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02 August 2013

Remembering Prof. Obaid Siddiqi (1932-2013): A personal tribute from a Student

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Prof. Obaid Siddiqi was a Renaissance man and father of modern Indian biology.

By Sukant Khurana

It is very rare that individuals are institutions in themselves. Such individuals are genuine visionaries who start a wave, who create a school of thought and like a banyan tree keep extending inspiring branches through offshoots much beyond when they are gone. The late Obaid Siddiqi, who many rightly consider the father of modern Indian biology and the last of the giants of the South Asian science scene, was one such rare individual. While risking the shallow deification of the late protagonist of this article, I write this piece, hoping that a few people would understand that it is not the person but the vision that this is a personal tribute to and they would strive to pick up the torch where the last generation left it.

Obaid Siddiqi, who strove to transform the life sciences in South Asia recently died of a freak road accident. True to his dream of a peaceful, considerate, educated and scientific society, his family decided to not press charges on the young careless driver that hit him, as it would ruin his career and education.

My article is far from a perfect tribute to my first scientific mentor as it deals solely with my personal interactions with him in order to bring forth his ideas that continue to inspire me, instead of details of his tremendously long list of achievements or his interactions with hundreds of other very well accomplished students that continue to contribute to science and society world over. The greatest biologist that South Asian soil has sprung so far, Obaid Siddiqi, despised personal publicity and his motto was simply to just do your job quietly without worrying about the results. There again I am deviating from what Obaid would have liked. I hope to ruffle some feathers of a subcontinent that is indifferent to the true heroes of madre vatan but worships cinema stars, religious demagogues, politicians and sport icons. By madre vatan, instead of simply India, I speak in the same sense as Obaid did about the land, culture and people of the whole of Indian Subcontinent and not religiously and ethnically divided feudal leftover remnants. He was not nostalgic about some group in antiquity dominating the whole land but had a vision of the future - of people united by common cultural threads, yet celebrating their diversity, irrespective of past petty differences. Over one lunch, he quoted poet Kaifi Azmi (I am paraphrasing because of an imperfect recollection of a 12 year old conversation) that even though he was born in a slave British India and had to live through a divided subcontinent, he would love to die in a united, truly secular and a socialist one.

Obaid Siddiqi (January 7th, 1932-July 26th, 2013) was my first scientific mentor, who worked solely for the love of science, for whom lab was a temple, a prayer, a lifetime of commitment and not a business or a mere profession. His scientific career spanned from a study that led to the first ever fine mapping of a gene that eventually contributed to Guido Pontecorvo’s Nobel winning work, to an important finding on the nature of codons that eventually increased our understanding of protein synthesis, insights into bacterial gene exchange, to synaptic vesicle recycling mutant that now enables several neuroscientists a spatiotemporal control over neuronal activity, to the first exploration of the genetic basis of taste and smell. He founded the first biology unit at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, National Center for Biological Sciences, was the president of Indian academy of Sciences for several years, played an important role in various national and international institutions, including the international effort of The Third World Academy of Sciences to get the developing world on a global scientific map. The list is long so I will only talk of my personal interaction that started in the July of 2000 and continued till few days before his tragic death.

He belonged to a rare and now globally endangered breed of true passionate gentleman scientists. His contributions are many, but his most personally dear achievements are two: preparing successive generations of scientists from South Asia and in his personal capacity humbly fighting for progressive and enlightened values. He had a clear vision of an ideal scientist when I met him. Looking at his career it is clear that that the vision had evolved and had undergone several iterations as he had evaluated science and its role in the society, putting his and others’ conduct under the microscope. While the vision had evolved over time, the vigorous flame to transform the subcontinent remained ever constant. When Obaid could have the choice of setting up a lab in United States, at the height of his career in 1962 he decided to pack up and take the perilous journey of establishing molecular biology in India. His perspective on the role of scientist in Indian society evolved out of a lifetime of constant struggle involving both extrospection and introspection. His vision of a scientist was a creative and objective person who apart from his individual scientific success had a contract with the society from which he emanated. A scientist did not exist in contrast to or as a parasite on the society by merely practicing science for self-promotion. This wise perspective of his was by no means meant as any criticism of basic or applied science in simple black and white terms, but a very healthy questioning of what is sustainable, reverberating the immediate and future needs of the developing world. He asked how could rigorous science be used as a tool for social change.

