As a professor of genomics and department chair, Dr. Praveen Sethupathy ’03 has a passion for making connections—whether its between genes and disease or between people with different backgrounds and belief systems.
Building Bridges, From Genomics to Beliefs
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD is Professor of Physiological Genomics in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Director of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics at Cornell University, where he leads a research lab focused on genomic approaches to understand physiology and human disease. He received his BA degree from Cornell University and his PhD in Genomics from the University of Pennsylvania.
Michelle Moyal, DVM (Host): Welcome to the Cornell Veterinary Podcast, where we deep dive into the discovery, care, and learning that happens at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. I'm Dr. Michelle Moyal, a General Practitioner and Chief of the Primary Care Surgery Service here at the College, and believer that cake really is a breakfast item, which may not be exciting to hear for our guests that we have today.
In this episode, we are talking to Dr. Praveen Sethupathy. He is a Professor of Physiological Genomics. Ooh, I'm so excited. A Chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Director of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics at Cornell. Whew, I said, that was a lot of syllables. His work focuses on genomic approaches to understanding physiology and human disease, amazing, with a specific focus on the digestive system, and now I regret, cake, and how certain gene regulatory mechanisms can help or hurt its functioning.
I am so excited to have you here today. Welcome.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: It's wonderful to be here, Michelle. Thanks for having me.
Host: Yay, absolutely! And so, I always try to introduce my audience to the guests I can see, which I think is fabulous, but they can't. So I would love for you to tell our audience just a little bit about yourself.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Sure, happy to do that. So, I am, as you mentioned, I'm a Chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and a Professor here at Cornell. But I was not always. So, I was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada. And moved across the border to the States shortly thereafter. But my earliest memories are actually growing up in India.
So I spent a year or so there sort of kindergarten age. And then moved back to Western New York. And so for the rest of my life before college was actually in a small town called Brockport, New York, about a half an hour west of Rochester. And so snow was a big part of my life as it still is.
But I went to undergrad at Cornell and did my bachelor's here and then progressively moved down south. So I did my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Host: Those slackers. Just kidding. Just kidding, Penn. Just kidding.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: And then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, which is in Maryland. And then started my professorship in North Carolina. So I just was moving my way down south and thought I might actually stay in North Carolina, but there were a lot of things that drew me back. And so in 2017, I came back here with my family and have been here since.
Host: That's amazing. So, you were at a place that was warm. And here you are, you've kind of gone full circle back to Cornell. So did you, like in your wildest dreams, cause I went to vet school here and I have to tell you, I never thought I would be back. Did you think as an undergrad, yeah, like maybe, maybe I could come back.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Well, I really loved Cornell, but I don't think I ever thought that I would be back here. I think a lot of that is because I did grow up in this area, and then spending another four years in this general area, I was sort of ready to leave, you know? So I don't think I was thinking a lot about coming back here and giving back to a place that had given so much to me.
I was more excited about just leaving, and finding all kinds of other places to learn and to contribute and to lay down roots. So starting something new was probably more on my mind than coming back here, but I always kept tabs on Cornell. It was a place that was near and dear to my heart because of how instrumental it was in the early years of my growth as a person and also as a scientist. So I kept tabs on it and the chance to come back was really fantastic.
Host: You heard it here. He still stalked Cornell, even though went other places, and I'm here for it. I love that. And you gave us a little bit about your background, which, by the way, for myself as a first generation American, I really love to hear, like, different backgrounds and because people bring different things, but to our studies, but what drew you to science?
Like, what, was there something that was like, you were like, yeah, oh, this is the thing that got me interested?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah, there were probably a few different things that happened. You know, when I was a kid, my dream job was to be a photographer for the National Geographic. Because, you know, I got those kids National Geographic magazines and I would look through those and every time there would be some photographer and scientist talking about a new species they found, could be like in the canopy above ground, or it could be in like the deep sea ocean trenches.
And there are all these places that are kind of obscured to us, like they're hidden from most of us. And, but there are whole ecosystems and these amazing species that exist there. And there'd be these colorful photographs and ways in which to depict them and show them to kids and to adults too.
And I was just, I was so taken by it, how these people were exploring places that are normally veiled and they were unveiling them and using this art, photography to actually convey the beauty of the like diversity and complexity of species around the world. So that's probably the first thing that drew me to science.
I still kind of wonder in the back of my mind whether there's a chance that I'll get to do something like that because that, it's really exciting. And it, it reminds you about like, just the kind of prodigal, almost overabundance of life that's out there and how little of it we still understand. So from an early age, I was drawn to that.
