By: Ananya Sen
Joseph Irudayaraj (CGD/EIRH) is a Founder Professor in Bioengineering. His lab uses engineering, biology, and computer science to develop smart therapeutics and to understand epigenetic regulation due to environmental contaminants.
Often scientists are portrayed as single-minded in their love for a particular research topic. Their childhood interest in chemistry, for example, ultimately translates to a PhD in chemistry, a postdoctoral position in a chemistry lab, and finally a faculty position in a chemistry department. However, there are several researchers who sample a range of disciplines before settling on one. Sometimes it can take one or two years, or, in the case of Joseph Irudayaraj, it can take more than a decade.
Growing up in Coimbatore, a city in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Irudayaraj was interested in coming to the U.S. to pursue a career in science. After completing a Master’s degree in biosystems engineering as well as in information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Irudayaraj joined Purdue University, Indiana, for his PhD. There he focused on developing computational models to understand the viscoelastic behavior of biomaterials under hydrothermal stress. Concurrently, he also focused on his love for biology.
“Although I did computational research for over eight years after my PhD, I always had an interest in biology, which is why I used to audit classes on the side. During my initial years as a faculty member, I made it a point to audit one course a semester,” Irudayaraj said. “Slowly I shifted my research from developing computational models to developing sensors for detecting microbes and to understanding cell processes.” He also gained experience in experimental physics, namely optics and microfluidics, during his sabbatical at Cornell University.
After holding faculty positions at Purdue, Pennsylvania State University, and Utah State University, he joined the University of Illinois in 2017. “Illinois is ranked very closely to other institutions, such as Purdue, in terms of engineering. However, the collaborations I have with the IGB, the Cancer Center at Illinois, and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine made it different from my previous experiences,” Irudayaraj said.
“Given my broad interests, it took several years for my research to come together,” he said. “It’s like visiting an island in an archipelago. You gradually go from one island to the next as you discover more things.”
Currently, his group works on two main themes: treating medical conditions using nanoparticles as drug delivery systems and studying the environmental effects of cancer. “We are working very closely with the IGB for the second project. Our goal is to establish a center on environmental toxicology that will bring together over 20 faculty from across the campus and outside Illinois,” Irudayaraj said.
Although his lab thrives on cross-campus collaborations, Irudayaraj recognizes how difficult it can be to find the right people especially when you want to develop large grants. “The biggest challenge I've faced is finding the right connections. Sometimes collaborations can be spontaneous, but after a while it withers away. You want sustained collaborations for long-term research, which can be difficult if your work does not get funded within a short timeframe,” Irudayaraj said. “During such challenging times, teams need to stick together and weather the storms so we can reach the calm afterwards.”
Despite all his research accomplishments, Irudayaraj takes the most pride in his students. “I am proud of all my students who have gone on to do great things. Hearing back from my students is always a highlight,” he said.
In his spare time, Irudayaraj likes to spend time with his son watching movies. He has also coached middle school track. Over the summers, Irudayaraj enjoys traveling. “My favorite places are Turkey, Spain, and Italy,” he said. “The history of these countries is pretty unique, and being in a place where you don't know anybody is a strange and novel feeling.”
By: Ananya Sen
Photos By: Fred Zwicky