Monday, December 21, 2015

Obituary: Mr. K M Nair

The Chief Controller of RGCB, Mr. K M Nair succumbed to ill-health and passed away on 15th of December, 2015. 

Mr. K M Nair, the former Chief Controller of Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, is no stranger to the executive, legislative or academic fraternity of India. It is very rare for an official to be equally regarded in varied disciplines in a short span of time. Mr. Nair was one of such few widely acclaimed individuals of today. It was, indeed, a great honor for RGCB to have had Mr. Nair as the Chief Controller of the institution.

Mr. Nair had an incredibly prestigious service record spanning over four decades comprising the offices of Assistant Collector of Customs of Trivandrum International Airport, Additional Director General of National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics of Southern Region in Chennai, Additional Director of Enforcement Directorate, Lead trainer for the Ozone Depleting Substances Program of the UNEP and Chief Controller of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. He initially joined the Intelligence Bureau in 1974 and was selected to the 1980 batch of India Revenue Service (Customs & Excise). Mr. Nair had an extremely fruitful career, approved by the nation with distinguished accolades at various occasions including President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1996 and Finance Minister’s Medal for combating tax evasion and smuggling in 1986.

Having attained administrative autonomy under Department of Biotechnology in 2006, the management of RGCB had to undertake cumbersome steps towards wholesome development of the institution. Mr. Nair assigned his office in March 2013. In the short, yet extremely productive two and a half years, he could cast his signature of excellence in all administrative disciplines of the institution. His colleagues remember him as an ever-approachable and sensible person with great words of wisdom. He was always seen taking charge of both administrative and scientific events at RGCB during his tenure. He was known for his humility and principles of righteousness among staff and students alike.

The Director of RGCB, Professor M Radhakrishna Pillai expressed his heartfelt despair to have lost a dear friend and close colleague. With mixed feelings, he shared his joy and pride to have shared official duties with a man of such great esteem and how he had always looked up to Mr. Nair when met with administrative hurdles. RGCB regards this as a moment of incredible loss, yet tries to come to terms with the inevitable changes as wheel of time turns. With immense reverence, the entire RGCB team prays for his soul to rest in peace. 

Government of Kerala offers Guard of Honor to Mr. K M Nair at his funeral on 19th of December, 2015 at Trivandrum.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World AIDS Day 2015: A new dawn for HIV treatment

The theme of World AIDS Day 2015 is “Getting to zero; End AIDS by 2030” in unison with the fast track strategies of UNAIDS to end the epidemic of HIV infection by the year 2030. As the federal theme states “The time to act is now” for us.

Devising new health strategies for 2016-2020, World Health Organization (WHO) has recently recommended antiretroviral therapy (ART) right at the time of diagnosis to every single person who gets HIV infection. The current strategy is to treat HIV infected people only when they develop symptoms of AIDS as the infection progresses. WHO also recommends that every individual who is at the risk of exposure to HIV should be given prophylactic antiretroviral therapy. This initiative is a very rigorous step towards proactively containing an infection affecting more than 37 million people worldwide. It is estimated that approximately two million people get newly infected every year. The new strategy brings in an additional 9 million people into antiretroviral eligible category from the existing number of 28 million.

WHO is a co-sponsor of Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) which has put forth the recent recommendations hoping to prevent nearly 21 million AIDS related deaths by the year 2030. Current strategies, though meant to address 28 million patients, reach only to 15 million HIV infected people worldwide due to the global challenges in treatment. Not every set of population has accessibility to treatment options. As most of the countries offer antiretroviral therapy free of cost, treating huge numbers of people is a humungous financial burden on governments. Moreover, lack of awareness and social stigma prevent many from seeking help when in need.

UNAIDS has also put forth strict management guidelines to address HIV-TB co-infection as well as to eliminate feto-maternal transmission of HIV. FDA approved treatment modalities available are combination therapies of Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs), Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs), Protease Inhibitors (PIs), Fusion, Entry, Integrase Inhibitors along with Pharmacokinetic Enhancers.

The Union Government of India bears an average cost of Rupees 28,500 to treat one patient with ART. Citing economic constraints, government had strict inclusion criteria for treatable cases. But, after the Supreme Court of India directive to treat every HIV positive patient with complete ART in December 2010, based on “Right to Life” guaranteed by Article 21 of Indian Constitution, it is mandatory for public and private medical sectors of India to offer ART to all patients irrespective of the severity of infection. National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) provides antiretroviral therapy to patients in India through its 91 centers. Though NACO statistics report approximately 2.5 million HIV infected people in India, only 85,000 people receive supervised ART through NACO Centers. This is a major health concern for India.

Health Department of Kerala has set up 36 “Jyothis”- Integrated Counseling and Testing Centers (ICTC) across Kerala to test, counsel and give expert referrals to people free of cost. “Ushus”, supported by NACO, are centers in the Department of Internal medicine at all Medical Colleges of Kerala providing ART free of cost to all HIV positive patients in the state. Kerala is the first state in India to provide free ART to all HIV patients through 42 “Ushus” centers.

Let us all hope the new initiatives by WHO and UNAIDS will help contain this dreadful infection and make human race healthier in near future.

Monday, November 30, 2015

From laboratories to common man: Journey of drug development

As basic scientists in disease biology, we always strive towards an invention or discovery that can make a positive change in existing clinical scenario. We aim to make the life of at least one patient better. From the molecules appearing before us as signals and bands in our basic science experiments to a practical application in clinics is an immensely long journey.

Drug trials are long tedious and meticulous procedures that ensure efficacy and efficiency of drug formulations before they reach market for public use. The odds of a molecule to reach market as a consumable pharmaceutical preparation are approximately calculated to be one in 5000. It takes an estimated average of twelve years for a molecule to travel the long distance between laboratories to market. Here’s a quick peek into the rigorous grilling a molecule undergoes before it “graduates” to be a marketable medication of clinical acceptance.

