• Mohor Sengupta

Why everyone should have some science in their lives.

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

On a sweltering afternoon my mother found the six year old me writing on the wall with a sketch-pen cap, passing it off as a chalk on the imaginary blackboard, which was the wall. To my imaginary audience, I was trying to explain our solar system. I was the teacher. In my alone time, I was that person who I admired everyday. Who stood before a blackboard with chalk in her hand teaching to us, a bunch of kids, about the world, about history, about plants and deserts and of course, the solar system. People say that children are most taken up with a future profession that they see and admire others at. My teachers made me aware of something about myself. I really enjoyed describing. Describing things, people, situations, a railway station, the concept of pollination, a lost civilization, you name it. If I liked it, I needed to tell people about it. But before I get into my story-telling passion, a preamble is necessary.

My father's job took us places. Every time I felt settled in a new school and confident that I made a few true friends at last, it was time to move on to another city, to another school and repeat the process all over again. I grew up in five major cities in India and changed six schools. In each school there was that one teacher who described things so well that I almost had six career goals, one for each school. Finally, I settled on biology. Life sciences, the subject about intricacies of a living thing, was extraordinarily fascinating. In the 12th grade, I brought in the muddy water from a stagnant pond near our house and cultured Paramecium, a microorganism, in the bio lab. Everyday the first thing I did in the morning was to look at its sharp stroke movements and flapping cilia under the microscope. The knowledge that an entire cosmos existed in a droplet of pond water was like a philosophical awakening, or in common jargon, nerdy behavior.

No one was surprised when I took up microbiology in undergraduate course. Eventually though, that would take a backseat to something far more engrossing. When I was 20 years old, I was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease. To cope with the surprise, grief and fear, I skipped a semester and stayed home with my parents for six months. During that time, I planned to study life sciences at University of Calcutta after I completed my remaining semester and became a major in Microbiology from Bangalore University. The decision worked out well for me. In my masters course, I learnt biochemistry, immunology and neuroscience. I fell in love with molecular biology. By the end of my masters, I was ready to do real and impactful "research".

Research, however, turned out to be a completely different ballgame. The right questions had to be asked and often there would be no right answers. My question was a complex one. One that humans have tried for ages to answer, with no great solutions. Why can't we repair the mammalian central nervous system after injury? I worked with cerebrospinal fluid (a filtered blood plasma circulating around the brain and spinal cord and separated from blood by the blood brain barrier). It was a clinical study with traumatic spinal cord injury patients. Such patients lose sensation and movement below their injury site. It's a life-changing and often career-ending event in the victim's life.

There have been countless studies, the world over, trying to figure out what causes the spinal cord to fail to heal itself. There have been no definitive answers yet. Recently, there have been reports that some patients regained voluntary movements and autonomic nervous system function, such as, cardiovascular and bladder movements, after stimulation of the spinal cord. One truly intriguing intervention in recent times happened when stem cells from donor egg cells were transplanted into the cervical spinal cord of a patient and he regained movement of his upper limbs.

I could go on about the central nervous system and why regeneration is so interesting to me, but that is a different story altogether. The intrigue in scientific discoveries cannot be contained to a single subject. Everyday thousands of scientists the world over are finding out new things about the workings of the human body. The quest for knowledge and application of that knowledge to solve human problems is not a trait of just the modern man. We've been at it from the beginning when our ancestral nomadic tribes discovered fire, invented the wheel and tools, selected desirable traits in plants by agriculture and in animals by domestication. Over the last couple of centuries inventions and discoveries have happened at breakneck speed. Today we are able to cure many diseases, accurately predict weather, travel from one end of the world to another in a short time, live in uninhabitable locations and even explore our neighbors in the solar system.

It is indeed a grand achievement. We have come far.

But how much do we think about these in everyday life? How many people would care if a new drug for dementia or a way to slow down global warming is found? Yet, if knowledge of scientific progress was accessible to the common man in the common language, the society would stand to benefit from it dramatically. Now, more than ever, is the time to realize the legacy of our scientific knowledge. Also, now is the time, amid turmoil, that we should know what precipice we are pushing our Earth towards. That if we don't act now, our future generations won't live to enjoy the legacy of science.

Having trained as a scientist for many years, I want to share the knowledge about new scientific discoveries in simple language to my readers. I want science to be a part of many people's lives, not only scientists'. Because there is joy in knowing. And there is always a possibility that the awareness will change mindsets,

Image source: Max Pixel