Panel Talk

Journey down the memory lane: becoming a Scientist at IISc

Professor Samir K. Brahmachari

December 16, 2008, 11.30AM - 1PM

As I sit before my computer, flashes of memory illuminate my mind. Foremost is the recollection of the sense of intellectual freedom that IISc gave me; the free rein to experiment; to seek and find answers; the endless debates over cups of coffee at midnight; my legendary teachers; my own brilliant young students; and the crystallization of the belief that world class science can be done in India. The enormity of my debt to IISc is overwhelming and can never be discharged-only acknowledged.

My mind goes back to 7th August 1974. I stood in the corridor of Molecular Biophysics Unit, IISc, hoping to be admitted as a JRF on the first CSIR-sponsored project at MBU, under Prof. G.N. Ramachandran and two Co-PIs, Ramakrishnan and Ananthanarayanan. In my hand was the telegram informing me that the call for Interview was subject to my having secured a First Class in MSc. I was short by 0.3 per cent. The shortfall was a miniscule one. Given the well-known parsimoniousness of the Calcutta University in awarding marks -- one that I hoped would be disregarded. Still, I admit that the young boy was nervous. He desperately wanted to enter IISc…to be in the vast, green compounds ornamented with Gulmohur trees…it was such a different world from the crowded Rajabazaar campus of the University of Calcutta.

After a day long wait, Prof. Sasisekharan took pity on the young boy and conducted the Interview. Following the intervention by Registrar, IISc and subsequent vetting by CSIR, I joined as JRF on 30th September 1974. It was an illuminating experience to learn that great institutions are great because they have built in, inherent flexibility. I realized that in science, learning is more important than getting marks. But it was not till I took over as DG -CSIR that I realized fully, my debt to that unknown Officer at the Extra Mural Research Division, CSIR, Delhi, who had the courage to actually approve the passing over of the 0.3 percent shortfall.

I was extremely fortunate because I was given a place in a room that was right across the one that GNR used to occupy in the Lecture-hall complex. It was an inspiration to see GNR-the living legend come and go, while I buried my head in the books written by GNR, and to realize that an Indian could rank as equal with the best scientists in the world. I imbibed the confidence that an Indian scientist, doing research in India, could make it globally. No doubt, I have been extraordinarily lucky in the teachers who guided my path. I owe any success that has come my way to these great mentors who shaped my potential.

MBU was an exciting place even then and populated by wonderful teachers, legendary figures and budding young talent. The current Director, P. Balaram was a scholarly young faculty only a few years older than us. His excellent skills of oratory enchanted this frail, 54 kg, hesitant, Bengali boy who had trouble stringing together three continuous sentences in English.

How can I forget the charged atmosphere at MBU with scientists like Profs. Sasisekharan and V.S.R. Rao? I cannot forget the intellectually challenging assignments handed out by GNR and racing the clock to meet deadlines. An abiding memory is that of Ravindran waking us up at the hostel to get the assignment books on GNR's table by 9.30 AM on Thursday mornings. I remember vividly GNR's way of teaching; the special topics classes on Saturdays and his way of making discoveries while teaching. His emphasis on exploring alternative interpretations stretched our mental horizons. It is incredible how challenges were put forward by GNR, Sasi and Rao to pick up research problems in a competitive world and to demonstrate that Indian scientists, working in India, could carve out an identity and make their own niche. The objective was not so much to do studies but to solve a problem; on the other hand, ultra-methodical CR was a man of details.

I wrote my first paper on the structure of polypeptide model of Collagen within 10 months of my arrival at IISc. I remember how happy it made GNR. He dashed it off to the Editor of 'Biopolymer' after removing his name as Author. It was his way of encouraging me. He said, "You have done the work." Today, as I look back to my many subsequent publications on polypeptide models of Collagen, I cannot but feel a strong sense of regret that I do not have a paper with him. But the only solace is that I co-authored, two papers with GNR's only girl- student Manju, and Sasisekharan. During my Ph.D. days a long sabbatical of Ananathanarayanan, my guide, brought me closer to Sasisekharan, who taught me how to think in vacuum.

