A Conversation with Spandan Chennamadhavuni

About Spandan

Name: Spandan Chennamadhavuni
Location: Atlanta, GA
Community Connection: PhD Alum & Chemistry Staff
Career: Staff Scientist in the Liotta Group
Alma Mater: Osmania University
Research Group: Liotta
Committee: Davies, McDonald, Menger, Snyder

What are your hobbies?

Photography and video editing and mixing.

Tell us about your family.

My dad, Ravinder Raju, retired as Gazetted Officer after serving in the government sector for more than thirty years., and my mom, Vijaya Rani, is a homemaker.  I am happily married to Priyanka for eleven years and we are blessed with twins, Vihaan and Daksha, who are now seven years old. I also have two siblings, Hrudhai and Vandan.

Vihaan and Daksha through the years.

Talk about a time you took a risk and it failed. What did you learn?

Most of the research projects in the drug discovery and development research field are “high risk-high reward” projects. During my first postdoc, I took up a project where we needed to use computational modeling to rationally design structurally complex drug-like macrocycles, something that had never been attempted earlier. After several months of hard work, the results did not come out the way I anticipated, partly due to the limitations of the computational tools that I was using. Eventually, I learned “failure is a stepping stone to success” and was able to finish the project by establishing new collaborations with others who had the tools and expertise to solve the problem.

What is something that you used to believe, but no longer do?

I used to believe that there is no substitute for hard work – that working longer hours is the ONLY way to be successful. As I get old & wise, I realize that “working smart” is better than “working hard”. Now, I strongly believe in managing time and resources to have a balanced life and that having a proper work-life balance is key for success. Your passion for science should not come in between your playtime with your kids.

Do you have a system for being more productive? Dealing with procrastination? Burn-out?

I have built a support network around me. I surround myself with successful and supportive colleagues and friends. I talk to my wife and my parents to distract myself from procrastination. I go for a walk or do meditation/Yoga to clear my mind from all distractions. I go on a week-long vacation (at least once a year) and come back refreshed and rejuvenated.

What makes you most excited about your work?

As I am doing the science of developing pharmaceutical drugs, my work can have a direct impact on human lives and well-being. When I get up in the morning and go to work, I feel I am doing my part in making this world a better place to live in.

How do you handle pressure?

I always believe in taking action. I analyze the pressure situations. What is the cause of it? What is the consequence of the pressure? Is there anything I can do to mitigate the pressure situation? Nine times out of ten, this sort of analysis not only solves the problem but also gives the probable solution.

What do you do when things don’t work?

Over the years, I believed in being persistent. Never give-up or give-in, however hard the task may be. Now, I ask myself: “did I give my best shot at it?” If the answer to that question is “yes”, then I just move on to the next task. Sometimes, it’s smarter and wiser to move on rather than to stay stuck in one place for very long.

How are you structuring your “work from home” schedule during COVID-19 closures?

I am getting ready early in the morning as If I am going to work. I am spending some time planning my day and what tasks I want to accomplish for that day. Apart from doing some writing and reading, I am also scheduling Zoom calls with colleagues to just chat with them for a few minutes. Social distancing can be depressing and human interactions are necessary. One good thing happening in this “work from home” atmosphere is I am able to eat freshly made food for lunch.

How else has your life changed — or not — as a result of COVID-19 closures?

Life will not be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their loved ones, millions of people have lost their jobs, almost all major events either got postponed or canceled, international travel is restricted, and so on. This social distancing gave me time to look into the inner self and ask some critical questions of myself. Some positive things that happened due to this pandemic include how it brought people together and allowed us be thankful and grateful for what we have.

What has been your favorite paper or result that has come out of your work and why?

My article “How proteins bind macrocycles” in Nature Chemical Biology in 2014 (cited over 214 times in the last 6 years) is my favorite paper. It’s a review article that talks about “rules we proposed, to make large molecules (macrocycles) drug-like, analogous to rule of five” proposed by Lipinski to make small molecule drug-like. It not only opened up a new field of research but also led to exponential growth in published articles in this field.

If you could be any other type of scientist, what would you be and why?

If I could be of any other type of scientist, I would be an agricultural scientist dealing with issues such as global food shortages, crop protection, and global warming.

What is a hobby that you think complements your scientific skills or vice versa?

I try to cook sometimes. Cooking Indian curries is a very intricate process that requires mixing of ingredients in the right proportions at the right time and at the right temperature to make it delicious – very similar to setting up an organic reaction in which various reagents are needed to be added precisely in the right order.

What is your advice to chemistry undergraduates?

I suggest all undergraduate students try out various avenues during their undergraduate education. Try to go for internships elsewhere to get real time experience, try out working in research labs to get hands-on experience, try to learn from peers and try to think outside the box. Try to cultivate the habit of seeking logical answers to world problems, try to be respectful to everyone around you. Undergraduate course work is just a curriculum, having an excellent GPA is important but life outside school will be lot different and what you end up doing in your life might be lot different from what you learned in college.

What is your advice to chemistry graduate students?

The Emory chemistry graduate program is highly competitive and most of the graduate students joining the department already have a very good idea what they want to do in their graduate program. Make sure to utilize the rotation system available in the department to choose the “right fit lab” where you want to spend your next five years. Be diligent and try to acquire as many skills as you can while in grad school. Make the habit of browsing through current literature and try to come up with raw ideas early on in grad school. Whenever you get time, try to refine the crude ideas to research proposals that could be used for securing graduate fellowships. Make a list of all the professors who works in the similar field as yours and set-up “Google Alert” so that you will be informed when a new publication from that particular lab comes out.

What is your favorite place in the world?

My favorite place is wherever my family and parents are. Family is my strength and my weakness.

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