Tuesday, September 29, 2015

World Heart Day: More than just a wish

Today, as world celebrates “World Heart Day”, here is a humble attempt to earnestly persuade every member of RGCB family towards a healthier lifestyle.

World Heart Federation (WHF) celebrates every September 29th as World Health Day. This was started in the year 2000 to promote awareness and collective efforts to decrease cardiovascular morbidities. Every year this revolves around a central theme of heart health significance. This year, the theme is Heart healthy environments. WHF calls for an initiative to avoid four factors- unhealthy diet, smoking, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption- to reduce the more than 80% of premature deaths due to cardiovascular diseases. As the theme reflects, let everyone make healthy heart choices everywhere we live, work and play.

Yoga: RGCB organized Yoga training sessions through which more than fifty members of RGCB family had the opportunity to get formally trained in performing basic Yoga postures and breathing exercises. It is no secret that breathing exercises help to improve proper blood circulation, control heart rhythms and decrease the workload of heart. Moreover, Yoga helps to control the physical and mental stress with long-term benefits of improved work efficiency and lesser comorbidities. More RGCB members are urged to seek this opportunity. It may also be a wise idea to resort to climbing stairs instead of riding elevators to just a floor above or below. Today, as technology sweeps into every minute of our day, we could as well use it positively for better health. There are multiple Apps available to monitor our physical activity. Forming like-minded communities can give us a better drive for more systematic exercise plans and goals.

Clean smoke-free campus: Smoking is strictly prohibited in all the campuses of RGCB. It is not just a statutory restriction that we have imposed, but as spokespersons of healthier lifestyles, we are quite aware of the ill effects of substance abuse. And hence we discourage it completely. It is also ensured that all the buildings and premises are kept clean. There is a systematic bio-composting process of domestic waste helping in our drive to a cleaner earth.

Food we serve: We are quite proud to use many vegetables harvested from the organic farming venture of RGCB ‘Sky Green’ in the in-house cafeteria.  Four heart healthy super foods we frequently use from ‘Sky Green’ include:

a)  Cluster Beans: Though initially used as a filler crop to regain soil quality by nitrogen fixation, this leguminous plant was domesticated and widely consumed by Indians later. Packed with Vitamin A, C and K as well as minerals like Calcium, Iron and Potassium, this is a low calorie, fiber-rich vegetable. Thanks to the hypolipidemic, hypoglycemic and hypotensive effects, this is regarded as a great friend of our heart.

b)  Yardlong Beans: Another low calorie bean, this is one of the finest sources of folates and Vitamin A. Known for its heart healthy effects through antioxidant properties mediated by Manganese and Vitamin C, it also maintains blood vessel elasticity and hence controls hypertension.

c)  Green Tomato: The green variety of tomatoes is not the primary choice for many Indians when compared to its red counterpart. But it is amazing to know how rich a source it is of anti oxidants and minerals. Studies have also shown than the glycoalkaloid in green tomatoes, Tomatine, is highly protective against cancer and cardiovascular ailments.

d)  Red Spinach: Though not biologically related to the spinach, Amaranthus dubius is no way of lesser nutrient value. One of the richest source of Iron and beta carotenoids, it helps to address micronutrient deficiency in the subcontinent due to the sheer quantity of consumption. It is also an invaluable source of folates which reduce homocysteine levels and hence the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

This is a call for including more heart healthy foods in diet, being more physically active and controlling unhealthy habits towards a healthier and happier tomorrow. As they say, to feel good from head to toe, all you need to keep is healthy heartbeat.

Friday, September 25, 2015

VW Scandal extrapolated to science laboratories

The automobile giant Volkswagen recently hit headlines for one of the worst scandals of all time questioning its credibility. It gives us an opportunity to probe into and reflect on ourselves.

The resignation of Volkswagen Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn throws the spotlight on a very grave issue frequently faced by people with responsibilities in one way or the other. When the German car giant faced the scandal of “diesel dupe”, the company admitted using  “defeat devices” in its cars that came to market between 2008 and 2015. These devices had sophisticated software installed in them that could detect when the engines are being tested and modify their performance accordingly during the test. The controlled laboratory conditions during a test triggered this device to make engines perform below normal power to reduce the rate of exhaust gases. But, when out on roads, these cars emitted as high as forty times the emission rate allowed by Environmental Protection Agency.  The result? While the world’s second biggest car maker company reigned the automobile markets over the past seven years with its so-called competently performing cars, in fact, it was adding a lion share to environmental pollution. It now faces a deadly economic loss of more than $7bn to cover the scandal and another nearly $18bn as penalty. Losing goodwill, the shares of the company plummeted by 30% in the last two days with stocks still plunging.

