Obaid Siddiqi 1932- 2013 Catalyst of a Culture of Creativity
Obaid Siddiqi, once a young star of molecular biology and later a pioneer in neurogenetics was an extraordinary intellectual and scientist. In building the Molecular Biology Unit (now the Department of Biological Sciences) and then the National Centre for Biological Sciences of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, he showed how catalyzing a culture of creativity is vital to long-term institutional success. With his death following a road accident the world of science has lost one of its most thoughtful and questioning leaders. However, his science and the schools he as built will stay and through their quality demonstrate the stay of his deep influence.
Obaid's college days were at the Aligarh Muslim University in a period when India had just become independent and people all over the world were agitating for a just and inclusive society and for change, in much the same manner that we see today.
Research funding is a limited resource, even for the largest of global science foundations, and is typically awarded, after much deliberation, to the best investigators and institutes, via a streamlined decision-making process.
One of the largest such foundations is the UK based independent global charity, the Wellcome Trust. It funds high-impact biomedical research in the UK and internationally, made possible by its current invested endowment of about £16 billion. Kevin Moses, Director of Science Funding at the Wellcome Trust was recently on campus to talk about the Wellcome Trust as a global bio-medical research funder and bring the community up to speed with its world-wide activities.
In solidarity with biologist Sydney Brenner, a 2002 Nobel prize awardee in Physiology or Medicine, who believes that the experimental animal of the 21st century is man, researchers the world over, have been developing initiatives to bring the concept of translational medicine - 'from bench to bedside' - closer to reality.
Along these lines, the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (InStem), the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and the University of Edinburgh have recently set up a collaborative Center for Brain Development and Repair, to foster clinical research on brain disorders. The center will be based at inStem and directed by Sumantra Chattarji, with Siddharthan Chandran and Peter Kind from the University of Edinburgh as its Associate Directors. With an initial thrust on Autism Spectrum Disorders/Intellectual Disabilities (ASD/ID), the center will later expand its focus to develop novel therapeutic interventions for other degenerative brain disorders, such as dementia.
Sir John Savill, Vice-principal and Head of the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Chief Executive of the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) was recently at NCBS, in connection with the collaboration and also to deliver a talk titled '100 years of the MRC'.
Anyone who is not already convinced that the world of ants conceals many amazing surprises would quickly become a convert by just listening to Bert Hölldobler, or by watching the award winning documentary, Ants - Nature's Secret Power, which is based largely on Hölldobler's work. Hölldobler's fascination with ants dates back to his boyhood, and he has spent most of the six decades since unearthing the secrets of their biology. In a conversation over breakfast during his recent visit to NCBS, this awe-inspiring myrmecologist shared his excitement about science and research... and of course, ants!
Padma Shri Prof. VijayRaghavan's appointment as the new Secretary of Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has met with a unanimous cheer from the life-sciences community. With his rare combination of scientific reputation, cross-disciplinary background, track record in building excellent institutions and the "can-do" spirit, Vijay has is bound to keep the momentum initiated by his predecessor Dr MK Bhan going full throttle. Despite his stature, setting directions for the future no doubt remains an immense challenge given the rapidly changing life-sciences scene in India.
As part of the Institut Curie and NCBS scientific meetings this week, NCBS is hosting a series of events to celebrate Marie Curie's life and ongoing legacy. A traveling exhibition Marie Curie 1867 - 1934, will be on display from August 7 - 25, 2012. This exhibition marks the International Year of Chemistry (2011) and also commemorates the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911). The 12 panels of this exhibition trace the remarkable scientific trajectory of Marie Curie.
Upinder Singh, professor at the University of Delhi's Department of History, was at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) on 15th February 2012 to talk about her ongoing studies of violence in ancient India. In a second talk on 16th February, hosted at Bangalore's National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), she focused on how ancient relics, inscriptions and sculptures deepen our understanding of religion in ancient India. Both talks were hosted by NCBS as part of the Science and Society program.
