27 Jan 2017
10 min read
1588 words
Karmacharya always wanted to work in wildlife, and later, in genetics and biotechnology

What were your aspirations when you were growing up?
My childhood was spent in Biratnagar after my dad got a job at a jute mill there. I have always been inclined towards the outdoors, and wildlife has always fascinated me. At one point, I wanted to be a wildlife photographer and would devour books on the subject. My dad had even bought me a 35mm camera, and I would dream of taking photos of the tiger, my favourite animal, and would dream of making it big in the world of photography. Meanwhile, I’d stumbled across this medical thriller by Robin Cook, and it left a lasting impression on me with its elaborate description about a lab that did DNA and genetic research. I always had inclination towards biology, so I thought yeah, maybe I could get into genetics.

So you were clear about getting into genetics?
On the contrary, I wanted a career in wildlife in Nepal after I’d completed graduation in Ecology from the US. Unfortunately, I was discouraged, so I moved back to the US and started working at a university. I got to work in plant virology, which exposed me to the mind-boggling world of genetics and biotechnology. Since I was always fascinated by wildlife, I also worked in a research about baboons at the Brooklyn Zoo. That project was fascinating, but it was not enough to help me pay my bills, living as I was in New York City. So I was supplementing my income by doing odd jobs like waiting tables, washing dishes and so on. In 2002, when I was working for GE Healthcare Life Sciences in the Boston area, I got to interact with lot of researchers at Longwood Avenue, home of Harvard Medical School, and these interactions had a very profound impact on me—a lot of my ideas came from that phase of my life.

What made you decide to move back to Nepal?
I was doing quite well in the US, but I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back home. Of course, my first experience was not exactly positive, so I promised myself that if I ever returned to Nepal, it would be to create something of my own, as opposed to working for somebody else. So when I used to come back here every six months, I would constantly look into areas where I could use my expertise and create opportunities for myself. I realised that Nepal did not have the needed information on diseases and that there was no baseline information on infectious and chronic diseases. So I thought it would be awesome if I could build a team and gather that information. That’s when I started thinking clinical epidemiology, and I thought that if we could introduce molecular diagnostics and DNA-based detection of diseases here, that would change the way we work here. That idea, I would say, was the genesis of CMDN.

What were the challenges you faced while starting CMDN?
In order to create that baseline information on diseases, we needed the tools and a state-of-the-art lab, which didn’t exist in Nepal. So I floated this idea to couple of my friends of opening a molecular diagnostics centre, and I somehow managed to convince them to invest. Initially, the idea was to set up a biotech lab and work with existing academic centres like Kathmandu University and Tribhuvan University, but I soon realised that people were not getting our vision, and so we decided to set up our own clinical epidemiology-focused research centre supported by a biotech lab. And that’s how CMDN and Intrepid Nepal got created.

Were you ever discouraged when people weren’t receptive to your ideas?
I was actually more perplexed than discouraged, because I had assumed that clinicians here would be delighted to get invaluable, and detailed, information about diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis or any other prevalent disease, but I was horribly wrong about how things were here. We were years ahead of the then market thinking. Fortunately, at that time a significant amount of money was flowing in for HIV, malaria and tuberculosis work in Nepal, and we were able to tap into one of the projects. We specialised in mobile clinics, which we sent out to remote areas like Achham, and despite the challenges of doing so, we would acquire data and get it back to the lab. Our approach of constantly developing innovative methods for working in diverse settings helped us build a reputation. But that didn’t happen overnight. I must say there was a lot of resistance, and initially people didn’t believe in us, but we kept on pushing.

One of the feathers on your cap has to be the Tiger Genome Project. Can you tell us more about it?
We were doing all these disease studies on humans, and then we stumbled across this project where they wanted to do genetics on snow leopards. I was always fascinated by tigers, so we proposed to build a genetic database on the wild tigers of Nepal. I knew it would help us understand more things about the species, about how the sub-population of tigers were interacting and that it would also help those working with wildlife forensics. Luckily, USAID funded that project. With the needed collaboration, we were able to build the database, which includes information on 60 per cent of tigers roaming in Nepal. It is groundbreaking on many levels, and the most important part was that it was created, run and maintained by Nepali people. The project was completed in 2013, but we still continue to do stuff from the DNA we have—like gut-microbe profiling and prey profiling; the amount of information you can get from DNA is limitless. The project has become a beacon of hope for a lot of people because we created something new that everybody else can look up to, and the best part was that it’s being done in Nepal by Nepali people.

“I was always fascinated by tigers, so we proposed to build a genetic database on the wild tigers of Nepal”
What else is CMDN working on?
Another field that we are committed to has to do with identifying zoonotic threats—that is interspecies disease transmission. Wildlife and human areas of habitation often overlap. In fact, 70 per cent of human diseases, including HIV, Zika and Ebola, are transferred from animals. Currently, we are doing a project called Predict, the whole idea of which is to find viruses that could create the next epidemic or pandemic. Nepal is an interesting ground for such research, not just because of our biodiversity but regarding diseases as well. Projects like Predict not only help us in identifying diseases, but also teach us much about using cutting-edge technologies, increasing our experts’ knowledge base, creating studies and getting the resources and dollars that help create jobs opportunities in Nepal.

What gives you satisfaction?
There’s so much that can be done if we can empower and engage the country’s youth. At CMDN, we are creating a vibrant research environment for Nepal’s budding scientists: 80 per cent of our staff is under the age of 30, and 60 per cent are women. At the risk of sounding immodest, I would like to believe that we have done our part in making Nepal an international hub for research in wildlife conservation and genetic analysis.

Would you change anything about your past if you could?
I would say it’s not about wanting to change your past but to appreciate how it has helped you become the person you are. See, I have waited tables in NY, done dishes in hotels and mopped floors, but in the end that is just a part of your journey. I vividly remember a cold winter in Chicago when I went from shop to shop, looking for work, as I didn’t have enough money. Now when I look back, I realise that it was such a powerful experience, which taught me to push the envelope in terms of what I needed to do to succeed. Only life will teach you that, not your university degree. Also, if you know what you want to do and if you’re aware of your destiny, you will get there.