Vemuganti counsels young researchers to 'Give your best' professionally and personally

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of  ARVONews     

Geeta K. Vemuganti, DNB, FAMS, MD, serves as dean and professor at the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Hyderabad (UoH). 

A clinician-scientist, Vemuganti’s ophthalmic research has largely focused on cancer biology, including current projects she is undertaking to evaluate cancer stem cells in retinoblastoma.

Her connection with ARVO dates back to her first abstract submission in 1999 on fungal keratitis. Since that time, she has been an author on more than 30 abstracts — presenting posters and papers — and organized a Sunday Symposium and several sessions. Vemuganti has served as a member of the ARVO Annual Meeting Program Committee (AP Section). She is currently serving as chair of the Global Members Committee (formerly the International Members Committee). In 2013, the ARVO Foundation awarded Vemuganti the MERCK  & Co Inc. Collaborative Research Fellowship with David Sullivan, MS, PhD, FARVO, of Schepens Eye Research Institute, Harvard Medical School.

Through the years, Vemuganti has continued to participate, make friends and network at ARVO, resulting in connections with the Indian Association of Ophthalmic Pathologists and other international societies.

ARVONews What was your inspiration for becoming a researcher in the field of ophthalmology? 

My stint with ophthalmic research started during my residency in pathology at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) with one of my professors Dr. K.S. Ratnakar. He was the first ophthalmic pathologist from India who entrusted me to help an ophthalmology resident with her thesis work on identifying mast cells in conjunctival biopsies. Under his guidance I had an opportunity to look at the variety of ophthalmic pathology
samples referred to him from all other institutions, including the entire load of diagnostic samples received from L.V. Prasad Eye Institute. While there, I met the LVPEI director, Dr. Gullapalli N. Rao, who encouraged me to interact with the ophthalmology residents and fellows and to specialize in the subject. As a result, my MD dissertation was a study on the pathology of 1,000 corneal buttons, which was the first of its kind.

ARVONews: What have been some of the highlights of your work? 

In 2000, I teamed up with Dr. Virender Sangwan to initiate the first stem cell research project on limbal cell cultures for clinical transplantation. We got our first grant on limbal stem cell work from the Department of Biotechnology and that led to the first phase of limbal transplantation in 2001, which continued for a decade
and resulted in the treatment of nearly 800 patients suffering from severe chemical ocular burns and lymbal stem cell deficiency.

The quest to see the effect of bone marrow-derived cells on limbal stem cells led me to undertake work on bone marrow mesenchymal cells. This was at the time when our clinical work on ocular oncology was growing by leaps and bounds, and epithelial stem cell biology rekindled my interest in cancer biology.

My other work related to evaluating the role of HPV in ocular squamous carcinoma. Based on our contribution
there was a request for applications from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which posed a question: Could we combat radiation-induced damage through stem cell therapy? My proposal on culturing lacrimal gland cells for potential cell therapy for radiation-induced dry eye disease was very well received and funded by IAEA.

ARVONews: What can you tell us about the research projects or academic projects you are working on now?

With the aim of contributing to building up the human resource and talent of clinician-scientists and expanding the horizons of regenerative medicine, I accepted the responsibility as dean of the School of Medical Sciences at the UoH in 2010. 

Thanks to the visionary leadership of Dr. Rao who invited me to be associated with LVPEI as a visiting faculty, I continue to have the honor of serving this premier eye care institute in India, which is one of the best in the world.

The administrative responsibilities have limited my research work to some extent; however, it is still going fairly well.

The current projects include evaluation of cancer stem cells in retinoblastoma, evaluating the potential of 2D and 3D cell cultures of the lacrimal gland with future cell therapy and initiating work on skin cultures with the collaboration of a team of dermatologists.

ARVONews: Based on your years of professional experience, what advice would you offer young women scientists about moving ahead in the field?

Invariably, the professional growth and personal/family growth for women parallel each other. It is understandable that the priorities would move like a pendulum between both goals, causing conflict at times. The most important thing is, irrespective of what decisions you make in either direction, don’t have any regrets if you have to take a break or slow down in any one of these areas — personal or professional. We can always catch up and continue to contribute. Enjoy both worlds, give your best and make both ends meet.

Before my residency at NIMS, I was selected for a residency in pediatrics, which I could not continue due to personal and family reasons. I felt I hit rock bottom in my career when I had to give up my lifetime dream of a residency in pediatrics, move my base to another city where I didn’t get into any programs due to my status as a non-resident and take a break to raise my family. It so happened that my second choice of pathology was what
made my career as a clinician-scientist. 

So I truly believe that changing directions and dreams is not the end of the world. The best comes out of different challenges that cross your path.

Harrington tower ad