Professors Jansen: A story of life, love and research


He is tall and lanky with the broad features typical of a Netherlander; she is diminutive and refined, reflecting her East Indian heritage. But with all of their differences, one would be hard pressed to find a more complementary couple than Duco and Anita Mahadevan-Jansen. “You couldn’t find two more opposite people in every respect. It’s sort of funny how it all worked out,” says Duco as the couple exchange glances amid the laughter that comes so easily and often as they reminisce.

As professors of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University, Duco and Anita share a deep commitment — not only to each other, but also to their respective careers as researchers and educators. They also work closely together: their offices are next door to each other. Even so, there are days when the demands of teaching, research, and ever-looming grant deadlines mean that the two communicate only by e-mail.

Their story is one that they enjoy telling as much as living.

Anita grew up in Bombay, the Indian mega metropolis with a population of 20 million. “I’m very much a big city girl,” she says. Her dream was to become a medical doctor. “When I grew up in India, either you grew up to become a doctor or an engineer,” she says. “All other careers were considered unimportant.” At that time, an Indian student had a one-shot chance of being accepted into medical school: passing state-wide board exams taken at age 18. “You either get in, or you don’t,” Anita says. “I didn’t get in by one point.”

Failure to qualify threw Anita into an identity crisis. She had no idea what she wanted to do. Her physics advisor suggested that she examine what she liked to do and what she was good at doing, and find something that combined the two. But inspiration came from closer to home. “My brother was earning his degree in engineering and one of his areas of study was in biomedical [engineering]. I heard him talking about ECG machines and I started thinking, ‘Hey, that sounds like something I might want to do.'”

At that time, there were no biomedical engineering degrees available in India. “That’s when I decided to come to the United States. I started looking around and settled on the University of Texas. There was a brand-new professor there and I went to see her. When she started describing what she did and what she was hoping to do — developing technology and using it to help clinical care — a light bulb came on and I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.”

Duco’s situation was considerably different. Growing up in a small town of 5,000 in the eastern part of the Netherlands, Duco came from a long line of educators. He says, “My dad was a mathematician and the high school principal. My whole family — everybody who was working — were educators. So the one thing that I knew absolutely from an early age was that I did not want to be a teacher!”

Music was just as prevalent in the Jansen household. Duco’s father was a talented jazz pianist. It rubbed off on Duco. “I really wanted to go into music,” he says. “I was playing various instruments: piano, bass guitar, saxophone, even the flute in the Netherlands National Symphony Orchestra.

There were other influences as well. “I had two teachers in high school, biology and chemistry, that through their personalities and the kinds of challenges they threw at me really got me thinking along those lines,” Duco says. “Coming out of high school, I had a choice to make. I came this close to pursuing music professionally,” he says, squinting through pinched thumb and forefinger.

Instead, Duco entered a new program in medical biology at the University of Utrecht. The research aspects of the program, especially in the areas of lasers and optics, particularly appealed to him. Through contacts made during his studies, he had an opportunity to come to the United States for six months to study at the University of Texas. At the end of those six months, Duco could have returned to the Netherlands to finish his PhD. Instead, he chose to pursue his doctorate in biomedical engineering in Austin.

Duco and Anita were now in the same city, and they had even met casually at department gatherings. How they became a couple is a comedy of errors.

In 1992, Duco was looking forward to going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans with three friends, but all three dropped out at the last minute. Terribly disappointed, he returned to the lab to do some work. There he learned that another group of graduate students was going to New Orleans and, if he hurried, he might be able to catch a ride with them. It turned out to be Anita and six of her Indian friends. Duco caught them on the way out the door. “We had rented two cars and had exactly one seat left — in the other car,” Anita says. “We were supposed to follow each other, but the cars got separated before we even got to the Austin city limits,” Duco interjects. “So there I am in this car with three Indians that I don’t know, no way to contact Anita, and I’m thinking ‘this is going to be one fun trip!'”

Duco laughs as he remembers the hopelessness of the situation. “We drove eight hours to New Orleans, my stuff was in her car, and there I was on Bourbon Street with about a million drunk people thinking that there was no way that I was ever going to find them. But, miraculously, in front of Ivory Cats on Bourbon Street, I saw you and you….” “I saw his head!” Anita chimes in. “I literally saw his head over everybody. He was so much taller than everyone else.” The couple spent the rest of the trip together. They’ve been together ever since. “We’ve been together 16 years now — married for 13,” Anita says. Both smile.

