An interest in numbers and math first attracted Chetan Patil to science, with the study of photonics eventually leading him to a career in biomedical engineering. Patil focused on biomedical engineering at Case Western University (Cleveland, Ohio) and recently earned his doctorate from Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tenn.). Today, Dr. Patil is an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., where he focuses on the use of Raman spectroscopy and low-cost devices for diagnoses of diseases of the liver and kidneys.
We caught up with Dr. Patil this month at the SPIE BiOS 2016 biomedical optics conference, where he was generous in sharing his thoughts on Raman as tool for clinical disease diagnosis and how the mobile revolution could address global health issues.
Question: What first inspired your interest in science?
Patil: I think science for me started with math. I was actually most interested in math and numbers when I was small. For whatever reason, this drew me to science as a physical manifestation of the numbers. Once I got exposed to physics and started to learn about light that’s when it started to come together for me because it explained and made sense of these things that I had been naturally engaged with from an early age. Through light I then discovered biomedical sciences when I got exposed to OCT [optical coherence tomography] during my undergraduate years and that was that.
Question: What is the role of the assistant professor in your organization and what does your work entail?
Patil: My research is focused in the application of Raman spectroscopy to develop new types of diagnostic tools, and in developing low-cost technologies – the idea that we can turn our smartphone into a diagnostic tool. Raman spectroscopy is fascinating as it offers a lot of opportunities for new types of diagnostics. I wouldn’t say that I intentionally focused my work on Raman — it was more the situation that Raman came along and worked for me.
Question: Tell us more about developing low-cost diagnostics technologies. How did that work come about?
Patil: My interest in this area really started with an app where you put your finger over a smartphone camera and it measures your heart rate. I was like, wait a minute, this is such a great idea. I believe it works based on the net change in absorbance pulse to pulse right. Being someone who works in optical diagnostics and being aware of all the interesting things that people are doing made me think that this approach of taking something to its simplest implementation was fun to think about. From that I started talking to colleagues and we went from there.
Also, I should say that another big part of it is the challenge that the Gates Foundation has placed out there to develop low cost, widely deployable diagnostics for applications that relate to priority issues in global health. And so I would be remiss to not mention them as they have created these opportunities for funding these technically risky and unconventional areas of research.
Question: What has been the most rewarding part of your work experience?
Patil: Well, I’ve only been an assistant professor for a few months but meeting and mentoring grad students has been a lot of fun. Especially when they decide to do their project on your research you feel like, OK, it’s a bit of validation that what you’re doing is interesting and that it gets students excited the same way it gets me excited. That initial burst of enthusiasm from my students has been really rewarding.
Question: What surprises you the most about science and technology today?
Patil: I think that the mobile revolution is going to be the thing that defines this next wave of innovations. All these things that people are doing on larger and less transportable devices will be shrunk down and made more accessible to a much larger number of people, and open up use cases that may not be as easy to realize with things that are big pieces of equipment on an optical bench.
In the specific case of global health, the fact that mobile devices can be so many times more cost effective than benchtop systems makes a lot of things possible that can be applied in low income settings. The connectivity is also a huge advantage — and more and more things are gaining that connectivity — which just helps to reinforce and expand the idea whether it’s explicitly a mobile phone or just a dedicated mobile device.
Question: How will this wave of global health innovations evolve?
Patil: The limitation of these things, and in fact the limitation of any diagnostic, is what actionable information results from that test. The effectiveness of diagnostics has to be viewed in the outcomes. Just because you have something that gives you a number about something, a physiological parameter, doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything actionable that can be done about it. So I see that as the challenge, really understanding the problems and the context to develop effective technologies for addressing global health challenges.
This is super critical in a global health setting. Just because we can create widely deployable, low cost diagnostics doesn’t mean that there are any resources available to treat the result of the diagnostic. In the specific context of jaundice, there is a widely established [diagnostic] management plan and a lot of people are working on making those diagnostics more widely deployable, for example with low cost UV [phototherapy] blankets. I really like this because I see my work as dovetailing very nicely with that of a lot of others and that together we can really make an impact on neonatal and infant care.
Question: What profession would you like to pursue if you weren’t a scientist or engineer?
Patil: That’s a really difficult question for me to answer because I’ve always been focused and interested in science and technology. If I wasn’t in optics and biomedicine I was really interested in telecoms and communications, but given that’s a lot of photonics I’m not sure that is really answering the question [laughs]. If I wasn’t in academia I think that I would maybe be in medicine. Certainly I’ve always had an interest in health issues and through high school I’d tossed around the idea of pursuing medicine. I wish I had some cool answer like a poet or something but what can I say – that’s just me!