When the scandal initially hit media and public discussion platforms, there were speculations on the credibility of an enterprise known for its authenticity, genuineness and unparalleled technology for decades. Taking vicarious responsibility, the CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned from his position. Whether he spearheaded the “defeat device” idea or passively approved such a motion or was totally unaware of the whole plan is still sketchy. But the answer is crystal clear. If he was actively involved in the plan, then he is culpable for the dirty treacherous game that cheated millions of VW customers world wide. But if he was not at all involved in this plan, it questions his efficiency as the executive of the company whose activities he is unaware of. Either way, the vicarious liability on him is huge and the payment he had to make for that too is huge.

Science is never a one-man show. There is teamwork involved in every step of the journey. The question is how do we trust the credibility of our team. The key is, if in the game, be at the top of it. Bring out our best performance and team skills to win the game. As a team member, it’s not necessary that we should always be the most active members of the venture undertaken by the team. But, we should always be aware of even the minute details of work undertaken by each member of the team. This ensures quality of work. But more importantly, it ensures that no member of the team goes against the collective interest of the team. Many incidents in the past have shown us that the lack of awareness about the activities of each component of the team has resulted in huge penalties. Losing jobs to controversial suicides, losing credibility of work to complete prohibition from the scientific field and trust issues between team members. The penalties are in fact immense.

Another interesting lesson we can learn form the VW scandal is that, how much ever trust we have gained through sheer quality in the past, how much ever sophisticated the forgery is, as Abraham Lincoln stated, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Truth definitely wins finally. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Scientists in popular movies

Truth is often stranger than fiction. No wonder mainstream cinema has adapted the true life stories of many accomplished scientists for appealing wide audience.

There is something about scientific fictions that make them mysteriously attractive. Most well-written fictions are wholeheartedly received by scientists to common man. There is a set of biopic movies in mainstream cinema based on true life stories of real scientists who made their mark in the history with their contributions. Here’s an attempt to shortlist eight of such popular movies which we should never miss. Excellent television movies and documentaries of this category such as Glory Enough for All about the isolation of insulin by Nobel laureate Banting and Best or Einstein and Eddington depicting Einstein’s work on relativity were not considered. Movies revolving around the personal lives of great scientists like Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking) or Creation (Charles Darwin) were also omitted.

The Story of Louis Pasteur
This 1936 Academy Award winning narration by Collings and Gibney about the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur is a highly dramatized version of Pasteur’s struggles in the nineteenth century scientific community. His Germ Theory of Diseases and subsequent anthrax vaccine earns him quite a few enemies in the contemporary scientific community as it questioned and later disproved the Theory of Spontaneous Generation that prevailed till then. The movie progresses though Pasteur’s not-so-secret rivalry with Dr. Charbonnet who publicly criticized his attempts on rabies vaccine. But as history is retold, Pasteur finally saves nine year old Joseph Meister from rabies with his vaccine and wins accolades. American stage actor Paul Muni’s sensitive characterization of Pasteur earned him a well- deserved Academy Award.

The Imitation Game
British cryptanalyst Alan Turing lived only for a very short period of forty one years. But the irony is that most of us will be reading this article in a device that materialized partly as a result of his publications in 1930s on theories of computation exploring the possibility of a “Universal Machine”. At least once a day we enter a CAPTCHA somewhere to prove ourselves to be human and not a computer, which is based on the famous Turing test to standardize the intelligence of a machine. This Academy Award nominated movie adapted from Andrew Hodge’s enthralling 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, depicts the various phases of Turing’s life as a mathematical biologist and logician along with his fellow cryptologists Joan Clarke and John Good in Bletchley Park during World War II. The unparalleled screenplay by Graham Moore revolves around the intricacies of breaking the ciphers created by the Nazi code machine, Enigma and the extraordinary brilliance of Turing in decryption. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Turing leaves us with a painful longing to accept the candidness of this genius saving the lives of millions from German attacks in World War II.

