through research and/or public engagement work is really most enjoyable. When I hear how I am making changes in someone’s life through my work and support, it’s the most enjoyable moment.
4. If you weren’t where you are now, where would you be and what would you be doing?
I can’t even imagine that. I would have probably gone back to India, and worked as an academic to teach college students. I don’t think I have would have achieved a lot in research, but I would have still helped rural students by teaching them properly in a simple manner. I would have also pushed more students for higher education by demonstrating the opportunities available to them worldwide.
5. Can you tell us about an occasion when an (alumni) network has helped you?
Almost my entire life has been driven by my friends’ networks as there were so many people helping me at various stages of my life. Specifically, my media career was started with an elegant article in our University of Reading Alumni Magazine in 2007, so our university alumni network has initiated this great journey with media and public engagement.
On this occasion, I would like to sincerely thank some key people who played critical roles in my research journey; Dr Mercy Valarmathi (who constantly encouraged me to do a PhD in the UK), Mr Michal McHarg (Former International Officer at the University of Reading) who encouraged me to join a PhD at Reading, Dr Gail Hutchinson (my PhD supervisor), Professor Jon Gibbins (my postdoctoral research supervisor), Professor Ketan Patel (a best friend and mentor in my current role), Dr Andrew Bicknell (a mentor for our venom research) and all my family members who act as the fuel for my journey.