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World AIDS Day: Why I Moved From The US To India To Join The Fight Against HIV

01/12/2016 11:45 AM IST | Updated 01/12/2016 12:04 PM IST
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"A decision, no matter what the consequences, is better than no decision at all." That is the thought that dawned upon me on a cold yet beautiful December morning in the holy town of Rishikesh, while jostling about in the steep and turbulent hilly waters. It ultimately sparked off a chain of events and decisions that led me coming back to my homeland.

I was in India for a short break, and having met up with a friend from high school after a long time, I couldn't resist when he proposed a whitewater rafting trip. There, floating in the raft on the river Ganges, amidst the serene environment surrounded by the mighty Himalayas, he posed the most dreaded question for me at the time, "What is bothering you, brother?"

I got the regular quips from Indian friends and colleagues there—"You will be back to the US in a year's time!"

Of course, the issue that I had been pondering for a while, the intensity of which would increase on every trip to India, was now reflecting on my demeanor in inexplicable ways. I shared with my friend my Shakespearean conundrum—to return or not to return. Should I continue with the well-set and high-paying professional life I had in the United States or listen to the intense yearning of my heart and return to India? He funnily quipped, asking if I wanted to become "Nick" or remain "Nikhil". In the ensuing discussion, one of his statements describing his own experience of returning to India stuck with me for a while: "Sometimes you have to let go of your fears to catch hold of your destiny!"

I finally took the leap of faith and decided to return to India in late 2013 after over a decade in the West. The process wasn't easy, and as I was packing my life of nine years in the US, I got the regular quips from Indian friends and colleagues there—"You will be back to the US in a year's time!" In the face of all the naysayers and doomsday predictors, I found confidence in the world-class education and training in science I had received over the years. After completing my undergraduate studies in Chemistry from St. Stephen's College in Delhi, I enrolled for higher studies in Natural Science at the hallowed portals of the University of Cambridge, and thereafter obtained my PhD as part of the Tri-Institutional Program in Chemical Biology between Cornell University, the Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I was awarded the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship for research at the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research, and later worked in the Intellectual Property wing of a reputable law firm in Boston.

I also realized that India was evolving as the new land of opportunities, striding towards recapturing its past glory by transforming into an epicentre for social innovation. Whether it was microfinance, e-commerce, mobile health, eco-friendly fashion, or other transformational approaches and technologies, India was making its mark on the global innovation landscape. We had established ourselves as the global pharmacy of the world with significant exports of low-cost life-saving drugs, vaccines and health commodities around the globe. However, in spite of this tremendous rise in health and biomedical innovation, we also find ourselves facing the unique conundrum of having one of the highest disease burdens in the world. Thus, I was sure that the skills I had acquired would be useful in work to be done in accelerating India's global rise, and I owed it to my country to contribute to this effort.

Never in all of my years in labs and fancy offices had I realised the trust, belief and expectations average people have in the power of science.

As is rightly said, even the universe conspires to fulfill your deep and true desires. The very next day of my landing in India, I had a chance meeting with a gentleman, who as luck would have it introduced me to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). I was immediately taken by the urgency of their mission, and the need for India to contribute to global HIV vaccine discovery efforts. I understood that there were significant gaps that needed to be bridged and several capabilities that had to be strengthened in the country in order to achieve this lofty dream. I began working at IAVI in 2014, and it has now become my platform to help contribute to the massive changes happening in the health and biotechnology space in India.

On recent work trips within India and to Africa, I had the opportunity to interact with people living with or at high risk of contracting HIV. While on the one hand it was distressing to hear their stories of pain, stigma and suffering, on the other, it was heartening to hear their positive expectations and sincere hope from science to solve their problem. Never in all of my years in labs and fancy offices had I realised the trust, belief and expectations average people have in the power of science. It made me appreciate the importance of my work, and that disease and suffering have no boundaries. Humanity is knit together in its shared need for new technologies and solutions that are both affordable and effective against some of the most debilitating and unconquered diseases around the globe.

[Our] national, regional and global collaborations aligned with the "Make in India" initiative have laid the emphasis on transforming India as a hub for design and development of novel vaccines and biologics.

Needless to say, HIV remains a formidable foe with a mounting death toll and years of frustrating scientific efforts. What is needed is a comprehensive and collective application of resources across the globe and the best ways to bring the weapons in the scientific arsenal, especially to the high-risk groups most vulnerable to HIV infection. At IAVI, therefore, I set about building and facilitating innovative sustainable partnerships with industry, community, government and science to strengthen HIV prevention and treatment efforts. These cross-cutting national, regional and global collaborations aligned with the "Make in India" initiative have laid the emphasis on transforming India as a hub for design and development of novel vaccines and biologics. The focus is for India to take a leadership role in catalyzing indigenous innovation through capacity building across the product development value chain, including platform/technology development, creation of world-class facilities and infrastructure, and training for skill development.

So, I was an experiment in the making, I was probably expected to fail and return from India with bitter memories of the system and lack of appropriate opportunities. However, the journey so far for me has been exciting! Apart from the systemic struggles one faces that are unique to each country, it has been a fulfilling experience recruiting and training a team of highly talented and motivated young PhDs; there's been immense learning and growth interacting with the scientific stalwarts in the country and globally; there's been satisfaction in catalysing creative solutions by exposure to diverse cultures and systems through travels for various collaborative activities.

"There was never a night or problem that could defeat sunrise or hope" is the motto I follow as I remain committed to our vision of a World without AIDS. The path may be long, but the expedition has begun, and I am grateful and proud to be part of the bandwagon of mavericks who fearlessly look into the future and refuse to let go until this vision is achieved!

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