Host: I love that, you know, you were looking at National Geographic thinking, look at the world and I was looking at magazines like Highlights just trying to find the hidden pencil. So there's a difference here, there's a difference here, I, I'm still very excited to talk to you and I can't believe you didn't say Veterinarian first.
Like, I expect all children to say initially, but that's okay, that's okay because I look at magazines like the Audobon and I'm just, I am blown away because I am just fascinated with birds. Like, I love animals in general, like, I'm becoming an amateur birder, but that is amazing.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: You know, Michelle, there's this other thing too, that our listeners might be interested in. And I think a lot of kids and adults too, they're fascinated by astronomy, right? Because there's this whole world out there. And the opportunity that we have to look far, far, far into our galaxy and figure out all the complicated things.
There's something really romantic and cool about that. But actually what fascinated me more was our bodies. Because it's right there. It's inches from me and my mouth and my brain and there's so much happening inside me that I have no clue about. I barely can comprehend and understand and it's right here and it's a part of me and it, but I don't understand it.
I can't see it. So when I was a senior in high school, I had a chance to go look at a human cadaver and it really blew me away and I think it actually cemented my interest in science because everything up until then, was just reading about stuff in textbooks. Oh, this is what a liver looks like. This is how molecules might interact.
You know, all of those, and it was very abstract. It was interesting. But then actually being able to see a cadaver and say, oh, wow, like there it is. There's that organ. Or there is this tendon. It made it so real to me and just so fascinating. But I've just always been intrigued by how there's so much going on inches from our, from our mouth and brain, and we just have, it's just hidden from us. We don't know how to think of it, how to describe it.
Host: Yeah, I love that. And actually for me, that's funny that you said that. In high school, you know, I liked science, I liked different things. And then I had a teacher that, a biology teacher that turned to everyone and said, do you think that person next to you is attractive? If you do, it's because it's how their proteins are arranged. So really shouldn't say that they're attractive. You should say, I like how your proteins are arranged. And that is what turned me looking inward. So I love hearing that from you. Like, hey, wait, the body works this way. And then you saw this body and it really set this in motion.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: You think that's a good pickup line?
Host: I like, I like how your proteins are arranged. It's a good thing I'm married now. I don't think I'd be that successful. So I see that you've specialized in genomics, right? And so I would love to know, what does that look like in your lab? Like, what is your lab, and I've been on your lab website, which by the way, we'll get to later because I appreciate some things about the website very much that we will get to. So, like what questions is your team trying to answer?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah. So. Genomics, really it's the study of our DNA, right, and it's in its simplest definition. But I want to wind the clock back a couple of decades. So at the turn of the millennium is when the initial draft of the human genome was published and the President of the United States at that time, Bill Clinton, announced it in a special event and called it the most wondrous map that humankind had ever created.
So it was this incredibly special moment for humanity. And one of my mentors, Francis Collins, Craig Venter, and others who were really critical for all of this work were standing there next to him and it was this awe inspiring moment. But Michelle, it was kind of like we had just uncovered an ancient parchment that we knew was somehow incredibly important for shaping all of human history, but it was written in a language whose text we could barely understand. And so, it was like we had arrived, but almost just begun. Right?
Host: I'm going to call you a DNA archaeologist from on. what I'm going to call you. Yeah.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: And so, it was really about, okay, now we know what the DNA is, more or less. But what is it doing? What is it saying? What's the language really mean? And if we could better understand it, could we also do a better job in figuring out what kinds of changes to that DNA lead to disease?
And then how could we better treat those diseases? So it was just a really exciting time of diving in and figuring out what is the genome telling us.
Host: That's amazing. That's amazing. And so was that what sparked kind of your lab, like how you decided to like lead your lab or what questions you wanted to answer?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah, that, that's exactly right. So a lot of people think of the genome as a collection of genes, and they're sort of right. They're, the genome does have all of our genes. But it has lots of other things, too; functional elements of many different kinds doing all kinds of jobs. And I'll just tell you about one of them. They're sort of littered or scattered across our genome are these things that I called switches, or probably better to think of them as maybe rheostats or dials.
Okay. And they're kind of located nearby to where these genes are. And it turns out that they're really important in dictating when, where, and to what extent the nearby genes are actually going to get turned on.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Right? And so many mutations that end up increasing your risk for diseases; they're often not found in the genes themselves, but actually in these rheostats.
