Saturday, January 3, 2015

Reflections on Paths Not Taken

The other day, someone asked me why and how I became interested in the pharmaceutical industry. This set me thinking about some of the other interests I had over time, the ones I didn’t pursue. This blog is dedicated to two of the paths not taken.

My Tryst with Biology

I have always had an interest in modern biology. We had a reasonably good Biology teacher in school, Mr. David, who explained the basics of modern genetics well. But, more importantly, somewhere towards the end of my school years, the British Council screened the multiple part BBC series on Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. I still have some visual memories of the episode on genetics where Bronowski explained Mendel’s experiments.

Sometime during the same period, Madras played host to an international conference on Molecular Biology where there were a number of prominent international scholars speaking. I attended their talks though I didn’t understand much of what they were saying.

One of my school friends, Vimal Jain, had a strong interest in medicine and hoped to do research on cancer one day. Under his influence, I started reading about cancer as well and even contemplated doing medicine. I visited CMC Vellore to find out more about this possibility but was discouraged by the miniscule number of places available and the intense competition for these.

During this period, I read several interesting books, including one on Josef Issels, a German doctor, who proposed alternate therapies for cancer that involved identifying and removing all other potential sources of infection including bad teeth! I just did a quick internet search and found that Issels’ treatment is still alive though it remains as controversial as it was during Issels’ lifetime, with some considering it ineffective, and others as outright quackery.

While my parents didn’t discourage me from studying Biology, or from reading about cancer research,  I can’t recall their active encouragement either! But, my interest in Biology didn’t go away, and I got a chance to pursue it again when I was studying Physics at IIT Kanpur.

In our final year, in fact in our final semester (January-April 1986), I attended a course which was titled (I hope I remember this correctly) Foundations of Modern Biology. It was taught by Prof. S. Ranganathan, a brilliant biochemist, who had done a post-doc with one of the outstanding figures in Organic Synthesis, Prof. Woordward, at Harvard in the 1960s. Ranga brought RNA and DNA to life in a dramatic way. I now realize that this was a state-of-the-art course at that time, and Ranga was really current with the interface between Chemistry and Biology.

As an aside, IITK had some incredible faculty in the Chemistry department in the 1970s and 1980s including CNR Rao, D. Balasubramanian, P.T. Narasimhan, M.V. George and Ranga himself. Chemists in India recently celebrated Ranga’s 80th birthday and he was conferred with an Outstanding Teacher Award.

This fascination with Modern Biology has remained with me over the years, and is one of the reasons I have been interested in the Biology-driven pharmaceutical industry.

And another with Political Science

During the year (1986-87) I spent at Stanford doing my Master’s, I was drawn to other subjects. As Indian institutions go, IIT Kanpur (where I did my undergraduate degree) had an inclusive curriculum. Though I majored in Physics, I was able to do courses in Art, Sociology, Economics and Philosophy as part of the Humanities and Social Sciences requirement. But these seemed really inadequate when I saw the Course catalogue at Stanford. My urge to do other courses increased further when I spoke to some of the undergraduate students there.

So, I used the flexible credits that I had to attend a Political Science course titled “Political Economy of Development.” It was taught by a really articulate and knowledgeable professor called Terry Karl. I really enjoyed her classes and ploughed through the huge books we had to read as part of the class readings including Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies and Barrington Moore’s Dictatorship and Democracy.

Professor Karl was more interested in Latin America than Asia, but she encouraged me to work on a term paper on India, and I looked at the Punjab conflict (which was prominent at that time) with a Political Science lens. I still have the paper I wrote, and I must say it wasn’t a bad paper at all even if it was somewhat simplistic.

Another source of encouragement during the course was the teaching assistant, Alison Brysk. When I first saw the size of the readings for the course, I was really scared, so during the first tutorial session I asked Alison how they expected us to read so much. I still remember her response: one of the things we expect you to learn from the course is how to read efficiently (or words to that effect!).

After the experience of this course, I seriously thought about applying to a PhD programme in Political Science. If I remember right, I even discussed this with Professor Karl, and she was quite encouraging. But, I finally chickened out, because I really didn’t know what I would be able to do with a PhD in Political Science in India. As I was committed to returning to and working in India, I decided that this just wasn’t a good idea.

But I retain my interest in Political Science and what we did in Political Science 114K to this day. I have been lucky to have a chance to teach courses that build on this interest. I started teaching a course on Business, Government, and Society with Rajeev Gowda about a decade ago, and have taught this course off and on, including this year at IIM Indore to our IPM students.


I am lucky that I have been able to keep alive my interest in Modern Biology and Political Science even though I don’t pursue them as the principal tracks of my career. I am not an expert in either but you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy studying these subjects!

[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]

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