‘A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles- Christopher Reeve’
‘A hero is a person who exhibits extraordinary courage under insurmountable circumstances, endures great pain and overcomes huge odds’.
We love heroes because their superhuman abilities inspire us. Same definition applies to science. How do we spot heroes in science? One easy way is to look for scientists getting Nobel or orther reputed scientific awards. Many of these extraordinary individuals are awarded for pushing the boundaries of human understanding of nature, and changing it forever for good.
How else can we find our heros? In answer to my question on how to appreciate wines, an Italian winery manager gave me this tip – ‘If you like it- it’s good, otherwise, it is not. Period’. This simple definition has stuck with me, and I have used it in many circumstances to decide what’s best, and trust me – it works. Same goes with heroes. My science heroes are people who fit the above definition, inspire me, make me sit down and think about their feat for hours in the middle of the night. And back of my head tingles when all this is happening. Other qualities of these heroes are humility, a continued quest for quality and excellence, the ability to build a brilliant team of colleagues and an overall positive outlook even in the grimmest of circumstances. And sometimes they may sound plain crazy and impractical. There is always something about them that mesmerizes. Now you are getting it!
In 2014, I was undergoing a training at the Institute of Bioinformatics (IOB), Whitefield, Bangalore. On day 2 of the training- a middle-aged professor walks into the training hall. He walked fast, and there were four people trying to catch up with his speed and trying to talk to him at the same time. He seemed important, but I had no idea who he was. Later on, I dug up more information on him and realized that I had discovered one of my ‘Science Heroes’. He was none other than Dr. Akhilesh Pandey, Professor at the Institute of Genetic Medicine and the Departments of Biological Chemistry, Oncology, and Pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is a qualified Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) from Armed Forces Medical College, Pune. His career took him to a residency in Pathology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Harvard Medical School), Ph.D. from University of Michigan (Vishwa Dixit lab), Postdoc at Harvey Lodish lab at MIT, and a Visiting Scholarship at Matthias Mann’s Lab at the University of Southern Denmark before he joined John Hopkins in 2002.
Wow! Top institutions, top mentors. You would think that yeah- so what? If you go to top schools, work with top mentors, you would eventually become a top scientist. Maybe, maybe not. Little would you realize that to work with top mentors, you have to continuously strive to be at the top of your game, without rest, without fail. A lesser mortal would quit as the work pressure in these labs could be intense.
But it is something else that made him qualify for my Heroes list. In 2002, Dr. Akhilesh Pandey founded IOB, Bengaluru as a non-profit institution. In doing so, and in running the institution, he maxed out on his credit cards and used his personal and family money. Initial years were quite tough, but a project from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore to study the proteins in the human brain turned it around for IOB. They procured the best mass spectrometer in the country at that time and put it to the best use possible. In 2014, IOB shot to international fame by publishing the first draft proteome of humans in Nature (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v509/n7502/full/nature13302.html). They identified and annotated proteins encoded by about 84 percent of the genes in the human genome predicted to produce proteins (http://www.natureasia.com/en/nindia/article/10.1038/nindia.2014.74). A link to his story in The Telegraph (https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140602/jsp/knowhow/story_18469175.jsp#.WIwySdJ97IU) and another excellent Indian Express article explaining the importance of this study by Pallav Bagla is available at the link http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/health/after-genome-the-proteome-bangalore-lab-maps-human-protein/
A visit to IOB will tell you that the people working at this not-for-profit institute are simple humans with superhuman determination. They do not bask in the comforts of a permanent/ tenured scientific job like many of their fellow colleagues in government institutions and universities, but work round the clock to keep IOB and India at the forefront of international science. Most of the Ph.D. students and scientists at IOB get their salaries from their own projects and grant proposals, and they have to continuously write newer proposals to keep the funds coming. Inspite of all these pressures, the Team IOB has been highly productive in their scientific output. What motivates them? Perhaps an inspiring leader, the excitement of doing cutting-edge science, a work environment where everyone else is as motivated as themselves and an institute where there is no bureaucracy to slow down their science. Many years have passed since IOB’s establishment. I request our government to look into providing IOB with some regular ‘no strings attached’ financial assistance so that they can keep up making India proud. This is ‘Made in India’ happening right here. Can’t India see and help IOB back?
[Disclaimer- This blog post is written by me in my personal capacity in the general theme of my blog ‘Positively Scientific.’ I have not been asked or paid to write this blog. All the facts presented here are true to the best of my understanding and knowledge. My views do not represent the views of my government or institute. The image was downloaded from http://biolchem.bs.jhmi.edu/Pages/faculty.aspx?ra=8].