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Woman Of Influence - Meena Subramanyam

Ranjani Saigal

It is not often that one has an opportunity to write about a person whose resume in science and the arts are equally stellar. We have the honor of introducing Dr. Meena Subramanyam who is the Vice President of the Development Translational Medicine Division (Dev-TM) at Biogen Idec, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also Guru Meena Subramanyam to her Bharatanatyam students at Natya Vidyalaya school of dance. 

Professional Profile

Dr. Subramanyam joined Biogen in 1998 and has over nineteen years of experience in Biotechnology supporting the development of therapeutics for autoimmune and neurological disorders. Most recently, Dr. Subramanyam led the development and launch of the STRATIFY JCV™ assay for PML risk stratification.  Prior to joining Biogen Idec, Dr. Subramanyam served as Associate Director of the Experimental Therapeutics Department at Ares Advanced Technology of the Merck Serono group in Massachusetts. Dr. Subramanyam received her Ph.D. degree in Microbiology from Miami University at Oxford, Ohio and did her post-doctoral training at the Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Pathology.  Dr. Subramanyam has several publications to her credit in peer-reviewed journals, and is a regularly featured speaker in International Scientific Conferences.  Dr. Subramanyam currently serves as the Vice Chair of the Biotech section of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists and is a member of the biotechnology industrial advisory board at North Eastern University.

Arts Profile

Meena Subramanyam was trained in the classical Kalakshetra style of Bharatanätyam by Kalaimamani Adyar K Lakshman, in Abhinaya by Padmabhushan Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan, and in Mohini Attam by the late Sri. Trichur P. Ramanathan. She is also proficient in Carnatic music. Meena is a recipient of the “Iyal Isai Nataka Manram” award for talented dancers and has given numerous performances of high caliber on stage and on both Indian and foreign television. Meena has had the honor of representing India at the “Sacred Festival of Indian Music and Dance” held in Austria and also at the “Festival of India” held in the United States. She has been teaching Bharatanätyam at her dance school “Natya Vidyalaya” in Massachusetts, which she established in 1990. She has choreographed and participated in a number of dance shows to raise funds for charitable causes in the greater Boston area and has given lecture demonstrations on Bharatanatyam in several venues including the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.  Meena is actively involved with and is a strong supporter of local philanthropic organizations that focus on hunger and poverty (Project Bread, Akshaya Patra), organizations that support Women (Rosie’s place), as well as those that support the visual and performing arts (MFA, MITHAS).

She is also the mother of a Harvard undergrad who is also a very talented musician and dancer.  To those who know Meena, her humility, compassion, kindness and care for her students and for variety of causes that she supports, stands out. She shared the secret of her successful life journey with Lokvani.

Why did you choose a career in Biotechnology?

I have always been both interested and passionate about using my scientific training to make a difference in people’s lives.  Being a biotechnology professional has helped me utilize my scientific background and experience in drug discovery and development for developing new therapeutic medicines that will make a meaningful difference in patient’s lives.

Could you tell us a little about your work? 

As Vice President of the the Development Translational Medicine at Biogen Idec, Inc. located  in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I head a group that is involved in supporting discovery and development of therapeutic medicines  The scientists in my team design, develop and implement a wide variety of bioanalytical tests using cutting-edge technologies to monitor the activity and effect at the molecular level of therapeutic medicines that my company presently develops for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases and  autoimmune disorders. My group is also involved in advancing our understanding of the heterogeneity of such diseases and in characterizing patient responses to the therapeutics in order to personalize treatment options for patients. 

You seemed to have shifted from basic research into more of clinical side of the business. What motivated you to do this? 

I made a conscious decision to move from basic research to clinical development to be closer to the “action”, that is, to better understand how drugs help patients manage their disease and appreciate the benefit/risk of treating a specific disease with a particular medicine. In addition, I wanted to become more aware of the challenges involved in translating an experimental finding that appears initially promising at the preclinical phase (tissue culture plates and in animal models) to ultimately become clinically successful in treating a human disease. My extensive experience in the drug development space has given me a better appreciation for the heterogeneity and complexity of human diseases and the challenges that are involved in developing powerful targeted therapies that maximize the benefit while minimizing the risk to patients.

You have become VP at a very prestigious company. What is the secret to your success? 

My philosophy in life is to work hard, take calculated risks, be honest, be willing to share knowledge, remain curious and keep an agile and open mind. This has helped me to achieve the success that I have both professionally and personally. In addition, I have been fortunate to have managers and mentors who have recognized my potential and contributions to the company and have supported my career development.

What are the personal /environmental attributes that have helped you succeed in your career? 

The foundational attributes that have contributed to the level of success I have achieved are enjoying the work I do, recognizing and appreciating my team’s support at all times, and most importantly, believing in what I do. These attributes, combined with a creative, flexible and optimistic attitude that I try to bring in my approach to work every day, has helped me to become successful.

What challenges, if any, have you faced in your career path?

The primary challenge I had faced early in my career as a scientist was to come to terms with not having enough time in do the many things that I was passionate about.  Once I learned to judge my success, as advised by the Dalai Lama, based on what I had to give up achieving it, learned to evaluate and define my professional growth and success very differently.

What lasting impact do you expect your work to have on the world? 

My greatest desire is to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, be it through scientific contributions to the development of useful therapeutic medicines that change people’s lives, through involvement in or support of charitable organizations that strive to alleviate the suffering of people, or by educating students and supporting their holistic development as responsible and considerate human beings. 

What opportunities are there for women in Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a very dynamic and inter-disciplinary industry that offers a variety of career opportunities for women ranging from accounting, sales and marketing, to research and development, to manufacturing and quality control and assurance. It is a fast-developing field that integrates several traditional sciences: biochemistry, chemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, immunology, microbiology, neuroscience, medicine, medical writing, process engineering and chemical engineering. The biotechnology field is highly entrepreneurial, team-work oriented and results-driven. So in many aspects, it provides an ideal environment for women to be successful and to demonstrate their leadership at different levels in various capacities.

