M.Sc., CHEMISTRY, 1992
PROFESSOR OF BIOCHEMISTRY & BIOPHYSICS LEWIS AND RUTH COZEN CHAIR, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO
I remember when I was young, people would say, “Oh, you are Geeta Narlikar? So pleased to meet you”. And my younger sister, Girija, and I would wonder, “Are you pleased to meet us because of who we are? Or because of our last name?” Actually, only when we went outside the TIFR campus did we have any inkling of how famous our dad is. Inside the house, it was like a normal family. My dad - astrophysicist Dr Jayant Narlikar - is a really humble person. My mom, Mangala Narlikar, is a mathematician and so was my grandfather, Vishnu Narlikar. The culture in our home shaped how I view science and the place of women in it. For their times, my parents were very progressive. There was nothing a girl ‘could not do’. My first love was physics, so I appeared for the JEE exam, hoping to do Engineering Physics. Un-fortunately, my rank was too low. I was told that if I want to do basic science at IIT, chemistry is the only other option. To my surprise, I started enjoying chemistry and stuck with it. I learnt that sometimes when you don’t get what you want and choose something different, it can open up new paths.
Apart from academics, what was really special about IIT was the close set of friendships with the women - there were just 15 of us in a class of about 300. It was a privilege to be amongst so many brilliant young women who have gone on to have leading careers in diverse fields. I remember going down to the mess, having chai, having tiffin, wondering what was for tiffin and whether we would like it or not. Small joys and pleasures. At IIT, I was introduced to mountaineering, running and also to my life partner, Alok Srivastava. His love for wildlife and nature also helped me see the wonders of biology. Prof. Durani and Prof. K.K.Rao helped me see that I could use my chemistry training to ask questions in biology. When looking at PhD programs, I chose a group at Stanford which was using chemical principles to study biological questions. That’s how my journey, my transition into biology started. And I am still striving to be a biologist to be honest.
I carried out postdoctoral research on chromatin remodelling enzymes at the Massachusetts General Hospital with Robert Kingston. Since 2003, I have been a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco where I lead a research lab. We are told in textbooks that our genetic material, DNA, codes for life. My lab, is trying to uncover the mysteries of how the same genetic material allows for so many different types of cells in a human being. For example, heart cells and lung cells have the same genetic material, yet they look and behave very differently. Why is that? We are getting at these questions by studying how the genetic material is packaged in cells and how differences in the packaging can explain different cell behaviors. Our studies involve discovering the inner workings of biological molecules that do the job of packaging DNA.. You could say that we ‘interrogate’ these biological molecules in test tubes to get at their secrets. And in doing so with the students and postdoctoral fellows in my group, we often go into new, uncharted territory. When that happens, we ask ourselves, can we shine a light onto new areas of biology? Can we uncover new fundamental principles to understand how genes are regulated? Or, how gene regulation goes ‘bad’ and how you can get diseases like cancer? We are addressing such questions from an interdisciplinary perspective, which makes the process all the more fun. When we start out on a project, we think we have a certain set of questions. But as we discover more behaviors of these biological molecules or systems, new questions emerge. Currently, an exciting new opportunity in our field is to understand how the three-dimensional organization of the genome and the associated material and chemical properties control cellular physiology. To look at such problems from different perspectives and up-level the creative process, and more importantly for basic reasons of equity, we need to make science a welcoming place for participants from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
I feel really lucky to have Alok as my life partner. One often hears about how partners share household responsibilities 50-50. Alok has instead invented a new way of describing a partnership of equals. He compares our marriage to a tennis doubles game, where it’s not 50-50. It’s 75-75. There are two people on the court, the person in the back can sometimes come in the front, and vice-versa. So each person is doing 75% rather than each person doing 50%. This way, you are always available to cover for each other. And this partnership has enabled me to do all the things that my male colleagues have been able to do. I wasn’t held back because of my partnership. My partnership actually strengthened my career. My daughter, Kalpana, was born when I was a young faculty member and before I had tenure. Because of Alok and support from my parents and my in-laws, I was able to effectively manage the tug of war between being with Kalpana and mentoring my students. Feminism, to me, means that men and women have the same opportunity to have an impact in the world and the same opportunity to live out their dreams. However whether or not this can happen depends on society. Today, in my lab there are researchers with kids and the whole team supports them when they have childcare needs - they are doing fabulously, being at their creative best. But how often do we see this in companies?
The message I got in the beginning was you have to be ‘more like a guy’. Over time, I realized that I had to invent new ways of finding success. For example, I am an introvert who felt shy to ask questions in public. So I would find the speaker after the seminar and talk to him or her one-on-one. Be authentic, you don’t have to do things which make you uncomfortable in order to succeed. I have to admit, sometimes things get crazy because every profession has politics. What helps me then is to say, these are humans, they’re like molecules at some level. And when I know them over many years, I should be able to predict how they will react. This saves me disillusionment and frustration. It lets me find the good in people while being fully aware of their limitations. What I have also learnt is that while tackling such ‘people issues’, I can get perspective by focusing on why I’m here in the first place, which is to enjoy doing frontier science.