Preclinical Evaluation: Once a potential therapeutic molecule is identified by in vitro studies in laboratories, it has to undergo preclinical testing in animals to prove its efficacy as well as to document potential side effects. Such a molecule will be considered for further development only if benefits outweigh risks.
Once the preclinical studies are published in effect and not disproved by peers, the patent holders or their collaborating parties can file an Investigation New Drug Application (INDA) to Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thirty days are given for FDA to consider the implications of developing the molecule concerned to consumable medication. If FDA does not disapprove or reject the application in thirty days, the applicants can proceed with clinical trials of the drug formulation. The application should specify exactly how the formulation will be prepared, number and inclusion/exclusion criteria of study subjects, expected therapeutic and adverse effects and details of the study design and execution.

Phase 0 Study: Before clinical trials begin, a Phase 0 study is carried out to study the pharmacological properties of drug formulation. 10-15 healthy volunteers are given subtherapeutic doses of the formulation to titrate optimum dosage depending on absorption, distribution, metabolism and clearance of the chemical in human body.

Phase I Trials: Once the IND is approved by FDA, applicant parties by themselves or in collaboration with pharmaceutical industry and clinicians can start using the drug formulation on less than eighty healthy volunteers to document in detail potential adverse effects. This is called the Phase I trial, when drug dosage, safe therapeutic window, effective route of administration etc are fine tuned. Moreover, this period is also utilized to study the pharmacokinetics and dynamics including distribution, storage, metabolism, clearance, duration of effect, half life etc. The execution of study and analysis of results may take up to twelve months usually.

Phase II Trials: Once Phase I trials provide favorable results; the formulation can be used in patients with disease for which the drug is intended. This study requires data analytics from about one to three hundred patients. Lasting for about eighteen to twenty four months, these studies look into the dosing of drug formulation in detail. Precise values of minimum and maximum dosages are determined, thus validating a strict therapeutic window of safety. The efficacy of the drug in humans is studied for the first time at this point. An expert team of molecular biologists, biochemists, biostatisticians, pharmacologists and clinicians are directly involved at this stage of the trial. The study is carried out under extremely controlled settings to contain unforeseen adverse effect.

Phase III Trials: Another thirty six to forty eight months are spent to determine therapeutic benefits and potential side effects of the formulation. A randomized controlled study involving multiple hospitals, clinicians, Institutional Ethical Bodies and medical lawyers is carried out to collect data from nearly 3000 patients as test and control subjects to document effects of the drug. Efficiency of the drug formulation to manage targeted pathology is studied at a community level at this point. Equal or perhaps, more attention is given to find out any potential side effects previously undocumented during Phase II trials. The study results should be published in peer-reviewed journals with no conflict of interests of involved parties as well as no dispute from experts in relevant fields. These results also serve as a basis for FDA to analyze risk versus benefits of the drug formulation.
Once Phase III trials show promising results, the involved parties, usually drug manufacturing pharmaceutical giants at this point, file a New Drug Application (NDA) to FDA with data regarding the drug formulation available till date. A typical NDA may easily go from 100,000 to 150,000 pages. Expert committee formed by FDA will then analyze the application unbiased. An estimated time of thirty months is needed for FDA to meticulously analyze all the aspects of the new drug formulation as this goes into market for widespread use across multiple communities once approved at this point.  Unlike clinical trials under controlled settings, the usage of a drug at community level cannot be steered or supervised. Needless to say, extreme caution is therefore taken before formally approving the drug to be produced in large scale for clinical use.

Phase IV Trials; Even after reaching market, a drug is not dispensed completely uncontrolled. Post-marketing Surveillance, also called Phase IV trials are carried out strictly for up to twenty four months and leniently during the entire lifetime of the drug’s medical use to document therapeutic and adverse consequences of the drug formulation at a community level. At this point, the drug is available only as its original formulation, manufactured and marketed only by the party holding patent and FDA approval. One can easily understand why non-generic drugs are expensive as the patent holding drug manufacturer is trying to win back all its expenses of research and development of the formulation as well as the exuberant expenses of conducting multiple phases of drug trials. Drug developers are given patent protection of an original formulation for twenty years in most of the countries. Under special circumstances, a patent term restoration can be given for an additional five years if manufacturers convince FDA for an extended period for clinical data evaluation. This is the period during which manufacturers market the drugs as a brand and earn their invested capital back. This period is also infamously regarded as the period of huge profits for the manufacturer due to their monopoly in markets.

After the patent protected period, other pharmaceutical companies can file an Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA) to FDA demonstrating therapeutic equivalence of their formulation to the original brand product. If approved by FDA, the new formulation will be added to Approved Drug Products with Therapeutics Equivalence Evaluations list. This is endearingly called The Orange Book. This is the official approval for the applicant to manufacture and market its formulation as generic drugs. As the capital investment involved in such drug development is much less, generic drugs bring down the price of drugs by about thirty to eighty percent of that of original brand. Moreover, as more manufacturers get bioequivalence approval for their formulation, competition in markets will get stronger, thus forcing companies to slash their prices to sustain demand. This is one noble reason why good quality medications are available even to countries with poor economy without having to sweat much on pharmaceutical research and development.

As we go through the story of a single therapeutic molecule from laboratory to common man, approximately thirty years “smoothly” went past. That’s is one difficult and eventful journey !!!!!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Soft Skills Drill: Presentation and Public Speaking

Public speaking is an art and science at the same time. Knowing the right piece of information or most or best of a subject cannot necessarily make a person a good orator. Though it is widely accepted that content is more pertinent than any paraphernalia for presenting it, conveying and convincing listeners with required information is tactful. It requires hard work, practice and of course presence of mind to tackle any hurdle that arises on the way. 


Audience is the king of any presentation. All the activities including content, flow of information, presentation tools and choice of vocabulary should be focused on audience. The aim of any talk is to convince listeners an idea which the speaker believes in. A good talk is one, at the end of which, listeners become as excited about the subject of discussion as the speaker himself. Unlike usual public speeches, scientific presentations are mostly open discussion forums with bilateral flow of information. A successful speaker is one who not only makes listeners informed but also generates interest in them to initiate constructive interactions and productive discussions. It is always a better approach to pass a gaze to the entire gathering while delivering a talk to stay connected and take them along the subject with the speaker as talk progresses.

