Rakesh Kumar is one the great persons I have had the chance to meet in life. Someone who started initially has a mere lab mate with a tendency to walk in and out without saying a word, but when eventually meets you reveals an extremely enticing personality, easy laughter, humble nature, an immense respect for other people's points of view and a secret (or not so much) passion for artistic dancing.
Rakesh became a great friend of mine and together we started the Toffee Cake Club that gave us a toffee addiction, sugar rush every single day, and a few pounds I am still trying to get rid of. For three years I had the immense pleasure of sharing my thoughts and life with this great person and learn from him not only in the lab, but also to sip from his culture whenever he used to drag me to Bollywood films, sometimes not dubbed or even translated to English.
He is now in the United States of America, but Nottingham misses a genuine soul with a researcher spirit and an easy capacity to make friends. Please meet my very good mate, Rakesh Kumar...
1) Can you give us a little taste of your personal, academic and professional profile?
I was born and brought up in Chennai (India) which is one of the metropolitan cities in India. In 2006, I finished my Bachelors degree on B.Tech Industrial biotechnology in Anna University. Then I somehow ended up doing a MRes on Molecular cell biology in the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. By the end of my masters I applied for a PhD in the same lab and then I managed to start my PhD on Genetics with a scholarship given by the University of Nottingham. When I was about to finish my PhD, I got an offer to work as a Post-Doctorate on Toxicology in Duke University, United States. Just 2 months ago, I started my job as a Toxicologist in the Nicholas school of environment.
2) How did you end up choosing the scientific area you are in at the moment?
Once I finished my undergraduate, I decided to do an MSc abroad, but I ended up doing a MRes (Masters by Research). It was a one year project on Transgenic C.elegans as a model for Parkinson’s disease. My project was so interesting that made me think that I should continue this project if I got a PhD under the same supervisor. Luckily I was offered a PhD with scholarship, so I ended up doing the same project for the following 4 years. When I was near the end of my PhD, my interest was very much towards neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s etc. Then I decided to apply for jobs which are more related to Neurodegeneration. Finally, I got a job as a Post-Doc in Duke University which also researches on Parkinson’s disease.
3) What was the greatest personality/event influencing you towards science?
During my High school, I used to be very good in science, especially Biology. My teachers used to encourage me that I should become a doctor. I did work hard to achieve my goal of becoming a doctor, but my percentage was not enough to become a doctor because of the fierce competition, so I ended up doing Biotechnology which is also related to science. I was disappointed in the beginning for not getting into medical school, but later then I thought, I am in the right field and this is what I am interested and good at.
4) How do you see academic life these days, what would you change and what would you reinforce?
Academic life has become like a business these days. In India, It’s really hard to get into a good university without a good percentage. Not everyone can get in; it’s very limited to students who have a good score in their high school. My point is that, rich people pay a handsome amount of money to get into these universities. This affects the common poor people who work hard day and night to achieve their goals but their dreams are shattered. I don’t know about other countries but this is what is happening in india. In the future, I would like to change that money can buy everything like education, but one ought to earn a degree only by pure hard work.
5) 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)?
In my point of view, research in industries and universities do work together in terms of achieving their goals early and not just for profit. Industries/universities can’t specialize in all the fields so each one will be good in their own research interests. If Industries/universities want to use some new techniques in their research field, they look for Industries/universities which are good in those research techniques (rather than learning from scratch) and they try to collaborate with each other. This might help in gathering data earlier or even finding a cure earlier.
6) In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges science will face in the coming years?
In my opinion, scientists still have many unfinished challenges which we still haven’t found a solution for, especially cancer and HIV. Finding a cure for these diseases are the greatest challenges science will face in the coming years. Science will also face some new challenges like the sudden burst of H1N1 virus in 2009 which was declared as pandemic by WHO, so we never know what is going to happen in the future but us scientists are ready to face it.
7) Tell us a funny science story where you've been involved and how you managed to survive to it?
During my PhD, I had to do an experiment which involved picking around 200-300 worms a day so it was really tiring to pick these tiny worms under the microscope for several hours. Once my friend (with a computer science background) asked me what was I doing in the lab because I seemed to be always busy. I told him that I had to pick 200-300 worms a day and it was so tiring. He told me he could do that, even a small child could do that and then he started laughing at me saying his job was a lot more hectic compared to mine. He thought that the worms were big enough to pick individually just by eye but later he realized that it actually involves technique to pick these 1mm microscopic worms (so tiny, difficult to see with our naked eye).
8) Where is India when considering the Global Scientific Panorama?
Even though India is a developing country, In terms of science and research, India has made a huge progress for the past few years. India has some of the well known universities like IIT, where they are spending so much money for research purposes. Even some of the universities and companies in India have research collaborations with other universities outside India.
9) Where would you like to be in 10 years time?
I just now started my new job as a post-doc so by the end of this job, I will be deciding whether I want to get into a company or stay in the academic field. In 10 yrs time, I will be in 1 of the 2 options as mentioned above.
10) What would you consider to be a breakthrough in your scientific area in the coming years?
My research area is on neurodegenerative diseases especially Parkinson’s disease. The mystery behind this disease is still unknown so in the next few years of my research, I would like to discover something which might be helpful for the Parkinson’s research society.