Friday, 11 February 2011

Subhabrata Pal "Without quality teachers where will quality students come from?"

There are people one would travel thousands of miles across the continents in order to have one more opportunity to meet again, and sip from the amicable sapience of those who enchant us with their vivid spirits, pertinent minds and pungent ideals. Subhabrata Pal is one of those iconic figures I had the immense pleasure to meet when given the astounding opportunity to work for a month in the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Amongst several other people that helped me bond with a tremendously different culture, people who did all their best to integrate me into their traditions and daily ways, I could name a few that are yet to be invited to this pulpit of mine, and thus ask them to have a go on their own visions, their inherent scientific perceptions and even inner emotions; but I could never start this brand new catalog of impressive Profiles who ultimately touched me, personally and professionally, if not by Subhabratra Pal. Shubo, as I used to call him as result of my terrible domain of the Hindi language, is a scientist whose incommensurable wisdom is so fertile in magnetism that it is just virtually impossible not to sit down, share a ginger lemon tea or a very black coffee under some 35 degrees Celsius (Autumn Time, I believe), and let the nice chatting go on and on and on; just like we used to do whenever possible when sitting close to that perfectly crowded little Uni bar, surrounded by an India that I was mesmerized by.

Shubo accepted to offer his words and thoughts to this blog, to inaugurate this new chapter in the yet short life of The Toxicologist Today. We thank him for his sympathy, kindness and availability in responding to these 10 "little" questions. So, with no further ado, meet Subhabrata Pal, interviewed hereby, by The Toxicologist Today.

Can you give us a little taste of your personal, academic and professional profile?

I did my Bachelors Degree in Botany from Kolkata University, followed by a Masters in Life Sciences from Devi Ahilya University in Indore and finally I have recently submitted my PhD thesis to the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. My Master’s thesis was carried out in the lab of Veronica Rodrigues at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai where I worked on Drosophila larval olfactory development. For my PhD, I carried out a rather extensive gene expression analysis of a bunch of Drosophila epithelial tumors. Being one of the first students to join the newly formed Biological Sciences and Bioengineering department at IIT way back in 2001 and being a part of the entire development of the department from scratch and later, setting up the microarray facility here at IITK gave me a brief but enlightening exposure to, and understanding of scientific and academic administration. 

How did you end up choosing the scientific area you are in at the moment?

I never really had any real focus early on in my academic life. I studied Botany in Kolkata University because that’s where I was selected first, so I never really checked in the other places I had applied to if they had selected me. Then when I went to do my Masters in Life Sciences from Indore (which is pretty far from my home town of Kolkata), I was interested in joining the Forest Department of the Indian Government. It was only near the end of my MSc program that I realized that I actually liked science and scientific research and that I liked fly genetics most of all. To a large extent, this was due to my exposure to fly genetics at TIFR, but most importantly because I had my current PhD supervisor Prof. Pradip Sinha as my genetics teacher there. At the end of my stay at Indore, the universe conspired and I got a research fellowship from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, I made up my mind to do research, Pradip shifted from Indore to Kanpur to set up the new department, and asked me if I would be interested in joining him at IIT Kanpur for a PhD – all in a span of a few weeks. So I ended up working on the growth control mechanisms of Drosophila.

What was the greatest personality/event influencing you towards science?

I really can’t pinpoint any specific person or event. I always liked science. I had great teachers at school, college and university who made learning very interesting. I come from a family that likes its books, so all kinds of books have always been a part of my life. In hindsight, I guess I can say that I ended up in science or more specifically in scientific research because this is the best of all possible options that my circumstances have conditioned me for. 

How do you see academic life these days, what would you change and what would you reinforce?