The speaker

The speaker is the middleman between information in hand and listeners. He has to be extremely careful to be as presentable as possible. The appearance of a speaker is very crucial. A speaker should be dressed with class and elegance. It shows the commitment he puts towards this presentation. At the same time, his clothes should not be flashy or trashy to attract unwanted attention to unwanted details. It is good to bear in mind not to wear shoes that may creak or thud while walking. A well pressed formal ware of neutral colors and a pair of well polished shoes. Neat grooming and pleasant face. (I always remember one of my teachers’ words at this context. “For a speech, your shoes should be polished enough to reflect the entire gathering in front of you at the tip of your shoes when you stand on a dais.” Now, that’s one gentleman’s advice indeed.). One should be always enthusiastic about his talk.  It's a bit stressful and even seasoned speakers get nervous before talks. But the key is to be calm bearing in mind the fact that nobody can intimidate us without our permission. Frantically pacing up and down, fiddling with paraphernalia or a shivering voice can give cues to listeners about relative lack of speaker’s confidence.


Content determines the quality of any talk. Only a few are blessed enough to be eloquent spontaneously. For rest of us, planning ahead is inevitable. The content should be crisp, clear, straightforward and precise. Any presentation is essentially a glorified story-telling process. There are two effective ways of doing it. Personally, I call them the Jigsaw Puzzle approach and the Rubik’s Cube approach. In the former, just like a jigsaw puzzle, without revealing the end result, speaker can put together various pieces of information to build a wholesome picture. Here listeners are expected to be attentive all throughout the talk for complete comprehension. However, in public platforms where limited attention is expected, the latter approach becomes useful. Here, just like a Rubik’s Cube, the listeners are informed of the wholesome picture at first and the speaker gradually discusses various ways of reaching that conclusion. So even if he loses listeners’ attention in between, an essential take-home message still lingers in their minds.

Striking opening and closing lines carrying gist of our talk will make the ideas conveyed linger in the minds of listeners longer. History agrees with it by evergreen rhetoric of leaders like “Quit India” by M K Gandhi at Bombay in 1942, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” by Patrick Henry in 1775 urging Virginians to ban Stamp Act of 1764 and undoubtedly “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 at Washington DC during American Civil Rights Movement.

Flow of information

It is tricky to equally convey scientific information to a mixed audience. Not everyone could be an expert in the particular subject of discussion. Visual aids help in bridging the gap between speaker and listener to a great extent. There are many fancy presentation tools available online. Irrespective of the tool used, there are some standard practices to be followed in any academic presentation. The slides should have a neutral plain background with bold dark font not less than thirty point size. Ideas are better conveyed if enlisted as bullet points than long complex sentences. This also can avoid the awkward situation of monotone reading from slides. Visual aids are considered far superior to verbal. Hence pictorial representation of data using relevant, completely labeled graphs, charts and schematic diagrams would add more validity and authenticity. When representing experimental results in graph, proper legends, axis labels, error bars, p-value, proportionate scale and unit of values cannot be compromised. It is better not to include more than two graphs in one slide to avoid illegibility. All kinds of qualitative data should be well supported with a quantitative representation emphasize significance of data. There is no rule that says scientific presentations should be long, serious and boring. It is wise to break down the gravity of data through simple, straightforward summaries at required intervals, thus making a wholesome story out of the subject discussed.

Presentation interphase

Academic presentations are exclusively supported by visual aids these days. Though most of us rely on Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote for presentation, it is worthwhile to look into other options available, relevant to subjects discussed and kind of audience addressed. For instance, younger audience would mostly enjoy a lighter way of conveying scientific ideas through visual effects and animations. Online tools like PowToon Studio or Sparkol can be utilized to customize and create our own cartoons and animated videos. Nevertheless, mature audience might appreciate a more conventional approach. Prezi and SlideRocket may help to make a sober presentation more interesting through improved dynamicity. When the prepared slides are to be shared with different people, SlideShare or Google Slides will come handy. Standard scientific talks of thirty minutes demand not more than twenty slides thus giving the speaker at least ninety seconds to discuss each slide. When using a laser pointing device, it is a healthy practice to point to the picture or word that needs attention rather than repeatedly circling it while talking, as a rapidly moving bright light immediately takes the attention of listeners away from speaker’s words.


One doesn’t have to sound like a literary wizard to communicate properly. But the right choice of words, right tone of voice and fluency in medium of speech are inevitable components of a good presentation. The best tool to impress listeners is grammatically clean and well constructed sentences delivered in a moderate tempo with confidence. Since academic presentations are almost exclusively delivered in English, a good command in the language becomes essential. But, unfortunately, we have a tendency to overlook that and stutter and stumble during our presentation. Ill-structured expressions not only diminish our personal credibility questioning our authority over the subject we talk about but also make it difficult for listeners to fully comprehend what we wish to communicate. If we are not confident about our presenting skills, there are only three ways of overcoming it; Practice, practice and practice. 

Footnote: A great speech is one which is concise yet impactful.

It is said that when asked to address the nation, dedicating Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg during American Civil War in 1863, the then United States President Abraham Lincoln, sick in the prodrome of an impending smallpox, jotted down just a few lines on the back of an envelope during his train journey to Pennsylvania. During the official ceremony, American politician and renowned orator Edward Everett delivered a two hour long pre-written oration. Lincoln followed this with his three and a half minute and 271 word long speech that later became a milestone in history as the famous Gettysburg Address. Everett’s Oration, with no disrespect, hasn’t found much light or citations after that day.

