It has been over a week that Lalji Singh, widely regarded as the father of DNA fingerprinting in India, and a former director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) passed away (on 10 December 2017).
Tributes have been pouring in from around the world for the affable geneticist who could ‘light up a room with his smile’.
Today, one of his mentees and long time associates Kumarasamy Thangaraj pays a personal tribute to the man who was also known for his ‘English weather-like anger’ and was always true to his word, except once….
It’s very difficult to accept that Dr. Lalji Singh, who was always full of life and infected so many people around him with his exuberance, is not among us today.
I met Dr. Singh for the first time in Chennai in 1991 when he visited the Department of Genetics of the University of Madras to conduct the Ph. D viva of one of my seniors. I was a Ph. D student at that time and my supervisor Prof. P. M. Gopinath deputed me at the airport to receive Dr. Lalji Singh. I never imagined that this meeting would be the beginning of an immersive, life-long mentoring that was to shape my entire scientific career.
A couple years later I joined the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in October 1993 as a junior scientist. CCMB Director Prof. D. Balasubramanian allowed me a generous interaction with group leaders to identify the lab I wanted to join. I met Dr. Lalji Singh, he offered me coffee, gave me an overview of CCMB, and discussed the project I would be expected to carry out in his lab. I liked the project as it was in human genetics, very similar to my Ph.D work. I readily agreed to begin my scientific journey with Dr. Singh, an association that continued till a few hours before his demise.
Dr. Singh made sure everything in CCMB ran smoothly, not just the science but also the supporting facility and administration. One morning in 1995, when most of us were working in the lab, he noticed a sink blocked with some gel causing problems for all of us. He walked up to the sink, put his hand in and removed the gel without waiting for anyone to come and clean. Everyone in the lab was stunned. We had learnt a great lesson in self-drive.
Many people thought he got angry very quickly. But not many knew that his anger was very short-lived and he never nursed grudges. In 1994, he organised an international conference on DNA fingerprinting and wanted to invite Prof. Ed Southern of the University of Oxford. Prof. Southern’s secretary picked up his call but was somehow unable to connect the two — the invitation could not go through. Dr. Singh was infuriated. One year later, we established a collaborative research programme with Prof. Southern’s lab. Dr. Singh sent me to Oxford to initiate the human diversity programme with Prof. Southern’s colleague Dr. Chris Tyler-Smith. When I met Prof. Southern’s secretary there, she recollected how angry Dr. Singh had got during that phone conversation. I told her she should forget this incidence as Dr. Singh’s anger was like the English weather — it never stayed for long. Back in Hyderabad, when I shared this incident with Dr.Singh, he had a hearty laugh.
If he couldn’t give something 100%, he wouldn’t do it. In March 2009, we jointly established the Society for Mitochondrial Research and Medicine (SMRM) along with Prof. Keshav Singh of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA. The idea was to promote mitochondrial research and bridge the gap between basic research and the clinics. Dr. Singh was the founder president and presided over two annual meetings. When he became the Vice-Chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), I send him a mail regarding SMRM’s next annual meeting. He called me to convey it would be difficult for him to devote much time to SMRM and suggested we elect a new President instead.
He initiated several innovative programmes at CCMB. One such symbiotic programme invites students from universities and colleges with scant research facilities to make dissertations in human diversity at CCMB. The students get an opportunity to conduct research on human population samples which they bring from remote places, and CCMB gets to build a robust DNA bank, a great resource for population and medical genetic research. Dr. Singh’s mentorship and easy prodding has helped many, incuding me, to excel in the field of human genetics and has influenced several generations of scientists.
My journey with Dr. Singh was not restricted to the lab — it took me to the remote islands of Andaman and Nicobar and the dense forests of Chhattisgarh, where we collected the most precious samples, helping us reach very big scientific conclusions.
Though Dr. Singh always stood by his words, the one occasion he could not do so was on the afternoon of 10 December 2017. He told me on phone, “I am coming to Hyderabad”, but end came before he could leave Varanasi. This last conversation, which I was so fortunate to have with him, will continue to ring in my ears for a long, long time.