Journey to the centre of a protein molecule….

DR.ARUNA DHATHATHREYAN Professor & Emeritus Scientist, CLRI

Technicians tinker with the atomic force microscope, a researcher mills around to get his sample tested, a Ph.D. student adjusts the controls of a spectrophotometer, while another takes copious notes. There is a buzz of activity in the Advanced Materials Laboratory at the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) in Chennai, India. Every so often, Aruna quips in with encouraging or helpful suggestions to the team, which they eagerly take in.

Dr. Aruna Dhathathreyan a Professor and Emeritus Scientist in CLRI heads a team that studies protein folding and misfolding under different conditions. “When proteins are inside cells, they cannot behave the same way as they do as free molecules. It is because they are in a small space with many other biomolecules,” she explains. It causes crowding or aggregation, which can affect our health in the form of diseases like osteoarthritis or in the case of tanneries in producing good leather.

Aruna recounts her growing up years when she imagined becoming a scientist after reading books by Jules Verne. “I was then just eight or nine years old. I read Verne’s books multiple times and dreamt of my journey to the centre of the earth and my wish to save humankind from an invading microbial colony from outer space.”

“I was lucky to be born in a family where both my grandfathers were teachers. And my mother wanted to educate her daughters. Thankfully, my rather conservative father did not interfere with his wife’s ambitions. During my early years in school, I had good science teachers who encouraged me to ask questions.”

In the 70s, women took up a job in a bank or became a teacher. This career path was considered to be ‘trouble-free’ and would allow them to lead their married lives without any hitch. But Aruna’s parents supported her decision to take up a career in science.

“They often worried about their decision to let me be a researcher, especially when someone’s niece got engaged to be married. Relatives and friends often criticized them, and told me that whatever a woman did, ultimately, her role was that of a good wife and a mother,” Aruna recalls.

“In college, I discovered that an overload of abstract ideas was not for me. I loved experimental physics. I realized one need not be a genius in theoretical physics, or even be mechanically handy. My constant wish was to find new things and have the strength to work on an experiment where no one had yet found an answer. The greatest joy is when you are the first person to get to the answer,” she says.

The most exciting period of Aruna’s life in science came after she completed her Ph.D. She was accepted by the Max Planck Institute in Germany, marking the beginning of a highly memorable six years. “Theirs was a chemistry lab, but they were looking for a physicist. The institute was funded well and was composed of some of the best physical chemistry teachers of the decade.” Aruna’s boss was the last Ph.D. student of legendary molecular biochemist Linus Pauling.

The value of a lab with a “good tradition” was reemphasised, as Aruna found herself among an intellectually and culturally diverse group in the Max Planck Institute. Her project on hybrid oligonucleotides was just one component of a larger one involving more important metaphysical questions on the origin of life and evolution. Switching from physics to biophysics to physical chemistry or even sensory physiology was made easy and exciting due mainly to her great teachers.

Aruna believes that scientists can’t lead isolated lives. “Our research can’t be only open-ended and individual-driven, but also has to address local issues,” says Aruna. When tasked with finding out why a shipment of sheep leather ordered by Marks and Spencers reached them damaged, her team found out that the damage happened not during processing but while being transported.

Aruna finds human interactions an essential part of a life in research. Research, uncoupled with teaching, ends up individual and selfish, according to her. “Of course, you get papers published, people read them, cite them, but if you are a teacher, you will do all this and also pass on this knowledge to students. My rewards have been my class of enthusiastic graduate students who rushed to attend my course in experimental techniques in biophysics or spectroscopy and voted me an excellent experimental physicist!”

Aruna feels strongly that the first few years in the career of a scientist are critical. Due to the traditional role of child-rearing or care-giving, often, women do get left behind.

“My fellow women scientists would agree that we go on a constant guilt trip because we think we are not doing justice to our roles as mothers or as scientists. Society still stereotypes women in specific functions and does not expect us to break from them easily. To be accepted as a scientist who happens to be a woman is still an uphill task in what is considered a man’s world!”

A woman is expected not to ask too many questions. Even where women have the independence to study and work, some roles are still assigned to women by men. Many young women have aspirations to take up careers in science. But this deters them. Aruna emphasises that, “We need to free ourselves from prejudices and approach science with intellectual objectivity for encouraging excellence in scientific research by women. In the world of science, any discrimination or bias has no role to play, and I hope women, as well as men, will be allowed to live by the same rules.

“As for me, the freedom to be open, to enquire with curiosity, and to understand the world through science has been an incredible privilege!” Aruna’s enthusiasm for her consciously chosen vocation as a woman scientist is palpable and inspirational.

Excerpted from 

‘A conversation with a senior biophysicist at a leather institute in Chennai’ – by Nandita Jayaraj

“Does it really matter that one is a woman scientist?” – Book titled ‘Lilavati’s daughters’

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