I was privileged to see the evolution of MBU's experimental activities…whether it was peptide synthesis, spectroscopy, or crystallography combined with computational analysis. The debates were memorable too. Sample topics would be--Does protein structure in crystal represent life or does DMSO inside an NMR tube represent life?

IISc gave me the opportunity to break new ground and explore emerging areas. It was the Random Walk group where my baptism in the area of nucleic acids took place. It is interesting that while doing Ph.D. on peptides and polypeptides I had to review biophysical data of hundreds of papers on nucleic acids to see whether they supported the alternative models of DNA structure proposed by Sasisekharan. I got the opportunity to take up Molecular Biology courses when this field was exploding. I took off from MBU's rotation of bonds by CR, transformation of matrix by MV, to biochemical pathways taught by GP and Appaji Rao at BC, and the interplay of genes in controlling life by TR and KPG at MCBL.

There were always seminars by Faculty. It was at one such seminar by Sasi, describing his findings on left-handed DNA helix, that I met Vani. It was a defining moment in my life. This important incident shaped my destiny and altered the course of my life in many ways, including my ability to speak fluently in English!

I had admired and wished to emulate, the ever-smiling EVK, the articulateness of GNR, Balaram, even Tom Blundel, who was a frequent visitor from England, as they spoke about their work. It was my deepest wish, as a student, to someday be able to use, as Professor of Biophysics, the same letterhead as GNR did. I was destined to become the first student of MBU who became faculty and eventually, Professor at MBU.

IISc continued to serve as a platform for me to explore trans-disciplinary fields and to move to newer areas even as faculty. Institute too was growing and I was witness to its computational evolution. I saw how the Institute integrated enhanced computational power with Molecular Biology. This helped shape my career as I was empowered to explore the new terrain of Genetic Engineering and Genomics where the central theme is structural understanding of Biological systems.

Those were glorious days! I still recall fondly my midnight rendezvous with Balki over umpteen cups of tea and our stimulating discussions even as I tried to inveigle a few extra minutes of computer time from him. I must confess that even today, I miss the scientific gossip at the Faculty Club at lunch time.

When in 1997 I moved to Delhi to build an Institute of Genomics within the CSIR system, with the hope to place India on the world genomics map, Balaram summed up my emotions perfectly when he said, "Samir is not leaving MBU, he is only extending it to Delhi." Truer words have never been said…I don't know whether IISc missed us but we still do.

About the Speaker

Prof. Samir K. Brahmachari (born in 1952) completed his Ph.D. (1978) in Molecular Biophysics from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. After a brief Post-doctoral stint in Paris, he joined MBU as Research Associate in 1979, became Lecturer in 1981 and then, Professor in 1997, before taking up the position of Director, Centre for Biochemical Technology (CSIR), Delhi. The Centre was transformed to the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR) in 2002.

Since November 2007, he has assumed office of Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is the largest publicly funded organization involved in scientific and industrial research with 37 constitutional laboratories across India. He is also Secretary, to the Government of India, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Prof. Brahmachari during his tenure at IISc demonstrated the structural flexibility of DNA and the role of repetitive sequences in DNA transactions much before the discovery of repeats association with genetic disorders. His work on the structural flexibility of telomeric repeat sequences is one of his well-cited contributions.

Prof. Brahmachari pioneered functional genomics initiative in India and led the Indian Genome Variation Consortium project as the Director, Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. His core expertise is in structural and computational biology. He is a member of the HUGO Council and the Advisory Board of the X Prize in Genomics. As a member of the Expert Group on Human Rights and Biotechnology Commission of United Nations, he has addressed issues of unethical exploitation of genetic resources of the Third World and has championed the concept of Rights of patients in benefit sharing in the development of genomic medicine. His present passion is the CSIR-led Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) Project and the Pharmacogenomics Project for affordable health programme in India, with global participation. Prof. Brahmachari is the recipient of a large number of National and International awards, including the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in Biological Science (1990). He is the elected member of all three National Academies of Sciences in India.