Academic life is great! It allows you to do things that you want to do, learn new things all the time, travel and meet people, and it basically gives you the option to stay a student all your life. That said, academic life is evolving along with the rest of society and there are challenges that are coming up which I think scientists and teachers of an earlier generation did not face. For example, scientific research, especially in the life sciences, is expensive and the ability to “sell” your science to the agencies has now become one of the key ingredients to running a successful lab. Project based funding, rather than comprehensive, long-term, question based funding means that scientists need to keep going through the process of grant applications every few years. It also means that, in order to ensure a constant flow of funds to run your lab, you need to constantly engage in a lot of rather in-depth planning to prepare and properly time your grant applications etc. I think this takes a lot of a researcher’s time and effort that could be better utilized if directed towards science. That said, one must also understand that we live in a time where almost anyone with a well-defined scientific question and the willingness to work hard, can actually get money to do research. I have always believed that a civilization’s progress can be measured by the willingness of the society as a whole to bankroll the so-called non-essential pursuits – music, arts, philosophy and pure science. I guess we’re doing pretty great on that scale!

One thing that bothers me a bit, especially when I look at the situation in India, is the lack of interest in science among the general population. While, thanks to the internet, people have access to loads of information and are generally very aware of what is going on in the world of politics, or entertainment, there is a rather disappointing lack of awareness of, or interest in science. Part of the reason, I believe, is that we do not have good science communicators any more. People who can translate hard science into language normal people can speak and understand, and package it in a way that grabs and holds their attention. I rarely see working scientists go to schools and colleges to explain their work to students, or local radio channels having some scientist on air explaining about that nano-technology thing that’s bouncing around in the news these days. So in some ways, while scientific research has become more accessible to more people, it seems to be walling itself away from the very people whose tax money funds it. A related problem that I see in India, is the emphasis on research rather than teaching. Most of my friends who are in research seem to prefer career options that would allow them to carry out research without the “load” of teaching. This, I think is a dangerous trend that needs to be corrected. Without quality teachers where will quality students come from? Besides, I think a big part of a successful scientific is to transfer one’s knowledge and expertise to the next generation of scientists. What is the point of doing loads of science and publishing in journals if you can’t get another group of people fired up enough to take your science to the next level? I think an academic scientist’s evaluation should include his or her standing among students (and by students I don’t just mean research students), along with his or her scientific output. 

How do you think the world can promote a better living when science is becoming a victim of the profit fallacy, i.e., industries promote research, therefore, research must pay back when the final product comes to life (and to shelves)?

I don’t think there is a problem with the Industry doing research for profit. After all, for a company, funding research is like an investment – a rather risky investment too, and I see no reason to begrudge them their share of the profits that come out of a research project that was done with their money! Millions of dollars and years of hard work go into screening thousands of molecules to come up with one drug candidate, and that is just the beginning. From being a candidate to being an approved drug sold in the market takes another few years, another few million dollars, and the time and effort of loads of really smart and hard working people who spent lots of money to become smart enough to work there in the first place! 

So does that mean that doing science for its own sake, without a “product” at the end of it all, and without any profit motive is impossible to do these days? I don’t think so. There are lots of funding opportunities from governments as well as private funds for basic science. State funding is still the source for a lot of the largest and most ambitious scientific projects – think about the genome projects, or space research, or the large hadron collider, they are all mega projects run with government money.

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges science will face in the coming years?

Well there are already many in-coming crises that will challenge scientists in the recent future – climate change, a rapidly growing population and the accompanying problem of feeding the masses sustainably, the constant threat of emergent infectious diseases, etc. but I think those are being addressed and people are working furiously to find solutions to those problems at the moment. 

Apart from these rather applied areas, I find basic science moving towards more integrative approaches to addressing scientific questions, and this is no more evident than it is in Biology which has become more and more interdisciplinary, especially over the past decade. The development of new, high-throughput analytical technologies like microarrays, yeast 2 hybrid systems, whole genome RNAi libraries, high-throughput sequencing technologies etc. allow us to probe and interrogate biological phenomenon at the level of entire systems. Every successive generation of these technologies make these methods more sensitive. We now generate oceans of data in every experiment, and that has prompted the development of novel analytical methods, and entirely new ways of looking at biological systems and processes. We are now faced with the challenge of developing new ways of thinking about biology, not as individual pathways or processes, but as systems or networks of interactions. And this, I believe is our next big challenge – the development of “systems thinking”. 