One such way for him was to train the next generation of scientists, educating them in scientific method through real scientific experience. His idea was that even if most such trainees do not do science for living later on, they can take back this training to their everyday lives and thus act as catalyst for rational thought in society. He individually trained several short-term visitors of any age group, from teenagers to grey haired college readers. This was not a task handed down to graduate students. Only a handful of such trainees panned out, when one thinks in terms of the cost benefit analysis of the productivity of his lab. I once persisted in arguing with him over several days on this topic of loss of lab productivity due to inundation of short-term visitors. My point was that when the visitors learn to do experiments well enough they were ready to leave and Obaid was not getting anything out of them. He said it was neither about cost benefit analysis as other labs do nor about what he got out of it. He believed that if he could get a small number to become future scientists or even spread scientific thinking, that will be his small contribution to the society. I understood the message of training people selflessly but it took me several years to fully embrace it, when with the help of friends, breaking outside the university programs, I initiated something of the sort in Austin, Texas towards the end of my doctoral studies. Obaid did not hide his feelings when he found out that his lesson had rubbed on to one of his students.

In his last two decades of his life, his obsessions were two fundamental issues of behavioral neuroscience that have been completely sidetracked by the majority in the mad march for quick publications. He wondered what an appropriate measure of a behavioral response is, if one singular measure should be used at all. He understood that almost all neuroscience labs are throwing away most of the information by taking one single measure of a response at a fixed time. He also asked if one could really break out of strictly associative way of thinking about higher learning. He called sensory pre-exposure as Thorpean conditioning to respect few pioneering but rather inconclusive experiments done by William H. Thorpe of Cambridge in middle of the last century. From what Obaid contributed to it, it should truly be called Obaidian. He was just too humble to acknowledge his intellectual contributions and hence he deferred the contribution to others, although his ideas were significantly different, not just in details but in the overall concept. His perspective on familiarity without association with any explicit reward or punishment is a novel way of understanding many aspects of complex learning. I will write extensively (and I hope others to do the same) about those ideas later as they reflect a new way of thinking about learning and memory but I hope that in near future, I can find time to write about at least the essence of that unfinished big question and our common interest in South Asian transformation. I have been thinking something on the lines of “Metamorphosis of life and cultural psyche”, incorporating not only his vision but of few others along with mine on two seemingly superficially unrelated topics. Metamorphosis alludes to love of Hegel’s philosophy and the concept of transformation and also to the drastic change in life forms, especially invertebrates from the larval to the adult stage. I preferred metamorphosis to his truly South Asian analogy, where he used to say that fruit fly is like a “Brahmin”, having two lives and it remembers lessons from the first stage in the second stage too. The broader philosophical idea beyond neuroscience is to explore complete transformation without losing the lessons of the past in both individual and societal context, quite the opposite of destroying everything to build something new. This complete transformation was what Obaid was master of, taking what existed, howsoever crumbling and picking the best out of that to create something new and vibrant.

Unlike every other student in his lab, who worked either on the behavior and molecular biology of olfaction or what he had humbly called as Thorpean conditioning, when I stubbornly persisted, he let me explore associative conditioning. Decision to let me pursue that, I can only speculate would have been painful, as I understood the philosophical underpinnings of his thought but sought to do exactly the opposite. It takes a truly educated man in the Aristotelian sense to nurture two contradictory currents under the same roof and he did with strongest possible support. Over several years of interaction we were realizing that the two points of view might likely converge and are really not opposite ends of the spectrum. I speculate that there are likely going to be interesting differences at the cellular levels but there are going to be more similarities than differences at the neural network level. It is sad that Obaid will not be with us at the finish line of that idea but if it were not for him, we would not have even started exploring these questions, I surely would not have. I would be studying extremophile microorganisms.

