Professor paints broad horizon for biologists


Dr. Latha Malaiyandi works at Francis Marion University as an assistant professor of biology. She and her colleague Dr. Erin Eaton recently received a grant to further their biomedical research.

Leah Haselden, Staff Writer

Science has always been a part of Dr. Latha Malaiyandi’s life, and she is turning her love for the subject into great things at Francis Marion University.

Malaiyandi, an assistant professor of biology, along with Dr. Erin Eaton, who is also an assistant biology professor at FMU, and the rest of the biology department, recently received an SC INBRE grant to help further their biomedical research at the undergraduate level specifically for the prevention of cancer and epilepsy. Eaton focuses on the cancer aspect while Malaiyandi focuses on epilepsy.

“(Dr. Malaiyandi) has done so much to improve the quality and quantity of research in the biology department at FMU,” Eaton said. “And, on top of her being such an extraordinarily hardworking and dedicated researcher, she’s a lot of fun to work with.”

Malaiyandi is working with an associate at the USC School of Medicine who looks at the effects of epilepsy in rats. Malaiyandi then studies the changes in brain cell energy production during epileptogenesis, the process in which a brain cell develops epilepsy.

“We have a fluorescent microscope that enables us to isolate cells and see exactly what goes on inside them,” Malaiyandi said.

The grant also allows undergraduates to get more involved in biomedical research.

“We have been very fortunate as an undergraduate institution,” Malaiyandi said. “Over the five years that I have been here, we have received several thousand dollars in internal grants. I want to students to see that they can do more than just teach with a biology degree.”

Malaiyandi did not always want to be a teacher herself. Malaiyandi, who said she is a “Canadian born Indian-American,” grew up mostly in the Bay Area of San Jose, Calif.  She became interested in science at a very young age. Although her father worked with computers, her mother was a clinical research associate, and her grandfather was an organic chemist.

“I remember when I was five years old; my grandfather and I would be sitting at the kitchen table, and we would be talking about something like artificial sweeteners,” Malaiyandi said. “There would be chemical equations written on napkins spread out across the table.”

When she was fifteen years old, she got a summer job working in the research lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She said that was her first and only summer job because she was in a research lab from then on. She graduated from the University of California, Berkley with a degree molecular and cell biology and biochemistry. Then, she went to the University of Pittsburgh where she received her Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology.

“When I tell people I have a degree in pharmacology, they assume I’m a pharmacist, but I studied the action of drugs,” Malaiyandi said.

However, she did spend a short time in the pharmaceutical industry before she decided that field was not right for her.

“It wasn’t flexible with what I wanted to do,” Malaiyandi said. “I couldn’t use my own creativity.”

This is when she decided to give teaching a try.

“I was never I strong writer, so writing grants or publications wouldn’t have been good for me,” Malaiyandi said.

She did know that she really enjoyed talking about science, so she took a position as an adjunct professor at Penn State University during her last year of graduate school. She taught one class a semester to students who were not biology majors.

“It was so hard to talk about biology to people who didn’t want to be a biologist,” Malaiyandi said.

After she graduated, she traveled to Maryland to teach at St. Mary’s College for a year as a visiting professor.

She said teaching there taught her what it would be like to be a full time professor. She taught four classes, advised, and researched, among other responsibilities. However, she knew she would not stay there.

“Most of those students were from upper-middle class families who had mothers or fathers who were already doctors or scientists, so they already knew what they were going to do,” Malaiyandi said. “I felt like my involvement wouldn’t influence them.”

Malaiyandi said she had grown up in a “fairly middle class family with resources,” and she wanted to give students the opportunities that she had had. That is how she ended up at FMU, and she plans on staying for a while.

“I probably had 500 people in my college classes, and I never even met my professor,” Malaiyandi said. “Even though I might have 45 students in my class here, I still know all of their names, and that is important to me.”

She claims that even though she is a big city girl, she never really liked all the noise. She likes being able to sleep at night while maybe only hearing a train from far away.

While Malaiyandi considers doing research as one of her hobbies, she did not want to sound like a “total science geek,” so she said she also enjoys water activities such as fishing and scuba diving. She also plans on getting a kayak. She really got in to activism in general while attending Berkley, and she got very involved in the 2008 elections.

“My husband and I probably voluntarily worked fifteen to twenty hours a week in the voter registration office,” Malaiyandi said. “It was mostly boring paperwork, but I was really proud. I like when people take initiative to change things.”

She hopes to see some change regarding science at FMU and in South Carolina.

“Science literacy is really important, and South Carolina doesn’t quite have the resources like other states,” Malaiyandi said. “(A)n important example of science literacy is for students to be able to read and interpret articles by both popular press and scientific bodies on issues that impact society (e.g. climate change).  We want students to be confident enough to make an informed decision and take responsible action on such issues.”

She also does not want students to be afraid to come in to the lab.

“Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know, and be willing to take chances because you might learn and grow from it,” Malaiyandi said. “Challenge yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of what’s out there.”