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Being a scientist in the post-COVID world: In conversation with Jyotsna Dhawan

Smita Jain & Shreya Ghosh

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought science and scientists to the forefront of public scrutiny. At the same time, it has forced many scientists to take a step back and introspect as lockdown procedures are implemented throughout the country. 

We spoke to Jyotsna Dhawan, Emeritus Scientist at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, about the impact the current situation has had on the way scientific research is conducted in our country, and the lessons scientists can take away from it for the future.

Featured Jyotsna Dhawan3

In your opinion, what are the ways in which researchers can come together to create a tangible impact on the present COVID-19 pandemic situation?

I think collaborative efforts are vital for developing effective approaches to tackle the virus. Depending on the expertise of the research group, there may be obvious clusters that could be formed to contribute. Everyone wants to be able to help in a crisis, and I think most scientists feel that our training in systematically thinking through complex problems can be impactful. So, scientists from all fields have been contributing. 

This includes scientists whose field of expertise offers a hands-on or direct connection to the biology of the virus and the host, e.g. experimental virologists, immunologists, molecular and cellular biologists, geneticists, epidemiologists, structural biologists, medicinal chemists etc. Additionally, there are ecologists, systems biologists, mathematicians and theoretical physicists who have a sophisticated understanding of the complex variables that need to be introduced into models for tracking and predicting the spread and impact of the virus. Finally, social scientists are looking at the factors that influence the behaviour of diverse groups of people and which affect transmission and variable impact. 

Just listing the magnitude and range of disruptive effects of this CoV2 nano-particle on our health, society and economy makes it apparent that collaboration is going to be vital for a meaningful response. But collaborations are not easy, even in the calmest of academic waters, in times of peace”, even between just two groups who have complementary expertise in pre-identified problems. And in the current chaotic crisis scenario, when the stakes are so high and one does not know where a solution may be found or what kinds of input could be beneficial, it is exponentially more difficult to be clear-eyed about how to structure a collaboration.

It is also important to recognize that territoriality in science does not disappear in times of crisis, despite people’s best intentions. To my mind, that is one of the biggest hurdles to successful collaboration, not resources or ideas. Competitiveness is often touted as a force which spurs us to greater achievements, but I think in this situation, it can be truly harmful. 

Territoriality in science does not disappear in times of crisis, despite people’s best intentions, and that is one of the biggest hurdles to successful collaboration.

Perhaps, despite the stress and urgency, we need to step back for a moment and acknowledge as individuals whether our competitive natures are a drawback to progress in this crisis. If we are able to suppress or at least mitigate the natural urge to expect credit, we might do a whole lot better at forging and sustaining collaborations. Success will be its own reward and may bring recognition, but to get to that point, I believe we need a measure of selflessness, generosity, and heightened mindfulness of our own motivations and group dynamics.

What is your advice for researchers who are worried about the disruption in the progress of their research programs due to the pandemic?

I believe that we all have to accept that there is going to be substantial disruption in the progress of everyone’s research program. Whether you are a PhD student, a postdoc, getting ready for the job search, a young PI, an established PI – this particular 30 kb of RNA has effectively managed to throw everything out of gear. There have been many nice articles in leading journals and scientific blogs about how to minimize the effects of this pandemic on progress, but I think we are dreaming if we think things are going to settle down rapidly. 

Everything from academic timetables to hiring to reagent availability and equipment manufacturing to funding agencies has been thrown for a loop. So there is no way in which we can emerge unscathed or even minimally affected in the near term. But perhaps we can come out different, with new realizations.

I believe that crises can bring out the best in people. I see signs of this all over our scientific establishments: students working at a feverish pitch to voluntarily contribute to COVID testing, new ideas for diagnostics or science communication, colleagues at all levels doing their best to bury their differences, keep their tempers and find a way to be effective — not just scientifically but through organizing volunteers for various programs during the lockdown. So my own way of coping with the anxiety of how much this pandemic is going to set our research back is to look for signs of maturity, magnanimity and focus among my colleagues, and take satisfaction in the fact that there are clear indications of individual growth, which will surely stand everyone in good stead, post-crisis. 

I believe that crises can bring out the best in people… I take satisfaction in the fact that there are clear indications of individual growth.

I take some comfort in this long view, the view that says adversity has its upside. But I think that there is also an important recognition of exactly how privileged we are to be doing science — I realize that this interview is focussed on our work as scientists, but there is no way to divorce our response to this pandemic from the realization that our society is so deeply divided, that those divisions have been devastatingly enhanced by a crisis of this magnitude, that the disadvantaged majority are further disempowered and victimized, and that our ability to compartmentalize our lives by ignoring those divisions is shameful and needs to be changed. The underscoring of that harsh reality must surely make an impact on our decisions and choice of scientific direction in the future. 

What are some good ways for scientists to utilize their time during the lockdown period? 

