For Kolkata boy Agneesh Barua, Biology has always been pure love — from being his favourite subject in school to motivating him to pursue a career in Genetics and winning him laurels for research. The St. James’ School and Ballygunge Science College alumnus recently received the Graduate Student Excellence Award from the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.
My Kolkata caught up with the research fellow at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), Japan, on his academic journey so far and his ‘’five-year plans” for the future
Back to school
School, by Barua’s own admission, had a significant impact on his thinking and perspective in life. ‘’My schooling was completely in Kolkata. I studied at St. James’ from Nursery to Class XII,” he said. “The best thing I learnt from school was the value of sincerity and hard work. No textbooks can really teach you these. It’s a culmination of the lessons your teachers impart and the school environment that help you understand these values.’’
Even in school, Barua liked studying Biology and opted for the Science stream in Plus II. “I passed out in 2010 and decided that Biology would be my main focus,” he said.
New beginnings in college
Barua studied Bachelor’s in Zoology at Delhi University and that was the stepping stone to his career in research.
“I went to Delhi University and studied Zoology there, mostly focusing on animals, Molecular Biology, Genetics. While I was there, the university started an Innovation Project Scheme. The initiative aimed at giving undergraduate students some research experience. So, I was one of the first people to be selected for this project. It involved a year’s worth of research at Jawaharlal Nehru University and various other laboratories around the country. You can say this was probably my first step in the field of research,’’ Barua said.
Master’s and beyond
Barua returned to Kolkata for post-graduation. He did his master’s in Genetics at Ballygunge Science College.
It is his professors at Ballygunge Science College who helped develop his research acumen. ‘’I did my master’s from Ballygunge Science College in Kolkata and studied Genetics. My real acumen for research, science and academics happened here because the professors were amazing. I still think about the lectures and lessons I learnt there were really inspiring and life-changing,” Barua said.
The next stop was Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, Japan, where Barua earned his PhD degree. ‘’My thesis was on Evolutionary Genetics, which basically asks how nature created the diversity of life using different genes,” he said.
Agneesh Barua with Alexander Mikheyev, his research head at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, JapanAgneesh Barua
The latest laurel
The Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) awards different scientists and students every year.
“I had been to one of the SMBE conferences in Yokohama Japan in 2018 and I attended the awards seminar for graduate students. It was an amazing experience. It was absolutely inspirational seeing bright students talk about their research and present it to the entire community. It was my goal to be one day featured in that seminar. I finished my PhD and applied for the award and was selected this year,’’ said Barua, who was awarded for his research on ‘The evolutionary origins of venom: How nature created the perfect chemical weapon’.
“This was one of my most important publications about the origin of venom in snakes. The study came out in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 and received a lot of interest from the public and scientific community. We essentially discovered a molecular foundation that was important for the formation of venoms, not just in snakes but in all venomous animals,” Barua said.
Simplifying Evolutionary Genetics
So, what exactly is Evolutionary Genetics? ‘’My job involves locating genes, their sequences and arrangements. It involves studying how changes of gene sequences, arrangements and expression cause different characteristics of animals or any living thing. Then I try to understand how those characteristics have changed through time. Essentially, I look at genes to uncover the history of the changes in characters of different organisms,” Barua explained.
A true nature lover, Barua not only studies nature as part of his work but also enjoys experiencing it in his free time.
“I live in Okinawa, which is a beautiful tropical island. When I’m not working, I explore the forests, go snorkelling, swimming and engage in exercises. There’s a lot to do here and I mostly stick to nature,” Barua said.
The Kolkata influence
Raised in Kolkata, Barua believes he deeply draws from its culture. ‘’My school and my MSc in Kolkata have had a huge influence on my personality and academic journey. I think that is the impression of the city. Calcutta is a city of academics. We have a history of people who like the finer things in life like talking about books, theatre, and science.’’
Kolkata also has the best food in the world, declares Barua, a die-hard fun of kochuri and singara.
The next step
“At this stage, having five years planned sorted is good enough,” smiled Barua. “I have been offered a fellowship at the Human Frontier Science Program for three years. With that, I will be joining the University of Lausanne in Switzerland this November. The fellowship is for three years but I intend to stay back for five years and complete some more projects.’’