Archana Nair, Making Microarrays
On An Industrial Scale
By Richard Currey



Archana Nair, sightseeing in Alaska

By her own admission, Archana Nair is a little bit impatient. "I'm always eager to see results in final form," she says, "and I like to get things done." Fortunately, this approach is exactly what she needs in her work at Genometrix Incorporated, a young biotech company near Houston, Texas. At Genometrix, Archana is helping develop a powerful new technology, variously known as DNA chips, DNA arrays, or DNA microarrays.
A fusion of computer science, bioengineering, and genetics, DNA microarrays are small plates spotted with hundreds to thousands of specific DNA sequences from plant, animal, or human tissues (see Research In The News for details). Far superior to older techniques that could study only one gene at a time, DNA arrays can tell researchers about the activity and sequence of many genes in a test sample with a single, short procedure.



Archana as a student in New Dehli, India

Archana's path to Texas began on the other side of the globe. She was born in Bombay, India, and raised in New Delhi, where her father worked in the plastics industry and her mother taught grade-school math and science. In high school, Archana found she had a real affinity for science-especially biology. "My first high-school biology teacher, Bimala Ghai, taught me the significance of understanding the science, as opposed to rote learning," Archana recalls. "She helped me see that science is a creative activity, with so much still to learn and explore. I was excited by the sheer scope of the subject, by all the ways that science touches everything we do."
Her high-school science experience inspired Archana to pursue biology as a career. After graduating with a B.S. in Botany from Delhi University, she went on to earn a Master's degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, in Kharagpur, specializing in molecular genetics and biochemistry. She returned to New Delhi to begin her professional life, taking a job with the Tata Energy Research Institute. There, she carried out experiments aimed at developing more-productive strains of plants.

This job was something of a turning point, Archana says, because it introduced her to applied molecular genetics, the science of manipulating and copying genes. "I knew then that molecular genetics was the future of biology-and my future," she says.

But that meant moving on. In India, "we didn't have any schools where I could get a degree in molecular biology that I could then apply right away, and I was in a hurry to work sooner rather than later," Archana recalls. Moreover, she adds, "I was fortunate enough to learn a lot of the how in India, but I didn't know the why. To grow and develop as a scientist, I needed the why. And that's what brought me to the United States."

She found her way to the University of Florida, where she earned a second Master's degree, this time in molecular and cell biology. She then worked with microarray technology for three years at another biotech company before joining Genometrix in 1999. Genometrix was founded in 1993 to develop DNA-chip technology. The company makes and analyzes customized DNA microarrays for researchers in universities and the pharmaceutical industry, helping to speed up drug discovery and basic biological research.



Archana at work in the lab at  Genometrix

When she first joined Genometrix, Archana helped set up the processes and procedures the company uses to deliver the information its customers need. In her current position as a group leader in the Process Engineering Team she trouble shoots any issues that come up on the production floor. That includes implementing long-term improvements in automated procedures, as well as dealing with all the little glitches that inevitably crop up. "This means I'm always interacting with the different engineers and scientists who handle automation, bioinformatics, and research and development, as well as those who operate the equipment and do the analyses," says Archana.

The variety and hectic pace of her everyday work always hold her interest, but she also likes being right on the cutting- edge of biotechnology. "Microarrays are the doorway to future biological research-in preventive health, medical diagnostics, and the development of new medicines, to name only a few applications," she says. "I like to think of the difference between conventional gene techniques and microarrays as analogous to the difference between ground-based telescopes and the Hubble space telescope. The older techniques work, but the newer ones allow us to 'see' better and farther."



Archana in Yosemite Park, California

"For me," Archana continues, "the challenges and potential in microarray technology make a thrilling blend of molecular genetics and computer science. The whole field of bioinformatics [using microarrays to find patterns within large volumes of DNA data] is limited only by our imagination. Think about it: We can now simultaneously target multiple specific genes, and see how they react to or interact with other genes, or to external variables such as drugs, bacteria, or viruses. We can look for correlations, connections, or relationships-some of which will inevitably be very surprising! This entire area of research will grow by leaps and bounds. And I want to grow with it."

As DNA microarrays accelerate the pace of discovery, Archana foresees new breakthroughs in scientific research that will prompt fundamental revisions in the prevailing theories of life, heredity, health, and disease. And-in character-she's in a hurry to get there. "I'd love to leap forward 50 years and see the changes wrought by microarray technology," Archana says. "I guarantee those changes will be remarkable."

On the Web
Genometrix has a company site:

Here are a few sites with information on careers in biotechnology: eers_in_biotechnology.html