Biophysical Society Bulletin | October 2021

Biophysicist in Profile

R. Mahalakshmi Area of Research Membrane Protein Biophysics

Institution Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal


As a young student, R. Mahalakshmi strongly disliked biology, instead showing a strong preference for math and physics. After studying biology in her senior secondary education, she transitioned toward a career in biophysics and never looked back.

R. Mahalakshmi

R. Mahalakshmi grew up in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India. “This city is called the ‘Manchester of South India,’” she says. “One lesser-known fact about Coimbatore is how extraordi- narily polite and courteous the people there are, and how they go out of their way to help others.” She grew up dreaming of serving as a pilot in the Indian Air Force. It sounded like a career path that would make the most of her math and science skills. “I was very good at mathe- matics and physics in school, and my interest slowly shifted to astrophysics. Biology was not something I was interested in—in fact, I used to hate that subject!” she shares. “A series of coincidences landed me as a biology major in senior sec- ondary education.” From that point, she had a slow transition toward becoming a biophysicist. Her father was a businessperson and her mother a home- maker. Both parents prioritized her education over everything else and encouraged her intellectual freedom. “They trained me to question every norm (from day-to-day activities to international policies), understand the logic behind every decision, and to question anything that was illogical. I owe it to them that, even today, I am unafraid to boldly experiment with new areas, challenge established conventions, and think beyond what is generally accepted as correct,” she explains. Mahalakshmi attended PSG College of Arts & Science for her undergraduate studies, receiving her bachelor of science de- gree in biochemistry in 2000. She then pursued her master’s degree in biological sciences, followed by her PhD in molec- ular biophysics, both from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (IISc). “I was fascinated by protein biochemistry in college. I still remember reading a newspaper article pinned on the bulletin board of my department, on ammonia trans- porters. From there, my childhood fascination for physics and mathematics re-emerged when I joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, as an integrated PhD student. I graduated from the Molecular Biophysics Unit at IISc, and there has been no turning back since then!” she declares. “I draw inspiration from my PhD mentor P. Balaram even today. My interests in protein folding and protein biophysics are reinvigorated with

every discussion I have over coffee with my best friend, col- league, and husband, Vikas Jain .” After completing her PhD, she undertook a postdoctoral posi- tion in Francesca Marassi’s lab in the Department of Apoptosis and Cell Death Research at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship with Carl F. Ware and Dirk M. Zajonc in the Division of Molecular Immunology at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, both in San Diego, California. She accepted a position in 2009 as an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal, becoming an as- sociate professor in 2014. Since June 2021, Mahalakshmi has been a full professor in the same department. Her research focus areas include mitochondrial membrane protein folding and function, membrane protein regulation in cancer and neurodegeneration, and molecular experimental biophysics. Specifically, her lab works on understanding spatiotemporal dynamics of mitochondrial macromolecular machines in cel- lular bioenergetics and pathophysiology, molecular architec- ture of human mitochondrial membrane translocases and assembly machinery, and molecular effectors of beta-barrel membrane protein biogenesis, misfolding, and aggregation. “With biophysics, every day is a discovery,” she says. “Each day takes me one step closer towards understanding how transmembrane beta-barrel membrane proteins assemble, and how their folded scaffold relates to their function.” She approaches challenges as opportunities to expand her knowledge and enhance her abilities. “I believe I can face any scientific or academic challenge with my positivity, determi- nation, tenacity, and the support of my family, mentors, and team,” Mahalakshmi shares. In the future, she expects that biophysics will contribute to advancements in healthcare and technology to an even great- er degree. “The ability of biophysical approaches to integrate single molecule studies with whole-cell and whole-organism data will provide unprecedented information on the function

October 2021



Made with FlippingBook. PDF to flipbook with ease