“Our profession is very interesting,” says Suvarn. “Being India’s top-ranking institute, we attract really high-quality students for our programmes. As such, we need to keep our course content and delivery at a much higher level to ensure our students get the best from us.
This is a highly rewarding process which helps me to continuously update my knowledge and reading. It is a great privilege to live on campus as it keeps you surrounded by young curious minds every day.”
Suvarn’s background is in organic chemistry, in particular carbohydrate chemistry, which he first learned about during his postdoc at Academia Sinica in Taipei and subsequently at University of California Davis. Based at the IIT Bombay since 2009, Suvarn is further exploring his interest into the chemical synthesis of sugars, leading a very active research group who are trying to discover diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines by chemically synthesizing the complex glycoconjugates that are present on the cell surface of bacteria.
“Bacteria often contain some unique sugars on their cell surfaces that are not present in human beings. The presence of these sugars is critically important for bacteria to cause and sustain infection in host cells. Because bacteria have these sugars and humans don't, the rare sugar-containing glycoconjugates are very good candidates for vaccine development. Also, the structurally unusual monosaccharides can aid in the selective detection and disarming of a pathogen. So, our long-term goal is to make a narrow-spectrum antibiotic based on the sugars and to develop vaccines against highest priority pathogens.
A major breakthrough we’ve had is the creation of a chemical method to synthesise these exclusively bacterial rare sugars. For this, we have developed a one-pot method that can be utilised in a very efficient way and on a large scale to access a variety of orthogonally protected rare deoxy amino sugar building blocks. These blocks can then be stereo selectively assembled to construct the complex oligosaccharides of various bacterial polysaccharides.
In his very first year at IIT Bombay, Suvarn met Dr R Gopalan, who was a frequent visitor to his department and a face of the Royal Society of Chemistry in India. “It was Dr Gopalan who introduced me to the RSC and all of its activities. I was very impressed to hear that a foreign country was investing their money and resources into the Indian community to spread chemistry knowledge to faraway places. And that touched my heart. So I started participating in RSC outreach activities as a resource person.”
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Since joining the RSC in 2011, Suvarn has organised several outreach events and activities throughout the RSC West India section, which he says were possible because of the full-hearted support of the RSC.
“The RSC’s strong presence in India enables us to conduct outreach activities through local sections. For each section, they support 10 to 15 very good events annually, where we can invite students from rural places to learn from great academicians or bring active scientists, entrepreneurs and teachers to distant places – anything that we can do to help students better understand chemistry.
“I really appreciate the outreach mission of the RSC. I’m very grateful for this, and I think it is great work.”
Once vice president and now a member of the West India section, Suvarn is a Fellow of the RSC and Member of RSC India & Subcontinent Regional Steering Group which connects him to RSC activities in nearby surrounding countries. He has given over 50 lectures on various chemistry topics in several RSC outreach workshops over the last decade.
FRSC and MRSC are very unique to the RSC because a high level of academic excellence is required and not everyone that applies gets approved. Getting FRSC is quite difficult, so accreditation is looked upon as major career recognition. Most importantly, the selection process is very professional and fair.
“When I applied in 2016, the RSC were so helpful and proactively went out of their way to collect my recommendation letters from the referees. My application was taken up in the very next meeting and I received FRSC status immediately after that.”
Thanks to his significant carbohydrate research, Suvarn has spent many years publishing in a number of influential journals. His first paper on rare sugars, Expeditious synthesis of bacterial, rare sugar building blocks to access the prokaryotic glycome, was published in the RSC’s Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry (OBC) journal, which publishes original and high impact research and reviews in organic chemistry.
“The OBC has very, very professional handling. You always get excellent reviews which are rigorous and helpful. Apart from OBC, we have also had a great experience of publishing our collaborative work in Chemical Science, which was also recently covered as a news article in Chemistry World.”
Suvarn intends to continue his membership with the RSC for many years to come. “If they had life membership, I would do that. I started my membership 10 years ago and I have had a great experience with the RSC so far.
“I really appreciate that the RSC truly wants to spread chemistry education, regardless of the country or region. It is fascinating, and not something I have seen in any other society to such an extent. I cannot explain why, as this is not a business model. This is just a genuine feeling that they want to spread the light of knowledge. And I think this is why I will always stay with the RSC.”