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Interview of Dr. Partha Pratim Majumder (Master of Genetics)

National Institute of BioMedical Genomics (NIBMG), an autonomous Institute by the Government of India, located around 50 Kms away from Kolkata, a metropolitan city of India. This institute is known to be the only Institute in India devoted with the researches on “Biomedical Genomics”. Dr. Partha Pratim Majumder the elected Director of NIBMG since 2010, and a current professor of Indian Statistical Institute is known for his wonderful contributions in mastering of genes and is also honored with the title as “Gene guru” by Medias.

I, myself ELSEVIER Student Ambassador South Asia 2013 received an email reply on request to have a wonderful chat with him and to research his alley of hard works towards achievements. I received a warm welcome at his institute where he personally had a talk in his cabinet for more than an hour.

Q) At Kalyani, about 50 km away from Kolkata, you and your group of researchers are working to better understand the geneticsof oral cancer, heart attacks, liver and eye diseases. You began your career studying statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute and obtained your PhD in statistics. What were the subjects you studied in ISI and how did you get interested in biology?
I grew up primarily in Visakhapatnam and did most of my schooling there. I come to Kolkata in 1970. When I was in school, I did not know anything of statistics although I had heard about the subject. I wrote the entrance examination for admission to the B. Stat. (Hons.) course of the Indian Statistical Institute in Visakhapatnam, luckily passed the test and the subsequent interviews, and got admission to B.Stat. I continued to do my Master’s and then my PhD from there. Although Statistics and Mathematics were the main subjects in our B.Stat.course, the proponents of the B.Stat. course strongly felt thatstatistics is mainly an applied science and hence all graduating students needed to be exposed to various other areas of science where statistics finds wide applications. Therefore, we had to study physical, biological and social sciences as well, in our B.Stat.However, I must point out that the structure of the B.Stat. coursehas changed from when I were student.I was always interested in biology. Even when I was in school, I had strong liking for biology. My father was in scientific research, although his area of work was in the interface of Chemistry and Biology. I thinkthe seeds of my interest in biology were sown by him. It was nurtured by my teacher in high school. Later,after I learnt to think quantitatively and obtained exposure to some statistical methodologies, I fell in love with genetics, perhaps the most quantitative of biological sciences.For me, it was quite a natural transition from a background in statistics with a keeninterest in biology to embark on research in genetics.

Q) You completed courses on Biochemistry, Cell Biology and Molecular Biology before you turned to do full-fledged research in population genetics. Was this a challenge? How much struggle did you face while shifting yourself from statistical calculations to human genetics?
The Indian Statistical Institute has a very rich history of biological research. Biological research in ISI was introduced and nurtured by J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane migrated to India and accepted a Professorship in ISI. He, along with Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright, founded population genetics. Ronald Fisher was also one of the fathers of modern statistics. Fisher, on invitation of the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute – Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, visited ISI seven times for varying durations. Professor C. R. Rao, one of the best living statisticians of the world and a former Director of ISI worked on problems of genetics. At the ISI, genetics and statistics were so enmeshed when I was growing up that it played a pivotal role in my choice of genetics as my field of scientific research.
Moving to human genetics from statistics was not a challenge but a natural transition.Research in human genetics requires considerable knowledge of statistics. I was comfortable starting a career in human genetics, with knowledge of statistics. I later recognized that to carry out meaningful research in human genetics, particularly at the molecular level, I needed to know a lot of biology. After I completed my PhD, I strongly realized that I needed to take formal courses onMolecular biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry. I went do a post-doc at the Center for Demographic and Population Genetics, University of Texas, USA. My post-doc mentors were kind to allow me free time during the day so that I could take these courses at the Rice University and the University of Texas, and make up for the lost time by conducting my post-doctoral research late into the nights. I was simultaneously a graduate student and a post-doctoral researcher!

