Soon after, he wooed Hariharan to the IISc as faculty, where he even blended with the student community, thanks to his love for athletics and hockey. Hockey had made him popular at IIT Delhi as well. When Chandru, Hariharan and two other academics left the IISc to start Strand as a bioinformatics company in 2000, the subject itself was not more than five years old. “But there were indications that it’d grow. And surely, more methods to measure and more methods to analyse biology have come up in last 15 years. Back then, there were few people and few problems to solve,” says Hariharan, now the chief executive of Strand.
All the tools of bioinformatics that he, as CTO, and his team built, are now being used in clinics. And as they entered the clinics, a whole new world of patients opened up for Hariharan. For a runner and biker—he usually cycles to work wearing a mask—creativity runs high in his DNA. He’d make interactive math puzzles for his children when they’d go on vacation. All in the name of explaining math principles. So when patient data started pouring in, Hariharan took up another challenge.
Personal and yet abstract
Turning intriguing patient histories into riveting stories was an art that Oliver Sacks perfected like no one else. The prolific neurologist who died in 2015 wrote numerous short stories about the brain’s quirks. The stories of genomic quirks from Hariharan do not have the same patient connect or the grand characterisation. And that, Hariharan admits, is because he is not a practising medic that Sacks was. “I am two-three steps removed from the [patients]. I don’t even remember their names,” he says. Speaking of which, he has used names that are short, simple and easy to pronounce, keeping the global readers in mind. Patients like Dia, Toto, Raj and Taj, and Rom and Som could be from anywhere, even as their genetic defects are the first systematic public documentation from India. The genomics literature, popular and scientific, so far is full of stories from other parts of the world.
Still, Hariharan, 48, has brought a personalisation of its own kind. The book begins with his own minor quirk of vision—partial colour blindness. “Serious illness is never a pleasant topic to discuss, hence the decision to use this relatively minor condition to provide a friendly introduction to the genome before we encounter graver conditions in subsequent stories,” he writes in the preface.
Would he have disclosed his genomic quirk if he had not a ’minor’ but a ‘major’ defect, one that could put his two children’s genetic inheritance for public scrutiny?
“On this, I have no reason to be insecure. I’d still disclose. Remember, I am also a champion of science. The second story is from my wife’s family, her mother,” he says. (This fact is not disclosed in the book.) And that story is about a devastating genetic disorder in a family where several members face the loss of central vision in their 30s and 40s. A disorder where gradually the picture begins to get blurred. When reading, the characters lose clarity. Or sometimes in conversation with someone, the person’s face begins to appear unfocused. A definitive diagnosis by sequencing the genomes has become possible only recently.
What are the updates?
Brushing up on high school science—remember Gregor Mendel’s model of heredity with pea plants?—each story ends with a snappy update on where modern science rests on that subject. The first draft of the book went through a reading test when Hariharan called a bunch of 11th graders for feedback. They found it a tad science-heavy, which sent the author back to his writing desk. When I remark that there are still some blind alleys, as the book gets into medical genomics, Hariharan is candid: “I could only simplify so much.” You could attribute that to his training as a mathematician.
“Mathematicians are not trained to write romantically. The only romance you can show is in the title, rest everything is about precision,” says Chandru.
Genetics is going to be a big part of our lives. No technology has had this exponential growth in recent times. And with genetics becoming affordable, Genomic Quirks is an important book for the future, to proactively prepare young practitioners and academicians.