Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Beginnings of my Stirring

My first stirrings, so far as I remember, came when I happened to get my fifth year birthday present from my mother, a book (in Bengali), called Manus Elo Kotha-hote? (How did man come about?). This book was a treat. Until that time I had never heard of dinosaurs; there was no TV show (I had not seen a TV until I was 17 years old), no radio show, no books on dinosaurs before this; my parents and relations never studied science, so they never talked about dinosaurs before—in fact I don’t think they even knew of their existence before I got the book, which they also read along with me.

By the time I was in fourth grade, I was reading science fiction stories, translated from other languages into Bengali. I remember specifically “The Time Machine” and “From the Earth to the Moon”. Around this time, but likely even before this time, while still in the third grade, I had accidentally discovered that when plant parts, such as green leaves and stems or flower petals, are pounded into a mash, mixed with fountain-pen ink, bottled and put into a dark place, they change color—-sometimes the ink becomes discolored, sometimes blue ink became red or straw yellow or orange. I was doing this because I loved to paint, but had access to limited pigment colors for doing watercolor. So I thought mixing plant parts with ink might generate interesting color. But the process was messy, and I did not want people to throw the mixtures away. So I put them in a box and hid them within the space within a drain pipe between my bedroom and the balcony, thinking that no one will try to clean the dry drain pipe. Well, that led to my fascinating observations, which caused no end of wonder, and I did not figure out as to why until late in college.

But there were other leads. I loved animals; specifically I used to watch birds, which were plentiful in variety in the little tropical town where I lived. I first became aware of serious dangers that wild flora and fauna in India faced around the time I was in the eighth grade, through reading about in Sandesh, the monthly literary magazine for children which was edited by Satyait Ray, the noted film director from Bengal, from the writing of a Bengali naturalist whose pen name was "Jeeban Sardar". I do not know who he was, but my guess is that he might have been someone in Bose Institute. In any case, his writings deeply influenced me when I was in the middle school and was instrumental in my choosing science at the end of eighth grade--before that I was quite set on becoming an archeologist and was going to study history.

Jeeban Sardar used to take long walks in the Dam Dam and Salt Lake areas and describe over the years how birds and small mammals were disappearing. Remember that in 1960s Salt Lake areas of Calcutta were quite deserted and mostly devoid of settlements; he described how the place was changing. Subsequently I was an avid follower of the natural history columns in Science Today and Science Reporter, monthly popular science magazines published in India. While in high school, I would escape from classes and go to the riverside and try to collect fossils, rocks and mud skinks, and watch dolphins dunking in the water. In 10th grade science fair, I organized a booth that, through posters, which were painted in watercolor by my mother under my direction, tried to make other students and their parents aware of the disappearing bird life in Bengal.

By the time I was in 11th grade, I was passionately interested in nature conservation. But I had also realized that nature conservation was a full time scientific career, and I was not sure whether I had the right 'stuff' to make nature conservation a career.

While in 10th grade I had a chance encounter with an old copy of Time Life magazine, from early sixties, with Sophia Loren on the cover—Princess from Hong Kong was released then—in which there was an article on the new science of immunology. There was a two-page spread of a ball and stick model of an antibody, with Linus Pauling beaming across it.

That was a watershed moment. The dry pages of organic chemistry I was cramming for my high school examinations came alive with that article. I am yet to decide which was more attractive to me in that magazine, Sophia Loren or the model of antibody!

I decided that I must do what these ‘scientists’ do—the whole concept of a scientist being incredibly romantic to me, having never seen any scientist in real life at that time. In another year, I accidentally came upon “The Double Helix” by Watson in the British Council Library on Theatre Road, whose Rs.15 annual membership I purchased (which my father approved reluctantly) because it was the only library that I could access, to which I would walk a mile from home, take a train for an hour, take a bus for 40 minutes, then walk another few miles, and return the same way, on days that I didn’t have classes in school because the Maoist extremists would shut down the schools. I am grateful to the Maoists for making possible these trips; otherwise I would have probably become a physician in a provincial town. The Double Helix sealed my future.

I discussed this with Dr. Sivatosh Mukherjee, then the head of the department of Zoology in Presidency College, when I was in 11th grade (having been introduced to him by a PhD student of his from Chandernagore), even before I was admitted to Presidency as a first year student, and suggested to him a hare-brained idea about finding out why certain 'cold blooded' animals were disappearing faster than others--having to do with their immune compromization due to greenhouse effect and high temperature (in 1970-71, they had already detected massive greenhouse effects, and popular science magazines were awash with articles about them.

Professor Mukherjee was amused but not discouraging. He suggested I talk to Dr. Kanailal Mukherjee (KLM), a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry of Calcutta University.

From Chandernagore I took the train, and long journey by bus to somewhere in near Park Circus, spending nearly four hours each way, to his research lab in a clinic. There, after trying to get his appointment (I had no access to telephones in those days) for three weeks (so 3 visits), I got his audience. He was extremely encouraging to me. I am sure he knew the naïveté of my idea, yet he was encouraging to the extent that he invited me to work in his lab along with one of his female PhD students.

The student was quite attractive but totally ruthless in critiquing me while I made numerous mistakes; but she also used to bring delicious food for me because she knew I used to come from very far away and did not have much money. Unfortunately I do not recall her name any more. I shadowed her for 3 months, 3 days a week; in this I was lucky because our school was closed indefinitely (those 3 months, as it turned out) due to the Maoist Naxalite disturbances. I owe it to them.

At the end of the year, I wrote up my National Science Talent exam's project report based on this research experience--no result really, but it had an original theory, however naive it was it was mine own. I got the scholarship. Based on this I convinced my father that I did not want to be a physician, and so despite having obtained admission to medical colleges, I went to study physiology, with physics and chemistry at Presidency--this is what Sivatosh Mukherjee and KLM had suggested to me given my interests. My chief interest was to become a molecular biologist, with the view of understanding how the environment affects life.

While in Presidency, I along with my friends organized a weekly seminar program on current progress in biology, including conservation biology, at USIS. We once invited Dr. R. L. Brahmachary to speak on difficulties with conservation in war torn central Africa. He pointed out that India was equally vulnerable.

During the summer after my first year in college, I went to Delhi university and worked for a few months in the laboratory of Professor Duraiswami, a biochemist. It was a most incredible experience to me. Professor Duraiswami treated me as an adult and opened the whole lab to me. He told me to do whatever I wanted. I read random papers for a while, then decided to study the binding of actinomycin D, an antibiotic, with DNA. I designed two biophysical experiments, one involving viscometry, another equilibrium binding kinetics using spectrophotometric shifts in absorbance, worked out the algebra, and conducted the experiments successfully. One incident I vividly remember. He gave an Ostwald viscometer and told me not to break it. Within a few hours I broke it. He smiled, gave me another one, and told me that now that I knew how to break it I would not break another one. Indeed, he was correct. This simple philosophy has since guided my own behavior with respect to my students when many years later I had my own laboratory.

Upon returning to Presidency college, I fast-talked our head of the department into giving me a corner of his laboratory, a viscometer and some chemicals, to study the hydrodynamics of protein shape change as a function of partitioning into two polar solvents. Unfortunately this was too ambitious for the modest facilities we had and my limitations of knowledge of statistical mechanics (which I had to acquire entirely by reading by myself and talking to a senior student of physical chemistry whom I happened to know because he came from the same town as I did); so these experiments, although fun, did not go anywhere.

I end here, because after graduating with a B.Sc. I went to New Delhi to study MSc; so after this period I became a card-carrying scientist.