Columns Journey of a YI

Journey of a population geneticist: Pursuing a less popular field of research

Ranajit Das

Ranajit Das is an Assistant Professor at Yenepoya University at Mangalore. He is one of the Young Investigators selected to attend YIM2020, and in this invited article, he writes about his experience of pursuing a research career in population genetics, a field of research that defies classification under the traditional subdivisions of biological sciences.

Ranajit Das
Ranajit Das 

As a subject, biology was not my first love in school. Rather, it had always come a close second to mathematics and statistics. As I progressed through higher education, I realized that this wasn’t a particularly desired combination of subjects to love and pursue. With all the boxes drawn around education and career paths, the duo of math and biology seemed to fit’ in very few of them, if at all. 

I pursued BSc (Hons.) in Zoology at Presidency College, Kolkata (now Presidency University), one of India’s oldest and most prestigious colleges. Here my passion for life sciences blossomed. But thriving at Presidency and doing well in terms of grades had its own pitfall as I subsequently and somewhat mindlessly followed the herd of social expectations and ended up pursuing MSc in Biotechnology at Ballygunge Science College, University of Calcutta.

I soon realized that as a subject, biotechnology was not my cup of tea and I yearned for a way out. Soon afterwards, I got an opportunity to do a Masters in Zoology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), USA, with full financial support. Pursuing Zoology once again felt like coming home. It was here at SIUC that I was introduced to population genetics as an independent subject and research area. I was thrilled to find it an area of scientific inquiry that combined my two loves – biology and mathematics/​statistics – and realized that this was likely the field in which I would want to base my future research endeavours. 

Meanwhile, I got married and at the time my wife was working on her PhD in Pittsburgh, USA. I wanted to move to Pittsburgh for pursuing a PhD, but it proved to be tricky given the dearth of labs focussing on animal-based evolutionary and population genetics in the city. I found myself in a sticky spot but soon discovered the lab of Michael Jensen-Seaman at Duquesne University, a comparatively newer university at Pittsburgh, who had been working on primate molecular evolution and population genetics. I joined his group and both my thesis work and a wide array of coursework I undertook in biostatistics, human evolutionary bioinformatics and population genetics at Duquesne as well as the University of Pittsburgh fostered my interest in the area at large. 

Post PhD, I moved to the UK, where I began postdoctoral research at the University of Sheffield, delving into human population genetics using a variety of biostatistical and bioinformatics approaches. I had always been keen on moving back to India to set up my independent lab. An opportunity appeared almost out of the blue about a year and a half into my postdoctoral work, when I received an offer from Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal, Karnataka. I accepted the offer and returned to India after almost eight years of life and education abroad, having imbibed the flavours of research and academic traditions of two continents. 

I was thrilled at the prospect of beginning an independent research career in population genetics in India but soon realized that this was going to be an uphill task, since most scientists, as well as science/​education administrators, were either unaware of the subject or appeared reluctant to offer it as a mainstream research branch under life sciences. And this is not country- or region-specific – I had encountered this even in course of my academic training. It is only in a few universities worldwide that population genetics exists as an independent discipline of investigation. A major reason for this is the lack of awareness regarding the impact of population genetics in healthcare, pharmaceuticals and biodiversity conservation.

The question I get asked all the time is: What is population genetics and which branch of biology does it fall under? Does it come under genetics, evolutionary biology, medical genetics, human genetics, or biodiversity conservation? The simple answer to this is that it can be included with and applied to almost any problem in biology. As a matter of fact, population genetics is the face of evolution at the population level, depicting genetic variation among populations both spatially and temporally. And as Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist famously said, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” 

In the course of my academic training and during my independent research career, I have worked with scientific problems and questions looking at population genetics in various systems, including birds, non-human primates, humans and even insects. Given this, another question/​criticism I face continuously is: What is your study system? Humans or primates or something else? The answer is that I am not restricted to any one model system. Being a population geneticist, I am open to working with any organism within the tree of life, as long as the research question and problem is interesting. 

Needless to say, being products of a not-so-flexible educational system, where people are generally used to compartmentalizing, every subject including biology and science, in general, is usually confined to a predefined perimeter. As a result, I have struggled to convince other scientists, academicians and education administrators that my research may well include humans, apes, monkeys, and tigers at the same time, without diluting its depth, importance and utility. 

In working towards finding my identity and feet as an independent researcher I have found my research area in population genetics also struggling for acceptance. While some clinical geneticists wanted to exclude it from their purview because in their opinion the field was too anthropological in nature, some biological science departments felt the contrary and found my research too focussed on human genetics. Some thought I had my fingers in too many pies working on multiple organisms. Overall, I was constrained by a myopic view of research that failed to envision the enormous possibilities in inter- and cross-disciplinary studies, and the tremendous prospect of combining population genetics with biomedical, pharmaceutical and biodiversity conservation research.

I strongly feel that this narrow-minded approach towards life sciences has increasingly become detrimental to the subject. Today in India and worldwide, biology is fast becoming synonymous to biochemistry, cell, developmental and molecular biology, and biomedical sciences. As a result, less highlighted areas of research such as population genetics (except perhaps human population genetics) are in many instances being pulled out of biological sciences and being grouped under environmental sciences. Our utilitarian outlook and the increased focus on encouraging and funding research that supposedly ask scientific questions with greater translational value (e.g. those offering to solve important’ problems in healthcare and climate change/​conservation) have disparaged the so-called more theoretical areas such as population genetics, without realizing the value the latter may have otherwise added to the some of the very problems we seek to solve. 

Eclipsed by its big brothers’ in biology, population genetics as a field also struggles with lack of takers. Students are often reluctant to join a lab focusing on a largely theoretical subject because of two major reasons. First, despite having immense potential in the realms of healthcare, population genetics research has remained largely at the fringe and does not seem immediately translatable in providing an overtly visible benefit to humankind. Second, till date, population genetics has not looked promising from a commercial standpoint when compared to other fields in biological and pharmaceutical sciences that have a higher potential to land students a better job. 

However, it is not all grey and gloomy as a population geneticist. My personal attempt to survive and thrive has involved trying to bridge the theoretical core of the subject to more practical aspects, for e.g. variation of disease susceptibility across populations over time and space (for humans) and biodiversity conservation (for charismatic endangered animal species). One can also redefine the term population genetics’ according to the research question at hand and the same subject can become human genetics or conservation genetics depending on where and how it is being used. 

My journey as a population geneticist and evolutionary biologist has been one of following my heart, and despite its trials and tribulations, it has been enriching and rewarding. And recently I have joined Yenepoya (Deemed to be University) at Mangalore where I continue the process of setting up my research group in population genetics. I believe in a world without demarcations and constraints, in life as well as in scientific pursuit. And I believe that it is only through free thinking and applying ourselves to address questions that are meaningful to us without being curbed by pre-existing notions, shall we progress towards building greater knowledge. 

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