Ravin Narain: Aiming for a Cancer Cure with Biomaterials and Nanotechnology

by | Mar 14, 2012

We speak to University of Alberta Professor Ravin Narain about his polymeric and nano-materials research, and what it might for the future of biomaterials and medicine.

RAVIN NARAIN, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta and an Associate Investigator of the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Carbohydrate Science (AICCS) in Alberta, Canada. His research is focused on the development of new polymeric and nanomaterials for biomedical applications, and he has published more than forty-five peer-reviewed papers. He is also editor of the newly published Engineered Carbohydrate-Based Materials for Biomedical Applications: Polymers, Surfaces, Dendrimers, Nanoparticles, and Hydrogels, and agreed to talk to us about his life, his work, and his inspiration.


What attracted you to science and how did you get to where you are now?

I am attracted to science because I know if I want to solve problems I need to have a good understanding of the underlying issues. I am also, by nature, someone who needs explanations to why things are and/or behave like they do. I knew if I wanted to explain the how(s) and the why(s) of things, find solutions to problems, and discover new things, science was the way to go! 


Were there any strong childhood influences that lead you to this career?

As a kid, I was always interested in making, building, or fixing stuff and I used to always wonder how things work. To me, what was going on inside a toy was far more interesting than actually playing with it! This inquisitive nature of trying to understand how things work has made me choose science as a subject.


How did you view science and scientists as a child?

When I was a kid, I was always curious to understand the world around me. Although, it was not very clear what I wanted to be at that age, becoming a scientist and learning about science were on top of my list.


What (or who) have been your biggest influences or motivation?

There are several people who have contributed in shaping my scientific career path.  Their collective effort has not only helped me becoming a better scientist but also a better person. My biggest motivation is to develop advanced biomaterials that can solve major genetic diseases such as cancer.


What would you have done if you had not taken this career path?

If I wasn’t ‘crazy’ about science,  I  would have probably been in Mauritius where I was born enjoying the tropical weather year round, wonderful beaches, and  of course my family who I miss so much.


What motivated you to choose a career in academia instead of industry?

Well, I choose a career in academia because of my passion for both teaching and research. Not only can you solve your own scientific questions but you can solve them in a way that no-one has thought about before.


What got you interested in polymer science as a subject, and how did you develop your current interests in biomaterials and nanotechnology?

My interest in Polymer Science started a while ago when I was in my undergraduate studies. I got involved in polymer research soon after I completed my bachelor degree when Professor Dhanjay Jhurry invited me to join his group as a graduate student to develop novel polymers from renewable resources. At that time, I wanted to stay in Mauritius and, given the opportunity to do research in this area, it was the ideal thing for me. I got interested in the field of Biomaterials and Nanotechnology when I joined the group pf Professors Steven P. Armes, Allan Hoffman, and Patrick S. Stayton. My interest in developing carbohydrate–based polymers ties well with the field of biomaterials and nanotechnology.


How does this work fit into a wider scientific / general context?

Carbohydrates have been recognized to play a key role in many important cellular recognition processes including cell growth regulation, differentiation, adhesion, cancer cell metastasis, cellular trafficking, inflammation by bacteria and viruses, and immune response. With major developments in the field of carbohydrate and polymer science, the development of advanced carbohydrate-based materials have become increasingly popular and significant technological progress has been made in the last few decades. Research in my laboratory is primarily focused in developing such advanced carbohydrate-based materials as biomaterials for a range of applications.


What influence do you believe your work will have?

Research in my laboratory is focused towards the development of engineered carbohydrate-based polymeric and nano-materials for a range of biomedical applications. In particular, we are putting a lot of effort in developing advanced carbohydrate polymeric and nanomaterials for gene delivery. We have made major contributions in this area over the last few years and we will continue to work in this area for a deeper understanding of those carbohydrate-based materials in gene delivery and other applications.


What do you enjoy most about your work?

First and foremost, I enjoy seeing new ideas transforming into exceptional results which eventually lead to new discoveries. I also enjoy training enthusiastic and highly qualified individuals to perform excellent research.


What are your short and long term plans?

My long term goal is to find a cure for genetic diseases such as cancer which remain as one of the most challenging diseases to find a therapy. The short term goal is to find a non-viral gene delivery systems that work well both in-vitro and in-vivo.


What are some of your professional challenges?

The major professional challenge I find myself facing regularly is finding time to complete all the duties I have on a daily basis.


What do you see as the rewards and outcomes of solving such challenges?

When you see the effect on the world of a great scientific breakthrough it is quite rewarding.


What is your biggest passion outside of science?  What do you like to do to in your spare time?

In my spare time, I like to spend time with my kids, play tennis and soccer, watch movies, and travel to Mauritius to see my family.


What do you think are the greatest challenges facing scientists at the moment?

The greatest challenge at the moment is finding resources to conduct high level research for the benefit of mankind.


Where do you see the field of materials science in 10 years time?

In a decade from now, major breakthroughs will happen in materials science as we will have a better understanding at the macro-, micro- and nanoscale. Materials will be developed with excellent control at the molecular level for better performance in general.


Finally, what should scientists aspire to?

Scientists should constantly strive to have better ideas, engage young bright minds into research, and transform ideas into technological breakthroughs that can have an immediate impact on the lives of people in a reasonable timeline.

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