How many times in our childhood have we pretended ourselves to be influential leaders and reenacted in front of our personal mirrors his famous opening lines, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”?  And quoted his universal definition of democracy, “…..government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It is a matter of my secret pride that I hold one of the few original hard copies of Lincoln’s manuscript of Gettysburg Address in its bona fide stationery. It is undoubtedly one of my most prized possessions.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Five reasons why we could and should love our research

Scientific Research. The term itself is widely associated with boredom, long sleepless nights, stress and aimlessness. With all negative factors attributed to it, here we are, swimming against odds in scientific research stream to make our own mark. Keeping all convictions apart, thinking with an unbiased mind can actually give us quite a few good reasons to love scientific research, which has become a part of our lives. 

From mentee to mentor

As we enter the cutthroat competitive world of scientific research, we are naïve and fresh. Research, being a time consuming process, gives us ample time to get mentored, polished and trained by those experienced intellectuals around us, who struggled through these same paths and made it to the top. Learning is an active process in research. We learn by observing, reading, comprehending, proactively participating, contributing, critically analyzing as well as getting evaluated and constantly appraised. The development occurs in varying realms of human character including academic, intellectual, personal, social and interpersonal levels. Our professional and personal lives evolve in unison to a state where we become equipped enough to mentor the younger generations exactly from the point where we started. That is a beautiful and fulfilling journey. We have come a long way from the periods of self-taught geniuses and taboos linked to science. Today, each of us can choose how and from whom to learn and eventually how and to whom to propagate that wholesome knowledge. 

The pleasure of discovery

To be honest, most of us got into research in the first place because we did not clearly know what to do after earning a master's degree. Whatever glorified reasons we convinced ourselves, interview boards and potential mentors, there was one small part of our brain which was honest enough to admit that we really didn't have any idea what to do with life. As we move forward in our snail pace scientific journey in graduate school and initial years of post doctoral training, our aims may still not be clear to most of us. But as we progress, co-evolving with science, influencing each other, we find ourselves in a unique spot where we actually enjoy the very prospect of finding something new and useful. We get excited at the prospect that our small but significant finding can actually be a stepping stone to a greater good of humanity. It's a matter of immense pride and pleasure to know that our efforts could unravel the mysteries of universe a tiny bit more and help man understand life a tiny bit better.

A noble reason to gain knowledge

Knowledge has never come free of cost. We pay right from our schooling years to gain knowledge. How many times have we thought not to vest time in gaining knowledge in a particular subject just because we couldn't find time to learn or afford to pay for it? Moreover, as we move forward in our respective careers, we have to take time off from our professional lives to get time and energy for gaining additional knowledge. That's where we become lucky. Here we are, officially assigned in a profession where we get paid to seek and gain knowledge. No other profession on earth gives more scope and space to feed our inner hunger for knowledge. This is, in fact, one of the few professions in life where random thoughts and haphazard voyages of our forebrain can be polished and sharpened to any level of sensible information. And the best of all, we get returns in the form of remuneration, accolades and potential betterment of mankind for our commitment. Albert Einstein believed that if he had a full time real job instead of his boring and monotonous job in a patent office, he would have never had adequate time to think and explore and he wouldn't even have thought of the Theory of Relativity. We are all bestowed with a rare opportunity of endlessly seeking knowledge which many can only dream about. So buckle up and make the most out of our time, energy and efforts. 

The allowance of failure

As we walk into an Emergency Room of any hospital, how many times have we sincerely wished not to fall a prey in the hands of a training intern? How many times have we told a handyman not to learn how to fix something by tinkering on our expensive electronic device? How many times have we called an after sales maintenance team asking them to send in an expert and not a trainee to fix our appliances? The gist is, no profession allows us the room to fail. A failure is always regarded an equivalent of inefficiency in all strata of professional ladder. Scientific research is, in fact, the only stream on this planet where failures are counted as alternate strategies to success. No experiment is useless, irrespective of the end result. The peculiarity of scientific research is that even a negative finding, absence of a finding or the failure of a technique by itself is an achievement. It brings us closer to the right path and our failures are in a way justified as learning curve. Isn't it a wonderful opportunity for each of us to have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?

Gain a foothold 

There is a stark contrast between passion and profession. Passion, if not of monetary gain, becomes a burden in the long run whereas profession, if not exciting enough, eventually becomes monotony. There's no denying that how much ever passionate we are in our profession, unless it consistently helps us win bread for our family and secures our social existence, the quality of our work gets compromised. For all the above mentioned good reasons, if research becomes our passion, that is the best reason to make it our profession. A respectable scientific person gets peer acceptance, financial security and social esteem which only a few other professions provide. Isn't that, indeed, the most selfish yet pleasant reason to love our research?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

RGCB News: Foundation Day

Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology has undergone molting many times during its various stages of metamorphosis. Starting as a charitable society named Centre for Development of Education, Science and Technology (C-DEST) in 1990, the institution was later named after the honorable former Prime Minister of India, Shri Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Untiring efforts of the founders of this scientific venture paved way to the institution being taken up by Government of Kerala under its administrative control in 1993. It was on November 18, 1995 the then Honorable Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narasimha Rao laid the foundation stone for Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology where its Main Campus has developed over past two decades. The day has been observed as the RGCB Foundation Day since 1995. Various academic activities are usually conducted as part of this. Today, RGCB is an autonomous institution of scientific research and academia under the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India and flourishes over three campuses in Kerala.

This year, RGCB Foundation Day lecture was held on November 17, 2015. Renowned Virologist, Robert G Webster PhD, who is currently an Emeritus Faculty at the Department of Infectious Diseases in St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee delivered the Foundation Day Lecture. He has a research career of more than five decades and about 650 peer reviewed publications to his credit. A pioneer in the field of influenza, he spoke about 'Avian Influenza and the need for strict surveillance in India' to all scientists and students of RGCB at MR Das Convention Center. The hour-long lecture covered fundamentals of influenza virus variants, susceptibility of transmission, worldwide picture of epidemics and pandemics with additional stress on the nature of epidemics in India and its increased risk owing to proximity to China. Answering all queries from molecular to epidemiology level raised by listeners, he gave a very insightful talk on the subject. This lecture is to be followed by a public lecture on November 18, 2015 at Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapauram on 'Enigma of Avian Influenza'. The lecture is being organized by RGCB commemorating thirty incredible years of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. 