Another set of challenges that science and scientists will face very soon will come from the society at large. I have already alluded to what I perceive as a lack of communication between scientists and the general public. If not addressed aggressively and soon, it might soon lead to a situation where the public soon deems scientific matters to be too complex to understand and loses all interest. We are already experiencing the problems associated with the lack of proper dissemination of scientific knowledge – the evolution debate, the climate debates, opposition to stem cell research etc. The general public has to be encouraged to take an interest in these matters because we will soon be facing issues in science and technology that will have immense ethical implications far beyond the confines of the lab – development of genetically modified food-crops, developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, the huge strides we have made, and are continuously making in neuroscience, to name a few. All these questions require informed, reasoned debate in society at large and not just among professional scientists. This will require an honest and sustained effort on the part of the scientific community to educate people about their science, and in my view this is by far the most pressing challenge we will face in the coming years. 

Tell us a funny science story where you've been involved and how you managed to survive to it?

Once I had a meeting with my thesis supervisor which lasted for 15 minutes. I survived because I talked for about 14 of those minutes.

Where is India when considering the Global Scientific Panorama?

Well, India has a rich and long history of scientific research with significant contributions to mathematics, physics, medicine etc. over the years. Thanks to the Persians, the Silk Route, the Arabs, the British, the French, and the Portuguese, we have been historically rather well-connected to Europe. 

Post-independence, we have made significant progress in science and have built world class institutions for science research. Currently, due to rapid economic progress over the past decade and a half, India has seen increased funding for research and education along with increased engagement with the global scientific community in terms of collaborations and exchanges. Lots of new universities and institutes like IIT are coming up all over the country, and the funding situation has never been better. So I’d say India is doing rather well these days.

Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

In 10 years’ time I hope to have made decent progress in the research problem I am interested in, namely the systems level characteristics of metastasizing cancer cells and their target microenvironments, provided I can start a lab of my own some time soon. 

How would you solve global issues like a) The Plastic Vortex, b) Unemployment in Science and c) The economic crisis/recession?

a) It’s an international problem with international repercussions, so it needs to be handled by international consensus and cooperation among governments. I really am not in a position to comment much, except to hope that governments everywhere would soon evolve policies to share the economic and technical burden of cleaning up current plastic wastes, and find ways to properly process plastic waste in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner. 

b) I don’t think I agree to this idea of unemployment in science. In today’s knowledge driven global economy, for someone properly trained in science, finding employment should be the least of their worries. The bubble-bust cycle of our highly connected global economy is a reality everyone needs to accept. There may be times when getting a job immediately out of college or university will be difficult due to an economic slump, but if someone complains of sustained long-term unemployment then I think it is rather a problem with the complainer than with the system. 

c) As I mentioned earlier, the way our global economy functions is that periodic recessions are damn near inevitable. The only way to manage them is to try and reduce their impact. I am not a finance or economics guy, but I think that bailing out the banks that triggered the crash in the first place is not necessarily a good idea. The key to managing a free market global economy is to let it self-correct (which like any well-behaved little complex system, it will – eventually), and not intervene when it is in a crisis. Basically, let people invest money in the stock market if they own the money, but then the people taking the risks with their own money should also be the ones who suffer when the money is lost. Banks where normal people, those who are not compulsive gamblers, people like you and me, keep their money should not be allowed under any circumstance, to play with that money. Regulatory authority should only ensure that banks should not be gambling with people’s money and their investments should be rigidly monitored, while private players, hedge-funds etc, should have all the freedom to do what they want in the market as long as it is understood that if the system crashes, they are on their own will not be bailed out by the tax-payer. Simply put, you’re free to gamble as much as you want, provided it’s your money, you know what you’re doing, and you don’t come running to the tax-payer when you lose it all.

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