And so it ends up meaning that it's not so much that you have the bad gene that causes the disease, but maybe you're just making too much of it, or you're not making enough of it, or you're making it in the wrong place. So it's much more complicated than we originally thought. And my lab is really interested in where are all these dials?
How many different kinds of dials are there? How do they work? And which ones are relevant in what diseases like diabetes or cancer and other kinds of diseases?
Host: Wow, that's incredible. So somewhere in the assembly line, something is going awry and your, your lab is like, where? We have figure out where. This is incredible. Oh my gosh, that's so cool. Because I think a lot of us just think of disease, we're like uh, what gene got messed up? Where was there like a mutation or like a change in something in the DNA?
So that's really neat to hear. It sounds like this research has, like, the potential for significant, impact on certain diseases. So, could you expand on that? Like, you mentioned diabetes. I think I saw Crohn's on your website. Now, having met quite a few people with Crohn's I studied to be a dietician. So, I actually studied Crohn's in undergrad. So, could you tell us more about impact?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah, sure. So Crohn's disease is one of the diseases that we're heavily focused on in the lab. There are others and I'm happy to talk about those too. Crohn's disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of your intestine. And it's really painful for patients who are diagnosed with this disease.
There's adult onset, but there's also pediatric onset that's particularly devastating. So our kids, it's really difficult for them to eat without pain. And we don't really have a good handle yet on exactly what causes it. It's very, very complicated. It has a little bit to do with your genetics. It has a little bit to do with what you're eating.
And it has a little bit to do with your microbiome, right? All these bacteria that are living in our gut and making a home there. And that kind of interaction across all those things are really what increases the risk for people to have this kind of chronic inflammation in the gut that leads to so much pain and the inability of the gut to do its normal work.
Host: And sometimes requiring surgery, which is, wow.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yes. Yes. And that's an interesting point that you make, Michelle, because one of the lines of study that we have in the lab is to use genomics to be able to understand whether Crohn's is just one disease, or is it actually a collection of related diseases? The reason why that's a really important question is, if it's actually a collection of different diseases, let's say it's not just Crohn's, but actually Crohn's A, Crohn's B, and Crohn's C.
Well, it could be the case that each of those different subtypes, A, B, and C; they might respond better to different medications, right? They might have a very different prognosis, and it would be important for a clinician to know that so that they can treat patients in a more appropriate way. But right now, that's not really happening.
We kind of lump all the patients together into just Crohn's, and then we kind of desperately try to throw the kitchen sink at the patients. Let's see if this works. Let's see if that drug works. Let's see if surgery works, without really a clear idea of which drugs are probably going to be better for which subtype.
So we've been using the power of genomics to basically figure out that there are subtypes of Crohn's, and it turns out that these subtypes; one has a better prognosis when you treat it with the drugs that are on the market right now, but the other one is refractory to those drugs. It just doesn't respond well, and you probably ought to go to surgery a lot faster than the clinicians normally would. So this is the power of genomics unleashed to be able to do better medicine and better treatment.
Host: I love hearing about how, people like you on our campus, I think, sometimes we forget, and I bring it up during other podcasts, that there were people at the college of veterinary medicine, right, so people would just think animals, that are doing this incredible research that has so much impact on the human side.
And as a doctor, as a clinician myself that treats patients and sees patients in pain, the impact you can make on allowing a doctor to say, hey, listen, Mr. and Mrs. X, actually, these medications are unlikely to work. We actually should go to surgery. And then that patient doesn't have to suffer for months until they figure out that the meds don't work.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Exactly, Michelle. Exactly.
Host: So I love alleviating suffering. Yeah.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah, and what's been really cool about doing this work in the context of a college of veterinary medicine is that it turns out that dogs get Crohn's disease as well.
Host: Mm hmm.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Lo and behold, the world's expert in boxer dog colitis and Crohn's is right here at Cornell, dr. Kenny Simpson. And If I hadn't been here, I would never have thought about expanding our work into dog, but you know, Kenny and I have established a collaboration that we're pushing forward to try to do similar kinds of studies in dog colitis and see what we can learn there as well.
Host: Extrapolating. So I think we forget that extrapolating goes both ways, right? Like we think about lab medicine and we're like, how do we help humans? But oftentimes we can work in the reverse. And that's what's neat about being at the college, right? Like you get to collaborate with people maybe you never thought you would collaborate. I'm pretty sure Dr. Simpson has forgotten more about GI disease and the pancreas than I will ever know, but we'll keep moving along. So, you know, I read something as I stalked, I mean, gleefully looked at your website about something that sounded really complicated, fibrolamellar cancer that affects adolescents, right?