A Beautiful Mind
A Nobel Prize for a doctoral dissertation? It’s the dream of every single science enthusiast in the world. Well, American mathematician John Forbes Nash earned the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences through his 28-page long 1950 PhD thesis on Non-cooperative games. Game theory, with Nash Equilibrium as its central axis, is the most powerful unifying theory of social sciences today in handling dilemmas involving collective action. Though unknowingly, each one of us uses it every day from our simple tit-for-tats to complex capital investment planning. Unfortunately, Nash was an extreme paranoid schizophrenic. In fact, it might’ve been his own theories that helped him in choosing his partner Alicia de Larde, a MIT Physics graduate, who was supportive all through his life to maintain his sanity and stability. Nobody can forget the weary face of Russell Crowe, whose Academy Award nominated portrayal of Nash in this 2001 biopic based on Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 Pulitzer nominated book of the same name. Ron Howard’s directorial excellence takes us through the complex hallucinations of Nash presuming him to be the code breaker of the US Department of Defense to thwart Soviet spy operations. The portrayal is so realistic that more often we find ourselves crossing the fine line between hallucinations and reality as the movie progresses.

Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
Another critically acclaimed movie from the master of biopic, William Dieterle. This 1940 controversial movie takes us through the struggles of German microbiologist and physician Paul Ehrlich and his invention of chemotherapy. Ehrlich strongly believed in the possibility of developing a “magic bullet” against infections. He proposed the idea that if an agent, which can selectively target a pathogen is designed, then toxins against the pathogen if delivered to the body with this agent should selectively target and kill the pathogen without adverse effects to rest of the body. This built the basic foundations of ‘affinity’ in immunology. The movie depicts his extensive experiments to develop such a molecule to cure syphilis, which was widely considered a consequence of blasphemy and sins till early 1900s. In 1910, he developed Salvarsan (arsphenamine) and tried it in syphilitic patients. The Academy Award nominated screenplay of Huston, Herald and Burnstine narrates the disturbing account of 606 failures of the treatment before achieving success. This also gained Salvarsan the notorious nickname of “Agent 606”. Though the movie ends on a tragic note of Ehrlic succumbing to illness and death due to the stress of his work, in reality his works were later extrapolated to develop Neosalvarsan to cure syphilis. This also led to the discovery of the Blood Brain Barrier.

I ragazzi di via Panisperna
Enrico Fermi, the 1938 Nobel Prize winner in physics is no stranger to science or history enthusiasts. This Italian quantum and nuclear physicist formed and mentored a group of young scientists in the Physics Institute of the Sapienza University of Rome. This group caught the nickname of Via Panisperna Boys after the Roman street in which the institute situated. The 1989 Italian classic retells the challenging works of this group in the discovery of slow neutrons which were eventually instrumental in the development of atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. Fermi’s contributions are not limited to this work that earned him the title of “Father of atomic bombs” and made him a crucial part of Manhattan project. He explained beta decay and through Fermi- Dirac’s statistics described weak nuclear interactions, one of the four fundamental forces of nature. It is a well-known joke that Nature refused to publish his article citing “too remote from physical reality”. The legacy of his team of “boys” is beautifully depicted in the movie with historical accuracy by Italian director Gianni Amelio.

Gorillas in the Mist
Anthropologist Dian Fossey is regarded as the greatest primatologist in the history. She spent eighteen long years in the remote rainforests of Rwanda studying mountain gorillas. Recruiting local African tribal people, she founded Karisoke Research Centre deep in the forest to conserve the extremely threatened species of mountain gorillas. Thanks to her relentless efforts, the poaching and brutal killings of these animals have considerably decreased, maintaining ecological balance. Her 1983 autobiographical note Gorilllas in the Mist was recreated as the widely acclaimed 1988 movie of the same name. Adding final details to Fossey’s life, the movie ends with the cold murder of Fossey in her forest cabin by an unknown assailant which still remains a mystery.

