Celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage
Shivalingappa Swamynathan, PhD, FARVO - A kaleidoscope of insight: The curious mind of a vision researcher
Shivalingappa Swamynathan, PhD, FARVO, has been a professor of ophthalmology at Morsani College of Medicine, University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., USA since January 2023. Prior to that, he was an assistant professor (2007 - 2015) and an associate professor (2015 - 2022) of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. He received a PhD degree in 1996 from the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) at Hyderabad, India, and post-doctoral training at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Md.
He has received numerous honors, including the National Eye Institute Career Development (K22) Award, the Best Scientific Paper at the 2009 Asia-ARVO Meeting and the Indian National Merit Fellowship.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in a small village called Abbigere in Shimoga District in the state of Karnataka in South India. Coming from a family of teachers, I had early access to biographies of eminent scientists that triggered a sense of deep gratitude for their hard work, longing for the thrills of discovery and an urge to cultivate curiosity. I went to study agriculture at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru, where I developed a keen interest in genetics. I then went to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, for my master’s degree in molecular biology and biotechnology, and then to the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, for a PhD in life sciences.
While not studying or engaging in heated discussions on varied topics with close friends, I love being outdoors playing cricket, hiking or cycling. When the weather does not allow that, I always look for someone to play chess with.
How did you get into the eye and vision field?
As I pursued my interest in genetics, I realized that a clear understanding of the regulation of gene expression is vital to answering many outstanding questions in biology. The eye, with its importance in our interactions with the surroundings and its fascinating variations in the animal kingdom, seemed like an ideal choice for me to study gene regulation. This idea was further bolstered when I got the opportunity to train with Joram Piatigorsky, PhD, FARVO, at NEI.
What are some things in your field that you love/enjoy?
The freedom to explore, the opportunity to expand the boundary of knowledge in our area of research, and the potential for interacting with bright minds engaged in similar activities.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
I think our lab’s greatest accomplishment is yet to come, though I am proud of our elucidation of the role of Kruppel-like transcription factors KLF4 and KLF5 in corneal epithelial homeostasis.
Who is your greatest influence and why?
While my parents and siblings had a strong influence on my early life, my professional life has been shaped by my post-doctoral mentor Joram Piatigorsky, PhD. He challenged me to think critically, provided me with the freedom to explore and an opportunity to pursue my dreams, while showing me the value of arduous work. I remain grateful to him for never saying no when approached with a new idea.
Who is your biggest supporter and why?
My wife, Sudha, who is also a research associate in my lab. We have navigated the highs and lows of this career together and come to rely on each other for support during challenging times. Sudha is a steady pillar of strength that I rely upon.
In your opinion, what obstacles do Asian and Pacific Islander Americans still face in this industry?
Asian and Pacific Islander Americans need to navigate long and twisted immigration pathways that often can be exasperating. Moreover, when they immigrate to this country, cultural integration can be challenging. Also, they may not have the necessary training at the outset to make meaningful contributions to the research enterprise in this country.
In my own case, I went to India for a two week-long vacation in 1998, but was held back for six months as an officer in the U.S. embassy erroneously thought that I was subject to a ‘two-year homestay requirement’. Before I could return to the U.S., I had to approach the State Department which issued an advisory that I am not subject to this requirement.
Unfortunately, avoiding or overcoming such obstacles through societal changes requires a long time. Relentless advocacy is needed to ensure that the coming generations of Asian and Pacific Americans are not exposed to similar obstacles.
Tell us how you found opportunities to help you grow in your career.
Early in my career I realized that collaboration is key to success in our field. If I needed a new reagent or a mouse strain to evaluate an idea, I sought necessary collaborations without hesitation. I also learned that it becomes easier if you choose the right people to aid you in your pursuit.
What does this month mean to you?
It is a wonderful idea to commemorate the contributions of Asian and Pacific Americans to the United States of America. Many generations of Asian and Pacific Americans before us have played key roles in shaping this country and we now need to build further on that legacy.
Do you have any advice for young Asian/Pacific Islander Americans entering or currently in the field?
- Research is a long and arduous road with no guaranteed end results. Build a strong support system to rely on during tough times.
- Choose your mentors wisely. They can make or break your career.
- Ensure proper work-life balance. At the end of the day, it helps to have a purpose for what you are doing.
- If you wish to stay and work for a long time in the United States, take care of your immigration requirements as soon as possible. Do not wait till the last minute, as that stress is not worth it.
- Develop strong associations with the right group of people. Research is a team effort at every stage in one’s career. As a trainee, and even as an independent investigator, the mentor(s) you pick play a key role in shaping your career. As a mentor, the trainees you choose play crucial roles in completing your research projects, and in starting innovative programs.
- Be prepared to step outside of your comfort zones to grow. Impactful research is impossible if you are not ready to take risks and test innovative ideas. This also means that you should be prepared to accept occasional failures.
- If you need help, do not hesitate to ask. On the same vein, do not hesitate to offer help when someone you know needs it.