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East meets West

Armed with 4 MIT degrees, Shiva Ayyadurai embarks on new adventure
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai
Photo / Donna Coveney

In the 26 years since he first arrived at MIT as a freshman, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai has earned four MIT degrees and started two multimillion dollar companies.

This fall, he will use his most recent degree, a Ph.D. in computational systems biology, and a Fulbright Scholarship to explore one of his lifelong interests: the intersection of Eastern and Western medicine.

Ayyadurai's upcoming project is the latest in a series of personal ventures that have spanned fields as diverse as electronic communications, animation and molecular biology. His experience shows what is possible with an MIT education, he says.

"I don't think I could have done this anywhere else," said Ayyadurai, 43. "MIT is a great place to follow your dreams."

Ayyadurai started dreaming as a child in India, where his grandfather was a farmer and his grandmother a shaman, or traditional healer. He became interested in medicine watching his grandmother diagnose and treat patients based on a system of "elements"--earth, water, fire, metal and wood. That approach may seem strange to Westerners, but "you'd see people actually getting healed," he said.

When Ayyadurai started as a freshman at MIT in 1981, he planned to go to medical school, but later changed his plans. He found Western medicine, with its dependence on looking up symptoms in reference books, very different from his grandmother's practice. "There was always something sterile about Western medicine," he said. "I got turned off by it."

Now, he wants to explore what Eastern and Western medical traditions can learn from each other. Ayyadurai sees the exchange as a two-way street: He plans to apply Western scientific rigor to testing the long-established traditions of the East, and to study how the Eastern "elements" can inform Western medicine.

He points out that the market for alternative therapies based on Eastern medicine is growing every year, even without scientific evidence to support their usefulness.

"Let's look at glucosamine and see if it really works. Let's look at ginkgo and see if it really works," he said.

Ayyadurai departs for India this month to begin his studies, and he also plans to start raising funds to launch an MIT-affiliated center to study Eastern medicine.

Road to success

Ayyadurai's path to the Fulbright Scholarship has been marked by early and frequent successes in a variety of fields.

He moved to New Jersey with his parents, a chemist and a mathematician, at the age of 7. When he was 13, he started to work at Rutgers to develop one of the first e-mail systems ever built, which eventually won him a Westinghouse Science Award.

At MIT, Ayyadurai was founder and editor of a newspaper called The Student and an activist who worked to raise awareness of global and campus issues such as apartheid, U.S. policies overseas, cuts in student aid and sexual harassment on campus.

"My intention was always to make the MIT community aware of our being part of a larger global society, and we as leaders had a duty to fight for those who had less," he said.

After graduating from MIT in 1986 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, he was one of the early developers of a graphic software program that was eventually sold to Lotus. He had always been interested in art and design, so after selling his company he went to the MIT Media Lab and got a master's degree in animation, focusing on how to present scientific data visually. He also holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT.

His next venture was a software program called EchoMail, which companies can use to automatically sort and respond to customer e-mails. EchoMail has been used by major companies including Nike, Citibank, IBM and Proctor & Gamble.

In 2004, Ayyadurai returned to MIT, this time to work on a Ph.D. in systems biology, a relatively new field that integrates biology, engineering and computer science. The goal of systems biology is to figure out how the layers of a biological system, from genes to cells to organs to the whole body, are linked.

Systems biologists start by figuring out how individual cellular pathways work, but deciphering just one pathway can take years. To speed up that process, Ayyadurai developed a computer model that can integrate the activities of all the different pathways in a cell--work that formed the basis of his doctoral thesis.

Professor Forbes Dewey, Ayyadurai's thesis advisor, said the project was conceived as a tool that would help the biological community address the large-scale problem of modeling the complexity of a complete cell.

"In the end, Shiva not only provided the basic system called Cytosolve, but he used it to create a new composite model of the upregulation of interferon following viral infection," said Forbes. "There is a lot of excitement about the several aspects of the thesis, and much of it should be in public journals in the near future."

To Ayyadurai, who defended his thesis last month, the appeal of systems biology is its combination of a range of fields, especially computing and medicine.

"For me, this goes back to everything I wanted to do," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 19, 2007 (download PDF).

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