Le Palmes de Monsieur Schutz
This 1997 French drama is inspired by the lives of the royal couple of radioactivity, 1903 Physics Nobel Laureates Pierre Curie and Marie Curie. Their discovery of Radium and Polonium at ESPCI (The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution) as well as their relationship with their mentor Professor Schutz (Paul Schutzenberger, the then Director of ESPCI) set against the picturesque backdrop of medieval Parisian charisma makes this movie equally appealing to all kinds of audience.  Nobel winning French Physicists Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Georges Charpak make cameo appearance too in the movie.

Extraordinary measures
Though theoretically not about any scientist, this Harrison Ford starrer 2010 medical drama is one of the most thrilling movies about biotechnology research and industry. It is based on biotechnology executive John Crowley’s biography The Cure by Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Street journalist Geeta Anand. Crowley’s two kids suffered from glycogen storage metabolic disorder Pompe’s disease. Frustrated by the slow pace of research in the field of this genetic disease, he chose a management position in the Oklahoma based pharmaceutical company Novazyme. His and glycobiologist William Canfield’s untiring efforts to raise money and encourage scientists in his team to develop a potential cure for this disease are the gist of the movie. Novazyme eventually succeeds in developing and marketing recombinant human alglucosidase alpha Myozyme and Lumizyme for the treatment of Pompe’s disease. 

This list is in no way final. It is also enriched with biographical movies depicting the historical rivalry between church and science like the 1974 classics Johannes Kepler and Galileo, Academy Award nominated 1973 Polish movie Kopernik and 2009 controversial Spanish movie Agora. The much contentious Milgram experiment on obedience by the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram comes out as Experimenter in October after critical acclaim in Sundance. So next time when you have free time from your work, it may be worthwhile to watch some of these informative and inspiring movies.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Endosulfan: Myths and Facts

I was reading the news on endosulfan victims needing better rehabilitation facilities in The Hindu last week when it dawned on me to write a post on it in a social platform for discussion. In our profession, we have the unique advantage to look at a social problem like this through the expert eyes of a biologist, biochemist and biotechnologist. So I went through many of the past expert analysis and reports for this article, which I believe could throw light on many facts and myths revolving around this issue.

The chemical:
Endosulfan is an organochloride broad spectrum contact insecticide and acaricide. It was initially registered as a pesticide in the USA in 1954 for use against a wide variety of pests affecting field crops. Based on the LD50 in rats, this chemical is Class II (Moderately Hazardous) in World Health Organization Acute Hazard Rankings. This is based on the acute toxic effects as well as developmental and reproductive effects on chronic exposure. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) has categorized it as Category I (Highly Toxic) according to US EPA Acute Toxicity Rankings. It is not listed as a known carcinogen by IARC, US EPA or US NTP. But endocrine disruption caused by this chemical is validated in multiple pesticide toxicity lists in the US and Europe. The mechanism of action of this chemical is described to be disrupting the Na+ - K+ kinetics across biomembranes and disturbances in the Ca2+- ATPase and Phosphokinase activities in the Hayes and Laws Handbook of Toxicology (1991). In 1999, in the Casarett & Doull’s Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poisons, Klassen and Watkin explained an added mechanism by the cyclodiene part of this chemical. It partly inhibits GABA, blocking chloride uptake and results in partial repolarisation of neurons. This leads to a state of uncontrolled neuronal excitation. It was considered to be a contact poison without any systemic accumulation till Olea et al reported accumulation of this chemical in adipose tissues of children with dietary exposure. This led to the very important later findings of endocrine disruption leading to delayed reproductive development in exposed children.

In Kerala:
Though various reports on acute poisonings and isolated reports on chronic poisonings of endosulfan had been surfacing from time to time from around the world, it was in mid-late 1990s that increased incidence of certain health issues in Kasargod district of Kerala with a possible association to endosulfan exposure that got media and hence world attention. Kasargod has large areas of cashew plantations spread across many villages. Due to the hilly topography of this region, the plantations are interspersed between inhabited areas. Moreover, this also makes manual spraying of pesticides to these plantations practically difficult. Hence, the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) had arranged for aerial spraying of endosulfan in helicopters for more than 25 years against the tea mosquito pest affecting cashew plantations. This clearly violated the US EPA regulation of a 300ft spray drift buffer for endosulfan aerial applications. Dr. Mohana Kumar, a physician practicing in the area since 1982 published a report of his observation of increased incidence of certain health issues such as cancers, congenital anomalies, delayed puberty, mental retardation and psychiatric illnesses in the area in Down To Earth magazine in February 2001.

