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Is India overlooking a thousand geniuses every year?

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Column: The country is unable to identify and encourage its geniuses.

By Dr. Srinivasa Rao

The Leonardo Project is tracing the genealogy of the artist and hunting down his DNA to learn more about his ancestry and physical characteristics, to verify paintings that have been attributed to him – and, most remarkably, to search for clues to his extraordinary talent.​

I read this in the May 2017 issue of the National Geographic with Einstein’s face and the tagline ​GENIUS underneath. ​Why are some people so much smarter than the rest of us? ​I stood in front of it staring at the issue. The Einstein picture on the cover is nothing new to me. I had seen his picture a few thousand times over several years when I worked as a postdoctoral fellow and faculty at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. But the tag line made me buy the copy.

Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, conducted a research on inheritance of genius. He published his works in 1869 in a book titled Hereditary Genius. He proposed that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance just as physical features. Galton went on further with all his data and statistics and concluded that genius is rare, numbering one in a million.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, Director of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia, conducted brain scans. They measured the size of corpus colossum , ​a broad band of nerve fibers joining the two hemispheres of the brain.​ They show that the rich communication between the two hemispheres of the brain through corpus callosum appears to be double the size in genius compared to the controls. Research results of many scientists in the last two centuries form the foundation for the search for the clues for genius in DNA.

India, with over a billion people, can expect to have at least 1,000 or more geniuses in the present time, according to Galton’s estimates. If you consider the recorded past over a few thousand years, the number could be much higher. If a person’s work ​lives​ over a few hundred years, that person can be considered a genius. Though most of us cannot have an objective yardstick to measure genius. Nobel prize is one of the significant measures we all can agree. Then why are there very few geniuses originating in India?

I reviewed the life events of 10 scientist who saved more than 2 billion lives, so far, through their discoveries. I find most of them may not be very different from the high school students you may see in small towns. Taking cues from this sort of analysis, one can analyze the circumstances and life events that negatively impact Indian scientists in getting a Nobel prize.

Each year, Nobel prizes are awarded in Physiology and Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, Economics, Literature and Peace. Is India trying to see who are the Indians working in those areas and why did they miss the boat?

The 2004 Nobel for Physiology and Medicine was awarded for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation to Dr. Aaron Ciechanover and Dr. Avram Hershko, of Israel, and Dr. Irwin Rose, of the United States. On October 15, 2004, The Times of India published a news item with the following headline:  “Government apathy killed a Nobel dream.” It is the story of an Indian scientist, whose work, according to the paper, could have been included in the prize, had he received sufficient funding from the Indian government.

The ubiquitin story in India started at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology(CCMB), Hyderabad, with me as a junior research fellow in 1981. Ubiquitin was one of the three projects I presented for my PhD. work. Ubiquitin is a small protein that is present in all the cells. It plays a very important role in intracellular recycling of proteins. The mechanism of action was not known at that time.

My proposal was to work toward and understand the same. Dr. P.M. Bhargava agreed for starting the work on ubiquitin project, which was my first choice. Dr. K. Kannan supervised me for some time, though every one of the small team of CCMB helped me to learn the various concepts, techniques including handling animals. In one year, I identified the crude enzyme fraction that is needed for degradation of proteins tagged by ubiquitin.

When I presented this result, I was asked to purify the enzyme. When I did, the activity was lost. After bleeding so many rabbits needed for the experiments, my encouragement to work also was draining. I wrote my results in a scientific paper format and asked some senior colleagues to review. Most of them are now well known and distinguished scientists in India. Some agreed that I send the results for publication, but Dr. P.M. Bhargava wanted it to be published only if the pure enzyme worked. So the result was not communicated as a paper for publication. I was almost lurching in a dark alley. Then my well-wishers advised me to leave CCMB. Later, I got a French government scholarship and left for Paris in 1984 to earn a PhD.

While I was in Paris, working towards establishing metacentric origin of sickle cell anemia mutation in human DNA using molecular genetics approach, the ubiquitin Nobel prize-winning team published papers that showed ubiquitin dependent enzymatic degradation protein requires a nucleic acid fraction. This was the fraction that I was removing to purify the enzyme at CCMB!

I am sure such stories may exist for many others engaged in cutting edge research in India. If a systematic, scientific and objective review of all such situations are conducted, it can result in clues to correct India’s inability to identify and encourage its geniuses. Even if it does not result in immediate Nobel prizes it would be a noble cause.

(Dr. Srinivasa Rao is a scientist and researcher based in Hyderabad and New York, working to use his domain knowledge to address the problems of humanity such as malnutrition.)

More from the author:
How Indian Americans can end child malnutrition in India (November 13, 2016)