'Kashmiri students are Sharp and Inquisitive'

'Kashmiri students are Sharp and Inquisitive'

Having worked as Assistant Professor at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center for some time, he returned to India to set up and lead the research program on human virus at ICGEB, New Delhi.

Dr. Shahid Jameel is at present CEO of The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, a joint funding initiative by The Wellcome Trust UK and the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, for the best and brightest of biomedical researchers who aim to pursue their research work in India.

He joined the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance after over 25 years of experience as a Scientist and Group Leader of Virology at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi. His research at ICGEB dealt with human viruses – the hepatitis E virus (HEV) and HIV, where his group explored the role of viral proteins and host noncoding RNAs in disease. He is considered an expert in the area of hepatitis E – a viral disease that results in inflammation of the liver. He has also worked on the development of a vaccine that would be employed to prevent hepatitis E.

Dr. Shahid Jameel did his BSc from AMU, MSc from IIT Kanpur, and PhD from the Washington State University, USA. His post-doctoral work in Molecular Virology was carried out at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, USA. Having worked as Assistant Professor at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center for some time, he returned to India to set up and lead the research program on human virus at ICGEB, New Delhi.

Dr. Jameel was born in Aligarh and comes from a family of academicians and intellectuals. His father, Prof. A. Majid Siddiqi, had earned a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of California in 1962, returned to teach at AMU where he established the Department of Biochemistry and the Faculty of Life Sciences. His mother, Mrs. Jamila Siddiqi, taught Biochemistry at the JN Medical College, AMU and his grandfather, Prof. Abdul Aleem was a Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies and later the Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University.

Dr. Jameel is a Fellow of all the three prestigious science academies in India. His academic and research work is also recognized through various awards and honors, namely, International Senior Research Fellowship in Biomedical Sciences, The Wellcome Trust, UK, 2001; Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in Medical Sciences, 2000; B.M. Birla Sci0ence Prize in Biology, 1995; Young Muslim Scientist Award in Life Sciences, 1994; Biotechnology Career Fellowship, Rockefeller Foundation, 1991; Outstanding Graduate Student Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon, 1984; C. Glenn King Memorial Scholarship, 1979; University Medal, AMU, 1977; University Medal, AMU, 1975; National Science Talent Scholarship, 1974. For carrying out his research on HEV and HIV, Dr. Jameel has received grants from DBT, ICMR, Wellcome Trust (UK) and NIH (USA).  He is the Editor (Medical Section) of the Indian Virological Journal and serves on the Editorial Boards of Journal of Biotechnology and Biomedicine, Journal of Biosciences and PINSA. Dr Jameel frequently comments on infectious disease issues to the national and international press. He is also on the Editorial Boards of various international and Indian journals, and serves as a member or Chair of various key committees at DBT and ICMR.


Dr. Shahid Jameel, Welcome to Kashmir! Your keynote lecture “25 years with Hepatitis E: The Kashmir Connection” delivered at BIOCME 2015 tells us that your association with Kashmir and scientists from Kashmir is deep since you started working on Hepatitis E Virus. Twenty five years is a very long time. This also means that you would know a great deal about the research infrastructure and the kind of research being done in some of the known departments in KU and other institutions of Kashmir? Could you tell us more about your Kashmir connection? 

Thank you very much. It is always a pleasure to be here. I am honored to be considered by the organizers of BIOCME 2015 for a keynote lecture.

My professional connections with Kashmir are indeed deep. When I returned from USA as a 30-year old to pursue virus research in India, I already knew of Prof. Mohammad Sultan Khuroo at SKIMS. Khuroo Saheb had described a new disease, then called non-A, non-B hepatitis, and I wanted to find out its causative agent. I came to SKIMS in the summer of 1989 to meet him. Khuroo Saheb was most gracious and offered all possible help. This started a long association with him and his student Saleem Kamili, who spent a few years in my lab in Delhi. Saleem is now in a senior position at CDC, USA, and I am extremely proud of his achievements. I have many other friends from Kashmir, both in India and overseas. So coming here is also an occasion to meet them and their families.

Allow me share some candid thoughts. The research infrastructure at KU is good and improving. Infrastructure is important but equally important is the freedom and encouragement given to young people to express their creativity. I find the students here to be sharp and inquisitive. As teachers and mentors, we are duty bound to help them do well. For this, teaching and research should be even better. It is critical for KU and other institutions in Kashmir to recruit high quality young faculty members and to give them the time, space and independence to establish themselves. At the same time, people have to be pushed out of their comfort zones and made to challenge themselves. For this you need visionary and confident leadership.

Scientific research is all about the meeting of minds; it cannot be done in isolation. KU and SKIMS are two fine institutions but they hardly work together. They should have collaborative programmes on biomedical research, which are relevant to the health needs of this area. Show that you can work together and funds will not be a problem.

How far are we from developing a vaccine to prevent the onset of the diseases like HEV and HIV? You were recently doing research on macaques to find answers in collaboration with scientist at Emory University Vaccine Center/ Yerkes Primate Center, USA. Tell us something about that research.