The health reports:
On 17th February 2001, about a month and a half after the last aerial spray of endosulfan in the region, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) analyzed ground water samples from Padre Village of Kasargod using gas chromatography and reported the concentration of the chemical to be 7 to 51 times more than maximum residue limit (MRL). They also reported increased levels in isolated soil samples and serum of some individuals. As the study was not satisfactorily systematic, Frederick Institute of Plant Protection and Toxicology (FIPPAT) reanalyzed soil, leaf, water and biological samples from the area. They reported very low levels of the chemical in the collected samples contradictory to the previous report. With the controversies brewing intense, National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) set an elaborate study on the chemical and physiological aspects of endosulfan in the population of Padre Village compared to neighboring Meenja Panchayat without any endosulfan exposure as control in 2002, about ten months after the last aerial spraying in the region. The study showed significantly high levels of endosulfan residues in the serum of 85% of female and 78% of male population studied. It was also reported that even though the incidence of health issues reported previously by Dr. Mohana Kumar was comparable to any subset of population, the serum levels of endosulfan in children with delayed puberty and congenital anomalies were significantly high. This corroborated with the previous evidence on endocrine disruption by the chemical. With an average field half life of fifty days, the expected levels in soil was very low. But long term exposure of over two decades had caused significant binding of the chemical to soil particles. Though the chemical is relatively insoluble in water, ground water sources showed significant levels of residue as the surface runoff collected over many years was high in endosulfan.

The legal battles:
There was a huge hue and cry over the health hazards of endosulfan in local and international media with Padre Village as reference. After nearly decade-long legal battles, The Stockholm Convention’s Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC) in 2009 declared endosulfan as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) setting the first step warranting global ban. In June 2010, US EPA finally terminated all uses of this insecticide to protect human and wildlife as its hazardous effects outweighed the limited benefits. Following this, the Pollution Control Board of the State Government of Kerala banned the use of endosulfan in November 2010. The production, distribution and use of endosulfan are completely prohibited by The Supreme Court of India from May 2011.

Two sides to the story:
The aerial spraying for over two decades was definitely unscrupulous and thoughtless when every pesticide control organization strictly advocates changing the chemical of use over two-three years to reduce risks to the ecology as well as resistance of pests. Moreover, with rivulets Panathur and Karicheri, the major source of drinking water to Kasargod district flowing through endosulfan exposed areas, the effect of chronic exposure to this chemical can affect the humans, cattle and fish of faraway areas too. Even after terminating the use, unused stocks of hundreds of gallons of endosulfan still remain in these areas awaiting detoxification and safe disposal. An accidental spill can pollute soil and water reserves to unfathomable scales.
The other side of this story was shared to RGCB Blog by one of the pediatricians in the medical team assigned by the state government to assess the health hazards in Kasargod. Many cases of cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and growth restrictions have various antenatal and perinatal contributing factors. As the social and economic support for endosulfan victims is high, many unrelated cases may have been also included in the list just to avail the benefits. But, on the downside, this portrays a huge unrealistic health hazard picture to the outside world.

Though there is no absolute scientific proof of the actual genetic changes brought about by this chemical, an evidence of absence cannot be regarded as absence of evidence in this case. Re-registration appeal for this chemical is under consideration of US EPA. And government appeals for use of this pesticide in states other than Kerala and Karnataka are also under consideration in the Supreme Court. At this juncture, a systematic scientific analysis of the actual impact of endosulfan on human beings can, in fact, rescue the future generations from suffering.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Triple helix and the Nobel that India never won

There is a long list of Indians with significant contributions to Science but could never win a Nobel Prize. On the sixtieth anniversary of Triple helix, an analysis of the work of Biophysicist Dr. G N Ramachandran may throw some light on certain setbacks of India even when blessed with richest human resources on earth.

