Thursday, July 16, 2015

Adventures of an itinerant scientist- what doing science in 3 countries has taught me

Submitted By: Sumantra Chatterjee
Department/Affiliation: McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine
                                    Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine


I still remember the moment when I realized I wanted to be a biologist. My high school biology teacher was showing us a time-lapse video of a developing frog embryo. How could a single spherical cell become a whole tadpole that looked nothing like the cell at all?! As they said, I was hooked.

My undergraduate and masters degree programs in India allowed me to do some basic research, but we still followed the rote style of education, which mostly was consisted of memorizing a whole lot of facts and regurgitating them in exams- commit to the memory, vomit to the paper- as we used to call it. A generation of Indian scientists has had such grounding. Although at that time we complained about how useless the system was in preparing us for an “experimental” future, we failed to appreciate that it taught us the value of understanding the details. My education in basic biology has given me a fundamental understanding, which has helped me to this day. As I swim in the ocean of large genomic data, this knowledge keeps me afloat and helps me to segregate the truly useful data from the junk.

As I was contemplating what to do next after my masters degree and, like most Indians of my generation, looking westward for the pursuit of a higher degree (brain drain as it is known), I came to know from a friend that Singapore was investing heavily in biomedical research as part of building a knowledge-based economy. Since she knew I did “something in biology”, she encouraged me to look at it. The only thing I knew about Singapore in those days was that it was great for shopping, had a huge port, canned an American boy for vandalism, and banned chewing gum, no good reason to think that any science was been done there, let alone high-end biomedical research. But the more I read about the expansive plans the Singapore government had to promote research, the more impressed I became. In addition to its two big universities, it had created a hub of 8 research institutes all centrally funded in billions. As I kept hearing horror stories (some vastly exaggerated no doubt) about how funding cuts had left many students struggling in the US, my westward journey suddenly took an eastward turn.

I found myself on a tiny island one degree north of the equator to get a PhD. Like a small town boy coming to the big city for the first time, I was blinded by the “opulence” of Singapore science. In India I had to seek approvals from 3 different administrators, just to buy a $10 reagent. Here I could order $3000 reagents and nobody batted an eyelid. For the first time, I saw what big science and big data was. I saw how ideas could flow freely and most of the time get done when unshackled from the grant writing cycle. My boss, who was a professor in the US, before moving to Singapore, encouraged us to think big and learn as many skills as we could. Nobody ever said no to any project. As a young, na├»ve graduate student, this was the best of times for me. I hungrily lapped up as many skills as I could master. I learned how to establish animal models and how to design and carry out large-scale genomics experiments. Again, for the first time, I learned that it was all right to scientifically challenge senior professors. I learned how to ask relevant questions and how to find solutions. I realized the value of true collaborative, cross- disciplinary research and how quickly science moved if everybody pulled in the right direction.

But there were no free lunches. The Singapore government was very clear that it wanted commercial returns from this unprecedented funding in basic biomedical research in 10-years time. This was my first exposure to academic institutes being run like corporations and introduction to terms like KPI (key performance indicator) and KOL (key opinion leaders). It was an eye opener for me that basic science can also be seen as engine for economic growth of a country. Maybe what I was seeing was a glimpse into the future of basic research and how it would be a struggle if we all didn’t adapt.

As I completed my PhD, my thoughts again turned westward and the need to move. While I was looking around for labs another fortuitous incident happened. I went to a seminar and heard a human geneticist talking about how many genes have now been associated with diseases but they have no way to actually identify what goes wrong with these genes. I realized that while I, as a developmental biologist, studying gene functions but never stopping to seriously link them to diseases, human geneticist find genes linked to diseases but don’t know how to determine their functions. It was yet another revelation how different disciplines in biology worked side by side without communicating and end up reinventing the wheel.

I turned my attention to human genetics labs in the US and started applying and boasting to the PIs that I was the right person to quickly ascertain functions of disease genes (how naive and pompous). I guess my current PI decided that I was the right kind of crazy person he was looking for and offered me a job.

So from a tiny prosperous island near the equator, I landed into Baltimore, a city on the Atlantic coast of the US. I knew of Johns Hopkins, I knew of Francis Scott Key writing the national anthem here. Of course, I had seen The Wire (maybe subconsciously as a survival guide). But nothing prepared me for the early shock of coming to a city, which was clearly going through a rough time. Though I must say over the years I have discovered some charm in this city and its people.

My journey in science so far has been interesting. I have seen the good and bad side of NIH funding. I have observed the crazed look on professors with looming RO1 deadlines, the negative impact it has on lab members when everybody’s job are tied to getting that grant. I have also witnessed the death of some big ideas because no one would ever fund them. On the other hand, I have also seen the desire to think out of the box to circumvent the monetary issues, the pooling of resources and ideas to make that one big idea work. I have seen a genuine desire to do research just for the sake of research. It amazes me that when basic scientists and physicians come together, magic happens. But I am also witnessing a concerted push by NIH for more translational research and dollar returns. I see an insincere effort by many scientists to work outside their comfort zone and having a myopic vision.

So what have I truly learned in my wanderings across countries? I have learned that science is constantly changing. You cannot deny the fact that more and more funding agencies around the world are demanding return on their investments. The very nature of research and training are changing and demands are being made to produce big data on limited resources that is also beneficial to society. It would require a concerted effort from both the scientific community and the funding agencies to sit together and reach the common ground. But it would require us to accept that we need to adapt and evolve with the times. “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It's time to start thinking.” Said Ernest Rutherford to his lab members. 

Maybe the time has come for us to start thinking.