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 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 says.
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. 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.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 says.
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.