And young. So, I just, I would love for you to mention it just because I hadn't heard of it, really, ever. And so.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Thank you for bringing it up, Michelle. It is a really important aspect of what our lab does, and we got into this about 10 years ago. It's a cancer called fibrolamellar carcinoma, which is kind of a mouthful. We usually just refer to it as FLC. It's a cancer that grows in the liver, but it's really different from all of the other kinds of liver cancers that are a little bit more typical and that are, but better studied.
And in fact, some of those better studied liver cancers, there are already drugs on the market and things that could be tried for those patients. But fibrillomellar carcinoma is a much rarer cancer. It's not that common, but it's incredibly devastating. It primarily affects kids and adolescents, as you mentioned yourself, and it's devastating because we don't know, we really didn't know anything at all about how this cancer developed and there was no standard of care, nothing that seemed to work for these patients, and their prognosis just is not very good at all, so they don't get a chance at life, and for a lot of reasons, in addition to what I just said, we became invested in trying to understand this cancer, exactly what makes it tick, and what does it depend on?
And if we can figure out what those dependencies are, can we come in with drugs to kind of cap it at its knees and prevent it from growing or spreading in these patients? So again, we've been unleashing the power of genomics. What genomics really does, Michelle, is it gives you kind of a big picture view.
Right? So instead of when you have a cancer like this and you really don't know anything at all, genomics and related tools and technologies, it gives you kind of like a big picture of what all is happening underneath the hood in this cancer? And you can begin to mine that data for, of the things that are happening, which ones do we think might actually be particularly important for this cancer that we can then focus on with follow up experiments and develop some drugs and therapies to target.
So that's basically what we've been doing. And we've been leveraging a wonderful core facility here at the Vet College, called the Progressive Advancement Therapeutics, or PATHCORE. They house a lot of what are called PDX models, and these are patient derived xenograft models. So there are patient tumors that we can actually grow in these mouse models, so that we can then study them or try different therapies and see which ones work in preventing the growth of the tumors.
Host: That's incredible. I think sometimes, and people may not know, even though I work at the college, the college is very big and I work in a set part of it. And so, I'm equally stunned and shocked and like pleasantly surprised when I get to hear what's happening in other parts. And it's why I do this podcast, because I get to meet and talk to people like you that are making such a difference in the world.
So it's so exciting. So, so your scientific work is clearly impressive. This is amazing because I just think about the parents of a child who has that type of cancer and that, this also provides some hope, for the future. But you've also done a lot in terms of leadership. You mentioned you're the department chair.
Love that. And so for my Schitt's Creek listeners, like I love that journey for you, right? But you're a director for the Center of Vertebrate Genomics. So what inspires you to get the heck out of your lab and, like, do these other things? Because, I mean, it certainly sounds like you might be, like, medium busy.
So, like, why would you add more?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Right. It's a great question, and I don't think I think people should think really carefully about adding more because it can dilute your efforts, right? And it's something that I do think a lot about, but I only add more when I'm really passionate about something and I really feel like I can make a difference.
I don't think people should step into leadership positions just to be able to say that they're a leader. That's not a good reason.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: A leader is, think of a leader ultimately as a servant, I'm here to kind of, as a department chair, for example, my responsibility is to all the stakeholders and constituents in the department. How can I serve them best? What are their needs? So what do they need in order to be able to thrive, not just survive? And what can I do to create an environment that enables that kind of thriving, right? So, I think it really, if serving in those capacities of seeing other people succeed really juices you; then I think leadership positions are good to think about.
And the best leaders that I've ever seen and found here at the college, but also in other contexts are people who really enjoy seeing other people do well and really enjoy building teams that succeed and are interested in tackling challenges that go beyond their own research agenda.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: And Michelle, you know, I've spent some time thinking about what I'm good at, what I'm maybe not as good at. I think it's really important to just be honest with yourself, because, we're all better at some things than other things. And while I think I done okay as a scientist; I don't actually think that's my best skill. I found over the years that
Host: My jaw is open right now. I'm sorry, what? Okay, go ahead.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: I think I look around at a place like Cornell with just absolutely brilliant scientists.
Michelle Moyal, DVM (Host): I know. It's incredible.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: And I just go, yeah, okay, I'm fine. But you know, I don't actually think I measure up to some of these folks. And I don't say that in a deprecatory way.
