[My current research work focuses on studying the immune response of Natural Killer cells to flaviviral infections especially Hepatitis C, Zika, Dengue etc. (Photo: Supplied)]
Observing that India is a hugely diversified country where Hindus and Muslims have co-existed peacefully for ages, Dr Mumtaz Naiyer, post-doctoral scientist and researcher from Bihar who is currently based in the United Kingdom, while speaking to Asif Moazzam of ummid.com said, "The more diverse a society, the more productive it is. We must tap this diversity for making India a prosperous country not only on the economic but also on the scientific front. But this will be a distant dream as long as we remain divided and at war with each other."
At the same time he advised the youth of India, not to become part of the mad crowd and indulge in any rubbish engagement, rather create rational and scientific temperament, which may lead you and the county to prosperity.
Q. Please share with us your journey from Kishanganj to the UK. What made you keep moving despite all sort of constraints?
The journey was full of a roller coaster. I was born and brought up in one of the remotest villages of Bihar. My father passed away when I was just 8-year old. It was extremely difficult for my mother to support us. After my father’s demise, one of my eldest brothers Zainul Abedin had to discontinue his studies to support the education of two younger brothers.
I wanted to become a doctor because I had seen young children die in my village due to lack of medical facilities.
Even though I was unable to crack medical examinations, I was selected for Bachelor of Dental Studies and B.Pharma at reputed institutes but could not take admission due to the high fees. So, I finally decided to do a simple, affordable but promising course. Luckily, Jamia Millia Islamia had recently launched B.Sc. (Biotechnology) programme and I got enrolled in it. Soon, I started getting a merit scholarship from the Central Wakf Board, Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India for two years.
After my bachelors, I joined Jamia Hamdard for my masters. I was the recipient of Tasmia Merit Scholarship for best academic performance at masters’ level university exams in Jamia Hamdard.
After my masters, I joined National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune, an autonomous institution of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, for my Ph.D. This is considered to be one of the top biotechnology research institutes in India and is also a national cell repository. Here, I was able to work under one of the best Immunologists in the country Dr. Bhaskar Saha, who is also a Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Awardee.
At the end of my Ph.D., I received offers for post-doctoral fellowships from world-famous universities like University of Montreal, Canada; John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA; National Institute of Health, Bethesda, USA; and Imperial College London, UK. I decided to join Khakoo lab at Imperial which was later shifted to the University of Southampton.
Q. what exactly is your research work and how it’s going to benefit humanity at large?
My current research work focuses on studying the immune response of Natural Killer cells to flaviviral infections especially Hepatitis C, Zika, Dengue etc. I am working on understanding how flaviviral peptides bound to MHC class I may activate Natural Killer cells through activating receptor KIR2DS2.
Traditional Vaccines work by stimulating the immune response to the coat of proteins on the virus, enabling the body to fight off the virus and recognize it in the future. However, the viruses are able to escape the immune system because they can change their coat proteins by a process called mutation. In the recent study published in Science Immunology, we have shown that the NK cell receptor KIR2DS2 is able to target a non-variable part of the virus called the NS3 helicase protein, which is essential in making the virus work properly. Unlike other proteins, the NS3 helicase protein does not change, which allows the immune system to grab hold of it and let the NK cells deal with the threat.
We believe that by targeting this NS3 helicase region of the virus, we can make a new type of vaccine based on natural killer cells, which can be used to help protect people from these infections. Since this NS3 protein is conserved in more than 60 flaviviruses, a single shot vaccine for multiple viruses can be developed.
We also believe that this work can easily be translated in the field of cancer for cancer therapeutics.
Q. While working in a developed country, how do you see the educational system in India?
First, we must concede that there is a deep crisis in our education system. A nation’s progress and prosperity rely on its education system. There is a huge disparity between the rural and urban education system of India, which resulted in huge talent loss from the rural areas, and we can see the stunted growth of our country in comparison to other major Asian giants like China, Japan, etc.
The challenges are many that our education system is facing. The foremost of all is a reduction in the allocation of funds (percentage GDP) in Health, Education, and Research. Our peers like C. N. R. Rao and Krishnaswamy Vijay Raghavan FRS have addressed these problems in their interviews and cited how complex bureaucracy is ruining our education system and I must say medical research is the worst casualty.
In some cases, we have to wait for months for getting the chemicals/reagents and by the time researchers lose their interests. Complex bureaucracy literally kills Indian Science. Government and policymakers must look beyond the pigeonhole. The county has immense potential for both science and economic frontiers.
Q. You come from a community, which is on the back foot. You are inspiration and hope for millions of youth. Do you have any message for them?
For past three decades, the Muslim community of India is passing through a challenging and arduous phase. The biggest crisis is the absence of proper leadership followed by least representation of the community in any of the fields. Yet, the future is not totally bleak. Every challenge is a blessing in disguise. Fifty Muslim candidates cleared civil services exam this year, the highest since Independence. This is an indicator of community’s awakening and struggle. Resources should be further explored and utilized for the social welfare, education, and health of the community.
The prime focus of the community should be on education. Let them be self-critical and awake from a slumber sleep. Many parents, who are economically not well off, look at an immediate gain and prefer to send their kids as child labor. Had my guardians thought on a similar line, I would have been serving in a workshop or a similar place. I advocate everyone to move on, despite any sort of constraints. Only firm determination followed by required action is going to pay in the long run.
Q. The cleavage between Hindu and Muslim community is deepening. As a scientist, how do you see it, and what would you like to say to the youth of India.
Hindus and Muslims have co-existed peacefully in India for ages, with some occasional conflict. Unfortunately, the current political dispensation is charged with dividing these communities at its worst. Being a scientist, I see this cleavage as a huge loss for the country.
India is a hugely diversified country. We are diversified not only religiously, but also culturally. The more diverse a society, the more productive it is. We must tap this diversity for making India a prosperous country not only on the economic but also on the scientific front. But this will be a distant dream as long as we remain divided and at war with each other. In a great county like ours, we are witnessing a tense growing atmosphere, which is by and large created by a section of media and some petty politicians to reap political mileage. For sure, this gloomy atmosphere will die down, sooner or later. From the bottom of my heart, I advise the youth of India, not to be part of the mad crowd and indulge in any rubbish engagement, rather create rational and scientific temperament, which may lead you and the county to prosperity.
We have been divided enough in the name of race, color, religion, caste, and creed by the British. Let’s not be foolish to fall into the same trap again. Let’s be united and serve mother India in our capacities best. It’s worth remembering Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, who said “Hindus and Muslims are the two eyes of the beautiful bride that is Hindustan. The weakness of any one of them will spoil the beauty of the bride”.
Q. What are your future plans?
I want to contribute more to science and use my knowledge and expertise against the serious threats to humankind posed by dangerous viruses such as Zika, Dengue, Ebola, etc. I would like to establish my own lab and become a principal investigator. If given the opportunity, I would like to return to India and want to contribute to the Indian science. I am looking for ways to support my research work. I am planning to apply for grants in Medical Research Council, UK, and Wellcome Trust, UK.
Q. What are your other areas of interest? Please share with us.
I love interacting people. An important aspect of science and scientists is to interact with common masses as much as possible. I do interact with common mass on a regular basis. My juniors also write to me to seek career advice, to which I always make sure they are attended satisfactorily. I have interests in creative writing on social and scientific issues. Some of my articles have also been published on various online platforms.
Inspired by the founder of Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton, I along with few close friends, are running “Humans of Seemanchal” Facebook page. The page highlights the success stories of local folks, shares the hopes and aspiration of disadvantaged people belonging to this region. During the recent floods in Seemanchal, through HOS, we raised significant amount (Rs 1.75 lakh) and our team and volunteers carried out relief work in the worst flood-affected areas. Some of my friends call me social scientist jokingly (laughs).
Apart from that, I receive lots of queries on foreign education opportunities by students in India. Again, my friends and I are trying to establish a global education consultancy for academics named SeedingSTEM. It is conducting market surveys now and is scheduled to work from offices in 2019.
Last but not the least; I have a dream to establish schools, colleges, hospitals and healthcare in every block of Seemanchal, which would be affordable for the last person standing in the social and economic hierarchy. Interested people may contact me to discuss how to realize this dream.