Times Higher Award would be a fitting recognition for DMU veteran

Dr Ketan Ruparelia has accomplished many things during his 33-year career at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU). From helping develop an anti-cancer drug to taking his diabetes community outreach programme to Italy, the DMU veteran has amassed a long list of achievements.

Having given so much to the university, it’s now Ketan’s time to enjoy the spotlight. The 57-year-old has been nominated for the Outstanding Technician Award at this year’s Times Higher Education (THE) Awards in Liverpool. We caught up with Ketan to discuss the major achievements in his career.

“This is the most prestigious nomination I’ve received,” Ketan said. “I feel overwhelmed and appreciated to have been put forward.

“I’ll always remember what my dear friend Professor Gerry Potter said to me: ‘Never look down at anyone else who comes to you for help because remember you were in the same boat too.’ It’s something I have tried to adapt as my ethos.”

Ketan main

Ketan is no stranger to honours or recognition. Across the 2010s, he was nominated for seven awards, including a THE award for Research Project of the Year in 2014 and won the first DMU Oscar for Outstanding Contribution to Research Excellence in recognition of his career achievements to that point.

The Outstanding Technician of the Year Award recognises individuals whose exceptional practical skills, commitment and vision have enabled the highest quality teaching, research or knowledge transfer.

Put forward by his line manager Katherine Taylor, he is delighted to have the chance to go one better this year. One of eight candidates shortlisted for this year’s award, should he win, it will be dedicated to his colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences (HLS).

Ketan said: “I’m not one for personal glory and I get the most satisfaction seeing DMU students do well on their course and grow as individuals.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be a certificate bearer during a graduation ceremony and seeing the students complete their studies and go on to do new things is immensely satisfying.

“While the nomination has my name on it, this is a team effort and I feel this is really a testament to my colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences.

Joining DMU in 1990 – then known as Leicester Polytechnic – Ketan started as a Cancer Drug Discovery Group Research Assistant under the mentorship of Professor Laurence Patterson.

He proved to be an invaluable asset to the faculty and his work with Professor Patterson on anti-cancer bio-reductive agents eventually led to the discovery of (Banoxantrone) AQ4N, a protype bio-drug currently in clinical trials.

In 1998, Ketan had his next major breakthrough, this time working with mentor, turned close friend, Professor Gerry Potter.

Researching cancer treatment, the pair discovered that resveratrol, a natural product found in red grapes, could kill cancer cells when processed by the enzyme of the cell. This research helped Ketan and Professor Potter develop a new compound molecule, aptly named DMU 212, which was used in the creation of a cancer-killing prodrug, StilsereneTM.

 Ketan Lab
Ketan in the DMU lab where he worked for more than 20 years of his career

The new DMU 212 molecule which is in clinical stage, was featured in the BBC and the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet.

He said: “We made around 250 slightly different compounds and DMU 212 proved to be the most effective at the time. Students have since used some of these compounds in their PhDs to investigate ways toxins can get to the cancer cells faster. My work is a nice starting point for students to advance the work.”

“It’s nice to be able to name the compound after DMU and hopefully it helps the work of the university get recognised.

Ketan’s time at DMU has been dedicated to improving lives, whether that’s the community or the students he helps during their studies. For much of the last 12 years, he has been highlighting the hidden signs of diabetes.

In collaboration with Professor Joan Taylor, he created the Diabetes Project to understand how people in Leicester manage the disease.

The city has the highest rate of Type-2 diabetes in the Midlands with 9.9 per cent of the population diagnosed with the disease. Ketan and his team of student volunteers collected 400 questionnaires and worked with community-based health organisations to diagnose more cases of the disease.

Ketan integrated the Diabetes Project into the DMU Square Mile community initiative when it launched in 2011, enabling the team to expand their outreach and explore how physical activity could also benefit patients.

In a 2015 two-day roadshow at the Highcross shopping centre, DMU students helped refer 172 people to their GPs after spotting suspected signs of Type 2 diabetes.

Following the success of the Square Mile Diabetes Project and with Ketan’s help, Diabetes UK decided to partner with the university to train 50 DMU students as Community Champions. It was the charity’s first partnership of this kind with a university.

Ketan then took the diabetes outreach programme across the continent and to the university town of  L’Aquila, in central Italy. The region had been struck by a devastating earthquake in 2009, killing 309 people and destroying labs and classrooms at the university.

With the town still struggling to rebuild in 2016, Ketan took a three-month sabbatical and offered to use DMU’s research equipment so the students could finish their work and train volunteers as part of the Community Champions Initiative.

