Working relentlessly toward making the future of technology an ever-blooming contrivance for the betterment of mankind, Deepak Vasisht is not an unheard name in the international circuit of scientists. His latest badge of honor came with the in-body GPS system also known as ReMix which can track tumours inside the body.
Hailing from a small town in Haryana, Deepak aimed at pursuing a career in research and technology after getting into IIT Delhi. It was during his stay at IIT that he became intrigued by people and with technologies and wanted a career in research and technology.
While talking to Little India, Deepak speaks about his life from a small town boy to a researcher and everything in between.
What inspired you to become a scientist? How was your childhood?
I was born in a village in Haryana and then, largely spent my childhood in a small town called Bahadurgarh in Haryana. I didn’t really have many aspirations to be in research and tech. I had heard of this thing called IIT through random sources and wanted to get in to one to get a good job. But once I came to IIT, I was constantly amazed and inspired by the people around me. I would look up to my Professors and feel like — I would want to be like them one day.
And this is what has motivated me to work on research and tech.
Tell us about your journey from IIT to MIT.
I was an undergrad in Computer Science at IIT Delhi, where I won the President’s Gold Medal. Then, I came for my Ph.D. to MIT, which is what I have been working toward for the last 5 years. In between, I worked a bit with Microsoft Research, where I built FarmBeats, a smart agriculture system which is currently being applied in multiple countries.
How did you get involved in the project ReMix?
A key focus of my research is to find the position of devices that use wireless signals, for example, locate people using their cell phones or cars using their toll transponders, etc
then, we started thinking about what more could we do with this ability to locate devices. At the same time, we met doctors at Mass General Hospital, which is a great hospital in cancer research, who were interested in solving a problem in the cancer radiation therapy space. This is when we realized that we could use wireless signals to communicate with and locate devices in human bodies which was about 1.5 years ago. And then, we had to work on the technical challenges to make it possible which took about a year or so.
Tell us how will Remix work on human body?
ReMix can track and talk to in-body capsules, for example, to see if there is a disease or a tumor or an ulcer in the G.I. tract. Or it can track small parkers implanted in tumors to track tumor motion.
The tumor tracking is important for cancer radiation therapy for example. In cancer treatments, particularly proton therapy, a high energy beam is used to hit the tumor so that the tumor cells die.
But what ends up happening is that in lung tumors or breast tumors, the tumor moves when people breathe or their hearts beat and the beam misses the tumor and hits healthy tissues around it. It can damage lungs or heart, which are very sensitive. So, we can use ReMix to track the tumor and steer the beam along with the tumor so that we never hit any healthy tissues.
If we were to implement it in medical science, how soon can we use the benefit of this in-body GPS system?
It takes quite some time for technologies to go from a lab to actual human tests, because of the lengthy regulations. We have so far done tests on dead animals. The next steps are tests on live animals and then humans. It will definitely take a few years for this to come to actual medical devices.
In a breakthrough like this, you have to overcome a lot of technical challenges to achieve the results. What keeps you motivated to keep working when you face these challenges?
I guess you are always motivated by the end goal. At the end of the day, we want to impact people’s lives and make them better. Also, there is some conviction that the challenges are transient and we will be able to overcome them with enough time and effort. This is not to say that there aren’t days (or weeks) when you feel completely lost and don’t know what to do. The trick is to go through those days and try again on the next day.
Tell us how was working with Microsoft? Can you tell us a few lines about Microsoft?
FarmBeats is a project that I co-developed at Microsoft Research, along with others. The main goal of FarmBeats is to solve the agricultural yield problem of the world. The problem is that by 2050, the world is going to need double the amount of food than what it needs today. But our resources to produce that food are shrinking (like water tables are going down). The goal of FarmBeats is to maximize yields and minimize inputs by using technologies like artificial intelligence and internet of things. We do that by creating sensor maps of the farm, like moisture maps that tell you exactly how much water is needed in each part of your farm.
Technology as we go on, encounters a question of intention. Recently Black Mirror portrays the dark side of technology. What do you think of the impact of the show?
To keep it brief, I think it is encouraging people to think about the negative aspects of technology. Technology is a tool, that can be used in myriad ways, both positive and negative. The show is getting people to talk about the negative uses of the tool, which is great.
I think the consciousness about how technology impacts us has to percolate to not just scientists, but policymakers as well and shows likes this open up one aspect to the general audience.
In a wide spectrum, technologies do come with a question of intention. So apart from work, what are the other activities you enjoy?
I like to cook, watch Indian movies (mostly Bollywood) and go on long walks. Recently, I watched Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain. The movies I have loved recently are: Masaan, Ankhon Dekhi, Sairat. I think I can watch Swades and Tanu Weds Manu any day.
After the attention of the national media. would you say it changes your life? Did you encounter any?
We have had media attention before, with earlier work, like FarmBeats and another project Chronos. In those cases, the international media had much broader coverage than Indian media. This time Indian media also picked it up. So, it makes my parents happier, but beyond that, it’s mostly work as usual.
If you were to give a message to the young generation who aim to pursue a career in science, what would that be?
It’s hard for me to give generic advice. But if I were to try to say something, I would say that people should believe in themselves and keep working hard. Also, try to reach out to people for advice. Now that social media has reduced distances so much, advice is not far away.