Gopalasamudram Narayana Iyer Ramachandran, popularly known among contemporaries as GNR, breathed science. Pauling’s α-helix, Watson and Crick’s Double helix and Ramachandran’s Triple helix are regarded as the most outstanding contributions in Structural Biology. On noticing the brilliant and illustrious young GNR, the pioneer of optics Sir C V Raman handpicked and mentored him at Indian Institute of Science. With a strong foundation in complex mathematical theorems, GNR worked on X-ray topography in Raman Lab which set the basics of crystallography. He befriended Linus Pauling at Cambridge during his postdoctoral days, who brought his attention towards the structure of collagen, the most abundant protein in animals. When A L Mudaliar, the visionary Vice Chancellor of University of Madras decided to start an experimental Physics division in Madras, Sir C V Raman himself recommended GNR to head the team. At the young age of 29, GNR joined as a Professor at the university and started his work on deciphering the structure of collagen. In 1954, GNR and his postdoctoral research fellow Gopinath Kartha published the first proposed structure of collagen elucidated from X-ray diffraction patterns and physicochemical data. They proposed three parallel left-handed polypeptide chains packed in a hexagonal array. Each helix had 32 symmetry and hence three residues per turn of the helix with every third residue being a centrally-facing glycine. They reworked on the structure using fiber diffraction patterns and published a more accurate structure in the August issue of Nature in 1955.  They proposed 3.3 residues per turn with each of the three parallel left-handed helices coiled right handedly around a central axis. This structure later became popular as the coiled coil structure of “Madras Helix”.

In the November issue of Nature the same year, Francis H Crick and Alexander Rich came up with a harsh criticism of the structure citing steric constraints. “We believe this idea to be basically correct but the actual structure suggested by them to be wrong”. The structure proposed by GNR had two interchain hydrogen bonds. Crick and Rich pointed out that the hydrogen bond angles were outside acceptable limits and the structure was too compact to accommodate large constituent amino acids. The Cα – Cα contact originally proposed by GNR was 3.3A where as the acceptable limit was 3.6A. They proposed only one hydrogen bond for the structure to be stereochemically stable. The criticism was healthily received by GNR. He came up with the blockbuster Ramachandran plot in 1963 to visualize the backbone dihedral angles of amino acids in protein structure to predict its stability and hence feasibility. He also revised the collagen structure to propose the currently accepted 1.5 hydrogen bonds-structure from the weak van der Waal’s forces of water in 1968. Was it just half of a hydrogen bond or the 0.3A distance that made GNR lose international acclaim and the Nobel itself?

The answer is of course no. It was not a secret that after deciphering the structure of DNA, Crick and his team were working on collagen structure to which GNR raised a huge competition. Nature did not accept GNR’s complete paper on collagen structure but only published a short letter. GNR’s colleague Professor Balaram of Indian Institute of Science says that even that letter was kept on hold for more than six months without publishing even though the content was immensely pertinent. It cannot be ignored that at the same time Crick’s criticism was published in a month. The controversies only strengthened GNR and brought out the golden age of protein structures. The minimum nonbonded distance between atoms and the feasible molecular structures became crisper in limits and definition and of course paved way to the genesis of Ramachandran Plot. But his contemporaries including Linus Pauling believe that the master missed the prize because he was not as aggressive in life as he was in science. Moreover, before the internet era, geographical location was a huge setback for Indian scientists. GNR did not even enjoy his moment of victory as he received the journal with his paper in print only months after Crick’s criticism came since it took months for regular mails from west to reach India.

Gone are those days. Today Indian scientists enjoy all the advantages as of any other developed nation. But still India has not won a Nobel Prize in science for the past 85 years. Nobel Laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan is of the opinion that India doesn’t need a Nobel Prize to become a scientific power, but even if India wins one, it wouldn’t suddenly mean that Indian science is okay. The extent of administrative hurdles in Indian scientific institutions is significant. As the Indian scientific journalist K S Jayaraman pointed out in his 1997 Nature paper, Indians hesitate to take risks. Most of Indian scientists strive for a secured job and stable income. They build their own comfort zones and stay satisfied, enjoying the comforts of the journey and forgetting the destination.  An alumnus of IIT Chennai says that lack of co-ordination and teamwork is a big handicap in India from our prestigious research enterprises to teaching institutes. As Nobel Laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan says, “There’s no magical formula for a Nobel Prize”. We have the richest biodiversity and human resources. We do not lack intelligence or opportunities. All we need now is the right attitude. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Teacher’s Day: Qualities to learn from five noble teachers of Hindu Mythology

Commemorating one of the greatest teachers India has ever seen, the birthday of the second President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is celebrated in the nation as Teacher’s day. At this juncture, here’s a humble attempt to learn from the great teachers of Hindu mythology.