A lot has been written about how we can continue to run our labs remotely, have Zoom lab meetings, write manuscripts and grants, catch up on reading, learn a new skill etc. All these are of course possible, and I admire colleagues who have been able to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their scientific activities. Personally, I have found myself too distracted by the relentless march of the virus, and the compulsion to keep up with info-demic” to be able to tackle any of these aspects very well. 

Apart from our roles within our own groups and our institutes, scientists can play an important role in being a conduit for valid information to reach our families, friends and the public. There is a flood of misinformation on the internet and social media which creates substantial anxiety, and participating in fact-checking reports and countering false ones, even on our daily Whatsapp groups, can play a stabilizing role.

Do you believe that scientists should contribute to outreach efforts during this period?

Yes, of course. It has been remarked by many in the press that this is a crisis where the public is turning to science and scientists to allay their fears. We must honour that trust. Many groups have been doing this very effectively — the Indian Scientists’ Response to CoViD-19 (ISRC) website and apps, the CovidGyan website by TIFR-IISc-TMC and other partners, as well as efforts by DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance, the IITs, IndiaBioscience, the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education (HBCSE), being just a few examples of focussed outreach. Myth-busting information in several Indian languages is particularly important, but whether this information is reaching people who need it must also be tracked, and perhaps improved. 

Do you have any other suggestions for the scientific community for dealing with the present situation? 

As alluded to in an earlier answer, there is no doubt that like everyone, we too are anxious about how this situation will impact our plans, in particular our students’ careers, but perhaps we could partially stem this anxiety by considering a change in scientific direction. 

As a basic cell biologist who has only ever used viruses as vehicles to get genes into cells to study more cell biology, I find myself thinking about how much we have learned from understanding the clever ways used by viruses to make more viruses. Much of what we know about basic cellular processes like replication, transcription, translation, signalling, etc, comes from teasing apart how viruses subvert the host machinery. For CoV2, we know very little, so that’s an opportunity. 

Here I want to highlight what Nevan Krogan’s group at the Quantitative Biosciences Institute (QBI) in the University of California, San Francisco has done — they have provided a fantastic public service by freely distributing 26 CoV2 viral cDNAs all tagged and ready to go for expression in a variety of cell types, and many institutes in India and the world over are busy using these clones to study new biology. While this may not help find a cure today, it can help in attaining a broader understanding that works towards new diagnostic or therapeutic avenues. 

At a different level, we need to ask ourselves, what can our scientific enterprise, our way of doing things in this country, our response as individuals, learn from the speed with which QBI was able to generate the entire CoV2 clone-set, study protein-protein interactions, identify druggable nodes, and find FDA-approved molecules that might be repurposed against those interactions? All of the above happened in the course of about one month! This comes back to the conversation above about collaboration and open-ness — suppressing our instinctive territoriality for a common cause. I guess we need to collectively think about how we are going to change the existing system towards one that truly enables and rewards collaborations.

We all have different reasons for why we are interested in our particular field of research, in a specific question — some are easily articulated and others are quite intangible. But one thing we often feel is that we must demonstrate consistency in our approach and interest, and have a good reason for being focussed on a topic. The reality, especially in a time like a pandemic is that this consistency may not really be that important. What is important is a commitment to generating credible scientific information, which is itself a difficult and non-linear process. 

Consistency in research direction may not really be as important as a commitment to generating credible scientific information.

How, in your opinion, will this pandemic change the course of scientific research, in India as well as abroad?

I alluded to this issue above. But at a broader level, perhaps we need to be thinking about why many elite institutes where really excellent research is done in India are predominantly focussed on basic science. It is easy to get used to the comfortable and rather cloistered existence of the basic science lab, but perhaps we need to be focusing on broader programs that integrate greater contact with public health and grassroots medical efforts in a structured way. Maybe direct exposure to these ways of learning will be an inspiration to work on aspects of diseases that do not have the same impact on us when understood solely through the literature. Practical training and flexible structures that can rapidly focus on response to emergent situations may be one way to learn from this pandemic. 

Will this pandemic affect the way in which science is taught in India?

Ideally, it would be a wonderful fallout of a bleak situation if our educational system were able to reflect on the lacunae that have made it difficult for us to respond effectively and control transmission. It is no coincidence that Kerala, the state which has the most highly educated public, has the best record of flattening the curve. The truth is, I am not sure if an impact on science teaching is imminent. 

The economic impact of this virus is already being felt, with a strong negative effect on millions of families, who already feel that they are invisible to the powers that be, and are trying to raise themselves out of hardship and deprivation. Education is one way in which Indians have traditionally tried to do this, but science education has had a difficult time. It is difficult to create a responsive system that caters to individual capacities for learning when the numbers we are dealing with are so large. A school-leaving certificate or a degree provides its holder with the entry ticket to the next step but not really the means for understanding or interrogating the world around them, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. 

It is difficult to create a responsive system that caters to individual capacities for learning when the numbers we are dealing with are so large.

