Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

December 12, 2013

Personal perspective

Andover woman tackles health issues in India

By Dustin Luca

---- — As a sophomore at Phillips Academy, lifelong Andover resident Veda Eswarappa had an opportunity to walk the streets of Mumbai, India — a place rich with her family’s heritage.

What she saw changed her life. Now, the 23-year-old hopes to change India in return with a book aimed at tackling the country’s health care issue head on.

Co-authored with writer Sujata Bhatia, “Naturally Based Biomaterials and Therapeutics: The Case of India” seeks to expose the academic world to the topic of biomaterials applied to nations like India.

“If you’re wandering around Mumbai, you’re prone to seeing a lot of people begging or panhandling for money, and a lot of people have visible injuries — wraps around their bodies, open wounds,” Eswarappa said. “You can have world-class, incredible health care. But at the same time, you have people who don’t have access to it, who aren’t getting good care at all.”

Biomaterials, according to Eswarappa, are “any material that’s interacting and interfacing with your body, in a medical kind of way.”

She points to silk as an example. The material can be used as a bandage to cover wounds because of its fabric qualities, she said. But it also possesses unique proteins that can enhance and dramatically improve the healing process, she said.

Eswarappa, who has traveled to India about a half-dozen times to visit family and work with non-governmental organizations, said she has been interested in global health and international development since high school.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University in Cambridge, she took a number of courses further exploring the areas and quickly grew interested in biomaterial applications for the developing world. As she began doing more research, she said she realized there had not been much work done in the area, particularly with a focus on India.

The challenge of bringing biomaterials to India comes down to a matter of supply and demand — a high supply of materials available, but with a seemingly anemic level of demand, she said.

“There are a lot of people living under a couple dollars a day,” Eswarappa said. “If some of these things were to be taken seriously and tested out there, it could lead to better health outcomes for a lot of the population that isn’t able to access great health care now or can’t afford it.”

Eswarappa, whose parents are from India, attended Andover public schools through eighth grade before enrolling at Phillips, where she traveled to India as part of the school’s then-young Niswarth program.

The 2008 Phillips graduate then went on to Harvard, where she completed much of her research into biomaterials before earning her undergraduate degree with honors in biomedical sciences and engineering in 2012.

“Naturally Based Biomaterials and Therapeutics” came at the encouragement of the assistant director of biomedical engineering at Harvard, who urged her to publish her research and connected her with academic publisher Spring Science+Business Media.

Eswarappa, who is now working to bridge education and healthcare at the Parthenon Group, a consulting firm in Boston, said while a lot of potential exists in the field, “there’s a tremendous amount of testing and proof to be done.”

She credits the community she came from as the reason why she has been so successful. But even then, being successful is something she doesn’t necessarily admit to.

“I’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities,” she said. “Other people, had they been in similar circumstances, they could have done similar things. I don’t think by any means that I’m really a standout.”