1. Sri Dronacharya: Precision skills and Judgment

It is quite interesting to know how Dronacharya became the Guru of Pandavas and Kauravas. When the princes were playing, a ball fell into a well in the courtyard. Dronacharya shot grass blades of darbha, one on top of the other and pulled the ball out. Impressed by his precision skills, Bhishma himself appointed him as the royal teacher. If not for his efforts, none of the great warriors of Kuru dynasty would have evolved. No wonder the Government of India has named the award for excellence in sports coaching after him. His selective regard to Arjuna slightly tampered his image as the ideal teacher when he demanded Ekalvya his thumb as Guru dakshina for teaching practically nothing. Having realized this he blessed Ekalvya to be the greatest ever warrior of his tribe.

A teacher always stays abreast in knowledge and sharp skills. He doesn’t train his pupils through mere commands. He sets himself the model of wisdom and virtues to guide his pupils to enlightenment.

2. Maharishi Vasishta: Clarity of goals and Truth seeking

One of Saptarishis (the seven coveted sages), Vasishta was the Guru of Surya dynasty. When Lord Rama was thoroughly confused by the harsh realities of life and turned passive towards his responsibilities as the next-to-the-throne, King Dasaratha turned to none other than Vasishta for help. It is under his training that Lord Rama molted into Maryadapurushothama. It is believed that Maharishi Valmiki wrote down these words of wisdom to Rama in Vasishta Yoga. This book is still the epitome of Advaita Vedanta and Yoga. An eternal truth-seeker, Vasishta had crisp clarity about his goals and the means to attain them.

A teacher is never confused. Only when he himself is confident about the path ahead can he guide his pupils forward. He is always honest and genuine.

3. Prapancha Guru Sukracharya: Atonement and Principles

Though officially he is the teacher of the “demonic” group of Asuras, Sukracharya is regarded as one of the most powerful gurus of the entire Hindu mythology. Disappointed by his father’s disregard towards him over his brother Brihaspathi, he underwent the most severe tapasyas of all time to gain immeasurable wisdom and rose above his own brother. He was one of the very few scholars to comprehend Mritasanjeevani Mantra to resurrect the dead. No wonder Kacha, the son of Brihaspati had to come to Shukracharya to learn it. Kacha being his distinguished pupil, Shukracharya taught him the Mantra risking his own life and breaking his daughter’s heart. Nothing mattered to him more than the sacred journey to wisdom.

A teacher makes huge sacrifices for ensuring excellence in his pupils. He never wavers from his principles of righteousness. 

4. Maharishi Vyasa: Unparalleled Knowledge

It is no secret that the greatest treasure house of knowledge in Indian culture is Vedas. Time-tested over centuries, we still don’t have any science at par with the complex Vedic science. Failing to comprehend the mysteries of this enormous source of wisdom is, in fact, our biggest shame today. When Lord Brahma constituted his Vedic knowledge into a single complex literature, it could never reach the lesser mortals. Determined to bring this knowledge to those who seek it, Vyasa split it into three Vedas: Rig, Yajur and Sama. There is absolutely no argument that only a very learned soul can simplify Vedas. And Vyasa strived to impart this knowledge to millions.

A teacher acquires knowledge for the greater good of imparting it to his pupils. It is equally courageous and generous.

5. Lord Krishna: Stability and Resilience

He was not a teacher in conventional ways. But when his beloved friend Arjuna was trembled and hesitant in the Battle of Kurukshetra, he rose up to being a teacher of invaluable scholastics. His timeless preaching of Bhagavat Gita is still valid even today. His competency as a teacher is proclaimed by the fact that Arjuna who was practically debilitated with remorse and fear to fight against his own family, escalated with unfathomable valor and vigor in the warfront towards the victory of Pandavas. It could be just an interesting coincidence that today is regarded as the birthday (Janmashtami) of Lord Krishna according to Hindu mythology.

A teacher is always stable and resilient, no matter what the hurdle ahead is. And he imparts that wisdom so effectively that it gets rooted deeply in his pupil for a lifetime.

“Gurur Brahma, Gurur Vishnu, Gurur Devo Maheswara, Gurur Sakshat Parabrahma Thasmai Shri Guruve Namah”

Guru is the incarnation of Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Creating the path to wisdom. Sustaining the flame of knowledge. And destroying the tentacles of ignorance. Salute to such a teacher.

