Columns @IndiaBioscience

YIM 2015 live blog, Day 5: Highlights

Anjali Vaidya

The fifth and final day of the Young Investigator’s Meeting at Gulmarg, Kashmir saw another series of lively talks by mid-career and senior biologists, discussing both their research and the life’s journey that accompanied their intellectual explorations.

R. Uma Shaanker (UAS, Bangalore) spoke of his career as a “random walk,” beginning with an interest in evolutionary biology alongside his colleague K. N. Ganeshaiah that has taken him from sexual selection in plants to conservation genetics and drug discovery. His emphasis was on the simple explorations that can lead to path-breaking results, even in the absence of great resources. “For some of your best work, you don’t need grants. When you start getting grants, you get distracted,” he said. Work by Shaanker and Ganeshaiah in the 1980s on sibling rivalry among seeds and sexual advantages in plants that turned into a Nature paper began with examining a very common place fact: when you open an orange, the seeds do not show perfect symmetry. Some pockets that could hold a seed do not. They showed that seeds actively work to prevent each other’s growth. Shaanker’s current work on using theories from ecology and evolutionary biology to shorten paths to drug discovery arises from a similarly simple observation: take an orange, once again, and watch the patterns of fungal growth on its skin. Pay attention to the common place, and question what makes it so common.

The closing lecture of the day by Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt (London Research Institute, UK) likewise focused on the simple observations, some arising from mistakes or from sheer luck, which guide the most rewarding research. Hunt won the Nobel prize in 2001 along with two others for the discovery of cyclin, a protein that guides cell division. Reviewers rejected his work initially. “Biologists actually quite like things to be complicated,” Hunt said by way of explanation. They could not accept at first that mechanisms might be so simple. On working and studying at Cambridge from the 1960s to 1970s, a time when dizzying numbers of important advances in genetics and molecular biology were being made and you could run into Frances Crick and Seymour Brenner in the tea room, Hunt said that he was only aware of how incredible that milieu was in hindsight. “We didn’t think of ourselves as genius scientists. We had interesting problems we described to each other, in this very nourishing environment.” Hunt attributed many of his best discoveries to luck, but also to paying attention to lucky accidents. “The most lucky ones tend to be the very intelligent ones who work very hard,” he said.

Group discussions before and after lunch focused on how to organize and find funding for science outreach programs, and how to develop a stimulating post-doctoral culture in India. L S Shashidhara (IISER Pune) discussed the funding available from the DST for outreach programs, for instance for science camps for teenagers and science popularization in rural areas. “Students are hungry in this country for interacting with scientists,” he said. Shahid Jameel (Wellcome Trust/DBT) mentioned that the Wellcome Trust has money for scientists interested in conducting popular lectures or going to schools. Sreelaja Nair (TIFR Mumbai) spoke about two initiatives in Mumbai that engage with science popularization,Junoon and Chai and Why?.

The discussion on how to develop a more competitive post-doctoral culture focused on the problems that post-docs face in India which might drive people to seek postdocs abroad. Topics discussed included the fact that postdocs are sometimes treated like extended students in India rather than as colleagues, their salaries are not sufficient for taking care of families, Indian post-docs are given a lower preference for faculty hires than postdocs from abroad, and that one is not always given intellectual freedom as a postdoc in India. Other groups focused on the steps that could be taken now to increase visibility of postdocs and to build a network of postdocs across the country who could work together to address common issues.

The day also saw a brief visit from Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Narinder Nath Vohra, who spoke about the potential for scientific research to expand agriculture and industry in the country. He also emphasized the need for environmentally sustainable development. “The time has come for us to think about not only a second green revolution, but an ever-green revolution, which is sustainable [and] ecologically compatible,” he said.

The Young Investigator’s Meeting closed with remarks from Ron Vale (UCSF), who summed up many of the conclusions from the previous days. He called on all of the young faculty and post-docs in the room to play an active role in the growth of science and research culture in India. “You have to make the [intellectually rich] environment that you want to live in,” he said. “India desperately needs builders. It needs leaders, and those leaders are the people in this room.”