By Jordana Lovett
Ask a molecular biologist what image DNA conjures up in the mind. A convoluted ladder of nitrogenous bases, twisting and coiling dynamically. Pose the very same question to a theoretical physicist- chances are that DNA takes on a completely different meaning. As it turns out, DNA is in the eye of the beholder. Science is about perspective. Moreover, it relies on the convergence of distinct, yet interrelated angles to tackle scientific questions wholly.
When I met Dr. Vijay Kumar at a Cancer Immunotherapy meeting, I was immediately intrigued by his unique background and path to biology. Vijay largely credits his family for strongly instilling in him core values of education and assiduousness. He was raised to strive for the best, and was driven to satisfy the goals of his parents, who encouraged him to pursue a degree in electrical engineering. While slightly resentful at the time, he now realizes that this broad degree would afford him multiple career options as well as the opportunity to branch into other fields of physics in the future. As early as his teenage years, Vijay had already begun thinking about the interesting unknowns of the natural universe. With his blinders on, he sought to explore them using physics and math, both theoretically and practically. As he advanced to university in pursuance of a degree in electrical engineering, he strategized and planned what would be his future transition into theoretical physics. He dabbled in various summer research projects and sought mentorship to help guide his career. Vijay ultimately applied and was accepted to a PhD program at MIT, where he studied string theory in a 6-dimensional model universe. He describes string theory as a broad framework rather than a theory that can be related to the world through ‘thought experiments’ and mathematical consistency. Kumar continued his work in string theory during a post-doc in Santa Barbara, California, where he found himself surrounded by a more diverse group of physicists. Theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, and biophysicists were able to intermingle and share their science.
This diversity spurred new perspectives and reconsideration of what he had originally thought would be a clear road to professorship and a career in academia. As one would imagine, the broader impacts of string theory are limited; the ideas are part of a specialized pool of knowledge available to an elite handful. Even among the few, competition was fierce- at the time, there were only two available openings for professors in string theory in the United States. Additionally, seeing the need and presence of ‘quantitative people’ in other fields, such as biology made him increasingly curious about alternatives to the automated choices he had been making until this point. With the support of his (now) wife, and inspiration from his brother (who had just completed a degree in statistics/informatics and started a PhD in biology), he networked with other post-docs and set up meetings with principle investigators (PI’s) to discuss how he, as a theoretical physicist, could play a role in a biological setting. He spent time during his post-doc in Santa Barbara, and throughout his second post-doc at Stony Brook reflecting, taking courses and shifting into a different mindset. Vijay interviewed and gave talks at a number of institutions, and eventually landed in lab at Cold Spring Harbor, where he now is involved in addressing some of the shortcomings in DNA sequencing technology.
Starting in a different lab within the confines of a field means readjusting to brand new settings, acquainting with new lab mates and shifting from one narrowly focused project to another. Launching not only into a new lab, but into a foreign field adds an extra unsettling and daunting layer to the scenario. Vijay, however, viewed this as yet another opportunity to uncover mysteries in nature- through a new perspective. He recognized an interplay between string theory, wherein the vibration of strings allows you to make predictions about the universe, and biology, where the raw sequence of DNA can inform the makeup of an organism, and its interactions with the world. It is with this viewpoint that Vijay understands DNA. He sees it as an abstraction, as a sequence of letters that allows you to draw inferences and predict biological outcomes. A change or deletion in just one letter can have enormous, tangible effects. It is this tangibility that speaks to Vijay. He is drawn to the application and broader consequences of the work he is doing, and excited that he can use his expertise to contribute to this knowledge.
While approaching a radically different field can impose obstacles, Kumar sees common challenges in both physics and biology and simply avoids getting lost in scientific translation. Just as theory has a language, so too biology has its own jargon. Once past this barrier, addressing gaps in knowledge becomes part of the common scientific core. Biology enables a question to be answered through various assays and allows observable results to guide future experiments- expertise in various subjects is therefore not only encouraged, but necessary. Collaborations between different labs across various disciplines enable painting a complete picture. “I’m a small piece of a larger puzzle, and that’s ok”, says Vijay. His insight into how scientists ought to work is admirable. Sharing and communicating data in a way that is comprehendible across the scientific playing field will more quickly and efficiently allow for scientific progress.
If I’ve learned one thing from Vijay’s story, it is to understand that science has room for multiple perspectives. In fact, it demands questions to be addressed in an interdisciplinary fashion. You might question yourself along the way. You might shift gears, change directions. But these unique paths mold the mind to perceive, ask, challenge, and contribute in a manner that no one else can.