Developing Life-Saving Drug, Writing Best Sellers & Not Quitting Job: IITian Shares His Story

Not many Indians do what Ajinkya Bhasme has done in the first 30 years of their lives. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay in chemical engineering, he has helped develop a life-saving drug, earned professional certificates and diplomas in forensic psychology and psychotherapy, and today offers mental health guidance and awareness for free through his Instagram profile, besides writing three best-selling novellas.

If that wasn’t enough, he currently works for Swiss Re, a Zurich-based global reinsurance company, as vice president of their ‘People and Culture Development’ division.

Born in Yavatmal and raised in Poladpur along the Konkan belt of Maharashtra early on, he would end up doing most of his formal education in the ‘gold city’ of Jalgaon. He grew up in a conventional upper middle-class family, where his father worked as an agricultural officer (now retired) while his mother practised criminal law. So his childhood wasn’t entirely uneventful, he says.

“Since I was a hyperactive child, my parents put me in multiple classes and activities to expend all my energies into something productive. I ended up doing everything — dancing, music, sports and academics. After going home, I would listen to these stories from my mother, transitioning from tales about kings, queens and fairy tales, to real-life events and people from the courtroom. These stories were fascinating to me as a child,” recalls Ajinkya, speaking to The Better India.

One such story, he recalls, was from 1996. It was about two women serial killers, who abducted children from the age of two months to 12 years and killed them. “My mother was lucky enough to be present in the courtroom when this particular case went on trial. Prosecuted by famous advocate Ujjwal Nikam, she witnessed the proceedings and narrated the case to me,” he adds.

Stories like these left an indelible impression on a young Ajinkya, who began asking questions about human nature and notions of ‘good versus evil’. He didn’t know it then, but these stories would play a pivotal role in his life later on as he would embark on his passion for writing.

Ajinkya Writing bestsellers
Ajinkya Bhasme: From Developing Life-Saving Drug to writing bestsellers (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

IIT, Dr Reddy’s, and a life-saving drug

In 2009, he secured admission to IIT-Bombay, where he did his B Tech in chemical engineering. Graduating in 2013, he was recruited by the pharmaceutical giant, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories.

Ajinkya wanted this job because this was an Indian pharmaceutical company making affordable medicines for the general population. He joined the company in 2013 and worked out of their Hyderabad headquarters for 4.5 years as a scientist, predominantly focussing on research and development of API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients and Formulations).

“Once the chemist decides on the chemical of a given drug and how to reach there, it’s up to the chemical engineer to make this into a scalable molecule developed in a small lab. What I brought to the table was expertise in modelling and simulation. If you have certain parameters in your factory or small lab, you scale it up and make your molecule in tandem with the specifications of the FDA or Indian food and drug norms,” explains Ajinkya.

One of the drugs he was involved in developing was the Amphotericin B liposomal injection used to treat cryptococcal meningitis — a fungal infection of the lining of the spinal cord and brian — and visceral leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that affects the liver, spleen and bone marrow. His speciality was working on the process of Lyophilization, also known as freeze-drying.

“To help you obtain a liposomal form of the injection that will have a good shelf life, dispersion rate, and reconstitution rate, a key step (and the last step) before you package the product is lyophilization. This is one of the most difficult unit operations in chemical engineering, but I had the requisite expertise for it. I was working on the end-to-end part of Amphotericin B, but mostly on the lyophilization bit because I was the expert in that domain,” claims Ajinkya.

Besides working on life-saving drugs, it was at Dr Reddy’s that he was encouraged to follow his passions outside of his everyday work. He credits Dr GV Prasad, the CEO of the company, with motivating him to find his passion outside the office.

“The one thing he said, that resonated with me, is that if you are passionate about something outside of work, it will keep you happy and make you more productive at work. His advice to me was to make sure I follow my passion and not be too hard on myself,” he recalls.

Forensic psychology, psychotherapy, counselling and writing

After quitting Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Ajinkya has gone on to work for UPL Limited, an agrochemicals venture, and is today employed by Swiss Re. One of the passions that he began exploring with greater rigour was writing fiction, inspired by the true crime stories his mother told him as a child. His passion for writing got him into forensic psychology and psychotherapy.

“I only got into these subjects to improve my art and give greater scientific perspective to my writing. As a writer of horror or thrillers, it’s important that you do your research. Given my background as a scientist and engineer, it’s impossible to escape quality research. If your material doesn’t have good research, observation, or inferences, then it doesn’t have substance no matter the quality of your vocabulary. In order to have that in my writing, I wanted to be as scientifically accurate as possible. So, I did my diploma in forensic psychology and in psychotherapy to present a more accurate picture of mental health in my stories,” he notes.

His last novella, ‘7 Hours at Bhata Road’ elucidates the horrors of society treating people suffering from epilepsy. The book was chosen as Amazon’s bestseller of 2020 and is being made into a full-length feature film starring Vatsal Seth and Ishita Dutta.

“Besides the obvious elements of fiction, the novella is a social commentary on how our society treats people with neurological disorders like epilepsy, fails to understand the pleas of those suffering from it, and thus makes their lives a living hell,” he explains.

Out of his research for his earlier works like ‘When the Devil Whispers’, which was inspired by the serial killer case in 1996, and ‘As Death Stared Back’, came his engagement with pro-bono counselling for teenagers and young adults who reach out to him on Instagram.

“This actually started during the first wave of COVID-19 when I lost a really close family member to the virus. I realised that there are a lot of people who are going through similar trauma and grief. I helped my family address this trauma and grief and move forward. But I also realised that a lot of other people would also like to get out of such scenarios and I wanted to help,” says Ajinkya.

The treatment of mental health can be extremely expensive, and not everybody can afford professional psychotherapy sessions or consultations with a psychologist and psychiatrist.

“So, I developed this website called ‘Zealopia’ which allows people to take charge of their own mental health. It uses techniques that are tried and tested, and validated by medical boards from around the world. People who reach out to me aren’t my ‘patients’, but clients, or sometimes, friends. Each month, I speak to over a 100 of them. It does upset me that most educated people that I encounter don’t know the basics of mental health. We fail to recognise the difference between Dissociative Identity Disorder and Schizophrenia, or misclassify an anxiety attack for just acidity. I educate my clients on mental health, hear them out, counsel them, and eventually guide them to the right — and affordable — specialists and platform,” he says.

Bringing it all together

How does he have the time to do all of this while still having a steady professional career?

“I think it’s something to do with my brain’s ability to compartmentalise. When I’m at work, I’m only focusing on that and not thinking of a story, mental health or Instagram creatives. It’s the same when I’m writing a story or offering counselling. And of course, I manage my time well. Also, I think it’s very important to note that there is a drastic difference between a corporate job and a creative life. Although it is easy for us to say that you should pursue your passion and not think of anything else, we can multitask. Our brains are made to multitask,” he says.

(Edited by Divya Sethu)

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Author: Aaron Ryan