Columns Journey of a YI

Journey from a small village in Assam to the exciting world of science

Pankaj Barah

Pankaj Barah is currently working as Assistant Professor & DBT-Ramalingaswami Fellow at Tezpur University, Assam. He is one of the Young Investigators selected to attend YIM2020 in Mahabalipuram. In this invited article, he writes about his journey from a small village in Assam to cutting-edge genomics research teams and then returning to Assam to begin an independent research career.

Pankaj Barah
Pankaj Barah 

I was born in a small and remote village named Borbali in Assam, situated on the foothills of the Himalayas in the beautiful north-eastern part of India (NER). Since my childhood, I have always been inclined towards the beauty and organizational complexity of nature. Perhaps the tranquillity of nature around me had nurtured my scientific curiosity from an early age. I often used to go out to the forest collecting wild fruits, taking pictures, collecting plants for my home garden, joining senior researchers in their field trips, writing popular science articles in local newspapers and magazines, visiting schools and villages to organize awareness camps for nature conservation etc. Owing to a tremendous curiosity towards nature, I chose biology as my major during my undergraduate studies. 

I studied in a vernacular medium school in the village up to the 10th standard. I had to walk 4 to 5 kilometres daily to my school barefoot through paddy fields. Many times, I used to stop in the middle of the road and stare at the activities of beautiful insects, butterflies, birds, as well as the fish in the stream. Perhaps we were the lucky generation before the arrival of smartphones, internet, or even cable TV, since we could spare time to enjoy the wonders of nature. I moved to the nearby town for my 10+2 studies and subsequently relocated to the city of Guwahati for my undergraduate studies. It was a big leap for me and I began adapting to the concrete jungles. 

During my undergraduate studies (20002003), I was thrilled to read about the advancement of genome technologies in local newspapers. We did not have access to the internet at that time. The first draft of the Human Genome was just published around that time. I authored a science fiction story for our college magazine. The story described a dream where I was working with Fred Sanger. 

To my surprise, it became a reality in 2010. I was fortunate to meet Sanger in Wellcome Genome Campus, in Hinxton UK, during an advance-training course at Sanger Institute. The experience of meeting and having dinner with Fred Sanger on the occasion of celebrating the 10th year of publication of the first draft human genome still remains like a dream for me. It was nearly an unbelievable experience for a boy like me coming from a small backward village in Assam. I realized that nothing is impossible in life — If You Can Dream It, You Can Achieve It”.

During my BSc days, I developed a tremendous interest in exploring the developments in modern genome technologies. I was staying with one of my cousins in the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) campus in Pusa, New Delhi, for nearly a month just after my BSc exams. During that stay, I got the opportunity to visit modern molecular biology laboratories in IARI and Delhi University South Campus for the first time in my life. The desire to see myself working in such a laboratory grew and I joined the University of Madras for pursuing a master’s degree in Bioinformatics. 

I received interdisciplinary training in both molecular biology and computational biology during my MSc. I did my masters project in two world-class institutes in India — National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru. It was an excellent opportunity for me to get exposure to cutting-edge research areas in the field of modern biology. During my master’s internship, I worked on protein sequence, structure, function and evolution in highly divergent protein families. That was the turning point in my scientific career. 

After completing my master’s degree, I worked in a software company and in two national research laboratories in India for three years. Initially, I worked as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) at the Bioinformatics Centre, University of Pune for a year with a fellowship granted by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Govt. of India. Later, I moved to the Mathematical Modelling and Computational Biology Group at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad. I was also successful in receiving a Senior Research Fellowship (SRF) in trans-disciplinary areas from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Government of India.

The field of systems biology was evolving very fast. I received an offer from Norwegian University of Science & Technology to join as a PhD fellow in an exciting systems biology project (ERA-NET MultiStress) being conducted collaboratively at several universities in Europe. I worked closely with experimental biologists in a mega-scale project. I received training in modern OMICs technologies, as well as computational modelling tools during this period. 

During my PhD, I visited reputed labs, universities, institutes in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, and Italy, interacting with researchers from diverse backgrounds. It gave me not only multidisciplinary training but also provided me with the opportunity to work in multicultural, multinational, and multitasking environments. I carried out my PhD research at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology in Trondheim, Norway to defend the thesis Integrative Systems Approaches to Study Plant Stress Responses’ in April 2013. I used high-throughput data — transcriptomic, metabolomic, genomic — along with many computational tools to investigate intraspecific natural variations in plants while responding to a diverse range of environmental perturbations. 

