Livet och tiderna av Viktor Thor Raghavensson

The earth is greeted by the morning Sun when it is not being shielded by the soft and spongy grey clouds. No birds sing on this dark day as the cue from sun’s rays have not reached their ears.

29-jan-2017-2

In an apartment on the countryside with the supermarket Willy’s nearby, I wake up, looking forward to another day. One more day the clock has swallowed in its astronomical belly. Millions of people in big cities wake up early to go to work. I am privileged to have food, shelter and clothing. More than 750 million people are below poverty line in the world. I work for my living like three billion people all over the world. I search for the meaning in life through my research with microbes. I come home, dine alone with my thoughts. I call my friend in England like many who call their near and dears in faraway countries. I have hot water when millions do not have access to potable water. I sleep, I entertain myself. I yearn for more. What do I call mine when my actions are like many millions? Could I ever be separate? Am I not a child of the planet? I have freedom. I have choice unlike many who are chained.

What’s in a name: A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet

William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet (410 years ago)

Vijay means victory. He was the grandson of Indra, the chief God of sky and rain. Like Thor.  My Swedish name would be Viktor Thor Raghavensson.

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Into the world of numbers

In this connected world, we seem to know about pretty much everything with a few clicks. Still, If I ask you, how many people live in India? Could you answer without seeking help from Know-All-Google?

India has 1.25 billion people. The world population is ~ 7.5 billion. If we have 100 people in a room and  if we represent Sweden and India, by scaling down population to the size of this room, for a group of 100 people, we would have 99 Indian and one Swedish person.

Relative numbers are important than absolute numbers. Quantitative reasoning plays an important role in scientific research. Scientists would like to manipulate genes precisely so that so that they can produce a product of interest in large quantities. Knowing how many molecules and proteins are there in a cell is very useful in achieving this goal. Let us take an example.

If I ask how many protons are there in a bacterial cell, what would you say? And how would you go about doing it?

Firstly, the size, or to be precise volume as the protons are confined to a three-dimensional space. Typically, the size of bacterial is 1 µm (humans are six orders of magnitude higher), thus the volume assuming it is a cube for the sake of calculation, is 1 µm3. If the intracellular pH is 7, you know that the number of protons is 10-7 mol. L‑1. You will see that there are only 70 protons (show the calculation below if possible). Such small numbers. Cells must be economical in their reactions. I like the biochemistry of a living cell. Biochemistry is equivalent to astronomy (telescopes and stars) but at microscopic level (microscopes and microbes).

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Education as a tool for economic prosperity

As a child, I played with simple wooden toys on the streets. We were privileged to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. As I grew older, I was sucked into the system of mass education. Every parent hopes that their child will have a good life and education is a means to achieve that goal. This is also what my parents told me.

I did not pay much attention to my studies till about 15. I managed to pass the exam. When I turned 16, a miracle happened. Suddenly, I was scoring first mark in all the subjects except English. English was always difficult but I managed to take extra classes and quote poetry in essays. I was initiated to the world of poetry. Poetry still rescues me from the boredom of the modern world.

I always wanted to become a doctor but due to caste reservation, I could not get into the college despite my A grades. I moved to study chemical engineering as I could study a bio related field (closest to medicine at some point), some 2000 km away from my parents’ place. It was the time when the channel tunnel was inaugurated. I dreamed of taking the tunnel one day.

The first few months in the college was different. Different language (Bengali), sharing the room with two other students, tasteless food (for the first two years) and bullying from seniors, and many other difficulties that makes one yearn for his/her home.  I obtained the best grades. Made good friends. The overall experience at the college was joyful despite the few initial hiccups.

Perhaps that is the reason one must go to a college/university. To be together, to engage in discussions, to go to cafes and restaurants at 2 am and to use resources at the library. I got a job but I decided to pursue my master’s degree at a University in New Delhi. My father helped me financially. I am indebted to his help. He would never say no to books. I bought many books.