The RGCB Student Merit Awards were presented on this occasion. Mr. Sajith R under the guidance of R Ajay Kumar, PhD from Mycobacterium Research Group and Ms. Subashini C under the guidance of Jackson James PhD of Molecular Neurobiology & Genetics Group shared the award. RGCB Blog appreciates the hard work and dedication of students and their mentors towards fruitful research and wishes them greater productivity in future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

In the wake of Paris attacks

It's rather very unusual to write about a social issue in a scientific blog. But, as a fellow human being, it becomes a right as well as responsibility for each of us think beyond the superficiality of events. 

I was awakened by a phone call in the middle of last Friday night. I am always skeptical and a bit apprehensive when my phone rings breaking the deadly silence of late night. It was one of my best friends living in France. My first response was to let him know my displeasure for such a late night call. As I reproached him in my sleepy voice, he replied in a voice that was unusually trembling and panicky. First he assured me he was quite safe, but went on to describe that it was chaos on Parisian streets that night. There were sounds of explosions and shootouts, people screaming and vehicles honking. Though he had no idea what was going on, from what he described, both of us thought France was at war. It was only in the following morning, when news channels across the globe started pouring in information about multiple attacks in Paris did I understand the real gravity of that situation and immense danger my friend was in being couple of blocks away from the Bataclan Concert Hall the previous night. At this juncture, I thought it would be interesting to write my pondering in this regard. 

I was fortunate to attend a lecture on evolutionary psychology by celebrated psychoanalyst Philip Zimbardo during one of my visits to Stanford University a few years back. He was explaining about the ‘Lucifer effect’ on why good people turn evil. Human behavior, being incredibly pliable, is known to change according to situational influences. The infamous Prison Experiment of Zimbardo in 1971 drew attention of the world to this aspect. In his experiment, volunteers were randomly assigned the roles of prisoners and guards and were taken into a makeshift dungeon set up in Zimbardo's lab. The experimenters were surprised to see the extent to which guards tortured the prisoners to make them obey authorities and bring them under control. Though the ethical standards of this experiment were questioned worldwide, this was an eye opener to the psychology behind how and why normal people derive sadistic pleasure through situational influences.

A decade before carrying out Prison Experiment, Zimbado's high school friend and renowned social psychologist and behavioral analyst Stanley Milgram had conducted another experiment at Yale University to study compulsive obedience of human beings. Milgram experiment also gained quite a lot of controversy and criticism over its ethical standards. The experimenters assigned ordinary people as teachers and prepared actors as learners. Upon strict instructions from the experimenter, the teacher was to teach the learner a set of words. Each time a learner made a mistake, the corresponding teacher would induce a shock to learner. The voltage of the shock was serially increased as learner made mistakes through the experiment. Even though teacher would give shock, the experiment was so set up that learner did not actually receive any shock but only pretended to receive shock. Though both of them wouldn't see each other, they could hear each other. Teacher could clearly hear learner crying out in pain as shock was inflicted on him each time. At one point, the actor pretending to be learner would go listless after high voltage shock. If teacher stopped teaching and punishing and wanted to stop experiment, he was forced by the experimenter to continue. The results of Milgram experiment, when published in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, were received with awe and shock by the whole world as it unraveled the darker side of human behavior. In simple terms, the study results showed that any human being, when forced by an authority, was willing to undertake extreme corporal punishment to fellow human beings without contemplating the logic behind it. The response from the tortured in the form of painful cries and listlessness didn't change the behavior of torturer much, but definitely took them through extreme stress and anxiety. 

The astounding facts that unveil through various studies across the world show how malleable and credulous human beings are. They succumb to authority and situational influences in ways that cannot probably be explained by sensible logical reasoning of average human intelligence. The ways man resort to when forced by an authority is the basic strategy of antisocial organizations worldwide in mobilizing rather ordinary people towards extremism. Declaring solidarity to the victims of extremist activities around the world, we need to look into the relative lack of scientific research in the field of evolutionary psychology and human behavioral studies. And take initiatives to bridge the gap between theoretical and experimental psychology.  This could not only cast light into the primary reason for generation of extremism but could also answer many unresolved issues in handling situations endangering basic security to humanity. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

RGCB News: Student Merit Award Presentation

Every year RGCB conducts a competitive event where all the graduate students who have completed at least two years of their research studies in RGCB can compete against each other through a transparent and fair evaluation for the much-valued Student Merit Award that comprises a citation and cash award of Rs. 20,000. This will be awarded on RGCB Foundation Day, which falls on 18th of November every year.

Eleven graduate students from various laboratories of RGCB presented their work before a packed hall of scientists and students in the M R Das Convention Centre on Friday, the 6th of November. The panel of judges comprised two eminent Indian scientists.

Professor Tapas Kumar Kundu is the Silver Jubilee Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore. He holds a doctoral degree in Biochemistry from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He earned his postdoctoral experience from the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of The Rockefeller University in New York. He started his scientific career as a Faculty Fellow at the Transcription and Disease Laboratory of JNCASR in 1994. Currently, he heads the Laboratory and has 117 publications to his credit. With an aggregate of more than 5500 citations, his works on transcription and chromatin are of high regard in the scientific community.

Dr. Jomon Joseph is currently Scientist E at National Centre for Cell Science, Pune. Earning a doctoral degree in Biochemistry from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, he worked as the Fogarty International Research fellow at National Institutes of Health, Bethesda for five years after which he joined NCCS in 2005. He works extensively on inter-cellular communications, cellular polarizations and nucleoporins.

Akhilandeswarre D, Amritha Vijayan, Aneesh B, Deivendran S, Lekshmi.R.Nath, Mantosh Kumar, Mudaliar Prashant Pandurang, Sajith R, S. Satheesh Kumar, Subashini C and Swathy B of RGCB presented their works. The areas of interest varied from cerebellar development, neuronal protection from neurotoxins, molecular signatures of infectious agents like Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Vibrio cholera and Chikungunya Virus to signaling pathways in carcinogenesis and metastasis, anticancer effects of herbal extracts, pharmacoepigenomics, hybrid scaffolds and natural biopolymers. It was both interesting and informative at various levels.