During my first postdoctoral period (20132015) in Norway, I explored how molecular changes in the so-called junk part of the plant genome might play a crucial role in local climate adaptation and phenotypic variation in plants. For this work, I developed collaborations with R. Sowdhamini’s lab in NCBS Banglore, India (later published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research in 2015).

In 2015, I moved to Heidelberg, Germany to work as a Bioinformatics Scientist in the eMed-Bio Systems medicine project Systems‐​based predictors for the biological and clinical behaviour of gliomas (Sys-Glio)’. This work was part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), as well as the Heidelberg Center for Personalized Oncology (HIPO) projects to develop efficient, cost-effective treatment strategies for individual cancer patients. During this tenure, I worked in the Computational Oncology Group under the Division Theoretical Bioinformatics at German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ).

My work from the Sys-Glio project was published in the journal Cancer Cell in 2019. We could show through Big data analytics and mathematical modelling of matched pairs of primary and relapsed tumours based on deep whole-genome-sequencing data from 21 patients, the origin of de novo glioblastoma, up to 7 years before diagnosis. We also identified a common path of the early process of cancer development and a novel mechanism for early tumorigenesis in IDH(WT) Glioblastomas. 

The Sys-Glio project gave me the unique opportunity to work in a highly interdisciplinary and translational research environment. Additionally, the vibrant academic and scientific environment of the city of Heidelberg has enriched my life and career in diverse ways.

I was looking for opportunities to come back to India, more precisely to North East India (NER) for two reasons- 

  1. I felt that there was tremendous opportunity to explore natural and biological complexity in this region.
  2. I felt that it was a necessity to contribute towards human resource development in evolving areas of modern biology. 

I was fortunate to receive a permanent faculty position at Tezpur Central University, one of the premier institutes in India. Within a few months, I was awarded the Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. The beautiful campus of Tezpur University situated amidst tranquil nature took me back to my childhood days. The vibrant interdisciplinary environment and world-class infrastructure gave me the opportunity to take initiative to fulfil my dreams. 

I was fortunate to receive generous grants from funding agencies such as DBT, SERB and collaborative supports from experts from diverse areas in local institutes. I have also been able to develop collaborative research projects of local interests with several interdisciplinary research groups in the NER

Teaching and other administrative responsibilities become a priority for a newly joined Assistant professor at an Indian University. On one hand, it may look like a setback for one’s research career. Of course, one has to compromise on the amount of time spent on research. However, on the other hand, the continuous flow of hundreds of students every year keeps us rejuvenated with new hopes as well as new ideas. Availability of scholars from diverse disciplines within a single campus provides an opportunity for interdisciplinary collaborations. However, I feel that there is still scope for providing special considerations for young PIs in the University system. A performance-based reward and promotion system should also be considered. 

My advice to young researchers would be to avail of national and international mobility grants to enrich experiences. There are several mobility grants available at both national and international level. Young researchers must be flexible in choosing their research problems. Being rigid and possessive about a single research idea may lead to difficult situations in future. Keep yourself well updated about the recent trends in research areas and visualize what is going to come in the next ten years. Prepare yourself well in advance to adapt to future developments. I agree that Science Knows No Boundaries. At the same time, we must prioritize addressing some of our local or indigenous problems with our international experience and cutting edge technologies. 

I have evolved from a boy once roaming freely and happily amidst nature to a young investigator leading my own research group today after gaining more than a decade of interdisciplinary research experiences. During this period the approaches of my research have constantly been evolving while trying to understand the evolutionary complexity of nature from different angles. I am very optimistic that through my scientific endeavours I will be able to contribute to solving some of the need-based problems of NER, for the nation as well as for humanity. 

I conclude with the following quote -

One thing: you have to walk, and create the way by your walking; you will not find a ready-made path. It is not so cheap, to reach to the ultimate realization of truth. You will have to create the path by walking yourself; the path is not ready-made, lying there and waiting for you. It is just like the sky: the birds fly, but they don’t leave any footprints. You cannot follow them; there are no footprints left behind.”

Osho

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Pankaj Barah is currently working as Assistant Professor & DBT-Ramalingaswami Fellow in the Dept. of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in Tezpur University, Assam. The focus area of his research has been ‘evolutionary systems biology’. Barah and his 'EvolOMICs' group have …