Q) You have served as a Visiting professor and then as aGenetics Consultant at the Department of Biostatistics and Human Genetics, University of Pittsburgh. Could you tell me about your moving forward in research? After that you came back to your homeland and become a Professor and later the Head ofAnthropology and Human genetics Unit at ISI, Kolkata. How was this comeback experience?
Simultaneously with the realization that I had to have better foundations in biology, I also realized that I needed to do some hands-on experiments. A friend of mine, who was already on the faculty in the same Center where I was doing my post-doc, allowed me to enter his lab and get trained by his graduate students. Later, he moved to the University of Pittsburgh. When I went to Pittsburgh, he again allowed me to work in his laboratory. That’s how I learnt to do experiments in molecular biology.
I came back to India in 1983 after completing my post-doc in Texas and joined Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. I wanted to continue my work on human genetics. Human genetics deals primarily with human health and disease. To conduct good human genetics research, therefore, requires collaboration with doctors. I contacted many doctors in Kolkata, but failed to strike a good collaboration. I was a little frustrated.I was also keen to learn more laboratory skills. I went back to University of Pittsburgh in 1987. Besides teaching graduate courses, I continued my research and also carried out some hands-on work in the laboratory of my friend. My goal was not to settle in the US but to come back to India with some additional skill-sets.I came back in 1989 to ISI. Although I had a reasonable skill-set in working in a wet lab,it was not easy to convince the ISI administration to start a molecular genetics lab in the Institute. ISI had a biochemical genetics laboratory, which was later upgraded to molecular genetics lab under my leadership, but only after the head of the biochemical genetics laboratory superannuated.
I got a grant from Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and upgraded the lab. It was not easy for me to get my first grant from DBT. No one believed that a statistician can do meaningful molecular human genetics research. Getting my first grant from DBT is a long story, studded with some chance phenomena.Anyway, here I am now, establishing a DBT institute on biomedical genomics.

Q) Since you taught in the US and now teach in India, how would you compare educational systemsof the two countries?
If I talk about the Indian Statistical Institute, the educational system there is fantastic; far better thanmany universities in the US and in India. But if I compare a randomly chosen university in India with another in the US, then I will say teaching is taken much more seriously in the USuniversity. There are of course many universities in India where teaching is far better than many universities in the US. For research, however, a lot of funds are required, especially for research in modern biology. Historically, the quantum of research funds in India has been far lower than in the US. Availability of research equipment has also been less in India. Overall, therefore, the density of research in India is much lower than that in the US.

Q) One usually passes through a tough struggle to transform ideas into tangible research. Did you receive any positive support?
Most biological research is money driven. When I was a post-doc and was working undermentors, I didn’t have to struggle to find funds. Life was wonderful without the need to fight for money to pursue research ideas. After I got a faculty position, life got harder. Initially I had faced a lot of problemsto generate money for my research. However, after an initial period of struggle, my research career has not been too bad! I got huge support from many people throughout my scientific career; otherwise, I could never get to where I am today.

Q) You have been selected as theDirector of NIBMG in 2010. Every Director has a set of goals to take an institution forward. What areyour goals and how have you been carrying them forward?
The goals are simple. Build an institution and establish sustainable processes to carry out high-quality research to understand the genetic bases of human health and disease, translate research findings to tangibles for benefit of human society, and train younger scientists to carry the flame forward. To achieve these goals is not easy. I, together with my colleagues in the Institute, am struggling to tread the right path and not deviate. I salute my predecessors who have established lasting institutions from which we have benefitted. It is a continuing challenge for me to select intelligent and enthusiastic colleagues, and to build a collegial team. I have been lucky so far, with huge help from my friends in other institutions every step of the way. The Secretaries and officers of the Department of Biotechnology have rendered fantastic support and guidance.

Q) Can you briefly describe the current research being pursued in NIBMG?
We have formed four research arms in NIBMG: unraveling molecular and genomic bases of (a) cancer, (b) susceptibility to infections, and (c) chronic diseases. The fourth arm is on statistical and computational genomics. Cancer, as you know, is a genetic disease at the cellular level. There are two important types of cancer in India – cervical cancer, predominantly among females and oral cancer, predominantly among males. NIBMG is working on both of these major types of cancer. For oral cancer research, we are in a part of an international consortium called the International Cancer Genome Consortium. India is the one of the founding member of the Consortium. My colleague, Professor Sharmila Sen Gupta, works on cervical cancer. Some other colleagueswork on pediatric cancer, brain cancer, and so on. We are also working on Chronic Pancreatitis, which is a deadly disease. As you know, Mr. Rituparno Ghosh, the legendaryfilm director,recently died of this disease. Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer, of which chronic pancreatitis is a predisposing condition. The Institute is also working on Tuberculosis. We are trying to learn how the pathogen, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, hides in some individuals and remains dormant for many years, after which they become active, reinfect and spread. This phenomenon of latency or dormancy has been a major problem in controlling tuberculosis. We are trying to understand the genetic basis of this phenomenon.Genomics of susceptibility to Hepatitis C virus is another research focus for this Institute. Among all hepatitis viruses, A is benign, B is not so benign but C is deadly. Finally, we are working also on human evolution and developing improved statistical methods for human genetics research.