Host: No, no, I, I, I get it.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: I just say, yeah, like, I love science. I love what I'm doing. I think we're doing a, really important and interesting things. But at the end of the day, if I kind of think about it as a comparative advantage thing, right, with the, my other colleagues around, I've kind of found over the years that team building, vision casting, big picture, some of these kinds of things I really enjoy, and I found that not everybody does.
And that's okay. Right. So it's a neat exercise over the years to really kind of figure out what spaces you really thrive the most, and then step into those opportunities that you might get to be able to exercise your skills and interests in those ways. I've just found that leading teams helping figure out big picture kinds of questions, tackling those, casting a vision for whether it's a lab or a department or a center and putting a plan in place that helps us work toward implementing that vision.
These are the kinds of things that I tend to really get excited about and I feel like I'm really good at. And so, I'm grateful for the opportunities to be able to step into those things and thankful that my colleagues have entrusted me to be able to do it.
Host: I love that, I love it, and that brought up a lot of really good points, so, one, being self aware and truthful with yourself, right? Because I think sometimes as scientists, we're like, I'm not good at, I must be good at that. I have to be good. And then we get down on ourselves and then it's like this awful cycle. And mental health and care and well being is really important. The other thing is I think sometimes, and I want to say this to the listeners, I think sometimes when people look at scientists or doctors, I think they think we walk into work every day and we're like whistling and we're skipping.
I prefer a Cinderella look myself. The birds are following me. They're carrying my lab coat. I'm singing. But sometimes some days are hard, some days are sad, some days are long. And so to have a leader, so you can't just run on passion, right? Like I wish we could. So to have a leader that's like, you can do this. I know the day is tough. Tomorrow might be better. Maybe next week will be better, but to help you drive that passion and let you know why you're here to me is so valuable at an institution. So I'm just going to thank you on behalf of saying that, because I think it's super important.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Thank you, Michelle.
Host: Yeah. And so that's amazing. Plus finding someone that likes to do those administrative things, I think is like finding someone, I'm like, Oh, do you like to clean? Like, I'll make dinner. Are you there to clean? That's like marriage. I think in a nutshell, that's like amazing. And so someone that really thrives that like leadership role, I love that. And I'm a big believer in servant leadership, kind of what you're talking about, so I'm thrilled to hear that. And so, okay, I have like these other questions I need to ask you, but here's one important one. When you're in the lab, when your team's in the lab, is there music playing?If there is, who is it or what is it? I must know. I must know your process. Tell me.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: So, we don't impose that in the lab, given that people have, so many different preferences.
Host: Processes. Yes.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Usually it's people listening to their own music and podcasts and things like that with their earbuds. So
Host: They should be listening to me, everyone. They should be to my podcast. That's it. It will now funnel into the hospital in the research tower. Okay.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: But it's interesting you ask that because music is probably my first passion. So people often, they might think, oh, well, if you're a scientist, probably science is your first passion. And obviously I love science. And I love my job, but music is actually what makes me tick. Um, I've never found anything that makes me feel more totally human and helps me to connect with the core of who I am more than music does.
And I love so many, you know, probably jazz is my favorite. John Coltrane, My One and Only is probably the one song I would love to have if I'm stranded on an island somewhere. But I love all different kinds of music and I have to admit 80s pop. I don't know. It's just so fun. It's so fun.
Host: Our students and clinics this week picked a lot of 80s rock, and I was there for it. I'm very sorry to them if they're listening. I was singing a lot. While they were doing their procedures. I think it isn't music interesting because music can support feeling like emotion in anybody, right?
So like when I work out, I'll listen to something that gives me like energy. When we might be in a more like empathetic or like sad place, we listen to something different. So it's a really interesting thing. And I think all people have feelings about music and...
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah, yeah, and it's like, it helps you to connect more deeply. I feel like sometimes when I'm at a loss for words it's really only music that allows me to feel like I can express myself. I had this, my kids are now in high school and late middle school, but when they were really little, every single day I would introduce a new song to them. Right? It could be like a carnatic song from India. It could be an 80s pop song. It could be, some kind of a jazz standard. But it's something new, and then we would connect around that. And so to this day so much of our communication even if we're talking about something that seems totally separate from music, is still centered around music.
Because, we'll remember a shared experience listening to a song, or to an album, or something like that. So I really love that piece of it too, is that music connects me with the people who are most important to me.
