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Srini Subramaniam

Setting Out to Change the Odds

Growing up poor in a rural village in southwest India, Srini Subramaniam used to dream of going to college and becoming a scientist. Breaking out of that kind of poverty—his father, who never went to school beyond the third grade and earned the $6 a month in a furniture factory—wasn’t easy. Given the odds, it probably wasn’t even in the cards.

But people have a way of changing the odds and now Subramaniam’s name is on the wall outside his own lab in the Department of Neuroscience at Scripps Florida in Jupiter.

“Nobody motivated us, nobody said, ‘Don’t worry about your background or that your parents are uneducated. You can do this,’” Subramaniam said. “I just decided this is what I was going to do and did it.”

He began to climb the educational and career ladder, earning honors along the way. Subramaniam received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, botany and zoology in 1992 from the University of Bangalore, India, and a PhD in neuroscience in 2004 from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, graduating summa cum laude. He also received the German Anatomical Society’s Wolfgang-Bargmann Prize and the Young Investigator Award from the University of Heidelberg.

Subramaniam completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. In 2010, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine honored him with the Daniel Nathan Research Award. He joined the Scripps Florida faculty in 2012.

Scripps Florida seems to be the right place for him and his work.

“When I first visited, I was impressed with the science and the people—they were all highly focused, highly energized,” he said. “Many are working on the same types of problems I am but taking different paths, so the possibility of collaboration is exceptional.”

In his laboratory, Subramaniam looks at the brain and everything that can go wrong with it, including diseases such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s disease, which can snuff out the neurons that transmit thought, create language and build memory.

“We want to understand the signaling networks that mediate the selective vulnerability of brain cells so we can design better therapeutic strategies to prevent or slow down these debilitating neurodegenerative disorders,” he said.

In his most recent study, published early this year, Subramaniam and his colleagues identified a critical regulator of a molecule deeply involved in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Levels of this regulating protein are decreased in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers and this decrease could be a significant factor in the advance of the disease.

“Studies of the autopsied brains of Alzheimer’s patients have found a significant reduction in this protein, so it is possible that an increase in it could reverse the buildup of amyloid plaque and, perhaps, reverse the effects of the disease.”

When not in the laboratory, Subramaniam lives with his wife, Neelam Shahani, PhD, who is also a neuroscientist, and two daughters, six-year-old Vyapti and 14-month-old Anvika. Their home is in Jupiter, a place he has grown to cherish, often riding his bike to and from work, sometimes with his youngest on the back.

“I was taken with Jupiter and how open and friendly it was when I first came here,” he said. “It’s gotten even better since then.”

Despite the distance he has traveled, Subramaniam hasn’t forgotten about where he came from and the thousands of children just like him who could use a hand in fulfilling their own dreams, whatever they might be. Back in 2002, even before he had even finished graduate school, he decided to do something about it.

With several of his college friends, all from similar backgrounds, he founded the Samatva Trust for Rural Education with $100. (Samatva is a Sanskrit word meaning equality.) The trust’s goal is to support children who excel in school but cannot pursue further education due to lack of financial support. Since then, he and his friends (and their families and friends) have raised more than $30,000, which has helped more than 1,000 Indian children to act on their dreams of a life beyond the poverty of rural India.

Some of them have even gone on to college and Subramaniam is looking for new donors to help with tuition. Anyone interested in contributing to the Samatva Trust, please visit www.samatvatrust.org. Anyone interested in supporting research at Scripps Florida, please visit www.scripps.edu/florida/support.

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“We want to understand the signaling networks... of brain cells so we can design better therapeutic strategies to prevent or slow down these debilitating neurodegenerative disorders,” says Assistant Professor Srini Subramaniam.