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Connecting the Dots

Scientist Krushnamegh Kunte talks about why he decided to return to India and joined the National Center for Biological Sciences

Published: Mar 2, 2012

The United States has not remained the place it was in terms of what it has to offer to basic scientists. While Harvard will remain Harvard, today even there people are feeling the pinch, young and senior faculty alike. When I told my colleagues there the kind of startup deal I was getting at NCBS, many felt frustrated at their lot.

It’s not just about the economy; it goes up and down. It’s about not paying enough attention to younger people and this has been apparent in the last four-five years. Now there’s a lot of pressure on central applied science and the politics around it has gone really sour. Policy makers want very narrow focus, but in research, when you are shooting in the dark, narrow focus doesn’t help.

After a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Austin, and nearly a four-year-post-doctoral stint at Harvard University, I decided to return to India. I work on Indian and Asian butterflies so I needed to be close to the population. Moreover, there is little support for my kind of work in the US, as there is little application to society, at least in the near future.

[Defending this, K. Vijayraghavan, director of the National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, says, biology is connected; knowledge may come from anywhere. Indeed, the entire blood group classification of A, B and O, that has phenomenally benefited the medical field has come from studying the wing patterns of butterflies. So have come new anti-cancer insight from papilistatin, a substance isolated from a Taiwan butterfly.]

I chose to come here because NCBS has an integrated approach to biology, all other places in India have departments and resources there are fragmented. Here, I can sit next to an ecologist, a cell biologist, a development biologist or a geneticist and feel at home. This is particularly important for my kind of work. I think NCBS is the only such place in India today, way ahead of others. What also attracted me was its open, legacy-free, and non-hierarchical environment.

Krushnamegh Kunte is Ramanujan Fellow and Reader. He joined National Center for Biological Sciences in January 2012.

(As told to Seema Singh)

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  • Vr Suresh

    This emphasis on the more "theoretical" and more "basic and fundamental" research areas has been typical of the Indian scenario in the life sciences. Much money has been pumped into these areas. It wouldn't be so bad if Indian science made its mark by reporting something that was original but I am not sure if that has been the case. It may be that someone got something from looking at the wing patterns of butterflies and that someone else got an anticancer compound from a Taiwan butterfly (I hesitate to think of how they justified their initial research to animal ethics and environment protection people). But in India, application has lagged and even today, most Indian scientists (even if they are abroad) lack the ability to bridge different disciplines and tend to be more compartmentalized in their approach. It would be good if these Indian biologists enjoying so much funding and infrastructure at least reported on some interesting patterns or behaviors that is peculiar to this part of the world but for even that, some foreign scientist will be invited to collaborate.

    on May 6, 2012
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