Host: Oh my goodness, I love that. I also use food in that, in that way way right? food is super amazing. And we might talk about that in just a minute. Although I do think some people might question my love of Ice Ice Baby from Vanilla Ice from way back in the day, but here we are. It's
It's Thank you for that. Judgment free zone here on this podcast. Cornell Vet Podcast has no judgment. But um, so, again, you're tackling these challenges. You're in this leadership role. You've been involved in some really interesting things. I was looking into some of the groups specifically the Faraday Institute and the Veritas Forum, and they're looking at how, like, science and religion, or at least a lot of what I encountered, like Christianity, like that interface between the two, which I would tell you most people are like, there is no interface, what do you mean?
Science is over here, religion is over there. And as a scientist myself, or, sometimes I say that, I understand it. So could you tell us more about what you do with this, or this part of your life?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah, absolutely. So, as a scientist, as a passionate scientist, I really believe in the power of the empirical method. At the same time though, I am a person of faith. And so in some segments of our community, I might be seen as a bit of a unicorn, right? Like, like, just as you were saying, wow, really, are you sure?
Host: Did you have him saying unicorn everyone on your bingo card? Because this is amazing. It's in the center. It's a glittery star.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: So, you know, Michelle, why I'm really passionate about this is that these things co-exist rather harmoniously for me, but it's pretty clear that as we look across our nation and probably our world that there's quite a bit of animosity in communities of faith to scientific communities.
Not that there isn't any overlap, and I'm an example of that overlap, but sort of stereotyping, that there is this increased discord and an animosity between the two and a kind of polarization that has led to the inability of these communities to really be able to talk effectively with each other.
And I think what we need are bridge builders, people who can create spaces that are safe, that are judgment free, that do have mutual respect but can better appreciate where these communities are coming from. Right? Let me tell you a quick story. The AAAS, which is the largest organization for the advancement of science, they had a division called DOSER, which is the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.
Host: We love acronyms. Science loves acronyms, I swear.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: That's right. That's exactly right. And this organization was committed to bringing people of faith and faith communities together with scientists and their labs. And so this was done in a few different cities. Atlanta was one of them. And they had some programming around these folks getting to know each other's job and motivations better and things like that.
And then they performed an exit interview at the end to say, what did you learn? Did you like this experience? They all said they really enjoyed the experience. And the most often uttered response to what did you learn was, wow, they're just human. And the fact that that was what most people said was really alarming because it conveyed really clearly just how easy it is to caricaturize people and, and demonize them to the point where you barely even see them as human anymore. And that represents a level of breakdown in trust across different communities in our country that is just not, it's not personally healthy, and I don't think it's healthy for our society. And you can see the effects of that breakdown in trust in our societal response to COVID or, in how broken our politics seem, and there just seems to be this inability. We've already kind of demonized people and it's so difficult to see their humanity that we don't bother to think about how science and faith could actually really harmoniously coexist or what we might be able to learn from one another, right?
So I love that Veritas and Faraday and some of these kinds of organizations, they create the safe spaces. And Michelle, what I've found, contrary to what a lot of people think, is that there's a thirst for talking about these kinds of issues. There's really a hunger for asking questions in this space, and I've interacted with a number of scientists who feel like, I kind of want to ask these questions because I do know that fundamentally, people who are interested in philosophy and theology; they want to get at truth, they want to be able to understand the world.
And as a scientist, that's kind of what I want to do too. So I feel like there ought to be more of a conversation between us, but it almost seems like it's taboo to raise those questions, almost as though it's non-scientific of me to do so. And so to break down those barriers a little bit and create more constructive, productive conversations across these communities is something I care about a lot.
Host: I love that. And I know we're about this in kind of the vein of religion, but I think a lot of people think it's all or none. Right? So either we're on the same page, and if we are not, then we are not on the same page, we're not on the same book, right, so we can't talk, and obviously that's not constructive, and nor is it constructive for the advancement of science, but I do a lot of talks around the U.S. at different colleges, and I focus on bringing your authentic self to veterinary medicine. So how can you thrive as a scientist when you cannot bring your authentic self to the conversation, right? So if you're hiding something, if you have a question, you can't engage in this conversation, then how do we advance, right?
And so you're bringing populations together by allowing them to talk about their differences. I love that.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. And it's not a Pollyanna thing, right? That as soon as we do that, everybody's going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. No, that's not going to happen. And that's not really even the goal, right? The goal is actually to respect other people and the trajectories that they've had and sort of learn to put ourselves in their shoes and how they think and why they think, rather than just instinctively demonizing, but also to challenge our own beliefs or approaches or not to like shake up our lives, but just so we can grow as people and say, wow, there's so much out there to learn.
