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Indrani Karunasagar - Session 01, 2023-05-19

Identifier: OH-004-5-1

Interview Summary

(00:00:39) Childhood Parents work in defence. Limited association with south India despite being south Indian. Life as a child living among defence families, learning about loss and unity early. Memories of all siblings being delivered in the same hospital by the same midwife. School life in a convent. Moving to the south for her father's job.

(00:03:46) Earliest influences of science Creation of Kendriya Vidyalayas around India. Memories of biology teacher Subhadra Menon at Kendriya Vidyalaya. She benefited from the strong influence of her teachers.

(00:07:48) Ideas of what to do after school How the 'higher secondary' system worked. Going to Mysore to do BEd with a scholarship. Being trained to become school teachers.

(00:10:12) B.Ed. in Mysore and first job at a KV Joining KV-HVF as a primary school teacher. Memories of hostel life in Mysore - learning to adapt, mix with diverse peers, develop compassion. Being socially advantaged but from a lower economic background. She had a talent and received recognition for singing and other extracurricular activities.

(00:13:30) Experience in B.Ed. Opportunity to specialise in biological sciences and being trained by brilliant teachers. Listing teachers who made the subject exciting. Benefiting from dissections and how things have changed. Recollecting how she opted for Mysore over JIPMER for medicine. Regret over missing out joining medicine, but gradually developing a passion for science. Interest in writing.

(00:16:50) Stint at KV as teacher and moving on Life as a primary school teacher. Finding advertisement in paper from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, for MSc in microbiology. Being attracted to the word 'paramedical' in the notice. Applying and being selected.

(00:19:23) Journey to Manipal (1972) Parents' tension on letting her move to Manipal. Arriving in the peak of monsoons in Mangalore. Financial difficulties the family had to navigate to pay the fees. Being alone in a Chennai-Mangalore train, and a friendly stranger in the compartment. Being utterly clueless in the station but receiving fortunate help from an old classmate near Mangalore. On her innocence as a young woman looking for a room in a hotel. Memories of hospitality of friend Purandhar Bhat and his family.

(00:27:23) Experience in Manipal and microbiology Excitement of being in a medical college and being in the same classrooms. Introduction to medical microbiology. Advantages of being a small batch. Being trained in subjects like tuberculosis, virology, culture sensitivity of pus, immunology etc. The art of self-learning. Excitement of studying about the human body and how it's affected by the environment. "Your shit and urine is my bread and butter." Being initiated into research and publishing as a Masters student. Listing some teachers she remembers. Advantages of scholarship she had won for the whole period. Importance of allowing students to work in the lab. Studying unusual infections in humans. Working with Aeromonas hydrophilas, a species she would come to build her expertise in much later.

(00:36:43) Starting off career in research and investigating a mystery disease outbreak Being offered a job as bacteriologist to the Govt of India, Delhi. Being convinced to continue with a PhD at KMC. Joining as lecturer in KMC. Mysterious disease outbreak in Malpe. Going to Malpe to homes of sick children to investigate. Serotyping and finding a link - enteropathogenic E.coli. The reputation of E. coli and how it was not recognised as a pathogen at the time. The impact of this finding and controlling the outbreak.

(00:43:24) Studying listeriosis and abortions Getting samples from women with 'bad obstetric history'. Hunt for Listeria. Doing cold-enrichment, isolating and studying the organism. How contamination of listeria happens. Her research in public health and being ranked ranked #11 and #13 respectively in India by in the field of microbiology. Publishing 10 papers in just over one year in KMC. Research on Q Fever and other mystery fevers.

(00:51:52) Move to JIPMER and return to Mangalore Joining JIPMER as senior resident. Prestige of the job. Registering for PhD. Starting specialisation in immunology and virology. Being affected by her guide's move to Calcutta. Getting married and returning to Mangalore. Joining KMC as ICMR-Senior Research Fellow. Studying genetics of Vibrio cholerae. Being the first Microbiology PhD from Mangalore University. Getting acquainted with organisms associated with fisheries. Looking back on moving from field to field. Husband's job at Fisheries College and his opting not to do research in medical college.

(00:59:55) Joining Fisheries College Seeing an advertisement for an Assistant Professor post. Joining husband's team for his PL-480 project. Doing PhD in the meanwhile and submitting thesis in 1984. Owing 400+ publications to ~40 PhD and ~35 Masters students who worked under her.