You and your husband have extremely busy lives. What is the secret to your maintaining a work -life balance? 

My husband Sundar and I, share the same philosophy, priorities as well as a sense of humor when it comes to work and family.  We understand each other’s strengths and weakness, our diverse interests and passions, and jointly work towards maintaining a healthy balance. We are also very pragmatic, realistic and practical, and not shy to say no when needed.
Despite having a very busy career you also have a second career as a dance teacher. What motivates you to keep teaching?

My primary motivation to teach Bharatanatyam is the unbridled enthusiasm of my students to learn not just about dance, but also about the rich and varied culture of India. I also strongly believe that the “Guru-Shisya” tradition of teaching and learning is critical to encourage and sustain the practice of traditional Indian performing arts, particularly classical dance.  

What is your philosophy as a teacher?

My philosophy as a teacher is to encourage students to find their inner passion to learn and to appreciate all that Bharatanatyam has to offer, and to commit them to excel without stopping short of it.  I set high expectations in terms of milestones to accomplish rather than defining a destination to reach for my students, thereby allowing them the flexibility to attain them at their own pace.  I aspire to make their journey of learning a transformational experience such that they develop a deep passion and commitment to the art form.  

You are also the mother of a very successful daughter who is at Harvard along with being a fabulous singer and a dancer. What is the secret to that success?

Music and dance have always been a big part of my/our life and therefore I am not surprised that my daughter Kriti became deeply interested in them as well at an early age. Like most parents, we exposed her to many enriching experiences. However, her growth as a versatile artist and her accomplishments in dance and music would not have possible without her passion, commitment and desire to excel.  She derived great joy even as a toddler to watch and emulate my Bharatanatyam students as well as my sister Roja Kannan, a pre-eminent dance teacher in Chennai, India.  Further, the musical experience gained through her school chorus group greatly motivated Kriti to complete a 4-year diploma program in vocal music at the New England Conservatory in Boston. My husband and I are very pleased that she continues to participate in dance shows at Harvard and sing and tour with the Harvard Radcliffe Choral Society.

 What is your approach to parenting?  

My parenting style is what I term as “adaptive”. It has constantly evolved and grown over time with my daughter.  I was a highly engaged hands-on parent when she was little, but over time, my style has evolved to be more of a mentor, confidante and friend. I have enjoyed watching her transformation from a child who was dependent on me to make choices and decisions to an independent, confident young woman with whom I enjoy debating and conversing about a wide range of topics that include sports, science, family, fashion trends, politics and religion.
What do you do for fun? 

 I love to cook, garden, listen to music, chat with family, hike, read and travel.
Who are the people who you admire/ inspired /emulate?

My parents and parents-in-law are people whom I admire and try to emulate the most. In spite of their many responsibilities in traditional joint Indian family settings, they devoted time and energy to inspire and motivate their children to excel in academics, arts and sports in addition to raising them to be good caring adults. My dance gurus, Adyar Lakshman and Kalanidhi Mami have also inspired me to share my knowledge and to go above and beyond to nurture impressionable minds and to encourage and cultivate their talent.     

What kind of support have you valued most from your husband? 

I truly value his encouragement and unwavering support. 

What support from you has your husband valued the most? 

My flexibility to watch the multitude of sporting events on TV with him!

What is your personal philosophy of living life?

Live every day to the fullest and have no regrets.

 What was your happiest moment in life? 

The day my daughter Kriti was born was indeed a very happy moment not just for me but the entire family.

When there were low points in your life  what advice did you value the most to pull through? 

I think it is important to focus one’s energy on positive thoughts at such moments and move forward knowing that life has both ups and downs. 

Do you have a fitness routine that you would like to share? 

I have always been particular about keeping fit. I am mindful about the food I consume and try to walk or go to the gym or practice dance whenever my schedule permits (morning, afternoon or night).  I also try to vary the routine so that I do not get bored. 

Do you have a spiritual routine that you would like to share? 

I am a big believer of self-reflection and take a few minutes every morning to light a lamp, clear my mind and prepare for the day.  

Do you have a beauty routine that you would like to share?

Sleep. I am a big believer of the power of a good night’s sleep.

Do you have a favorite song/ musician?

I listen to a wide variety of music from various genres: classical, semi-classical, ghazals, jazz, pop etc. and therefore is tough to choose one song or musician. I will mention that my grandfather Palghat Rama Bhagavathar’s rendition of Rama Nee Samana Evvaru in Kharaharapriya is definitely one of my favorites

Do you like to cook? Any favorite dish ?

I love cooking and creating new dishes. To encourage the fried food junkies in my family to eat fresh vegetables, over the summer I prepare a quick-fix dish that I have named “bhelad” which is store bought bhel mix prepared with fresh veggies like spinach, slightly sweet cut green mangoes, diced green and red peppers and tomatoes dressed up with coriander and tamarind chutney. This dish is a big hit at home.

Can you share one fun fact about you ?

I am ambidextrous and can write and draw using both hands!

Words of wisdom

My simple approach to life is to live every day to the fullest. I am a strong believer in self-reflection and recalibration.  With all the attention that is being paid these days to women wanting to have it all and not “leaning in” enough, it is tough to live up to everyone’s expectations of you.  This is why it is important to know one’s own capability and capacity and set realistic goals for oneself and achieve success as defined by those goals. 

A favorite quote

Open your arms to change but never let go of your values.

 (The Dalai Lama)

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1.Inspirational November 9, 2013Deepa Rajamani 

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