Dr. Moinak Banerjee with Dr. Satish Kumar
Prof. Lalji Singh, who died after suffering a massive heart attack late on Sunday night, worked single-handedly, without mincing any words, to present his vision of Indian biological sciences.
He was a very straight-forward and to-the-point scientist, who would never gravitate to get his things done. Starting his career as a Group Leader at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, he subsequently went on to become its Director. During his time, CCMB rose beyond the dreams of its Founder Director, Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, who was instrumental in identifying this gem.
Prof. Lalji Singh's work fetched him the very earnestly deserved title of Father of DNA Fingerprinting in India. Based on his translational work on DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, the government asked him to establish the Center for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) with a mandate of making it a nodal center for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics for all species and several diseases. He wanted it to be a center for excellence as a part of CCMB but the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, was keen on converting it into an autonomous Institute.
When he took over as Director, CCMB in 1998, he single-mindedly transformed the scientific infrastructure and built several centers of excellence within CCMB, starting with the National Facility for Transgenic and Gene Knockout Mice and adding several other such major facilities.
To name a few, these were the Advanced Laboratory for Structural Biology research, a center for undertaking research aimed at conservation of endangered species (LACONES), BSL-II and BSL-III facilities for undertaking research on infectious diseases and a dedicated centre for translational research on regenerative medicine (CRF).
This was the real phase of CCMB's diversification of activities not only in terms of creating infrastructure but in finding and persuading many outstanding investigators in these areas to join CCMB. Indeed, several of these colleagues have been contributing immensely to the cause of biology research in India.
These achievements and his credibility culminated in such heights that his alma mater, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) chose him to as its Vice Chancellor. The functioning of institutions and universities are diametrically opposite but here too, he was instrumental in taking several critical decisions in shaping a new future for BHU.
He was a man of very few words, but was always full of commitment and action. He defied all rules of remaining in power and thus never gravitated to anyone to remain at the top, either in his genre of science or administration. His scientific work of understanding the genetic structure of Indian human populations not only saw him writing some of the best research papers on the subject in the world but this researches will have implications for India's future health policy.
He had one regret in his life -- India could not participate in the International Human Genome Initiative thanks to unwise cynicism on the part of Indian scientific fraternity. True to his nature and like a real leader, he was not demoralised and went on to fulfill this dream by deviating into the Human Genome Diversity of Indian population.
His work led to many cover page articles in Nature. His presence and proximity was so infectious that he created a battalion of scientists who are capable of fulfilling his dreams to their logical conclusion. He instilled the enthusiasm and excitement in everyone who came in contact with him.
In addition to building institutions and capacities, he also conceptualised the Association of DNA Fingerprinting and Associated DNA Technologies (ADNAT) with the sole objective of imparting exhaustive hands-on-training, interacting with the best scientists in the world in the form of symposia and preparing quality control guidelines for emerging technologies.
Today, ADNAT symposia and workshops are one of the most sought after meetings by India's younger scientists. Incidentally, ADNAT will, in 2018, celebrate its Silver Jubilee by organising an international symposium and multiple workshops in the country's northeastern region.
Prof. Lalji was always attracted to his roots. He came from a small village, Kalwari in Jaunpur and rose to become one of the most illustrious scientists of India. His commitment helped him to conceptualise, the Genome Foundation with the objective of taking the most advanced technologies to rural India, where healthcare is barely available.
He was been very actively pursuing his initiatives with Genome Foundation and as late as on December 2, 2017 he was working with two of us to write grant applications on behalf of the Foundation since he could not be a Principal Investigator on the applications, having crossed 70 years of age. For all of us who knew him, age was just a number which has nothing to do with enthusiasm and dynamism. Lately, he was dreaming that all the genome research being supported by various agencies in India needed to come under one umbrella.
The CCMB, BHU, Genome Foundation, ADNAT and his extended family of researchers and scientists mourns the unfortunate early demise of Prof. Lalji Singh with utmost gratitude and humbleness. We pray to almighty for his peaceful heavenly abode. The ADNAT and the Genome Foundation, without Prof. Lalji Singh, are unimaginable but we pledge to fulfill his dreams.
Finally, at times, he would have appeared to some of the urban sophisticated lot a bit raw but that only reflected his rural upbringing, commitment to the cause, his uprightness and the courage to say things which needed to be said.
(Dr. Moinak Banerjee is Scientist F, Human Molecular Genetics Laboratory, Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram; Dr. Satish Kumar is Chief Scientist and Group Leader, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org)