Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

SUMMER RESEARCH IN BANGALORE

by Kristen Uekermann

November 15th, 2007


Program participants (clockwise from top-left): Jaline Gerardin, Varun Narendra and unidentified University of Chicago student; Kevin Zhang; local student and Yonit Lavin; Megan Srinivas

Throughout history, scientists have gathered together in the same place to work and collaborate.  Cambridge, Massachusetts is one such scientific hub.  Another is Bangalore, India, with the addition of several new institutes of excellence such as the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), which complement the long scientific tradition at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).  Through the Harvard-Bangalore Science Initiative, Harvard MCB Professor Venkatesh Murthy, along with Professor L. Mahadevan from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is working to connect these two scientific centers.

With support from the International Innovation Grants Program, HBSI provided travel funds for five Harvard College students interested in biological and physical sciences, mathematics, and chemistry on a lab exchange program for 10-12 weeks last summer.  The students (Jaline Gerardin, Yonit Lavin, Varun Narendra, Megan Srinivas and Kevin Zhang) worked in labs of their choice in the three institutes in Bangalore (NCBS, JNCASR and IISc).

“It has been less common for students in the sciences to study abroad, but we would like to change that! I think that working in a lab in a rather different culture adds tremendously to a broad education that Harvard so earnestly aspires to”, says Prof. Murthy.

Students were housed in dormitories on the NCBS Campus, located in a beautiful, wooded area.  Most faculty and students reside on the campus, so the Harvard exchange students were immersed in the community.  Students also had an opportunity to explore Bangalore and Southern India.  Varun Narenda, a 2007 HBSI exchange student, commented that he enjoyed the combination of science and culture as a learning experience.  “First, as it was my initial exposure to the field of computational biology, the research experience had a very stimulating effect and is a very large part of the reason I now hope to pursue an MD/PhD in the field. Second, I was able to develop many of the necessary tools to do significant research in computational biology down the line. Beyond the research experience, the cultural experience of living in Bangalore for two months was amazing.”

Kevin Zhang worked under Dr. Sumantra Chattarji at NCBS in a lab focusing on the effect of stress on synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus and the amygdala.  In the process of a rat behavioral experiment, Zhang lost 8 of his 14 subjects due to a facility-wide infection.  Instead of giving up, Zhang modified and completed his experiment.  Zhang says his only regret was that the experience lasted only 10 weeks.  “From my realization that curry is a broad term describing a myriad of different gravy preparations to performing my first shaky ovariectomy…I learned much about science and the Indian way of life”. 

Some HBSI students focused on projects with a direct impact on their host country.  India has the highest number of AIDS cases in the world, and through her HBSI exchange, Megan Srinivas began to tackle that problem first hand.  “Via my project, I attempted to improve the current estimation of the effective population of HIV within a single person”, Srinivas relates.  “Once we are able to identify an accurate estimate, we will be able to better predict the virus’s rate of evolution.  This will enable us to more aptly treat patients, allowing for the switching of antiretroviral therapies at time intervals that will deter the virus’s evolution”. 

Jaline Gerardin, who worked on computational simulations of folding proteins as a collaboration between NCBS and JNCASR, included a “Beginner’s Guide to Bangalore” in her final report on her exchange visit.  In her guide, she discusses everything from getting around in the lab, to dining out in the city to bathroom etiquette.  “It was interesting to observe a different scientific environment”, Gerardin says, “I would definitely recommend HBSI to anyone interested in international experience”.

Other students agreed that experiencing science in a different culture expanded their knowledge base and scientific understanding.  Yonit Lavin investigated apoptosis in T-Cells.  “I learned a lot by just being in the lab.  I have realized that every lab has its own environment and its own method.  This alone would be a learning experience, let alone all of the new methods and techniques, as well as a much deeper understanding of the topic”.  Yonit continued, “This experience also helped me to understand just how universal science is.  I was half way around the world and reading the same pub-med papers that I would be reading at a lab in Harvard.  It is also an amazing way to connect to people whose culture and society are different than your own, but because of the work that you are doing, what you are thinking and talking about on a day to day basis is the same”. 

Prof. Murthy expects this program to continue in the coming years and encourages Harvard College Students to consider a summer of science in India.  Professor Vijay Raghavan, Director of NCBS, who hosted the 2007 students, states, “We were very excited by the first organized summer visit of Harvard students to Bangalore.  Although India can be a pretty confusing place, it seemed to take about 30 seconds for the Harvard students to figure the place out. The best parts of this program are the interactions, links and friendship that result. These will last. Our students and faculty greatly enjoyed the visit! Let’s work on getting a good gang here in 2008!”

View Venkatesh Murthy's Faculty Profile