October Surprises

By N N S Chandra


There lies only a month before the American presidential election, and I find it impossible to remember a crazier finish than this. With the leaking of the ‘locker-room talk’ of Trump, to the backroom bank speeches of Clinton, both candidates are spending the last round swinging for the fences. With all that being said, the first surprise in this article is that I am not going to spend all of it talking about politics.

It was Canadian thanksgiving the other day, and in my household (and I suspect, in many others across the greater Toronto area), the dinner conversation started with “Do you think the Maple Leafs are going to make it to the playoffs this year?” I was surprised to find my instinctual answer was ‘yes’. The life of a Toronto sports fan has not been an easy one in the new millenium, with multiple high-level failures across all divisions of its professional sports teams. Over the last year or so, however, that gloomy impression has slowly been fading, and with the Blue Jays deep into the baseball post-season, making the playoffs seems not to have to be a surprise for Toronto fans for the near future.


I want to talk about yet another surprise. I want to talk about Yoshinori Ohsumi. For those who do not recognize that name, don’t feel too bad, because the first time I saw it was when I received the press release from the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute announcing the decision to award him the 2016 Nobel prize in Physiology, for his identification of the mechanisms of autophagy. Now, I know next to nothing about the biochemistry of the human body or the details on this particular avenue of research, but I found myself glued to the notes in the press release, which describes how, in a series of experiment in the early 1990s, Dr. Ohsumi used ordinary baker’s yeast to help discover genes essential for the detoxification and internal ‘recycling’ of cells. Defects of this process, as I understand it, can lead directly to many neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), and Ohsumi’s work has lead directly to the development of many experimental drugs to aid in their cure. At the same time that I was reading the fascinating intricacies of that research, I was also going through submissions by high school and college freshmen to the Transitions Lab journal. These were all works of science done by brilliant, young minds (four of them, which we subsequently selected and published here) and I couldn’t help but wonder if I might have been holding the research of a future Nobel prize winner in my hands.

However, amidst the atmosphere of scientific optimism that inevitably follows the Nobel announcements, it is easy to overlook the considerable challenges that still face science and technology education (Ref: Jenkins, Edgar (ed) (2002) Innovations in Science and Technology Education Vol VIII Paris, UNESCO and University of Oslo) pointing out an European Problem at that time of student recruitment to related programs). As the historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote, “No period in history has been more penetrated by and more dependent on the natural sciences than the twentieth century. Yet no period … has been less at easy with it. This is the paradox with which the historian of the century must grapple.” Though he wrote that more than 20 years ago, the present offers just as strong an argument for the validity of his statement.

A recent Gallup poll found that only a quarter of Americans believe humans and other species evolved “without the guidance of God,” while approximately 14 percent didn’t accept the existence of any form of evolution. Meanwhile, 46 percent of respondents said that evolution happened “over time with the guidance of God.” Additionally, the percentage of Americans who consider vaccines crucial for children has declined slightly in the past decade, according to a new survey. This year, 54 percent of Americans said that it’s “extremely important” for parents to get their children vaccinated, a statistic that seems relatively good until you consider that it is down from 64 percent who said so in 2001, according to the poll from Gallup. I believe it is important for the United States not to ignore these damning statistics, just as it is vital to the well-being of all nations around the world, not to hide from the obvious and innate unnease with which many treat scientific

While we generally have come to accept the importance of elite experts that possess technological qualifications at the highest level (especially in the context of the global economy), I believe we’ve forgotten how society to have a general population with a basic grasp of the methodology and purpose of science and research (as well as an understanding of their own power to shape that purpose). The products of science should be seen as the products of all humanity, and just as people crowd around the Mona Lisa in the thousands every day, I think they should crowd around and be enthralled by the ever-changing landscape of science. So far however, despite the increasing importance of science in our world, this has not happened.

Yet despite all that, I find myself optimistic. Maybe that optimism comes from my travels around the world, where every day I meet dozens of young, bright-eyed students with hundreds of questions on science and research and education. Or maybe it comes from the fact that 30 years ago, in the small Indian province I was born and bought up, we used to have a total of 6 medical schools; and now, we have more than 45. For inside every child that is given the opportunity to truly learn today, a future citizen is waiting who will be just as enthralled by
Yoshinori Ohsumi as I was. And, personally, I can’t wait for that future.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Figure 1: Our cells have specialized compartments. Lysosomes constitute one such compartment and contain enzymes for the digestion of cellular contents. A new type of vesicle called autophagosome was observed within the cell. As the autophagosome forms, it engulfs cellular contents, such as damaged proteins and organelles. Finally, it fuses with the lysosome, where the contents are degraded into smaller constituents. This process provides the cell with nutrients and building blocks for renewal.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Figure 2: In yeast (left panel) a large compartment called the vacuole corresponds to the lysosome in mammalian cells. Ohsumi generated
yeast lacking vacuolar degradation enzymes. When these yeast cells were starved, autophagosomes rapidly accumulated in the vacuole (middle panel). His experiment demonstrated that autophagy exists in yeast. As a next step, Ohsumi studied thousands of yeast mutants (right panel) and identified 15 genes that are essential for autophagy.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Figure 3: Ohsumi studied the function of the proteins encoded by key autophagy genes. He delineated how stress signals initiate autophagy and the mechanism by which proteins and protein complexes promote distinct stages of autophagosome formation.

To end off this article, I want to talk about the final surprise I had even as I put these words to paper: Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature! For almost 2 decades, his name had been coming up in the list of candidates, but I did not for a moment think that the notoriously selective committee would select a singer-songwriter over poets and novelists and playwrights, but in this era of political disunion, who better to award than the man who single-handedly captured in poetry and music the mood of the last great era of upheaval. Still, I know there are going to be those of you who are too young to know him or think he is undeserving, and thus I sign off with a stanza from the Laureate himself.

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy bench
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate Driven deep beneath the waves.

About the Author

image01N N S Chandra

N N S Chandra is the lead editor of the research journal Transitions in Global Education and senior partner with the education consulting firm Trans Web Global, practicing from Boston, Mumbai and Iowa. He is a teacher, an accomplished counsellor and College Admission Specialist, a published author, speaker, and researcher. He also conducts a series of popular shows on radio and live online chat, including his weekly Live Chat show on Rediff. Chandra has been leading organizations that work with hundreds of students, guiding them, counselling and consulting on several areas including university admissions in North America. Chandra is active with and carrying the accreditation of several professional organizations like NACAC, OACAC, ASCA, ACA, and Study Iowa. He teaches and consults in North America, speaks in international conferences, presents and gives lectures around schools, colleges and other educational institutions around the world. He is also a writer with published works (fiction and nonfiction), and currently finalizing his first full collection of short stories.