In a chaotic world spinning towards an 'interesting' future, many are self-absorbed in deciphering ways to ensure that our personal endeavors and ambitions meet with success. Intellectual depth and scholarship can give way to Lemming-like dynamics where the herd decides the direction for our personal and institutional trajectories. Intellectual stampedes are certainly not required behaviour, yet few refuse to participate and fewer still strike new paths. There are a daring few who define new intellectual quests, and whose courage and leadership create a culture, the nurturing of which makes us all feel special. Today, we celebrate Obaid Siddiqi whose foresight, determination and quiet courage has transformed research in molecular biology in India at least twice and whose scientific successes span many fields of biology. While establishing institutional excellence and instilling an iconoclastic culture of independence and freethinking, these pioneering efforts have led to wide-appreciation, both of the beauty and value of Obaid's science and of his leadership in institution-building, as models to emulate.
The recent judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the case of Brüstle vs Greenpeace has examined the patentability of human embryonic stem cells. At the heart of the issue is the question whether an invention that destroys a human embryo can be granted a patent.
I was honoured to be among the people who had dinner with Dr. Collins after his talk at NCBS. The students of NCBS, ever-voracious consumers of knowledge kept him busy with their questions till faculty came to his rescue. I managed to steal a few minutes from them for the interview.
"It's a rare paper that gives you a chill of excitement. This was one of them." Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, USA talks about reading the first report of "induced pluripotent stem cells", a technique that has the potential to create stem cells from the patient's own cells
Like a new captain for a sinking Titanic, Francis Collins came aboard NIH at a time when the world was drowning in the late-2000's recession. It was a challenging time for US biomedical research, and leading the National Institutes of Health is a tough job. "The Director deals with the Directors of each NIH Institute: Powerful scientists, strong-willed with their own strengths, priorities, biases and institutional limitations", explains NCBS's VijayRaghavan, "To conduct an orchestra of cats is never easy."
But Collins had the resume to make one believe he could turn things around. A physical chemist turned biologist, Collins has pioneered the development of some of the most significant techniques of molecular biology, such as chromosome jumping and positional cloning. Using these methods, Collins and his team helped to identify the key genes involved in cystic fibrosis. Later, he went on to shepherd the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, and led the public side of the effort that first described the human genome in 2000.
Visiting India for the first time, Collins' talk at NCBS emphasised how NIH wants to build relationships with the growing Indian scientific community. More specifically, he also stressed that NIH wants to actively collaborate with the stem cell research centre at NCBS, and with institutes in other parts of the country. With over 250 active grants from the NIH, India is one of the countries most frequently funded. On Monday, Collins is heading to Delhi to sign a 'letter of intent' with M.K. Bhan, Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology.
István Hargittai is a professor of chemistry at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Member of several academic councils across Europe, he is also a noted science historian who has interviewed over a hundred Nobel laureates and written several well-received books. Hargittai visited NCBS during September 2011 for the first set of talks in the Science and Society series. He talked about 'Scientific, moral and ethical battles in the making of a nuclear world' which emanated from his recent book The Martians of Science. The book tells the story of five Hungarian scientists who escaped to the United States of America during World War II. Their immense contribution to science influenced the creation of the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Hargittai's talk at NCBS focused on Edward Teller, the father of the American hydrogen bomb, and the moral and ethical questions that arose when the first atomic bomb was made.
Hargittai is a man with a bag full of stories - and incredibly interesting ones, which he is always ready to share. I had the honor of interviewing him, and here are some of those tales.
Magdolna Hargittai, the first speaker in the Science and Society series, has been in the field of chemical research for over 40 years now. Her research interests range from structural, molecular and high-temperature chemistry to the intriguing subject of the personal aspects of science and women scientists in particular. She has authored and co-authored over a dozen books, including the highly successful Symmetry through the Eyes of a Chemist and the Candid Science series (and one on traditional Hungarian cuisine, Cooking the Hungarian Way). I had the chance to talk to her and here are excerpts from the interview.
This is a question I have been asked frequently since I came to India from Australia in August, 2009, a result of the much reported recent spate of attacks on Indians studying and working in Australia. I have lived in Australia for approximately two decades and I find this question extremely simplistic. A country is made up of millions of people, with vast differences in personality and outook, and Australia is no exception. I cannot deny that there are racists in Australia, however I do not think there is even a remote possibility that such a wide generalisation could possibly be true.