A great salute to all the teachers of the world.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Oliver Sacks, MD: The Mind Explorer

A small tribute to the brilliantly unconventional neurologist and writer Dr. Oliver Sacks and his efforts to tell us the many ways our brain makes us human.

It was quite coincidental and a bit unnerving to read about death of the renowned British neurologist and best-selling author Dr. Oliver Sacks in The New York Times last Sunday right when I was reading his book An Anthropologist on Mars. Everyone has those moments when they get inspired by works of distinction and decide to utilize their resources for a similar cause of nobility. For any aspiring clinician or life science researcher, the amazingly prolific men of letters who are passionate biologists, provide a never-ending source of information and inspiration these days. This clan is kept active by Richard Gregory, Colin Blakemore, Steven Pinker, Carl Sagan, Stephen Gould, Dan Dennet, Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies and of course Oliver Sacks. There couldn’t be any life science enthusiast among us who hasn’t read at least a single literary work of these gifted souls.

Understanding human mind is complex science but depicting it in exquisite details to millions of people is sheer artistry. Through his prolific literature on ‘abnormal’ minds, Dr. Oliver Sacks described the intricacies of ‘normal’ mind. The New York Times described him as “The Poet Laureate of Medicine”. Except his latest book On The Move: A Life, which is autobiographical, all his books are his recollections and narrations about the intellectual and perceptual aberrations he has witnessed in his clinical career.

Oliver Sacks was first noticed by the contemporary scientific and literary society for his best-selling non-fiction book Awakenings in 1973. He meticulously described the impact and effects of the 1920s epidemic of Encephalitis lethargica when these patients reported to Beth Abraham Hospital in Bronx in 1960s. They had motor and behavioral abnormality of catatonia due to which they would not mentally or physically respond to any kind of stimulus. In simple terms, they were practically in continuous stupor even when awake. Dr. Sacks experimentally used L- Dihydroxyphenylalanine (L-DOPA) to increase dopamine levels in the neurological system of his patients, successfully alleviating their symptoms, hence an ‘Awakening’ to them after decades of sleep. L-DOPA was only prescribed for Parkinsonism then, which of course earned Arvid Carlsson and William S Knowles Nobel Prizes in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Yes, you guessed it right. The very disturbing, Academy Award-nominated film of 1990, Awakenings starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams that left you with many sleepless nights with turbulent minds, was adapted from this book.

The complexities of an abnormal brain were courageously narrated in his most popular book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. The title was adapted from the case history of one of his visually agnostic patients. The patient had abnormal visual perceptions initiated by his temporal and occipital lobes due to which all he could see in his own wife was a grey hat. There’s the haunting description of a man who used to pull himself from his bed to floor all through day and night as he thought his own paralyzed arm was a cadaver limb left in his bed by pranksters. Imagine a situation where we don’t have control over our own mind, the one singularity that determines our personality, identity, thoughts and actions. We become practically non-functional even with an absolutely healthy body. It is, in fact, most debilitating to live with and the most complicated disability to manage that mankind has ever endured.

For me, the most disturbing account was that of a surgeon with Tourette’s Syndrome described in his book An Anthropologist on Mars. He had compulsory tics all through his life except when he was operating on his patients. But ironically, the most inspiring clinical tales also come from the same book. An artist who loses color vision develops extraordinary aesthetic perceptions through different hues of black and white. The renowned activist Mary Temple Grandin, an autistic with severe social inhibitions builds a successful academic career by understanding the most complex inter-personal interactions through her intuitive understanding of animal behavior. His books Hallucinations, A Leg to Stand On and The Mind’s Eye still have voracious readers in all strata of society.

 Dr. Sacks was never demoralized even when he was diagnosed with uveal melanoma in 2006. Productively continuing in his clinical and literary careers, he published his autobiography On The Move: A Life in April 2015 in which he positively elaborated coping with his disease and its exhaustive treatments which left him stereo blind. He succumbed to death with widespread lung and brain metastasis on 30th of August 2015. But the legacy of his adventures into the whirlpools and torpedoes of human brain will continue to inspire neurologists and neuroscientists across the planet forever.