And, let's not pigeonhole ourselves so early. Let's stay open to new ways of approaching life and relationship and society and things like that.
Host: I honestly hope that our young people that are listening and beyond will look at this and say, maybe my beliefs conflict with what we think is traditional science, but I can still be a scientist and I can still do these things and there is a world where I fit in and we can join these together as can our listeners who may be have no faith, and that's okay, right?
Like, agnostic or atheist, like, that they still share a place with everyone.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Or different faiths, right? I mean, so a wonderful example, I had a conversation with an amazing woman. Her name is Lori Alvord. She's a Dine Native American woman, first board certified surgeon, I believe in, from the Native American community. Just a giant in terms of her accomplishments and contributions to medicine, but she's written a couple of books and one of the more interesting concepts that she tries to bring to the fore to get people to think about is the merging of a lot of what she has learned and gained from Native American culture and religion together with Western medicine and how there might be more holistic approaches.
And this is a scientist, a woman of medicine saying there might be more holistic and more thoughtful ways in which we can approach medicine and prevention and treatment and things like that. And it's not about immediately agreeing with her or not agreeing with her, but it's about challenging our minds.
Like we like to think of ourselves as intellectuals. And so if you see really interesting people like this taking out of the box approaches that may not be as familiar to you, it's really a wonderful opportunity to become exposed. And so I think these spaces where we can meet these kinds of people and challenge ourselves and grow are, they're important.
Host: Absolutely. Inclusivity, right? Like, we want to focus, and I talk to students about this, I think that this concept can be used across the board, so I appreciate that story about her because, one, that's amazing, but I'll often talk about cultural competence and understanding that our recommendations may be impacted by the beliefs of others.
They may not be able to pursue certain things, and I won't get too deep into that, but respecting that and understanding that maybe we have to offer something different, not, well, if they can't do it, that's it, we're done. So it can impact who you are as a doctor, who you are as a scientist, across the board.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah, that's right. I'm a part of a an organization. I serve on the board of an organization called BioLogos that was actually founded by Francis Collins. And the effort behind BioLogos is to demonstrate harmony between science and faith. And they turned out to be one of the really instrumental things they did during COVID; was to really to help people in communities of faith who were unsure about how to think about all the noise that was out there about the vaccine and things like that. And yeah, it was a lot of noise. Yeah. And BioLogos turned out to be an amazing resource for people to turn to, to say, Hey, how do I think about this as a person of faith?
What's really the science behind this? And so having communities of people who are rigorous, well trained scientists, but are also people of faith who can bridge conversations with communities across our country; I think that's going to be really important going forward.
Host: Building bridges. I love that. That seems to be a theme here with you, right? The bridge in your DNA to your switches and the bridges here. I love this. I love a theme. And so, I mentioned it before, but I noticed on your website that you have a dedicated section that talks about equity in science. I mean, and not just this blanket statement like, we believe in equity, right? Which a good thing, but we want more, right? Like we want action. And so I saw that you dedicate every other weekly lab meetings to this, like different conversations. And I think it's been going on for quite a few years, I think. Since the pandemic, or could you tell us more about that and why it's important to you?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Absolutely. So, this came out of discussions that the lab was having in 2020, sort of post George Floyd. It was pandemic time as well and, we were thinking about as a scientific group, how can we talk about these systemic issues in our society that create inequity and among the many things we talked about, Michelle, one thing that sort of percolated to the surface was, this notion that many people in marginalized communities, be people of color, could be people from LGBTQ communities who have contributed a lot to science and medicine; have not been recognized and haven't been given the credit that they deserve. So here we are doing scientific work, standing on their shoulders but embracing a system that isn't recognizing them and isn't putting them in the fore of our thoughts and in our recognitions. So we decided to start something called TRUE, which is Truthful Recognition of Unsung Excellence, right?
T R U E. And the idea here was, is that everybody in the group would participate. They would sign up to present on somebody. It could be women in science at a time when that was even more challenging than it is now. It could be groups that where it was not, people were not readily recognized and given credit for their work.
And so that we would know their names, we would know the work that they did, and we would more concretely appreciate that we were standing on their shoulders. So they would do a little bit of research on them, maybe put a short presentation together, present it to the group. Maybe take some questions from the group.
And then these presentations are just get uploaded onto a box drive for our lab. And I know definitely I have gone back to that many times to kind of revisit some of these people and make sure that they're in the front of my mind and that I'm thinking about them too. And not just the people that are maybe more typically commented on in textbooks and things like that.
So that's really the idea behind what we do in the lab meetings.