He loved discussing science to the point that few hours before I was leaving his lab on my last day in Bangalore, the discussion was on experiments to address concerns about the possibility of elements of associativity in Thorpean conditioning. I reminded him that I was leaving, thinking that he had forgotten the date. He knew the date and time very well but said that experiments did not end with his lab and he was not concerned about the specifics of where I were to address these questions. He said wherever I go I must carry on with the science. He said “It is the question that counts”. It was always the questions, not the rat race of publications, grants, awards and prestige that mattered for Obaid. His message of “carry on” with the mission remains etched in my memory.

Despite his ideological differences with successive Indian governments where he stood for far more progressive egalitarian ideals than the regimes, very similar to his long-time friend and collaborator Seymour Benzer, his stature in the scientific world as unquestionably India’s most prominent biologist gave him the ear of the power-elites in Delhi. They could neither swallow him nor spit him out, so to speak. Finding few exceptional people who could sympathize with his mission of science, he created enough legroom to bring about change. Unlike everyone else in his position, who exploited such opportunities to create their own fiefdoms, Obaid tirelessly worked to build responsible democratically accountable structures of science and technology. His stature made him change the Indian science by setting new waves in motion although failing to completely overhaul it, given that for every honest man in India there are ten thousand opportunists and for every true scientist there are scores of bureaucrats. Understanding the need of a person with vision, Obaid used to frequently complain about Homi Bhabha’s untimely death. As Bhabha had both the intellectual authority and the ear of Nehru, according to Obaid, after Bhabha’s death the task was left midway, with no one there to pick the torch. In a very different style, without any fanfare at all and without such proximity to power as Bhabha, Obaid did carry forward the task in very significant way, something he never took the credit for.

When the moment called he did more than simply training students or setting science policy for the better of the society. He gave lectures in late 90s and early 2000 against how religious forces had brought in astronomy into official course work. Over last two years’ interactions he was concerned about how many central Universities had gone down the drain due to political interventions. He also complained about ills of research institutions suddenly expanding without retaining standards of quality. His social contract did not end just at higher scientific education alone either. Right from writing educational books for underprivileged mid-school kids in Hindi for free, to fighting several plagues of Indian bureaucracy, alongside running the most prestigious lab in South Asia, he somehow managed to retain the curiosity of a ten year old and humility of a graduate student just approaching his graduation exam. Being ever so judicious in his own spending, he bestowed many of his personal resources for the right causes, giving away books to students when he knew they were not going to be returned. I vividly remember his evening talk in a small Bangalore college at a horribly lit and annoyingly buggy room on the topic of human evolution. His eyes lit up when he was inspiring students to pursue science after undergraduate studies. This happened just a few days after a well-publicized talk attended by the who’s who of the Indian science at IISc. While both talks were par excellence, his enthusiasm was clearly many times more for the one in the small dingy room of that rather unknown college. Not just enthusiasm, we in the lab knew he had labored several times more for the undergraduate audience, toiling for months in advance to read up the current status of the field. How could he ever miss the opportunity of finding new recruits for science and for the transformation of South Asia?

Sukant Khurana
His interests ranged from classical music, history, visual arts, to several sports. Apart from hundreds of email exchanges over years on our common interest on olfaction and learning, my conversations with him on excavations of megalithic pottery in South India, population genetics of migration from South to South East Asia, people-to-people contact amongst citizens of different countries of South Asia, remain some of my cherished intellectual interactions. I have not met another renaissance man of his equal despite having worked amongst several big names of the science and art world. He was truly the last of the league of Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, CV Raman from India, with none comparable in sight in the near future. What we are left with are now career politicians heading different institutions, universities, and science and biotechnology departments. He will be missed a lot. Although he is not with us anymore to provide new directions in science, fight for right policies and protest when needed but his vision and scientific inspirations live on through several students. In the end all I can say is through hundreds of young scientists you have trained and thousands you have inspired, dear OS, your scientific dreams and vision of a modern South Asia would “carry on”.

[Sukant Khurana, Ph.D., is a New York based neuroscientist and artist, currently working at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He had the privilege to work on olfaction, learning and memory under the guidance of Prof. Obaid Siddiqi from 2000 to 2003. His works can be seen at www.brainnart.com. Follow him on twitter @brainnart. He can be contacted at sukantkhurana@gmail.com]

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