WHO? Ghattu V. Krishnaveni, 44
WHERE? CSI Holdsworth Memorial Hospital, Mysuru
Photographed by Rahul M
A young woman anxiously narrated how she and her friends escaped a group of hooligans during a night trek in the hills of Mysuru. Two people faced the woman, maintaining neutral expressions as she recounted the incident. Meanwhile, GV Krishnaveni and two of her colleagues gauged the young woman’s mental state by examining her cardiovascular parameters through an apparatus connected to her left wrist.
GV Krishnaveni is India’s leading expert on investigating how improper nutrition in the womb leads to non-communicable diseases. She has recently expanded her research to include stress in young adults.
Krishnaveni was trying out the Trier social stress test, a test designed in 1993 in Germany’s University of Trier, to induce and understand stress levels in individuals. “In this test, we ask them to perform in front of strangers. If there are repeated stressful situations, cortisol levels become high and keeps rising as long as they are stressed,” the 44-year-old Krishnaveni explained. “If cortisol remains consistently high, people are likely to develop [non-communicable] diseases — both mental and physical — in the future. This is the hypothesis we are testing now.” Krishnaveni’s research problem is “to look at the role of psychological stress in the development of adult chronic diseases.”
Mentored into public health
The young woman we met at the beginning (who was narrating the story of the trek) is one of the volunteers in a series of “pilot” experiments that Krishnaveni’s team has been conducting on young adults. Once the test is finalised, it will be used to understand stress levels among around 600 young adults Krishnaveni has been studying for the last two decades.
Krishnaveni’s relationship with these (approximately) 600 boys and girls started when they were still in the wombs of their mothers. In 1997, she had just passed out of Mysore Medical College, when she saw an advertisement for a research position in Mysuru’s Holdsworth Memorial Hospital. Professor Caroline HD Fall, an epidemiologist from University of Southampton, had been doing research at the hospital since 1993, and was looking for someone to assist her. Krishnaveni applied for the position and soon joined Fall in her investigations.
Fall was studying the “early origins of adult disease hypothesis” which was originally put forward by her colleagues in the UK. According to this hypothesis, environmental factors, particularly nutrition, influence an individual’s risk of adverse health in adult life. Barker’s experiments conducted in the mid-1980s showed that low birthweight and small body-size (which were used as proxies to indicate how well nourished the mother was while pregnant) at the time of birth were associated with a greater risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes in later life.
Fall set up a unit for her research in Mysuru’s Mission Hospital (as CSI Holdsworth Memorial Hospital is commonly known) because this hospital had records with details about the birth weight, birth length and head circumference of the infants born at the hospital from 1934. With these details it was possible to repeat Barker’s experiments in India. Fall began this in 1993 and was joined by Krishnaveni in 1997.
Medical case studies: From birth to death
When Krishnaveni took up the job she was just out of medical college, where the norm she remembered was to “read a lot, memorise and reproduce,” she said. This routine did not excite her at all. “That was not my way. I wanted to understand things and interpret them,” she said. Under Fall, she expanded her horizons and was brought closer to research. The duo gradually set up the the Mysore Parthenon Birth Cohort consisting of 600-odd subjects.
According to a paper titled “Cohort Profile: Mysore Parthenon Birth Cohort” published in International Journal of Epidemology in 2014 which Krishnaveni co-authored, “The cohort was established to examine the long-term effects of maternal glucose tolerance and nutritional status on cardiovascular disease risk factors in the offspring.”
Apart from some hindrances while travelling, Krishnaveni said that her gender has not affected her work. “At least in this research unit, we have more women researchers than males.” She is unmarried, but not because there was too much work, but because “it just didn’t happen,” she said.
Krishnaveni and team have been very resourceful during the study of this cohort. “We had to trace people [between 40-60 old] who were born in the hospital” remembers Dr.K.Kumaran, a senior scientist at the unit and Krishnaveni’s colleague in the research unit. “At that time there were many places here which didn’t have proper door numbers. So when we went we would draw map of the area, come back and transcribe to a large scale map here and basically mark where we had found people who said they were born in the hospital.” Interestingly, and with efficiency, Kumaran’s team had used various colours and sizes of Bindis to mark details on these maps. Once they have narrowed down on the people they wanted to study from the area, they started persuading them to volunteer in their research over the next few years.
Editor’s note: All the individuals seen in the photographs have consented to appear in the photographs in this essay.
This is the first piece in a series of 30 profiles on the life of science of Indian women scientists whose research has been funded by Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. We are thankful for a grant from India Alliance towards this series that has allowed us to invite voices of fellow science writers on this project.