Host: I love that. And there are bonuses to this, right? So for those who are from different populations, LGBTQ, BIPOC, underrepresented, or other minorities, right, to be part of the lab and to hear other people talking about this, I feel like really promotes, allyship, which is lovely. And for the people who may not be part of those populations to maybe understand a little bit more about the struggles, which again, promotes allyship. And so, I love that.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: You're right, Michelle. It provides context for real conversation. Sometimes we all want to share our experiences with each other, and we have a very diverse lab, which is wonderful. But it's kind of feels forced sometimes to just sit down and say, let's start sharing, but if we use other people's lives and in their experience as this inspiration for our conversation; it very naturally gets into our own experiences.
What have we seen? What have we gone through? It just, it provides a really nice way to, organic, natural way to talk about our own experiences, which I would really like to create that environment in my group where people feel comfortable to do that.
Host: Yes. I love that. And because when I give these talks out there, trust me another doctor or a young clinician to be doesn't remember me talking about diversity, but they do remember the story I told about an incident I experienced that I was shocked, right? That's the impact we make with our personal stories.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yes. And Michelle, that might be the theme that connects so much of what we've talked about today is storytelling. When it, whether it's our science, whether it's my love for music, whether it's you know, the way that I try to create productive conversations with science and faith or with my lab members and diversity in science; it is stories are what connect us.
People often have this idea, oh, scientists are kind of they're bland and they just want facts and to some extent, obviously we traffic in facts. We don't want to just be loosey goosey. But at the end of the day, how we articulate or communicate those facts, it still needs to be assembled as part of a compelling story. Because human beings love stories, that's what we remember, just like you said.
Host: Yes, and that is why we are doing this podcast, and that is why I get to be exposed to all of these amazing people like you. And so, just a few more things before I let you go. I appreciate your time so much. So, favorite snack, please.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: So far and away, my favorite snack throughout my life has been nuts. So I just, I love peanuts. I love almonds, but a really sad thing, Michelle, is as of probably about last year I have not been able to eat nuts. I think I've developed an allergy, probably because I ate way too many nuts.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Bit of a, you know, I can kind of remember how I used to be able to eat nuts.
Host: Okay. So, new favorite snack? Is there a new one yet?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: I don't know if I've developed a new one. I'll probably have to get you on that later.
Host: Yeah. Smart food popcorn. I'm looking at you.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Yeah,
Host: Just, just own. I, about it. I'm a fan. Um, Salt or sweet?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Salt. Yeah, I'm much more of a savory guy than a dessert guy.
Host: Interesting. I'm intrigued by that. And I asked Dr. Loftus this question, who is one of our clinicians in the hospital, but Star Wars or Star Trek?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: I may disappoint some people here and say, probably neither. I'm not actually a huge fan of either of them. If I had to pick, Star Wars, for sure.
Host: Well that's the right answer, yes.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: It's clearly separated from Star Trek for me, but I'm not sure that I'm like a huge fan of either of them.
Host: Got it. How about a favorite movie?
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: Favorite movie is probably Braveheart. Yes. Yeah, I just always loved that movie. I love the raw human emotion in that movie. And when I was in sabbatical this past summer with my whole family, we got to go to Scotland and go to the William Wallace Monument and that was really fun.
Host: That is incredible. Well, Dr. Sethupathy, I cannot thank you enough for this incredible conversation. It has been so amazing to talk to you and meet you and hear what you're doing, and I know our listeners will be thrilled. Anything you'd like to leave our listeners with, a message, a thought about your lab, why they should be scientists, shout it out. Photography, lovers everywhere.
Praveen Sethupathy, PhD: I don't know who all is going to be listening to this, but if there are people thinking about going into science or wondering what they want their careers to be about; find something you're passionate about. Don't worry about whether people think that that's the kind of job that smart kids go into, whether that's the kind of job that gets the prestige. Think about what you're really passionate about because that passion is what's going to take you through the highs and the lows, right?
There's no job that's just high all the time, right? You're going to experience really difficult things, challenging things, failures, and what's going to push you through that, it's what you're passionate about and it's the people you're around. At the end of the day, it's the people. When I move on from this career, whenever that is, I think I'm going to remember the people that I got to interact with first and foremost more than anything else.
So think about the kind of people you want to be around.
Host: Back to those stories that we hear, right? The stories that we hear from other people. You have heard it from Cornell's own unicorn, Chase Your Passion. Thank you everyone for listening. I hope you will tune in again wherever you listen to podcasts and we will talk to you soon.