Spotlight on Dr. Vasundara Venkateswaran

Spotlight on Dr. Vasundara Venkateswaran

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By: Yekta Dowlati

Dr. Vasundara Venkateswaran is a woman wearing many hats. She is an associate professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto (U of T), a graduate coordinator and Chair of Graduate Admissions at the Institute of Medical Science (IMS), the Director of the IMS Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), and a scientist in the Division of Urology at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Dr. Venkateswaran completed her double master’s degree in clinical biochemistry and Ph.D. in clinical biochemistry at the University of Madras in India in 1990. Her Ph.D. studies focused on estrogen receptors in breast cancer. She explains, “I was fascinated particularly by clinical biochemistry because it talked about disease pathways and applications.” Her first postdoctoral fellowship was at Washington State University where she investigated the effect of growth factors on the development of breast cancer and how various types of breast cancer cells interact in the tumor environment. She then moved on to take up her second training as a senior research associate, at the University of Kansas Medical Centre, where she investigated molecular mechanisms relating to physical therapy treatment such as the use of growth factors in repairing injured tendons.

After residing in the United States for approximately six years, she returned to India for a period of five years with her family, so that her only daughter could be exposed to and be part of the Indian culture. There she had a tenured position as an assistant professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Madras. In 1999, Dr. Venkateswaran and her family immigrated to Canada, and was recruited right away as a research fellow in January 2000, by Dr. Lawrence Klotz, an uro-oncologist at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Dr. Venkateswaran was instrumental in setting up and managing the Prostate Cancer Research Laboratory at Sunnybrook. Following her extensive work on prostate cancer leading to publications in high impact journals, Dr. Venkateswaran was appointed as an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery and Scientist in the Division of Urology in 2003.

When Dr. Venkateswaran started working in prostate cancer research, she enjoyed the transition from breast cancer research into a different field, as she believes that the importance does not lie in a specific type of cancer but rather in the broader concept of cancer development. At that time, a landmark clinical trial (SELECT) testing the ability of vitamin E and selenium in preventing prostate cancer was taking place. In parallel Dr. Venkateswaran was interested in replicating these observations in a transgenic model that replicated the development of human prostate cancer beginning from early stage (microfocal) cancer to full blown neoplasia. Although the clinical trials were well underway, Dr. Venkateswaran had very intriguing findings and was the first to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of these compounds, with the findings being published in Cancer Research.

Consequently, different treatment strategies were being tested by Dr. Venkateswaran’s research group. It was noticed that a subset of patients undergoing androgen deprivation therapy as a treatment for prostate cancer developed hyperinsulinemia, which was being treated with the drug metformin. An increase in insulin levels was suspected to be causing an increase in the progression and aggressiveness of the cancer in patients. Another consequence of hyperinsulinemia was obesity. The results of a study led by Dr. Venkateswaran published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that feeding a high carbohydrate diet to mice with prostate cancer caused an increase not only in their body weight and hyperinsulinemic state, but resulted in overall larger tumor size and aggressiveness as well. She is now investigating if metformin can sensitize and improve the response of prostate cancer cells compared with conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapeutic drugs by eradicating tumor cells as well as cancer stem cells in the tumors.

One of Dr. Venkateswaran’s graduate students is now studying if capsaicin (a compound found in chili pepper) can be considered as a novel radio-sensitizing and therapeutic agent in prostate cancer. As stated by Dr. Venkateswaran, “Diet alone is not the only player instrumental in prostate cancer progression. Other key player includes exercise.  To sum, “lifestyle” as a whole has to be taken into consideration.” Hence, other graduate students have focused on the effect of regular sustained aerobic exercise in conjunction with various dietary regimens on the inhibition of prostate cancer growth in mice.

In 2011, Dr. Venkateswaran was promoted to associate professor at U of T. Over the past three years, she has been a graduate coordinator tending to student affairs. In addition she has participated in graduate admissions for several years and presently chairs this very important committee at IMS. She has been the director of SURP, (one of the largest summer undergraduate research programs at the U of T) for nearly 5 years. Under her leadership, the SURP program has expanded and she has created partnerships with international universities, obtaining funding for the students to conduct their research. She has been a member of IMS for nearly 8 years. Dr. Venkateswaran’s involvement in the IMS has made her even more passionate about what she is doing. “It gives me a great sense of satisfaction in mentoring students and even more of a gratification when I see them come out of their tough times,” says Dr. Venkateswaran.

Dr. Venkateswaran acknowledges Dr. Mary Seeman and Dr. Howard Mount as her mentors in helping her with transitioning into her new roles at the IMS. Under the leadership of Dr. Allan Kaplan, Dr. Venkateswaran took on the responsibility of a graduate coordinator and Chair of Graduate Admissions. Dr. Venkateswaran admits that she would do anything to make sure her students experience the same excitement in research as she did, be successful, and achieve their dreams.  She doesn’t believe in being a task master, but rather being a great mentor, “So I have to wear different hats and I love it. I have to be a mother, teacher, mentor, researcher, and counselor, but again it is the art of balancing.”

Dr. Venkateswaran’s belief is that if someone wants to do research, it’s not only about doing the research; but to ensure that they are enjoying what they are doing. One should not miss the moment and that moment is today. She explains, “All students are stressed for sure, but I think you should enjoy what you are doing. It’s not about doing something; it’s about how well you want to do something and for sure enjoying it.” Her second suggestion is that students need to interact, “They say they don’t have time, but you should create time. Time management is the key to your success. The thing I have learned in life is the art of balancing.” Dr. Venkateswaran believes that she is personally more effective when she is challenged by multiple tasks and has to juggle compared with times when she only has to focus on one single task.

Her third suggestion as a scientist is collaboration, “You tend to withhold information, because you are scared. You feel that somebody else will take away your idea. It’s so unfortunate. The scientific world has changed. There was a time that we were happy to discuss and share our work and the fear was not there. We were all able to enjoy the science and collaborate widely. Collaboration is also a key element to success.” In the midst of all this, Dr. Venkateswaran says, “None of this would be possible but for my loving family. The incredible support from my husband and daughter–they are the only family I have in Canada and they mean the world to me. But now I have an extended family in IMS and I love them dearly at a personal and professional level.” She further mentions, “It is very important for anyone to have inner satisfaction. I want to live for people who want me to help and support them.”

Dr. Venkateswaran reflects on the difficult times of her graduate school, her unapproachable supervisor. She now supervises graduate students, uro-oncology fellows, and postdoctoral students of her own.  What she has learned from this is to be accessible and approachable to all students and to be available for them. She believes in giving students the freedom of thinking, the opportunity to express their ideas, and not forcing your ideas on them in order for them to be successful, “My role is not just being a supervisor, but also being a mentor. I want to give them free thinking and make them be independent. Because if you want them to become successful scientists, don’t force your ideas on them, train them to think independently.” She continues, “It is exactly like teaching your baby how to walk. I have to hold the hand of my students at first, but then let them go, so that they can start taking hold of themselves, but I am always there watching out for them.”