Leading the Covid fight from the front

K Ramya Sree, June 28:

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR’s constituent leading biology lab CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, has been in the news for a while now as the increasing number of Covid-19 cases brings the focus on research and development of antidotes or vaccines to defeat the virus. CCMB is testing and collaborating with various institutions in the race to find a drug that can kill the virus. It is employing several tools and approaches in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic. From testing patient samples, providing training on Covid-19 testing to the sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing, the institute is engaged in culturing the SARS-CoV-2 virus for testing repurposed and new drugs. 

Rakesh Mishra, an Indian scientist specialising in genomics and epigenetics, currently the Director of CCMB is heading the research. In a candid conversation with The Pioneer, Dr Mishra speaks to us about his journey to becoming the director of CCMB, his family background, childhood, drug to fight the virus and more… 

Picking science over cricket

I was born in Pratapgarh district of UP. I studied in my village school, later I went to district headquarters and did my Intermediate from government Inter college. I then went to University of Allahabad where I did my B.Sc M.Sc Ph.D in chemistry. In our school we only studied language and mathematics. I have always found biology more interesting since my childhood. I was very serious about cricket during my university days. I had to quit cricket because I had to go to practise during my practical times. So I chose my research over cricket. 

Curiosity for life’s mysteries drew me towards science…

I never found anything more interesting than watching a seed become a tree or an egg hatching and turning into a bird. It all amazes me. I used to love watching an ant or insect carry its food home without knowing where the home is. I wanted to understand how it is done without any communication. I wanted to know how it rains and how the weather changes and what kind of insects come in what season. I wanted to know if there is anyone who controls all these, etc. Many questions still remained unanswered. In science, one should be curious and talk to others and learn about things you don’t know. And I was a curious kid. I used to ask a lot of questions. This curiosity has drawn me here and chosen this path. One good thing that happened to me was that my parents never forced me to do something that I did not like. They always encouraged me and my curiosity towards science. Nobody would confess they were naughty as a child (laughs).

Curiosity kills the radio set…

When I was young, there was no electricity in our village. We would hear news on the radio back then. I was curious to know how a radio works with the help of a battery. So I took out the batteries from the radio to how it worked. I didn’t find anything. So I put the batteries with the wires I had pulled out from the radio. Of course I couldn’t fix it as I was too young. My mother was furious then as I damaged the batteries, which were considered to be very expensive back then. But my father never discouraged me. He said, you opened it because of your curiosity, its okay that batteries are ruined but we must respect your curiosity. You should never be afraid of asking questions. 

My father will always remain as a symbol of hard work ….

My mother, Premlatha Mishra, was a graduate back then during the 1950s and her parents too were educated. My father, Suryamani Mishra too, back then has done his PhD in Geography from Banaras University and was a geographer and was working for land use. My father used to walk several miles each day to reach his school. My father will always remain as a symbol of hard work and honesty. My father would always give immense importance to education. He always encouraged me and my siblings to do what we love unlike others. He was always out working. He used to work in the city and we lived in our village. Practically, I was doing everything on my own. My elder sister too studied in Lucknow as it was difficult for women to get education in a village, while my two brothers and I studied in the village. My brothers and I were like a team who would play, study and do everything together. 

Meeting my wife at CCMB…

My wife, Krishnaveni Mishra is also a scientist. She is a professor in Biochemistry in the University of Hyderabad. She did her PhD in CCMB when I was working there and that’s how we met during the early 1990s. I was a scientist here then for four years. I left CCMB in around 1992 and left India because I wanted to do something which was not happening here. I wanted to know how Genome and genetic information is packaged. When I returned to Hyderabad, I joined CCMB again. Once my children grew up to be independent, my wife resumed her work. My elder son, Chetan, has just finished his Masters in physics. He is looking for a place where he can do his PhD. My younger son, Sachin, is doing integrated masters from ISR, Bhopal. Even he is interested in Masters and lets see what he wants to be. 

CCMB was a trendsetter…..

I was very influenced by Dr PM Bhargava, the founder-director of CCMB. His dedication to the place and linking creativity in science, cinema, art and many others. His interest towards cleanliness and the way he behaves with people is amazing. He was a person who would pick up litter and drop it in the dustbin without hesitation. He was a perfectionist. For him, CCMB was life. There was nothing beyond the institution for him. He used to mingle freely with youngsters too and was very patient with them. When I returned to CCMB, I saw Dr Laljit Singh was the director. I have seen his dedication to working from morning till late night, not leaving anything unturned for the institution. I always used to think what are they gaining from all this hard work. Then I realised, you are creating a place where many can pursue their dreams in science. People used to criticise that we spent a lot of money on CCMB campus. It was the only lab in the country that was centrally air conditioned and it had all the equipment. CCMB was a symbol of biology research in the country. CCMB is a trendsetter. 

When the health dept called us…

When Covid struck the state, we were called by the government to ask if we can help. I contacted the students and the staff here to know if they are willing to do it and they were all open to it because of all the safety measures and equipment we have here. We then converted the lab into a testing and training lab where we started culturing the virus in the lab. We started training hospital staff and we became one of the major Covid-19 labs in the country. We are now recognised at national level repositories for Covid related samples and we also have dozens of collaborative programmes with various institutions nationally and internationally working on Covid. This shows the quality in a place which can adopt and respond to social needs. 

Being the director of CCMB….

When the pandemic struck, the Telangana Chief Minister said in a meeting with the Prime Minister that he wanted CCMB to get involved in Covid-19 testing. There are close to 50 research centres in Telangana and the CM took only one name. I feel happy and privileged to be the director of such an institution. 

Growing Covid virus in the lab…

We have a system in the CCMB lab where we can infect the virus and the virus grows and the cell dies. We have a system where we can test the drug. As of now no one found a drug to kill the virus. People are just claiming. In the country no other lab is growing the virus. Now many research institutions and research institutions are testing their drugs, if it works, they will take it forward for patients. We, on our own, are not developing any drug right but we are testing the drugs being developed by others and facilitating their needs. Certainly, a drug might be developed in some months. 

The drug trial is not over yet….

I have only seen government statements on immunity booster medicine by Patanjali and some news. Even if you have a perfect drug, it will take several months to say that a drug for a virus has been developed because you have to test it on thousands of people. Meanwhile, I heard Patanjali has announced their drug that can kill the virus. I feel this is unethical.

Science is learning from failure…

Science is not an isolated process. It is something you have to talk about and search for answers for your questions. There is innovation, creativity, intuition and these kinds of things drive you towards doing more. In science, one should be curious and talk to others and learn about things you don’t know. Feeling happy to talk to others, being networked with others is how you can build yourself. Science is learning from failure. In science you will never succeed in one go. It’s a learning process. You learn something new from every failure and should be confident even during your failures.  

Quick bytes:

How do you describe yourself: 

Curious about things unknown, I’m a person who believes that difficulty is an opportunity.

What do you do in your leisure time:

I like to be close to nature, so I grow plants, look at them. Play with my dog and spend some time with my family.

What are you most inspired by?

To me nature is the most inspiring thing. 

Favourite holiday destination?

If I have to choose, then I would like to go to the hills, where I see vegetation, the view of mountains and more.

How do you destress yourself?

I read poetry. I find it interesting how emotional, deep things can be expressed in a few words. I also like to take some walks.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Hopefully, I will sit in the lab and do experiments and talk to youngsters about science.

What is your favourite film?

I like Hindi films. I recently watched Gulabo Sitabo. I don’t like movies that have unnecessary violence and horror. I consume subtle movies. In recent times I like 3 Idiots, earlier, Sholay and Mughal-E-Azam.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *