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Dr. Dipankar Chatterji: Watching the birth of molecular biophysics in India

Dr. Dipankar Chatterji is the recipient of the Alumni Award for Excellence in Research for 2015. His research of over 30 years focuses on studying how bacteria react to different levels of stress. “This particular award makes me happy since it comes from my Alma Mater”, says Prof Chatterji.

Dr. Chatterji has been around almost since the birth of the field of molecular biology; he was a Graduate Student when the field was evolving and he found himself intrigued by its rapid development. “It was a struggle, and it was very challenging”, he says.

After obtaining his PhD from IISc in 1977, Dr. Chatterji pursed his postdoctoral studies in New York. His interest in the molecular structure of DNA increased as the developments in the area increased. As a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, USA, in the 1990s, he was exposed to a lot of pioneering research. He got the rare opportunity to interact with scientists who were making groundbreaking discoveries in molecular biology.

One topic he found immensely intriguing was the molecular structure of the DNA. His work at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions involved the synthesis of Transcription Factors for the conversion of DNA to RNA. Moreover, he was particularly interested in the mechanism of action of cisplatins as anti-cancer agents. Cisplatins are platinum containing chemotherapeutic drugs. On administration, they bind to the DNA and lead to the death of the cells.

In addition to the international environment that stimulated his research, his professors back home have always been a great source of inspiration to him. During his graduate studies at IISc, his professors would go the extra mile to design the courses in a freshly evolving field.

His current research involves two bacteria- Escherichia coli and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. He observes the change in the behavior and function of these bacteria to a change in stress. “Today, in a place like Bangalore, you have access to all facilities you need to carry out your experiments smoothly, but it hasn’t been like that”, he says. It was a constant struggle to perform the same experiments in the earlier days when he was setting up his own lab. Dr. Chatterji’s love and commitment towards his research is evident when he describes an ideal working environment wherein scientists are given complete freedom to perform their research, uninterrupted.

The massive competition in academia today can seem intimidating to many students. Dr. Chatterji’s advice for aspiring students is very simple: “Concentrate on your work, publish your results and present them at conferences. Learn to appreciate the work of other scientists without letting jealousy come in the way. In fact, try to turn that into collaborations and that can benefit everyone equally.”

He encourages all students to train in an international environment as it acts as a medium for the exchange of ideas between the ongoing research projects at different places. Finally, he says, “Do what you love and everything will fall in place.”

Dr. Chatterji likes to unwind by spending time talking to his family and all those close to him. With about five years of service left, Dr. Chatterji has about 150 publications to his credit and has had 31 students graduate from his lab. All his students are doing very well today and that makes him extremely proud.