Family and friends are very important to scientists as to anyone else. But yes, scientists mostly ‘pretend’ to be normal but are actually usually thinking about their science,” says Prof K VijayRaghavan¸ Secretary of Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. He works on developmental biology and uses the subject to answer complex questions about life.
He believes that understanding how our brains develop is a fascinating question and will be a major challenge for a while. Studying this in fruit flies allows us to understand how the genome of the fly is used to make the fly, he says. Vijay loves reading, music and running and, he says, is “woefully incompetent in all three.”. His own take on his illustrious career is modest, “I did a bad job of studying science, even though I always loved the subject. I wish I had studied better. I am fortunate I got the breaks I did,” he says.
“Our best and brightest, particularly women, should flock to science for an opportunity to find themselves and change the world, whether it is a physicist, chemist, computer scientist, mathematician or engineer, not to mention a biologist or a medic. Biology-inspired problems are the most exciting,” he feels.
He feels all life on earth has common origins and is linked by a common chemistry. For example, many major advances in cancer have come from studying bacteria, plants, yeast and fruit flies.
“This is because in biology, what we learn from one life form is readily applied to another. Today, plant biology is a very exciting area, as it is under explored, through which we can make many new discoveries which may have applications in agriculture. Understanding how nutrition and infection affect early development of humans, including brain development, is another exciting area for research. The interface of engineering and computer science with biology and genomics is going be transforming. Finally, the use of extraordinary microscopy tools will further change how we understand the working of cells,” he says.
Basic science may have no immediate applications in real life. Of what use is the study of basic science, then? The debate between basic and applied research is a false one, feels Vijay. The important debate is whether we are asking important questions in our research or not.
He says, “There are broadly three categories of research that are well-populated: good, bad, and neither good nor bad. We must strive to make the good better and the better excellent. Excellent research needs to be better populated in India and this requires a cultural change, which is slowly but steadily happening. Bad research is easily dealt with and discarded. There is a lot of research all over the world which sucks up funds but is neither good nor bad. These are more difficult to identify and remove. Much of this ‘neither good nor bad’ research is driven by misplaced agendas of governments world over, seeking quick solutions to complex problems or pursuing fantasies rather than science.”
In science, it is important to constantly keep the company of people far better than oneself, advises Vijay. This is very easy for him, he says, as his collaborators include superb students and postdoctoral fellows who are a source of great inspiration and energy. He enjoys his work in science and feels he is incredibly lucky to get paid for what he loves doing. He revels in the stress and tribulations of science-administration too.