I would hope that efforts by existing science education projects will use the public trust in science and scientists highlighted by the current crisis to inspire more kids to come into science (or perhaps more parents to see science as a useful career) or provide simpler ways to teach complex concepts. But I think this is an uphill task that requires the coordinated efforts of many different types of organizations and individuals. 

Do you believe this pandemic will have an effect on the public view of science and scientists? 

The public is clearly reaching out to the scientific community for help in making sense of the information overload and the flood of fake but plausibly scientific-sounding information. I think being in the privileged position of being able to access and understand the science behind the pandemic gives us the responsibility of doing our best to counter fake information. It also makes it incumbent on us to counter the tendency of fearful situations like this to make us more insular, more suspicious, more vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and more ready to assign blame. 

Not all of us are going to be able to do this, but wherever we can, I hope scientists can contribute by setting the record straight when we encounter closed-minded or prejudicial views relating to virus transmission (as well as broader issues). We can try to convey the point that evidence-based opinions are important, not opinions formed on the basis of rumour and innuendo and the viral video” mode of understanding.

Being in the privileged position of being able to access and understand the science behind the pandemic gives us the responsibility of doing our best to counter fake information.

In your opinion, would this pandemic have an impact on the number and nature of collaborative projects in India? 

I have referred to this point earlier. A crisis of this magnitude might encourage scientists to think differently about their skills and interests. Consider the following examples: a large number of biologists of all flavours use RT-PCR as a very basic tool in their labs for addressing diverse questions, applied in many different formats and contexts. The fact that the best test we currently have for CoV2 is the detection of viral RNA in swab samples means that there are hundreds of students and researchers who have this capability. So what is demanded from many of us in the immediate/​short term is not high science” but the most basic of our training — just to deliver a credible RT-PCR result. 

In the medium term, surely what will be needed is for us to come together and propose better tests, better basic knowledge, not just at the level of the current virus plaguing us, but better preparedness to tackle future, unpredictable outbreaks. It may well be that just as many scientists have rewired their labs to take on CoV2 projects in the current scenario, even those of us in the fundamental science category will be able to open our minds to addressing one or more applied projects addressing simple unmet needs, like point-of-care tests and devices for diverse diseases. 

Let’s not forget that while COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic and is, therefore, an urgent focus, there are diseases that have been with us for millennia (like malaria and TB) which still do not have adequate responses, and from which huge numbers die every year. Perhaps this wake-up call of the pandemic will make us think more about those diseases for which we still need better care. Perhaps we need to remove this equation of innovative=fundamental=excellent” and incorporate public health issues into our basic science programs more widely.

Here, perhaps an added dimension to consider is not only collaborations forged by the coming together of groups, but also an approach where collaborations are actively sought by funding agencies, and perhaps even the creation of a new set of intrinsically collaborative institutes that tackle issues related to future scenarios — an institute for an unpredictable future? A centre for epidemic preparedness? A program for comparing disease modelling? A project on social dynamics and epidemiology? 

There are diseases that have been with us for millennia which still do not have adequate responses. Perhaps this wake-up call will make us think more about those diseases for which we still need better care.

These kinds of situations require integrated thinking and coordinated responses which need to be prepared for ahead of time and not hastily put together at the time of a crisis. I believe that young scientists have a huge role to play in these future programs. These will not be without risk and may come at personal cost, but I do believe there will be satisfaction for the young scientist who takes this path.

What do you feel are some key lessons/​learnings that scientists can take away from the present situation and apply in their future research careers?

I don’t think there are comfortable lessons to be drawn from this pandemic that will allow us to simply wait for it to end and then carry on as usual, perhaps with an added sensitivity but essentially doing what we did before the pandemic. The lessons for me have been the uncomfortable ones, that force me to look at the disconnect between what is needed now and what I have spent my career doing. Possibly the greatest lesson for me has been how fragile our apparently stable system is, and that its stability depends on actively ignoring the urgent unmet needs of a large number of people. 

Very large numbers cease to have impact or urgency, and many basic scientists, myself included, can happily work on problems that may derive from medical needs of either communicable or non-communicable diseases, without really having to be pushed to acknowledge the gap between our training and its effective application. 

I don’t mean to suggest that we should all be working only on translational aims — fundamental knowledge is vital for understanding complex systems, for new ideas, for stretching our understanding, and cannot be replaced. 

Possibly the greatest lesson for me has been how fragile our apparently stable system is, and that its stability depends on actively ignoring the urgent unmet needs of a large number of people.

But if there is one lesson I have taken from this crisis, perhaps it is that the most basic of our skills can be impactful, and applying those to urgent problems may be one way to contribute, not just to future preparedness against situations such as the current pandemic, but to the very large number of equally urgent but neglected problems that we have somehow managed to become okay with ignoring. 

I am personally quite disturbed that I have spent a lifetime working on fairly esoteric issues, always with the intention of making that translational leap, but never quite managing it. Perhaps some younger colleagues may want to consider the challenge, and perhaps my students will redeem my failures.