The judges acknowledged the commendable efforts of each of the students and the support of each of the mentors. They were quite impressed by the very thought that went behind the implementation of a platform for nurturing healthy competition among graduate scholars and identified this program in RGCB to be the first of its kind in the entire nation. They urged all the students of RGCB to keep up the spirit of the program by both participating and supporting. With great words of wisdom from both the judges on simple life hacks in science laboratories, it was a very productive day for all the students of RGCB.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

RGCB News: Farewell Reception to Dr. Sathish Mundayoor

The senior Scientist and Dean of RGCB, Dr. Sathish Mundayoor has completed his tenure in RGCB on 31st of October 2015. A farewell reception was held at M R Das Convention Center of RGCB on Friday, the 30th of October. Professor M Radhakrishna Pillai, the Director of RGCB, welcomed a rather unusually packed hall of staff and students. He expressed his heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Mundayoor for his guidance, support, constructive criticisms and expert suggestions that have helped him to dispense his duties as the Director of RGCB right from day one of his assigning the office. He acknowledged Dr. Mundayoor for managing and supervising the Purchase Department of RGCB from its day of conception and earning the unique credibility of maintaining a transparent, conflict-free, accountable official track record.

Dr. K Santhosh Kumar, Scientist F in the Chemical and Environmental Laboratories of RGCB spoke about his experience working with Dr. Mundayoor. Joining in RGCB shortly after its inception in 1996, Dr. Kumar has been a colleague of Dr. Mundayoor for nearly two decades. He reminisced how Dr. Mundayoor painstakingly framed and materialized collaborating projects to bring in funds and skills into RGCB during its budding years. He appreciated the commendable efforts of the current Director Professor Pillai and the former Controller of Administration, Mr. Rajan Panicker whose efforts led to a secured pension scheme for all the employees of RGCB, thereby ensuring financial security and quality of retirement life for scientists and staff.

Dr. R Ajay Kumar, Scientist E II in the Mycobacterium Research Group (MRG) of RGCB shared his experiences to the audience with mixed feelings. He expressed his high regard to Dr. Mundayoor with whom he had been working shoulder to shoulder in MRG. He narrated how both of them reached a juncture in their respective career paths where mutual understanding and respect helped them to work together as a team towards better productivity. He despondently expressed his concern in single handedly leading MRG in the days to come.

Dr. Mundayoor thanked all his colleagues and students. Though on one hand, he was sad to leave the institution, on the other hand he seemed optimistic to be a part of the Kerala Start-up Mission of Government of Kerala to kick start setting up of biotech companies.  He was presented with a memento by RGCB on this occasion. Staff and students enjoyed a sumptuous meal at the in-house cafeteria as part of the farewell reception.

Dr. Mundayoor holds a master’s degree in Microbiology from University of Bombay. He obtained his doctoral degree from All India Institute of Medical Sciences in 1984. His area of research interest had always been Mycobacterium. He has worked with many highly esteemed microbiology groups specializing in leprosy and tuberculosis including Schieffelin Leprosy Research and Training Centre, Karigiri, Tuberculosis Research Centre, Madras; Washington University in St Louis, USA; Forschungs Institut Borstel, Germany and Hansen’s Disease Laboratory, CDC, Atlanta. He joined RGCB in 1995. Though his initial works were on immunological and genetic aspects of Mycobacterium in general, he has been focusing on pathology, pathogenesis and immunogenesis of Mycobacterium tuberculosis specific to the local population of Kerala in the latter years of his career, collaborating with Dr. R Ajay Kumar.

He has mentored graduate students, post doctoral fellows and research assistants in his lab. He also held the Office of the Dean of the RGCB Graduate  School and has always been an indispensible part of the scientific and administrative proceedings of the institute.  He is well known among staff and students for his down-to-earth personality, quick-wittedness and words of wisdom. Being the most senior scientist of RGCB, he was always approachable to every member of RGCB family; may it be for a piece of advice, a practical suggestion, a personal anecdote to cheer up or scientific troubleshooting.

RGCB team will definitely cherish the contributions of Dr. Mundayoor in the uphill journey of the institution over these years. RGCB Blog wishes him a peaceful, healthy and contented retired life. It is hoped that his expertise and experience will be available to RGCB in future too.

Friday, October 30, 2015

RGCB News: Vigilance Awareness Week; Public Meeting

As part of the Vigilance Awareness Week, RGCB organized an Awareness Symposium for the staff and students on 29th of October 2015 at M R Das Convention Center. The Symposium started with a thoroughly informative presentation on "Preventive Vigilance as a tool of good governance" by Mr. V K Raghukumar, who heads the Vigilance Wing of RGCB. It was quite interesting how he elaborated all aspects of anti corruption efforts at the government level to contain this nasty practice. He also took efforts to convince the gathered audience the statutory guidelines by which RGCB functions to maintain transparency and integrity in all official, administrative and scientific proceedings. 

This was followed by a keynote address by Mr. C M Radhakrishnan Nair, Former Secretary to Government of India and Special Director of CBI. He gave a personal touch to the whole event by narrating anecdotes from his personal experiences in CBI. It was quite refreshing to know how passionate he was about his work that is generally considered a rather sober and boring one. 

An essay competition was held last week among staff and students of RGCB on Vigilance to stimulate a collective thought towards better awareness. The prizes were given to the winners at the end of the meeting. 

