Meet Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the First Indian to Hold WHO’s Second Highest Rank!

Her famous father, M S Swaminathan, played a key role in revolutionising agriculture in India. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, now the Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) talks about her journey, interest in TB and her father M S Swaminathan
Dr Soumya Swaminathan
Dr Soumya SwaminathanPhotography By K Rajiv/SciDev.Net

Growing up with a renowned geneticist father and a creative and socially responsible mother, Soumya Swaminathan practically had a career path set as a child. Today, she has paved her own trail as the first chief scientist the World Health Organization, is determined to revamp India’s TB programmes and prioritise digital technology to improve health care.

Until recently, she was Deputy Director General of Programmes of the UN body. She has also served as the Secretary to the Indian government for health research and as Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). She is known for her research on tuberculosis at the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT), Chennai, which she joined in 1992 and went on to head.

Swaminathan and her colleagues were among the first to scale up the use of molecular diagnostics for TB surveillance and to undertake large field trials of community- randomised strategies to deliver TB treatment to underserved populations.

As the daughter of M.S. Swaminathan, a geneticist regarded as the father of India’s Green Revolution for his role in developing high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, she is no stranger to high scientific research. It was the childhood trips to her father’s lab and experimental wheat fields that ignited Swaminathan’s passion in medical research, she tells Papiya Bhattacharya.


What are your plans for WHO?


I hope to further the use of science, technology and innovation in improving health care delivery. Now that people in the remotest areas of the world have mobile phones, we can leapfrog into an era of rapid information flow with virtual contact between patients and doctors.

Artificial intelligence-based health applications are increasing rapidly and there is a need for a framework for regulation, validation and prequalification -- similar to the regulation of drugs, medical devices and vaccines.

WHO has a unique role in advising countries on maximising the opportunities of digital technology and in ensuring their appropriate use.

We would also like to work with research funders, ministries of health and research institutions in developing countries to foster a model of research where national priorities drive global funding flows and not vice versa.


What originally led you to the medical profession?


My love for animals led me to want to be a vet- erinarian. I was also very interested in genetics and research and had enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in zoology at Delhi University. But all my classmates were preparing for the medical entrance exam so I sat for it too, and entered medical school quite by chance.

Once in medical school, I was drawn to chil- dren and wanted to be able to work with those who did not have a voice. [I wanted to work] where clinical skills were important in making a correct diagnosis. I enjoyed clinical medicine but found research exciting and challenging. My love for clinical research grew at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where I took a post-doctoral fellow- ship in paediatric pulmonology, after which I never looked back.

Both my husband and I were very clear that, unlike other Indian doctors who trained abroad, we would return. After a year at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, UK, I returned to India in 1991. In 1992, I found my niche at the Tuberculosis Research centre (now the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis or NIRT) in Chennai.


Why the particular interest in tuberculosis?


I found that tuberculosis was still a huge problem both in adults and children and that it accounted for a lot of respiratory ill health and mortality. At NIRT, I was able to undertake multidisciplinary research, combining clinical and epidemiologic data with immunological, bacteriological and pharmacrokinetic parameters − something not possible in many medical colleges at that time.

I also realised the power of research evidence being able to influence public health policy and practice. This spurred me to address questions that were relevant for India's TB and HIV programmes in the 1990s and 2000s.

“The randomized clinical trials that my team conducted added to the knowledge base and helped shift treatment and prevention strategies for tuberculosis in HIV- infected people in India and globally.”

As director of NIRT, how did you make a difference in the diagnosis and treatment of TB in India?


My team and I started a TB free Chennai project in 2012 when I assumed directorship of NIRT. The idea was to test, interpret results, and start treatment for TB all in the same day. It took a long time to

take off—we had to negotiate with the government, Chennai corporation, administrators, voluntary organisations—but it is showing results now.

The randomized clinical trials that my team conducted added to the knowledge base and helped shift treatment and prevention strategies for tuberculosis in HIV-infected people in India and globally. Our other major contributions were the extensive pharmacokinetic studies in adults and children, showing the inadequacy of dosing of some anti-TB drugs, as well as documentation of drug resistance rates in adults and children with TB and demonstrating the utility of molecular diagnostics in young children.