Q) You have also worked on vaccines. Do you feel that current research can alter the face of medicines?
I don’t know much about cures. But, whatever the disease is, there is a clinical manifestation. The first thing that a doctor does is to try to reduce the clinical manifestations with the help of medicines. I believe that every disease has genetic basis. It may be not always be solely genetic, but genes may act together with environmental factors to precipitate the disease. If you know how the genes work along with the environment, then of course there is hope of preventing the manifestation of the disease. Medicines may not be required if diseases can be prevented. Vaccines have effectively saved billions of lives from pathogens.

Q) How has Government supported NIBMG in fulfilling its objectives?
NIBMG is funded solely by the Central Government. Without the support, both administrative and financial, NIBMG could never have been created, leave alone survive for about four years. The State Government provided interim space and land for establishment of NIBMG’s permanent campus. Without this massive support from the State Government, even with funds from the Central Government, NIBMG would not be anywhere close to its present position. We continue to get support, encouragement, guidance and funds from the government for our everyday existence and for our development.

Q) Many Indian students now wish to go abroad for higher education and research. You have been a part of the education systems of both the US and India.What are your views regarding Indian students who wishto go abroad to continue their studies and research?
It totally depends on one’s attitude. If a student believes that no worthwhile research takes place in India, then the student will surely go abroad; nothing can stop the student, especially if she/he can financially support her/his education abroad.. There is a lot of interesting and important research happening in India right now. Research-funding situation in India has tremendously improved. If a scientist has an idea, it may be easier to obtain funds to pursue that idea in India now than in many countries abroad. There is no compelling reason now to go abroad to pursue higher education. However, there are certain scientific areas where facilities for pursuing research may be lacking in India. In such areas it is quite natural that one will need to go abroad. Teaching is taken much more seriously in any standard US university than in an Indian university. We should improve our seriousness in teaching, which then can more effectively encourage students to stay back in India to pursue higher education.

Q) You have been honored with several fellowships and medals, including the New Millennium Science gold medal, for your research contributions. Do you take those as inspiration to work much better in future?
Recognitions are inspiring and touching. But, frankly, I didn’t derivea huge inspiration from these recognitions. I think it is a good idea not to take these awards and medals seriously and to just go about doing what you like to do.

Q) Do you have any advice for young scientists or researchers?
Be excited about the research you are doing, be excited about science, andchoose problems carefully.Choosing a problem and finding a solution to the problem requires a lot of thinking and hard work; so be careful about what you choose.

Q) Thanks to studies of the genetic make-up of humans, we are now talking of personalized medicine. How soon do you think personalized medicine could be practically possible? What are some of the possibilities it holds?
Personalized medicine has been there for many years. Think about blood transfusion. A person with a specific blood group requiring transfusion, can take blood of only persons of specific, but not all, blood groups. Blood groups are genetically determined. Therapy based on genetic knowledge is expanding and will continue to expand. In fact, cancer therapy is already largely based on genomic knowledge.

Q) There is an ongoing debate between groups that feel genetically modified crops are necessary for future food security and those that claim these will lead to far-reaching health challenges. What are your views?
Given our population size, and expanding, there is a great demand for landand for larger yield of crops. Hence, there is a large disparity.Possible ways to overcome this disparity must be found. The only way is to increase the yield of the crops per unit of land area. We need a big revolution in agriculture. Genetically modified crops or use of recombinant methods can increase crop yield right away. The question that often arises is about risks. The potential of risks cannot be ruled out. Careful risk-assessment must be done. I believe, that the next generation of cropswillwitness widespread use of recombinant DNA technologies and genetic modifications. There is nothing to panic, but careful risk-assessment must be done.

Q)There are fears that genetic modification could be tweaked by vested interests to create superhumans. Do you think that is a possibility?
I don’t believe humans will create superhumans. We will certainly restrain ourselves.

Q)Studies in genetics have already thrown up a lot of possibilities. What are some of the promises that genetics holds for the future?
Genetics will improve the quality of our lives. Using genetic data and methods, we will prevent disease, treat disease better, eat better quality food, feed more mouths and improve our environment.

Interviewed by
Saumyadip Sarkar,
Science Communicator, Kolkata,
ELSEVIER Student Ambassador South Asia,
MD, We The Microbiologist,

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