An interview with Prof. SK Dhar,
Special Centre for Molecular Medicine
Mansi: How were you introduced to JNU and how would you describe your experience here over the years?
Prof. Dhar: I came to JNU in 1992 as a PhD student in School of Environmental Sciences. I did not know much about research and all those things that time. But molecular biology was a big thing. I thought if I came to JNU I will be able to do molecular biology. I talked to Prof Bhattacharya, gave my interview and got the chance to work with her.
My experience has been pretty good. My PhD here was very successful, and I published a paper in Molecular and Cellular Biology which is a very prestigious journal. For me coming from a state university, everything here was new-all the facilities and interaction with teachers, interaction with faculties from all over the world who came here and gave lectures. Coming from a small place, Burdwan, it was a really big opportunity for me. Overall the experience has been really good.
Mansi: How does it feel to be a member of the faculty in your alma mater?
Prof. Dhar: There are positive and negatives, but mostly positives. You know the place, you know the people. It is like a dream- you are student here, and then you become a teacher at the same place. I was really thrilled. In fact when I came to know I will be joining this centre, Center for Molecular Medicine which was earlier known as the Genetic Engineering unit, I was really happy that I was coming back to the same place I had graduated from. It happens, though, that if you have been a student at a place, you continue to remain a student for a long time. Slowly you overcome that. If you have your independence and if you have a new research area, which you haven't worked on before-neither at the graduation level nor at your post doctoral level, (I went to Harvard Medical school for my post doc)- you feel good. When that worked out then really you are independent and now I am on my own, doing my own research.
Mansi: What are the changes you see in JNU over the years you have been here?
Prof. Dhar: JNU has changed a lot. It was not that green back then esp. in the academic complex as you see now. That's a very good thing. A lot of new construction has taken place, so many new departments and courses have come. The number of students has increased a lot. But JNU is still JNU. People are much aware of the things here, more of outside world, which is good because you are more involved with things happening outside than just studies. Most people make a small shell around themselves and we have to break that.
Mansi: You have been part of faculty and research at University of Virginia, Harvard Medical School and Bernard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine- how is JNU different from other places?
Prof. Dhar: There are differences clearly but how do you understand that difference, how to react to them is important. JNU is one of the best places in India. You have the diversity of research not only in only life sciences, but biotechnology, molecular medicine, environmental science, social sciences, languages. There is the scope for a lot of interdisciplinary study and today that is much required. In that respect I don't feel we are lacking. We have a huge resource of scientists, linguistics, there is a lot of cross communication is happening more and more. A lot of publications are coming up-inter school and inter disciplinary. After the creation of AIRF, Advanced Instrumentation Research Facility, we have in house huge infrastructure- crystallizing a protein to diffraction of that protein, physically characterize that protein, we have most of the facilities here.
Funding is the main area of concern. Based on the research that we do here, it's mostly extramural funding, so one has to often bring in their own money, which may be true for these big places. But one chemical costs more in India than it does abroad as we have to import it. If you look at any individual grant which a PI gets in USA or Germany it's not comparable. If we are doing the same research, with the lack of money (and untimely disbursement of fund) it often becomes very difficult.
We also lack in competitiveness, we are more secure here. All the places you mentioned, all the positions are tenured. You have to prove yourself from day one. We have a huge resource of students which they don't have. Government is paying for them; they are getting fellowships which is good. From Germany they come here to recruit students. Overall the quality and quantity of research in JNU over the last ten years has increased manifolds, which is reflected in the number of publications, quality of publications and patents. Appreciation of the work we do here, within India and abroad, has gone up. At the end, one has to be positive. If you only think of negative things you cannot work.
Mansi: You have been awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award recently. What are some of the research goals you have in mind individually as well as for the centre?
Prof. Dhar: I would read from the letter that I received, and you would understand the kind of pressure it builds. It says, "It is a rare distinction conferred upon scientists who have demonstrated exceptional potential in science and technology…this recognition would encourage you and your group to scale new heights in the years to come. Now the nation will look upon you with high expectation." It is a good recognition, for our laboratory, for the center, the university because after a long time, in Biological sciences from the university, somebody has received such an honor. The research I'm doing now focuses on replication and cell cycle control of two medically important human pathogens-Plasmodium falciparum, that causes human malaria and Helicobacter pylori, that causes gastric ulcer and gastric adenocarcinoma. I will continue my research to understand the complexity of the disease and also the ways to counter them. Of course there are many ways to do so, but what our group is trying to understand is to see how these microorganisms multiply. If we understand how the genetic material or the DNA multiplies, then we can understand how to counter the disease and block the pathway for the multiplication of disease causing microorganism.
At the center level, we have a lot of future plans. We are now going to start integrated M.Sc and PhD which is going to be unique in JNU and probably in the university system. The students who come to do M.Sc will continue to PhD. Right now, students come from various backgrounds and they start their PhD, we spend time a lot of time in their training. The idea is that if you can retain some of the talent and provide them with proper training, it will be beneficial for the students as well as for us. We then cannot blame others for not having trained students properly.
In addition, we are moving to our new building within a month or two, with state-of-the-art facilities and twelve labs. It is unique in JNU that within our establishment of twelve thirteen years, we have a new building and a new set up. We are also trying to find collaboration and tie up with some of the institutions and hospitals around here. Till now we were doing basic sciences, confined to the labs. But now we need to look at the application part of it, for which we need to collaborate with research centers, hospitals and institutes which do more transitional research.
We have six-seven new faculty members joining soon. Overall it is a very challenging and interesting phase and we have to see how it goes.
Mansi: Any memory of JNU that stands out?
Prof. Dhar: When I came to JNU, the very first day in December it was very cold. We had to go through course work before the labs were allotted. I was not prepared for the Delhi winters. I had one half sleeve sweater and chappals, no shoes. The fellowship was stuck and at that time it used to take 6 months or so to come. So I went to my would-be supervisor's room, Prof Sudha Bhattacharya, I said I will work with you and I have completed my course work. She looked at me and said do you have a jacket, I said no. She said do you have a pair of shoes, I said no. She gave me Rs500 from her pocket and asked me to buy a jacket and shoes first thing; otherwise I will not survive Delhi cold. She told me that you do that first and then come to the lab. I was borrowing money from friends to pay the mess bill, so eventually I went to the Tibetan market to buy my stuff. So that was the incident that touched me- the student and teacher relationship here is something that stands apart here in JNU. The person who had met me for the first time, who hadn't spent half a day with me, she was offering to help me. This is the beauty of JNU. I see how teachers go out of the way to help students and students also reciprocate with immense sincerity. If we are able to maintain this in JNU, this place will maintain its stature-not just academically, but even in terms of the human relationships that exist here.
Mansi: What message would you like to give to the JNU student community?
Prof. Dhar: Work hard. That's the most important mantra and there is no substitute for it. You can say this place is frustrating, so many graduates are coming each here and there are not enough jobs, but I think if you are working hard and you are sincere, in most cases, things will fall into place. That's what I tell my students. You have to see what you have done-you have to evaluate yourself, if you are satisfied with your work at the end of the week and what is lacking. Self motivation is necessary. If I, coming from a small place, can make it- it is possible only because of JNU. It does not discriminate from where you are, or what your background is, or what your financial status is. It is a very free environment, very democratic. There are negatives of course. But this place helps you grow, but only if you are hard working and sincere.