Of Meetings and Communities…

CharminarIt was 15 or so years ago, that as a PhD student I attended my first Indian Society of Developmental Biology Meeting. It was held somewhere in Pune, I don’t know where. The late Veronica Rodrigues ran the show, I remember her as this scary organizer who could scare even the bosses. I don’t remember much from then except the decision that I wanted to do developmental biology (and I promptly paid the lifetime membership fee for InSDB!) and the realization that if I wanted to study development I had to do it in drosophila. What little developmental biology I knew came from Dr L S Shashidhara’s classes as part of our coursework, where he introduced the beautiful processes of embryonic development ruled by funny-sounding genes names. The names all ran into each other, but the processes were amazing. I was a product of the recently started MSc Biotechnology, where we were introduced to the modern science of Molecular Biology but knew little of the old world of embryology.


This time, I went to the developmental biology meeting to hear about new research but even more to meet friends in the developmental biology community. We have a thriving one, a community, today. Perhaps many are from labs that attended that InSDB meeting 15 years ago. And an increasing number works on organisms other than drosophila, the reigning king even today. I already had an inkling of this from the two InSDB meetings I have attended in the span of last three years. So, this time I decided to look at the data quantitatively. A plot of the number of abstracts vs. model organisms shows that many new model organisms have arrived at the scene in Indian developmental biology labs. But even more importantly a number of models that had been studied for years by isolated researchers around the country are growing into mini-communities themselves. So, what is the big deal about communities?

Communities catalyze research. As a student, when I went to the InSDB meeting, I had a poster, and some tantalizing data from mouse cell culture. But typical of a frustrated PhD student, when this bouncy lady came to my poster, all I could talk about was my experiments that were not working. The lady was Dr Shubha Tole, and she promptly invited me to her lab to learn the technique, RNA in situ hybridization. I did my life’s and her lab’s first RNA in situ hybridizations on mouse embryos and also in the process found a mentor for life. In last week’s meeting, I saw many such new relationships kindle and many seeds of collaboration between PIs, and also between students get sowed.

Then communities also make science not just interesting, but fun! You look forward to meetings because you can steal away and relish a Hyderabadi biryani in the evenings or hike up to the Golconda fort to admire the city from the ramparts!

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Developing Developmental Biologists of India

KR-Pix-website-mIt was a pleasant November afternoon. I just walked into my lab following a customary post-lunch siesta. In came my ex-supervisor and looked at me sharply. A bit of chill went down the spine, a prospect of losing the position and prestige in my own lab also played at the back end of my mind. She said, – ‘how would you like to be a life member of the Indian Society of Developmental Biologists? Here is the form, fill in, and give me 500 rupees. It took me a little while to recover from the unexpected request, and to savor the relief of avoiding an awkward question in front of a newly acquired student. I tried a meager attempt at resistance – ‘but Veronica,.. I no longer work on development related issues..’ She said – ‘oh! Doesn’t matter, you will do it eventually. I am now the president of the society and I will recommend your name for a life membership.’ So, that’s how the fledgling Society acquired its newest life member. That was a decade and half ago. By no stretch of imagination I could have been counted as a developmental biologist at that time. I am also unsure if I can be counted amongst one even now! Well it’s a different debate and we may revisit it at some other occasion in future.

Many years later, and after several presidents having graced the society, I found myself in a very similar situation on an early December afternoon at TIFR. It was the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the Society, being organized at TIFR after a long gap. I went to greet some old friends at the Homi Bhabha auditorium when the serving president called me out for an ‘informal meeting’ outside, over a cup of tea. Some of the serving members of the executive committee and a past president also joined in. After some usual discussion about the future plans and current activities, the issue of nominating the president came up. A name was proposed and all of us seconded it, but the person declined. And then, without any warning, some of the people present turned towards me and asked if I would be willing to do the job. The rest joined in and encouraged me to say yes. Once again, a chill went down my spine. Once again I made a feeble attempt to wriggle out. Alas! It was not to be. And, that’s how the Society got its latest president.

In the intervening period, the society went through significant morphogenesis. It has a large number of new members. Many of them are young faculty. Nearly 300 people attended the Mumbai meeting. Therefore, the challenge was to continue with the momentum and introduce new ideas to invigorate the members. The new president must identify a new team – most importantly, a new Secretary-Treasurer, because the serving one had enough of it already – and learn the rules and bylaws of the society to steer it. A tough job for someone who does not really understand what Developmental Biology is after all.

Therfore, it brings me to the moot question: what is Developmental Biology? Moreover, what should a Society of Developmental Biologists do?

Well, as a start, the society URL went through a metamorphosis form InSDB.org to DevBioIndia.org, and it got a new website. If these can be considered development, then of course, we are developing. However, it does not quite feel right. My fellow members, I put these questions to you and request you to clear my ignorance with some vigorous responses. Let’s Blog!

Krishanu Ray, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai

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