You are the daughter of two highly distin- guished parents - Dr M S Swaminathan the pioneer of Green Revolution in India and the renowned Indian Educationalist, Dr Mina Swaminathan. What are your memories of growing up with your famous parents?


I remember our house being full of students all the time, discussing their research work with my father in the evenings. They would take my sisters and I to the lab and the experimental wheat fields and let us accompany them on field trips. Maybe that is how I acquired my love of research.

My father spent long hours away on work, but always found time for us, his three daughters. We especially looked forward to his return from trips as we knew he would have presents for all of us.

Our mother was a major influence on us and instilled in us a sense of social responsibility and sensitivity to those who were less fortunate. We accompanied her to construction sites where she helped set up crèches for the children of the construction site workers. She taught us to be inquisitive, creative and bold – and to stand up for our beliefs.

Here’s all you need to know about Dr Soumya SwaminathanWere there times when working as a woman scientist proved challenging?

The 58-year-old paediatrician and clinical scientist has been the Director General of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the apex body of biomedical research in the country, for over two years now.

Dr Soumya is the daughter of the ‘father of Green Revolution in India’ MS Swaminathan, a renowned geneticist and Indian educationalist Mina Swaminathan.

She completed her M.B.B.S. from Armed Forces Medical College (India) and M.D. from All India Institute of Medical Sci- ences, along with a Diplomate of National Board from National Board of Examinations.

She also held Post Doctoral Medical Fellowship in Pediatric Pulmonology at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Acclaimed for her research on Tuberculosis, she served as the Director of the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis, Chennai.

She served on several WHO and global advisory bodies and committees, including the WHO expert panel to review global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property, the strategic and technical advisory group of the global TB department at the WHO, and co-chair of the Lancet Commission on TB.

From 2009 to 2011, she served as the coordinator of the Unicef/ UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) in Geneva.

She has been serving as the Secretary of the Department of Health Research for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India.

She has over 250 peer-reviewed publications to her credit.

Her most notable awards include:

• Dr Keya Lahiri Gold Medal for best paper presented, XI National Pediatric Pulmonary Conference in 1999

• The Indian Council of Medical Research Kshanika Oration Award in 2008

• A Lifetime Achievement Award by the Indian Associa- tion of Applied Microbiologists in 2011

• The Tamil Nadu Science and Technology Award in 2012

• The AstraZeneca research endowment award, NIPER in 2016


Were there times when working as a woman scientist proved challenging?


I do not think I faced any special challenges by being a woman. We were never brought up to think that we may either face obstacles or have an easier career path based on gender.

Therefore, I just focused on my work and got on with my plans. There were situations where in a room full of men, I sometimes felt I was not being taken seriously, especially when I was younger. My (male) bosses were always very supportive, however, and gave me the confidence to learn how to manage situations and hold my own.

I am happy that my journey has encouraged at least a few young women of the next generation in India and elsewhere to choose public health and research as fulfilling career paths.


You have had training in India, UK and US. Was it always your dream to settle in India?


Yes, I always wanted to work in India. I pursued my MBBS from Armed Forces Medical College, Pune in 1980 and MD in Paediatrics from AIIMS, Delhi in 1985. The only reason I went abroad was to pursue specialized training. I pursued Post Doctoral Medical Fellowship in Paediatric Pulmonol- ogy at the Children's Hospital LA, California. I think the four years that I spent abroad were very useful. They helped me develop an outlook towards research which I am happy to say I was able to bring back to our country and put into implementation to solve the healthcare challenges here.


Take us through the 20 year long association with Tuberculosis Research Centre, Chennai.


Having undergone specialized training in Paediatric Pulmonology abroad, when I returned to India, I wanted to work at a place which gave me an opportunity to practice as well as research. When I visited the TB Research Centre, it piqued my interest because it focused very heavily on research and allowed clinicians to devote enough time to such pursuits. At the time, TB was already one of the major challenges in India and I knew it would continue to remain so and hence I decided to get associated with it.

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