Valerio Cellini, a medical student at the University of L’Aquila, was so impressed with Ketan’s work that he travelled to Leicester on an Erasmus scheme to spend time with Dr Ruparelia and volunteer on the Community Champions programme before taking the initiative back to his hometown in Italy.

“Over my career, I think my three-month sabbatical in Italy is personally my favourite point,” Ketan says. “I was very fortunate that the opportunity developed and I was able to take it.

“Every September they open the doors of the University of L’Aquila to the community as part of the Street Science. While we were out there, our diabetes community team helped nearly 100 people and I was even invited back the following year to help again.

“Since our visit, there has always been a diabetes stand at the Street Science Festival. That’s a really nice impact to come out of it.”

Ketan’s efforts throughout DMU Square Mile and with the Community Champions saw him nominated for consecutive DMU Oscars in 2014 and 2015, and shortlisted again in 2017 for his outstanding contribution to promoting Leicester.

Ketan DMU Open Day
Ketan regularly makes ice cream with liquid nitrogen during DMU Open Days

Recognition also rolled in from outside DMU, with Ketan just missing out on a Diabetes UK Inspire Award and a Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Award (THELMA) for Initiative of the Year for the DMU Square Mile Diabetes Health Project.

Last year, as part of the prestigious British Science Festival, which DMU hosted, Ketan and his colleagues Professor Randolph Arroo, Professor Joan Taylor, Nazmin Juma and Unmesh Desai conducted community diabetes risk assessments.

The work was in response to the postponement of diabetes outreach programmes due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The work was picked up by more than 50 academic papers from around the world. 

Ketan’s success is no surprise to Professor Aroo, whom Ketan thanks for being so integral to his time at DMU. The pair have worked together for more than 20 years and become close friends.

“If he does something, he does it with full conviction,” Professor Aroo says. “Sometimes he can put a little too much on his plate but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He is full of enthusiasm both professionally and personally. He has even organised several Bollywood parties at DMU to promote Gujarati culture and collect money for an orphanage in India.

“He’s the first to show visitors around Leicester and always happy to help anyone in need. He is a co-author to many research papers from our PhD students because he loves to pour his time into supporting them with their work.”

Ketan inherited his high work ethic from his parents and drew inspiration from some of his family’s more traumatic experiences of his family.

Born in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Ketan and his family were forced to move to India just after his fifth birthday when Ugandan President Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country in 1972.

The family stayed in India for five years before migrating to Leicester in 1977, where Ketan has since stayed and raised his own family. However, growing up in the UK wasn’t the easiest of experiences and he endured several racially-motivated physical attacks.

In the face of hostility, it was his parents who instilled that “no matter where you are in the world, if you educate yourself, no one can take that away from you,” something that Ketan now stresses to both his children and his students.

“I know for sure they’re looking down on me and are proud of my work. I thank both my parents for believing in me when I was young and my thesis was a manifestation of the positive influence they had in my life.

“I’ve tried to do the same for my children. When I got my PhD, my children came to my graduation and, a few years ago, I was able to return the favour when they graduated. It was a proud, surreal moment for me.”

Successive British Governments have invested millions of pounds to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students attending university.

To help post-16 students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, gain more understanding of these subjects, the Nuffield Research Placements initiative Nuffield Research Placement Scheme was introduced.

Ketan has been a keen supporter of the placements and since 2021 has been teaching Chemistry to Year 12 students as part of the initiative.

This past September, he mentored five students, allowing each of them to prepare their own small molecules in the university’s chemistry labs.

“It’s quite a hands-on placement and that practicality shows that analysis is more than just theory. For many of the students, they will be the first from their families to attend university and it’s very nice to see the boost in their confidence, alongside the enjoyment of science.

“Each student creates their own molecules in the lab and we then identify them under the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, so they can receive structural information that they created from powder.

“I have seen these students engage with the practical tasks and many want to do degrees within STEM subjects. Some are even considering studying at DMU, which is fantastic as before the placement, I know a few students hadn’t considered studying these subjects at university.”

Following his involvement in the Nuffield Research Centre and his time with students across his 33-year career at DMU, Ketan has the desire to lead more lectures in the future.  

However, his immediate plans now turn to the THE Awards evening on Thursday 7 December at ICC Liverpool. 

He will have to wait until the live final at ICC Liverpool on Thursday 7 December to find out if he has won. Should he win, there will be an impromptu celebration with his DMU colleagues, friends and family.

Posted on Tuesday 28 November 2023

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