Tuesday, February 7, 2012

At Ekalavya’s Feet
Or to those who dare to go beyond….

Zakir Thomas 

OSDD is launching an e-learning initiative seeking to impart instruction in subject areas relating to drug discovery.

The story of Ekalavya in the Indian epic Mahabharatha depicts the urge of a village student not having access to brilliant teachers to seek knowledge, a determination to seek knowledge that was out of bounds to his peculiar situation, the ability to learn without the physical presence of the master, and to excel at the art. Though with a tragic end, it has been inspiring example for all those who followed the path of learning through their own difficulties.

The internet is regarded as the next biggest leap in knowledge dissemination after the invention of the printing press. If the printing press released knowledge from confines of monasteries and libraries, internet released us from the confines of physical space, from the confines of printed word, and opened up windows to the world in our homes. It is an unprecedented opportunity particularly to those in developing world to access knowledge that has so far been the privilege of few.

OSDD is driven by the fact that the current market oriented drug discovery models fail to find solutions to problems affecting large number of patients, particularly those afflicted by diseases endemic to the tropical regions. Those who hold the power over the knowledge that could lead to find solution to these problems, fail to do so, as it is not profitable to their enterprises. A patient whether of tropical disease or otherwise should have the access to latest drugs. We refuse to accept a worldview which result in a situation where all lives do not have equal value. Rather than be passive spectators of the problem, OSDD endeavor is to find a solution to reach the unreached.

Drug Discovery has been a hallowed science, often revered only in the confines of pharmaceutical research and development centers. In the conventional drug discovery model, the job of the academic world has been to train scientists, who will then work with the industry. Most drugs developed in the 20th century were developed in this model and we owe to the pharmaceutical industry for their contribution to improving life expectancy around the world. In the recent years, as the new drug pipelines are drying up there is a general feeling that low hanging fruits are plucked. There is increasing awareness of the complexity of the task associated with drug discovery and the academia has risen to face this challenge and a large number of early stage discoveries are taking place in research laboratories of universities, which are then licensed to pharmaceutical enterprises. This points to the need and possibilities of fostering collaborations in drug discovery and the opportunities that lie in tapping the potential of student minds in solving problems. OSDD endeavors to bring drug discovery to the open, where researchers, scientists, academicians and industry can collaboratively endeavor to solve complex problems.

The convergence of computing and mathematical, statistical, biological and chemical sciences are providing reasonable predictions in a field where the basic approach followed in discovery of penicillin still rule the roost. Advances in science is throwing up large data and advances in computation is enabling analysis of this data which will feed into the drug discovery pipeline. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect bioinformatics and cheminformatics to play an important role in the drug discovery process.

While bioinformatics has been widely accepted and practiced in the academic community, with strong presence of both open and proprietary software adding value, informatics has been rather slow to take root in the discipline of chemistry. Therefore we see fewer student/researcher activity in cheminformatics, the impact is directly seen in the lesser number of open source software and tools. The OSDD community developed tools reflects our commitment to fill this gap, and this endeavor will continue.

While OSDD is a serious drug discovery project, it has an equally important educational component.  The workforce behind OSDD community, currently around 5,500 from more than 130 countries, is the student fraternity. They are engaged in furthering the understanding of the biology of the organism, from cloning to expression to synthesis of complex molecules, to developing software tools and analyzing large volumes of data. In this activities they are guided by experienced academicians and scientists, both in public and private sector.

At OSDD we would like to go beyond those who are actively engaged in its drug discovery activities to the wider student community, by providing an e-learning platform where they could find material on a wide array of topics, from bioinformatics to quantum mechanics, from pharmacology to medicinal chemistry, from open source to intellectual property.

We have launched this e-learning initiative out of our firm commitment that internet provides a platform to reach the unreached. We have the conviction born out of our experience that in the distant and remote corners, far away from prominent academic institutions, there are brilliant minds capable of solving complex challenges, and they are eagerly seeking knowledge. Thomas Grey wrote in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness in desert air.

We at OSDD refuses to accept this status quo. And our e-learning initiative is a step to make knowledge free from the narrow confines of elite institutions to the wide open world of internet. It is also our little contribution to humanities’ tireless effort to create a world, as in Tagore’s words:

Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.

What gives us confidence to launch this e-learning initiative is the large academic and scientific community, already involved in OSDD. Some of them have already been using e-learning as effective tool to train researchers in OSDD activities. They will provide lectures on various topics to the benefit of all, even those who are not even members of OSDD. This will include some well known teachers, from reputed universities, who will provide their lessons over this e-learning platform, to reach to those who are not lucky enough to be in their classrooms.

We would urge the student community to make the best of this opportunity. The power of the web is unleashing an unprecedented openness in science. Today the students, particularly in the developing world, have more opportunities for learning than the generation before them.It is for them to make full use of these opportunities.

The following lines of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Ulysses has special meaning to those who would not like to rest on what they have got in life. Ulysses, who after winning his battles and epic voyage returned to his Kingdom, but decided to abdicate his thrown in favor of his son Telemachus and start a new journey. The poem Ulysses is his farewell speech.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

OSDD is for those who seek to go beyond the ordinary!