Firstly, Australia is a country of migrants and its society consists of people from many different countries including Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Romania, Spain, Finland, Lebanon, Vietnam, Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan and India. With such a diversity of individuals living together, the average Australian simply cannot afford to be a racist. Also, if Australians were racist, the whole country would be in a non-stop war with itself, and there would be never-ending accounts of attacks not just on Indians but on other groups as well. This is not the case.
Veronica Rodrigues, Senior Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) passed away on 10 November, 2010, after a five-year battle with breast cancer. Veronica was born in Kenya in 1953 where she went to school. She joined Makerere University in Uganda but left during the turmoil there on a scholarship to study in Trinity College Dublin, where she did her B. A. with Honours in Microbiology in 1976. Stimulated by the scientific papers of P. Vijay Sarathy and Obaid Siddiqi on bacterial genetics, she wrote to Sarathy asking whether she could do her PhD with him. Sarathy, himself a PhD student, passed the letter on to Siddiqi who invited her immediately to join TIFR. With a strange British passport, which barred entry into Britain, Veronica landed in India in 1977, a country very new to her and about which she had a romantic and idyllic view. Obaid had moved his interests to neurogenetics and pioneered the study of olfaction in the fruitfly. Veronica was Obaid's first student in this new area.
The disconnect between science and society is stark, often with severe consequences, especially when the science addresses conservation related questions. Scientists rarely have an opportunity to see their science turn into application. The NCBS Conservation Initiative is a small grant instituted to provide a means for researchers to create conservation programs for society, emanating as a consequence of their research or their passion to fuel change in any part of India. Intended to facilitate knowledge generation and on-ground interventions, this grant is open to current students (Master's and PhD) as well as research fellows with NCBS.
The family tree of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which so far includes Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, will soon have a fourth major branch: TIFR Hyderabad. The foundation stone will be laid by PM Manmohan Singh on October 19, as reported recently in the Times of India. TIFR Director Mustansir Barma and NCBS Director Prof. K. VijayRaghavan welcome and encourage all interested parties at NCBS to join them in Hyderabad for the event. See below for more details.
For those at NCBS who cannot make it, the PM's visit will be covered in a webcast, and food and refreshments will help to mark the occasion.
It was an enthusiastic gathering of students and academics who expectantly awaited an interaction with the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Mr. Jairam Ramesh. He was invited to deliver the prestigious Satish Dhawan Memorial Lecture on September 28th, 2010. This was the 11th lecture in the series organized by ISRO-JNCASR; having been graced previously by some of the impressive glitterati of the nation’s intelligentsia, such as Dr.M.S. Swaminathan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Dr.Ullas Karanth, Ramachandra Guha, Dr.U.R.Ananthamurthy.
Mr. Ramesh’s talk was entitled “The two cultures revisited: Some reflections on the Environment-Development debate in India”. With an annual GDP growth rate of 9%, India is faced with a trade-off between growth and environment losses, and finding a balance is indisputably required. However, the problem lies in finding an operational meaning for the philosophical concept of balance. The need is to make rational, scientific choices and evaluate the feasibility or ecological cost of developmental projects such as dams, mining, road and rail construction. Mr.Ramesh went on to express that, notwithstanding a possible middle ground, some activities causing environmental detriment will require a firm “no”, and the enforcement agencies should not shy away from doing so.
NCBS and inStem have signed a partnership agreement with the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (iCeMs), Japan to set up a new satellite lab in NCBS. To herald this new partnership, a delegation from iCeMS recently visited NCBS and presented a series of talks on the different areas of research being carried out at iCeMs. The conference was streamed live to an audience at iCeMs, Japan.
The conference was opened by Mr. Masayuki Tsuchikawa, Consul Head of the consulate of Japan, Bangalore. Professor Norio Nakatsuji, Director of iCeMs spoke briefly about the institute and then presented Dr. VijayRaghavan a kimono-no-obi to herald the new partnership. The antique sash was made in Nishijin district from obi silk, exclusive to Kyoto city and dates back to the early 1900s. The kimono will be put on display at the new satellite lab.
IndiaBioscience.org, a web site designed to serve as a central portal of information on Indian biosciences, was recently launched. It will provide a means of fostering communication and building a community of Indian biologists - young and old, within India and internationally.