From the Director’s Desk:

It amazes me why people always talk about ill earned money as corruption. The Oxford definition of corruption goes as “Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery; the action or effect of making someone or something morally depraved”, where bribery is defined as “Offering any inducement”. If a person in power, with defined official duties, accepts any favor, exploits any undue influence or opportunity to do or not to do his duty, it will amount to corruption in its actual sense. How many of us had to go searching for personal acquaintances of a person in power to get things done? How many times have we walked into an office saying, "I'm coming with Mr. X's reference" to hasten an otherwise snail pace official process? May it be in public utility services, healthcare, academia, industry or finance? This practice is becoming rampant. We are making the system less approachable to man without "influential reference". Offering money is only one of the ways to get around. Monetary, personal, social or sexual favors have become secret paths for people to get what they should otherwise be getting if the system had functioned normally and certain officials had carried out their duties. That's what needs to change. Every official, as they assign the office, needs to bear in mind that their power comes with immense responsibilities. Their duties are to be carried out in a timely manner, unbiased. As the motto goes, this can be achieved only through industry, integrity and impartiality. As citizens of India, each one of has the moral responsibility to avail services without offering favors, exploring personal relationships or manipulating existing legal structure. And being on the other side of the coin, we also have the responsibility to dispense our duties without succumbing to undue favors of any kind. The irony of accepting favors is that it leaves a lasting liability forcing the recipient of the favor to reciprocate against his will for the giver. If we have to do our duties based on our principles of righteousness, we should not give or receive favors and put ourselves in the difficult spot of obligations that will intensify the vicious cycle of corruption persistent. 

RGCB News: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a national campaign launched by Government of India in 2014 for improving the environmental conditions of India. The campaign aims to make a ‘Clean India’ by the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of Nation Mahatma Gandhi on 2nd of October 2019. Reaching out to public through various media and strategies, the campaign is now taken up by various public and private organizations, NGOs and common man alike.

As part of the ongoing efforts in this regard, RGCB conducted an awareness lecture at MR Das Convention Center on 28th of October 2015.  Dr. Anju Deepak Unnithan, the Consultant Pediatrician of RGCB addressed staff and students of RGCB, discussing about cleanliness and hygiene with special focus on cleaner habits in children. With an elaborate account on ‘what to’, ‘how to’ and ‘what not to’ in child and adolescent care, she repeatedly emphasized the need for making children aware of the significance of personal and environmental hygiene for building a cleaner India in future. The open session also addressed many queries and concerns of audience about various aspects of personal hygiene and child health.

Dr. Satish Mundayoor, Senior Scientist and Dean of RGCB explained the future plans of RGCB to extend its efforts in this regard through community outreach programs mainly targeting school-going children.  

From the Director’s desk:

Everything seems much better when the efforts begin from grassroots level. This is one such occasion where the efforts are focused to bring changes at the bottom tier so that the effect is more effective and longer lasting. Just as I mentioned in my last message in the context of our fight against corruption, the efforts to make India a cleaner place to live in has to start from each individual. And the importance of initiatives focusing our younger generation cannot be undermined. Children have modeling behavior. They try to imitate and to a great extent try to build the persona of adults around them. So the best way to teach them anything is by setting us the best example from which they can learn. A well-behaved child definitely grows up to a responsible citizen. What we need today is not a clean India on the 2nd of October every year when the whole nation gets on streets with broomsticks and dustpans. We need a nation that is clean and livable all throughout the year and for all the years to come. What we do today should benefit us as well as our future generations. So let our efforts be directed towards that goal. I appreciate the noble cause of the nation-wide campaign of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and humbly urge each and every member of RGCB team to not only practice clean habits but also to create awareness among people around us towards a ‘Clean India’.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Knowledge: not just deeper, but also wider

As we learn a particular subject deeper and further, we tend to forget the world outside. It is equally important to widen our knowledge. No piece of information goes waste in the long run of life. No subject is useless no matter what we are professionally qualified for.

Everyone knows Samuel Morse, the inventor of telegraph and Morse code. But how many of us know that he was an artist with formal training in medieval art, religious philosophies and a totally unrelated skill, horse riding? Though an artist by passion and profession, he never narrowed down his interests to his areas of activities only. During his college days in the University of Yale, he used to attend lectures on Mathematics and Physics just out of curiosity. He always kept his knowledge bank open for any piece of new information he could gather from his peers or teachers. He never intended to pursue any career other than that of an artist but always kept it a point to interact with people from all strata of society to learn more. Inventing a faster mode of long distance communication was least of his priorities though. He was leading a contented life as a celebrated artist. Unfortunately, while working on his portrait of Lafayette at Washington DC, he received the death news of his wife who was residing at New Haven, Connecticut, via a horse messenger days after she had already died of illness. Dejected and regretful of not knowing about his wife’s ill health earlier, he started to think about the limitations of long distance communication of those days. Thanks to his interest in applied mathematics and his foundations in electromagnetism, he developed the very first concept of single-wire telegraph and opened the wide world of faster communication systems. Many improvements have occurred over years and man has literally conquered distance. May it be between next-door neighbors or between faraway continents; the speed of transfer of information from one point to another is unbelievably fast, convenient and indispensable these days. All thanks to Samuel Morse’s interests in fields out of his areas of work. 

Intelligence is never the activity of a single isolated higher center in brain. It is the sum of many intricate interconnections and billions of chemical conversions in neurons every single moment. While the inherent ability to act smart is only a foundation for our intellectual capabilities, the knowledge we acquire over time adds tremendously to the intellectual practicality of every human being.  Knowledge is the mightiest power one can achieve in a lifetime. Nothing is more wholesome and nothing can help us in all situations alike. It is a common cliché in scientific world to demean a subject outside our circle as “not of interest”, “not useful for funding opportunities” or even “what can anyone gain out of this?” Well, we never know what piece of information may become useful or even trigger a train thought to a totally unallied discovery. The ever-competing world is evolving into an amalgam of interdisciplinary. No subject is independent today. So, keep our eyes and ears open. Treat all kinds of information with respect, may it be of science, art, history or technology. May it be from a scholar or a toddler. We can never say “enough” to gaining knowledge.

