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Meet A Scientist

  Varadarajan photo with son        Varadarajan as child

Dr. Sridhar Varadarajan and son                     As a child in India    


I grew up and was educated in Bombay India where society encourages parents to push their children to study science, math, engineering or medicine.  As a child, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I was an average student in most subjects but I did very well in chemistry.  For some reason, chemistry just made sense to me.  I decided that's what I would study in college and I earned a degree in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. By this point in my life, I knew that I wanted to travel and I especially wanted to see New York.  I realized that continuing my education as a graduate student would be one way that I could get to America.  It took 16 applications before I was accepted by schools in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.  If you consult a world map you will see that I grew up in the balmy climate of Bombay where temperatures rarely dip below 60F (http://www.tourindia.com/htm/homepage.htm). When I realized that temperatures in Minnesota can get as low as -60F I decided to pursue my graduate studies at Penn State.  Upon arriving in America I spent my first few days in New York City visiting all the places I had always wanted to see.  After about a week I traveled to Penn State to begin my work on a doctorate in Physical Organic Chemistry.

When I first arrived at Penn State I stayed with a friend for a few days.  One afternoon I turned on the television to watch the news and I heard a report about a local water shortage.  I rushed through the house filling everything, including the bathtub, with clean water.  When my friend returned home she laughingly told me that a water shortage meant no washing the car or watering the lawn.  You can imagine my embarrassment!  In the part of the world where I grew up a water shortage can become a very serious life and death situation.  While I was at Penn State I also experienced my first snowfall.  I was standing under a tree wondering why dirt was falling from the sky.  I watched as the small patches of what looked like paper landed on my sleeve.  Suddenly, they disappeared and then I realized that it was snow.  I stayed outside the rest of the day.

When I wasn't busy collecting water or studying snow, I was hard at work in the lab.  My initial research was theoretical, involving organic chemistry and trying to make magnets and conductors from organic compounds (non-metals), but I soon became more interested in "life" science.  Up to this point I had never taken any biology classes but I wanted to understand the basics of what makes life work.  After earning my doctorate I decided that I would take a position at the University of Kentucky where I would conduct research into Alzheimer's disease (http://www.afateens.org/ ).  This research allowed me to build a connection between my interests in chemistry and biology.  During this time, for two years, I wore a beeper so that when a hospital called to let me know that someone had died of Alzheimer's disease, I could race over to collect some of the brain tissue they had donated to science for my research.  This really put a human face on my research and gave a real purpose to my work.   I loved what I was doing but my visa only allowed me to work at any institution for three years.  I decided to take a new position at the University of Nebraska Medical Center where I could continue to build connections between chemistry and biology by researching cancer and DNA-damaging compounds.

Today I am an assistant professor of Chemistry at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where I teach organic and medicinal chemistry and continue my research with DNA-damaging compounds (http://www.dnaftb.org/dnaftb/).   Most drugs that are used to treat cancer work by damaging the DNA in the cells.  Unfortunately, these drugs act indiscriminately. Some kill the cancerous cells but some cause DNA mutations in other cells.   These mutations can cause secondary cancers in a patient.  My research involves trying to determine which molecules cause damage to the DNA and which mutate the DNA so that we can fine tune the impact of the cancer drugs.  Most recently my lab has been working to attach “address” molecules to the cancer killing drugs so that they will only target cancer cells.  This would greatly reduce the side effects that many cancer drugs cause, such as hair loss.  Ultimately, I guess you could say that we are trying to create a "magic bullet” to fight cancer.

One thing that has surprised me about cancer is the number of young people who, despite all of the literature and warnings, choose to smoke or visit tanning beds.  Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death and disease.  It not only causes multiple forms of cancer, but it increases the risk for heart attack and slows wound healing (http://www.txtwriter.com/Onscience/Articles/smokingcancer2.html ).  People 35 or younger who used tanning beds regularly had a melanoma risk that was eight-fold higher than people who never used tanning beds.  Even occasional use of tanning beds can triple this age group's chances of developing melanoma


Young people feel invincible, but they need to beware of the accumulative effects risky behavior can have on their health later in life.


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