Anita Mahadevan-Jansen, Ph.D. 1996

headshot of Anita Mahadevan-Jansen smiling

   

Although her childhood dream was to become a medical doctor, Anita Mahadevan-Jansen ultimately chose to study physics. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s in that subject from the University of Bombay in Mumbai, one of her professors suggested she apply her talents in physics to medicine by entering the biomedical engineering field.

Soon thereafter Anita found herself at The University of Texas at Austin.

“As an international student, cost was a consideration, and UT had the best ranking for the best price,” Anita said, regarding her school selection.

She began studying optical devices to detect cervical pre-cancers under the direction of Rebecca Richards-Kortum, who is currently the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University. Anita’s research began with fluorescence before moving to Raman spectroscopy, which is her main focus today as the Orrin H. Ingram Chair in Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University.

Raman spectroscopy is a technique involving the use of a light particle that, when applied to tissue, gives information about the biochemical properties and activities occurring within that tissue.

“The light particle is a like a cue ball in a game of pool, and every time the cue ball hits the other balls on the table, those balls behave in a certain way,” she says. “When a light particle is aimed at tissue, the light reflects back, and in that reflection we have all kinds of information about what is happening with those molecules.”

One benefit of Raman spectroscopy over other optical techniques is its sensitivity. Many devices used today detect large changes in tissues, mainly whether or cells are cancerous. Devices that use Raman spectroscopy can detect smaller changes such as infection, inflammation, low-grade disease, and pre-cancers, in addition to large changes.

This technology had previously been used in other fields such as chemistry, but Anita’s PhD project was one of the first to use Raman spectroscopy to diagnose disease inside the body.

The training I received at UT, and the close-knit family atmosphere helped me feel like what I was doing was important and that somebody cared about what I was doing,” Anita said. “Austin was clearly a life-changing experience for me.”

In addition to discovering her research interests in optical techniques for disease diagnosis, Anita also met her future husband, Duco Jansen. He studied therapeutic applications of lasers under A.J. Welch, who is now a professor emeritus, and today is also a professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University.

The two operate their own laboratories at Vanderbilt, and together are collaborating on a project to see how light can activate nerves. They are also raising an 11-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, who they have proudly introduced to Longhorn culture.

“Our daughter goes to UT’s volleyball camp every summer, and even though we love Nashville, there’s something about Austin that stays in your blood,” says Anita. “It’s the place where I learned about American football, and to this day we still follow UT sports.”

As for the field of biomedical engineering veering her away from her childhood goal of becoming a medical doctor, Anita has no regrets.

“It sounds cliché to say, but what I do helps more than one patient at a time.”