The couple married in 1995, in between earning their respective doctorates, and decided to go wherever Duco found a job. A position at the University of Texas fell through, but an offer came from Vanderbilt. The couple moved to Nashville in December 1996 with Anita expecting. “I started work on January 1, 1997. Our daughter was born two weeks after that. It was the craziest three weeks of my life,” Duco recalls. Anita remained at home with their baby for the first year before joining the Vanderbilt faculty to pursue her research.

The couple have two children, the 11-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, who help them to keep work out of their family life. “The hours that we’re home and the kids are awake, they make sure that we don’t talk about work,” Anita says.

Through trial and error, the researchers have learned what works and what doesn’t to keep the relationship strong. “We’ve figured out our problem areas,” Anita says, “like we should never sit next to each other in front of a computer and write. We’ll kill each other for sure.” The couple recently submitted their first grant together — by typing in separate rooms of the house and emailing each other their comments and contributions. “We got the highest score I’ve ever gotten on a grant,” Duco says. “Something worked!”

Duco and Anita each have three or four different projects going on at any one time, only one of which is a joint venture. Anita’s research involves technology transfer: developing technologies in the lab that can then be used in clinical care. One such technology is a light-based method of guiding a surgeon’s scalpel in the operating room. The device uses spectroscopy to analyze the tissue near the scalpel and determine whether it is diseased or healthy, greatly reducing collateral damage in delicate procedures.

Duco’s research centers on lasers and optics, and much of his work has been devoted to Vanderbilt’s free electron laser. He was instrumental in designing and implementing the systems that transfer the beam of the FEL to the operating room and into a probe that can be used to perform surgery. Since the beam is capable of producing laser light in any wavelength in the infrared spectrum, it can be tuned to specific wavelengths that have been found to cut tissue very cleanly with almost no collateral damage. Duco is working on a portable tabletop laser that produces these same wavelengths that could be used in operating rooms around the world.

They chanced upon the idea for one of their joint projects on a night out over dinner with Vanderbilt neurosurgeon Pete Konrad. The question of whether or not nerves could be stimulated by laser came up. It had never been done before. “A couple of bottles of wine later …” Duco begins, “and we were back at Duco’s lab,” Anita finishes. Recalling the famous 1783 experiment where Luigi Galvani first used electricity to make the leg of a dead frog move, they decided to try an experiment using the FEL to stimulate the muscles of a frog. Lo and behold, it worked. “It was like, ‘Wow — this is the first time that an experiment has worked on the first try!'” Anita says.

The research holds promise for patients with spinal cord injuries. In the future, it may be possible to bypass the damaged portion of the cord, stimulate the nerves ‘downstream’ to regain the function of paralyzed limbs. With family on different continents, it is a challenge to stay connected. The Jansens take every opportunity to travel to Europe and India to visit family and allow their children as much time as possible with their far away relatives.

Their trip to India in 2005 was bittersweet. Near the end of their visit, Anita’s mother suddenly died. Duco returned to the United States with the children on schedule while Anita remained behind. “It was very difficult emotionally,” she says. “I came back within 48 hours of her passing. I had to get away to grieve. I just couldn’t stay there after she died.” What got her through that difficult period was making preparations for a six-month sabbatical in the Netherlands.

In May 2006, the family packed up and flew to Amsterdam. Duco collaborated with researchers in Rotterdam, and Anita collaborated at the University of Twente in Enschede. “It was a fantastic experience,” Duco says. “The kids went to school there. We were also close enough to my family that we were able to spend quite a bit of time with them as well.”

The Jansens returned to the United States in January of 2007, and are busy working on a number of projects born from the collaborations that began during their sabbatical. After 11 years at Vanderbilt, the Jansens have settled into faculty life. Anita has become comfortable and confident in her role as an educator, and Duco, who initially wanted nothing to do with teaching, has become very fond of it, especially the interaction with students. “It comes very naturally to him,” Anita says. “He’s a born teacher.”

Duco continues to play music. He has keyboards, guitars, drums and a Warwick 5-string bass — a gift from Anita for making tenure. The children are also musical. Their daughter is becoming a good pianist and their son a good violinist. “He’s also dead set on learning the bass guitar,” Duco says, “as soon as he’s big enough to hold it.”

Duco finds many similarities between music and their area of research. “One of the things that I love about the field of biomedical engineering,” Duco says, “is that you’ve got medicine, you’ve got biology, you’ve got physics and engineering. You take pieces from here and put them there, pieces from there and put them here. You try things, find what works. Music is not that different.”

— Dwayne O’Brien