Two vaccines for HEV have been developed – in USA and China. The latter has also been licensed for the market. A vaccine for HIV is still far, but while researching it scientists have learnt much about HIV and AIDS.

My research on HEV and HIV has focussed largely on understanding the basic biology of the viruses and the processes through which they cause disease. Though I am trained as a biochemist and molecular biologist, I realized early that meaningful work on human diseases cannot be done without the help of those who treat patients. Throughout my career, I have collaborated extensively with clinicians. Just like Prof. Khuroo, many others have been most generous with their time and effort. In the process, I have learnt to appreciate the human face of disease and this has kept me grounded. It has also reminded me continuously to pay attention to detail and never to compromise on quality. 

For the HEV vaccine, my group engineered a hepatitis B virus-like particle that carries parts of HEV that generate protective immunity. Tests carried out in mice showed good hepatitis B and E immune responses, indicating that this could potentially be a dual hepatitis vaccine. I hope ICGEB will partner with some company to take this forward. Our HIV vaccine work was done in collaboration with scientists at the Emory Vaccine Center, in which we engineered a virus-like particle for HIV-1 subtype C, which is the dominant strain in India. With scientists at Emory seeing good results in monkeys, I hope the Government of India will take this partnership further. 

You are presently CEO of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. Tell us more about the aims of this program, and your role as CEO? 

The India Alliance is a biomedical research partnership, which is funded equally by the Wellcome Trust (which is a British charity) and the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. With about Rs. 1300 crores at our disposal, we aim to create a culture of excellence in biomedical research in India. This is done primarily through fellowships given to outstanding basic, clinical and public health researchers at various stages of their career. Besides the fellowship programme, India Alliance undertakes many public engagement and outreach activities. We are aware that almost all research in India is funded with public money, and the public has a right to know what scientists do with that money. My job as CEO is to ensure that our processes are completely transparent, our standards are world class and that we support the best and brightest researchers. We aim to identify, nurture and prepare the next generation of science leaders for India.

The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance is conducting Science Communications Workshops for PhD students, MDs, and junior scientists at the University of Kashmir. What is the main objective behind this workshop, and how will this benefit the participants. Also, do you plan to conduct such workshops in future, may be at other institutions of Kashmir?

Communicating clearly and sensibly is important for every professional and scientists are no exception. We have very good students who have good ideas. But their communication skills are pathetic. So, the main objective of these workshops is to improve that. We talk about ethics and the proper conduct of research, about the value of good communication, and teach young scientists to write research papers and give good research talks. Funding is important for research, so we also teach the basics of writing good grant proposals. The main aim of these workshops is to teach our young scientists the value and method of good communication – written and oral. This gives them the confidence to move ahead.

We do such workshops all over India and have been trying to bring these to Kashmir for two years. But unfortunate human and natural interventions prevented us from doing that till now. Our team is very excited at this opportunity and for this I must thank Dr. Shaida Andrabi of KU who never gave up. Prof. Akbar Masood, Prof. Khursheed Andrabi and other senior faculty have also been very supportive. It is heartening to have such a good response not just from KU, but from other institutions in Srinagar. If there is sufficient interest, we can make this an annual affair. Our only condition is that multiple institutions should come on one platform. This is the age of collaboration and silos have to be broken.

This seems to be a great opportunity for the young Kashmiri scientists who are passionate about pursuing biomedical research and learn skills in science communication as well as getting valuable guidance and counseling for achieving their research goals. You have shaped the life and career of many scientists, including many from Kashmir. During your workshop, are you planning to spend time with students who would wish to discuss their research work with you?

I enjoy interacting with students and young scientists. Their enthusiasm and energy helps me stay mentally alert. It becomes difficult at busy events such as these workshops to discuss research with individual students. My advice would be for KU and other institutions to join hands and organize an annual Young Scientist Conclave, in which students present short talks and posters. To do this they can invite established researchers to listen and advise. There are many people who will come happily for such an event. Let this be organized by students and young scientists. It will not cost much and will be a great learning experience for them.

Please tell us about the major research grants of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance for biomedical researchers?

We support biomedical researchers at multiple career stages. Our Early Career Fellowships aim to create a good postdoctoral culture through which our brightest PhD students are encouraged to work in the country and still train at the best institutions globally. The Intermediate Fellowships are designed to attract the best young scientists from overseas to start their research career in India. The Senior Fellowships are for established researchers who want to ask bigger and more challenging research questions. Finally, the Margdarshi Fellowships are for leaders to set up Centres of Excellence, which are internationally cutting-edge and which offer opportunities to mentor younger scientists. More details about our activities can be found at www.wellcomedbt.org.

Any message for the students who want to pursue a career in scientific research?

Pursue a career in scientific research only if you are passionate about it. There will be a lot of hardwork all your life if you want to stay competitive. Be honest with yourself and your profession. Read extensively and pay a lot of attention to detail.