I had the fortune of being the only student in Master’s programme at the department and I could use any professor I wanted to work with. I chose a professor who was working with waste water treatment, to produce biopolymers from waste. New Delhi was culturally vibrant; new avenues were explored and new friendships ensued. Old friends got married, yes at 23! I got a job at a pharmaceutical company near Bombay but I decided to come to research. I came to the state where the Thar desert is located. Working at this research organisation sowed the seed for my interest in PhD. I bought the book by Prof. Nielsen with half my monthly salary; I went to the library in New Delhi and printed everything I could find on metabolic engineering. I would take them to Denmark with me. Metabolism is usually a science subject and suddenly engineers were studying metabolism!

I wrote to Prof.  Nielsen in 2000. He invited me to DTU in Copenhagen; thus began a long journey that would span three different continents over 12 years.

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Culture shock

The first time I flew in my life. It was a memorable experience. Clouds floating, lying very still, like the lake on a calm day only the ripples from the paddling of the ducks nearby.

Eating with knife and fork was challenging. Toilet was confusing. Automatic doors and politeness of people was bewildering.

Helga, my Portuguese friend and David my Swiss friend taught me to speak slowly and to use the cutlery. I am thankful to them.

I shared my office with a Dane, a Portuguese and a Brazilian.

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My doctoral research

Upon respiration, also called breathing, living things take in oxygen & give out carbon-di-oxide, thereby deriving energy from the food they eat. But yeasts, unlike other living beings, tend to produce a lot of alcohol {ex. Beer}, from glucose (food) upon respiration; this process is known as fermentation.

For yeast to eat glucose (food), it needs to be sensed, just like we see the food with our eyes & our taste buds transmit the quality (sweet/sour/salty) of the food. Once the food is taken in, signals are passed on in an orderly manner: commander proteins, which send orders to the messengers (the soldiers) to carry out specific tasks, like switching on or off a gene which makes a protein.

My work involved finding out what happens even when there were no sensors or commanders or soldiers & how does it affect the outcome of the cell’s behaviour. My work together with the existing knowledge shows that yeasts can eat glucose even there are no sensors (eyes). Cellular network goes haywire if there are no commanders or soldiers. Scientists exploit this property to make microscopic slaves, which can produce various compounds of interest.

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God save the yeast; Long live the yeast.

Teaching high school students

After my PhD, I went to Philadelphia to do my postdoctoral research in neuroscience, on Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. However, difficult work environment and my own quest for some fundamental questions on life, made me to leave the postdoc job and come take up a teaching position at an alternative school in England. I delved into the nature of thought as well as taught Chemistry at the school. I discovered the world of classical music. Bach, Haydn, Prokofiev, Chopin, Liszt. Teaching was a great learning opportunity. It made me to think in the learner’s shoes and to care for them as a foster parent.

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Back to Research

After eight years of teaching and being at administrative roles, I decided to come back to research. Brazil chose me. My boss was a researcher whom I met in Denmark 14 years ago.  I had a fantastic experience there. Desert flowers blossomed. New talents arrived. Drawing using crayons and on iPad and learning to play the piano, the learning the Portuguese language.

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Sweden now

After two years in Brazil, I am now with Prof. Olsson, my PhD co-supervisor who I saw last in 2005. Back full circle. I am working on bioenergy and sustainability. As the climate change is undeniable and we need to seek ways to live sustainably using renewable fuels and chemicals. Numbers are important. A two deg C rise will be disastrous to the planet.

I did not choose research; I simply meandered along with my thoughts at that moment. I listened to it. I heeded to it. I waited too. Networking certainly helps.

22-jan-2017

Afterword

Research is just one of the many possibilities. I would never regret choosing research as I admire the world of microbes. Researchers give a voice to them. Although everything is attributed to molecules, there is a bizarre feeling that the cells have a mind on their own.

As I travelled during my course of life, I discovered that everything is connected. There is no justifying means to live life. One ought to live life, and as much as possible simply. I realised that one ought to nurture the connections through care and empathy. I discovered that colours and drawing allows one to explore the freedom that life offers. Would it not be wonderful if the people on this planet appreciate Life in its fullest through simple things ?

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