RGCB News: Vigilance Awareness Week

The Government of India and the Central Vigilance Commission have called for the entire nation to observe Vigilance Awareness Week from 26th to 31st of October 2015. The theme of the program is “Preventive Vigilance as a tool of Good Governance” this year. Keeping in mind that each and every citizen of India has the moral responsibility to add his share in the fight against corruption, RGCB abides by the union government’s call for preventive vigilance.

Today, the entire staff of RGCB gathered in the Main Campus atrium at 11.00am to officiate the commencement of this week’s programs with the Vigilance Awareness Pledge. Mr. K M Nair, the Chief Controller of RGCB led the team comprising staff and students of RGCB.


We, the public servants of India, do hereby solemnly pledge that we shall continuously strive to bring about integrity and transparency in all spheres of our activities. We also pledge that we shall work unstintingly for eradication of corruption in all spheres of life. We shall remain vigilant and work towards the growth and reputation of our organization through our collective efforts. We shall bring pride to our organizations and provide value-based service to our countrymen. We shall do our duty conscientiously and act without fear or favor.

From the Director’s desk:

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. With rich human resources, we could be the most fertile land for scientific, technological, agricultural and educational entrepreneurships. But unfortunately, we have the dark side of having a low global Corruption Perception Index (higher the better) keeping us among the corrupt countries of the world for past many years. There is no point reproaching each other and getting dejected over a dark past. It’s high time each of us took bold steps to fight against corruption in our country. The struggle will be long, hard and not be easily fruitful. It is equally important that each citizen of India should be determined not to be corrupt as well as not to aid corruption at any level of our lives. As the theme suggests, preventing the occurrence of corruption is easier and more effective than correcting an existing deceitful system. Let’s show the path of righteousness to the younger generations so that future of India can be corruption-free and aid in good governance and excellent operational results.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Soft Skills Drill: Preface

Educational system in India is so skewed these days that the primary and in fact the sole aim of this enterprise is to equip students with hard skills. True that Indians excel so well in hard skills that they prove to be one among the topmost ethnic groups of scholars globally. There's no question that the quality of education with respect to the volume and depth of knowledge imparted is truly world class in India right from primary education to that of graduation. And Indians do consistently prove that their intelligence and knowledge are par excellence in any field undertaken.

But, it's quite a shame that Indians find themselves lacking core soft skills when out of school and in the practical world of career seeking and building. While hard skills are totally dependent on the technical and academic training of the person, soft skills develop out of one's personality. Skills that would enable you to be competent contender in practice. Though the basic flair is usually inherent, there are a lot of improvisations and additions that can be done to augment one's soft skills. As these basically determine anyone's personal and interpersonal skills, employers are increasingly seeking them in potential employees. Though these skills are not quantifiable or measurable in the standard sense, the persona of a person is easily scalable for trained eyes aka the interview boards, selection committees or even Professors themselves. 

Just imagine a situation where you are the ace scholar in a particular subject and you know how to tackle any challenge in your field with your academic merit but unfortunately, lack communication skills, work strategies or practical confidence. That’s the beginning of the decline in your career graph. In short, it’s not just academic knowledge and intelligence that matter. The basic skills to nurture healthy interpersonal interactions are essential in any profession. Soft skills, as the term suggests, are a set of qualities desirable in a formal work environment for a person to rise above routine challenges in any profession. In sooth, as these skills simply draw the boundary line between success and failure today, it may not be wrong to call them life skills. RGCB Blog will run a series called “Soft Skills Drill” in the coming posts where each of the following skills will be discussed in detail. Stay tuned.

·         Effective communication
·         Problem solving and decision making
·         Learning and information handling
·         Leadership and management
·         Ethics, etiquette and professionalism
·         Team cohesion and team management
·         Creative writing
·         Presentation and public speaking
·         Self confidence, self esteem, self motivation, self awareness
·         Trust building, healthy competition and conflict management
·         Cultural fit and personal boundaries

Here’s a quick quiz for a self-evaluation of where we stand in our soft skill development and utilization. There’s no fixed right or wrong answer to any of the questions. These are situations in daily life to which each person responds in his own ways. Try it.

Meet the Expert

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics

British economist Angus Deaton wins the 2015 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for his works on consumption patterns in societies and extrapolating that to measure poverty, notably in India.

One doesn’t have to be a trained economist, mathematical genius or an expert financial analyst to notice that in spite of increasing gross national as well as per capita income levels, a significant fraction of India is still poverty-stricken. It puzzled economists and financial reformers for a long time. Thanks to the tremendous efforts and research at various levels of economy by British economist Angus Deaton, we now know the scientific reason behind that.

From time immemorial, standard parameters for assessing the economic status and growth of any society had been income at individual as well as social level. Contrary to the conventional beliefs, Deaton analyzed selected cohorts for their consumerist patterns and individual consumption habits to delve deep into the intricacies of economic growth or its lack in any society. Being a social platform with people thriving at varied economic tiers as well as of extreme diversities in socio-cultural behavior and with its fast growing economy, India served as the best practical laboratory for him. Studying Indian economic patterns over decades in selected cohorts, he formulated the exact parameters based on individual and collective consumption to measure economic status of any society.

His observations became all the more significant when he rejected the recommendations of the panel headed by C Rangarajan, the former Reserve Bank Governor on alleviating poverty in India. He defended himself with reformative recommendations based on his observations of Indian economy. He suggested to completely delinking existing economic stratifications, including APL-BPL grouping, to reform policies.  Indian government and its formal financial advisors are still working on these complex strategies for effective alleviation of poverty in India.

Though his work was mainly based on Indian scenario, it has global applicability irrespective of the country being rich or poor. Any growing economy is currently evaluated based on the criteria put forth by him. This gives a more sensible and clear understanding of economic dynamicity worldwide. This contribution was honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences yesterday with the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics at Stockholm, Sweden. Born in Scotland, Angus Deaton is currently an academician at Princeton University. His present work is on reforming the parameters and indices to measure health in various societies.

With this we come to the official end of this year’s Nobel “season”. RGCB Blog admires and acknowledges the works of excellence of all the eminent awardees and their perseverant teams.