The Milstein Young Investigator Awards are bestowed upon individuals who have made an impact on interferon and cytokine research early in their careers. Advancements in this area of research have direct impact on the successful treatment of disease or have the potential to lead to significant health benefits.
Siddharth Suman interviewed the winner of prestigious Milstein Young Investigator Awards 2012, Dr. Babal Kant Jha, for notable contributions to basic or clinical research from the International Society for Interferon and Cytokine Research. He hails from Bihar and has received a master of philosophy (M. Phil) in 1998 and doctor of philosophy (Ph. D.) in 2005 in the area of Biochemistry and Structural Biology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
Q. Please tell me about your roots to Bihar.
A. I was born and raised in a culturally important historical village of Mahishi located at the eastern embankment of Kosi River and is about 19 kilometers from the Saharsa railway junction. My father Shri Hira Kant Jha still lives in our village Mahishi and I visit him as often as possible. I studied till 7th grade in the village school called “Shree Ugra Tara Madhya Vidyalaya, Mahishi”. After securing a national merit scholarship, I moved to Zila School Saharsa where I finished my high school. I have been connected to the people in my village. And Mahishi is still my favorite vacation spot! I love to be there with my family whenever I get an opportunity.
Q. Pursuing the dream of IAS, IPS or doctor has been a trademark of students belonging to Bihar. Did you find difficulties in convincing your parents to pursue research or were there any moment of self-doubts while taking a leap to research as career?
A. While growing up I never had a clear career path in my mind. My intellectual evolution was essentially driven by my curiosities to understand the ‘continuity of change’. The desire to find out how things work, to know the unknown and the satisfaction of being able to or at least intended to solve a piece of an intellectual puzzle have always been the major motivations for me in research. My path to research was driven by a firm choice which was essentially driven by an accident in my life. To be IAS, IPS, doctor or engineer wasn’t what influenced me. Yes there were peer pressure to be one of those but I always thought and believed that was a distraction. Once in the lane, I never had any self-doubts for my research since it has been incredibly fulfilling for me. I never had enough time to doubt myself.
Q. Do you feel as a country India lacks scientific temperament and research is less sought compared to other government jobs?
A. Yes, in part I agree with you, as a society we do not encourage talents to pursue the difficult and untraded career path. But then this is the hallmark of the developing society in the world where survival is the first priority. We are a society where ingenuities and innovations are being linked with measurable success which is money and social power. Job security is only seen in government jobs and therefore, associated with social prestige. However, I see hope. The new generation isn’t shy of taking risk and looking into the new innovative career avenues.
Q. How different is research methodology in India compared to USA?
A. It is very different. The difference is more due to professional cultural and practices in India and in USA. USA is predominantly a free market where most of the time government agency acts as a facilitator. The innovation and ingenuity comes from individual who are guided by existing problem and most of the time these individuals are associated with professional bodies which are relatively autonomous and independent.
Q. What are the aspects you working on presently?
A. I have been working on two important aspects of cancer progression and gain of treatment resistance among different type of cancer and if it is possible to develop a smarter ways to treat cancer in an inexpensive way. For this purpose I am working on developing a method of treatment that will allow us to kill cancer cell more selectively. For this purpose I am working to develop oncolytic viruses that can selectively kill cancer but fail to survive in normal cell. Oncolytic viruses are therapeutically used microbes, either naturally occurring or genetic engineered, that preferentially infect and replicate in cancer cells. The goal of my current research is the elimination of malignant tumors without serious toxicity. Oncolytic virotherapy for cancer was initially conceived based on the observation of transient remission of cancer patients during viral infections. These viruses target cancer cells precisely because the same genetic alterations that allow malignant cells to proliferate and survive also promote growth of lytic viruses. In some instances, genetic and epigenetic changes in cancer cells facilitate viral replication. In addition I am also working to understand the mechanism of transcriptional re-programming in cancer cells.
Q. Research is more about perseverance than intelligence? What is your opinion?
A. Research is about both “intelligence and perseverance”. Lack of either one will kill the ingenuity and innovation. We need world class research institutions in Bihar to attract youths to participate in high caliber research. Most of our medical institutes do not engaged in translational research to provide cure for the patients of future. We as a society aren’t heavily invested in our future. We need to promote research in all area of science and technology.
Q. What are your advises to budding scientists or PhD candidates?
A. Follow your instinct. The creativity and innovation has several challenges at every step. Life of a creative scientists and thinkers has never been easy and will never be easy in coming days throughout the world.
Thank you, sir.
Paul Scherrer Institute, Switzerland
Dr. Siddharth Suman is a freelancer writing especially on societal issues, science, and education in both Hindi and English for various online media houses. In addition, he loves to write poetry and short story for the expression of personal emotions and thoughts. His poetry book titled 'Evaporating Soul — between love and life' may be read at Kindle.