(01:01:47) Thoughts on family life Raising independent daughters with successful careers. Achievements of both daughters

(01:03:04) Doing fisheries research Fish as a perishable commodity. Important for nutrition value and food security value. Early days of fisheries focused on 'capture fisheries', and this changed to 'culture fisheries'. Research had to be related to methods needed to increase productivity. Need to ensure the health of fish, managing threats to fish health. Developing preventive measures, diagnostic measures for this. Their (Indrani + Iddya) research focused on shrimp culture and diagnostic measures for a viral disease. National Technology Awards received for technology they developed (she won it in 2014 for work done over 25 years). Early days of PCRs they developed. Research on Vibrio harveyi and harmful effects, developing a phage technology to kill them. Developing bioremediators to change the toxic chemicals affecting shrimp. Experience as Principal Investigator for collaborative research on vaccines for fish. Collaborating with Norway for this work, and how Norway vaccinates fishes. Improvements in vaccine delivery (from injection to feed-based to nanotags). Bacterial diseases affecting Indian fish. New viruses affecting shrimp reported by them. Developing a multi-pronged approach to manage shrimp health.

(01:13:39) Working on human diseases derived from fish Association with husband's EU project regarding fish parasites (trematodes) that can reach humans.

(01:15:26-01:17:14 ) Tea Break

(01:17:15) Notable public health related work – paralytic shellfish poisoning Work on Algal toxins. Reading in the newspaper in 1982 about a mysterious ailment and deaths in Kasargod. Investigations and sample collection in the village. Shellfish-linked paralysis, a never-been-reported-before phenomenon. Using clinical science to identify the illness. Putting the pieces together. Algal blooms being filtered via shellfish and the presence of a neurotoxin in such shellfish. Testing their theory in white mice. Figuring out how to detoxify these shellfish, using alkali. Recognition and grants received for this work. Similar instances of Ciguatera poisoning via red snapper fish in Mangalore and Cochin. Explanation of how these toxins reach red snappers. Why GI tagging is important for tracing where fish come from. 500 poisoned people were brought to Yenepoya hospital. Name, fame and collaborators that came from this work.

(01:26:24) Need for long-term surveillance programme and political pressures US-India project for 5 years to do research on this. When no issues cropped up in 5 years, India discontinued, but the next month there was an outbreak. 1990s outbreak in Kovalam, Kerala, and being called by the Chief Minister. Political repercussions and pressures of fisheries research and results. The couple's stand on issues and being part of several committees.

(01:29:37) Partnership with Iddya Karunasagar The common subject is an important link in their relationship. Helping each other during international collaborations. Role of arguments and being opinionated in their partnership.

(01:31:36) Choice to stay in India Opportunity to leave in 1982 when husband was offered a job in FDA, in the US. Perception of the US as a place lacking morals and protectiveness over their daughter keeping them in India. Feeling of patriotism. The couple's stints abroad in Germany, Latin America, South east Asia, Middle East, former Soviet countries. Getting the best from everywhere and bringing it back to India.

(01:35:13) Others who contributed to her career Mother-in-law's support with childcare. Long-term help at home and support received and given to her family.

(01:38:25) The Nitte chapter – an opportunity to build an institute Receiving a letter and a visitor while at Fisheries College. Being offered a position as a research director. Joining as a consultant working on Saturdays. Asking for a research institute to benefit all at the university – the birth of Nitte Centre for Science Education and Research (NUCSER), modelled on IISc and IISERs. Bringing with her a whole team. Recent achievements and activities of NUCSER. How NUCSER aligns with the New Education Policy, by making it a centre for inter and multidisciplinary research. Potential for interdisciplinary work at Nitte. Gratitude for the opportunity to build an institute.


  • Creation: 2023-05-19



Indrani Karunasagar was born in Jabalpur on 25 June 1952. She was educated at St. Joseph's Convent, Jabalpur (1959-64) and IAF Avadi Kendriya Vidyalaya (1964-68). She did her B.Sc. Ed. at the Regional College of Education, Mysore (1968-72), M.Sc. at Kasturba Medical College, Manipal (1972-75) and Ph.D. at Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore University (1985). She did postdoctoral stints at the University of Stirling, University of Copenhagen, University of Maryland and Centre for Marine Biotechnology, Baltimore, USA. She was also a visiting professor at the University of Wuerzburg, Germany from 2002 to 2006. She joined Nitte University as Director (R&D) in 2014 and set up the Nitte University Center for Science Education and Research (NUCSER). Her primary areas of interest are aquaculture biotechnology, fish and shellfish health management, functional genomics of shrimp, molecular methods for rapid detection of viruses associated with fish and shrimps, antiviral strategies, bacterial pathogens of fish and shellfish, vaccines for aquatic animals, phage therapy, pathogenicity and pathogenesis of microorganisms of public health significance, marine toxins, toxic dinoflagellates, bacterial algal interactions and risk assessment of pathogens associated with seafood. Some of the prominent awards she has received are the Sir. M. Visvesvaraya Award for excellence in research and lifetime contribution to Science and Technology by the Govt. of Karnataka in 2014; the National Technology Development Award by DST in 201; and the Lifetime achievement - National Women Bioscientist Award by DBT in 2003.


From the Collection: 5 Hours

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Part of the Archives at NCBS Repository

National Centre for Biological Sciences - Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
Bangalore Karnataka 560065 India
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