28 Jul 2017
7 min read
Dr Sameer Mani Dixit is a research scientist, who is also the cofounder, vice chairperson and director of research of Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN), and director of research and development for Intrepid Nepal. He is not only passionate about using biotechnology in healthcare and conservation, but also about creating a vibrant research environment for Nepal's budding scientists--and to make Nepal an international hub for research in wildlife conservation and genetic analysis.
He is also an actor who believes acting provides him catharsis from the daily grind. After producing Deepak Rauniyar's directorial film debut, Highway, Dixit also recently stepped into acting with a cameo in Aadha Love.
Talking to Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG, Dixit shares that in life there will be times when one is presented with myriad options, but in the end your 'thing' in life will find you more often than not. All you need is an unwavering self-belief, for that's where it all begins.
What were your aspirations as a teenager?
I didn't have any aspirations growing up. But my father, Sundar Mani Dixit, wanted to be a doctor when he was just three or four years old. My grandmother was in poor health and had to take a lot of trips to the hospital, and so my father saw being a doctor as the best solution for a lot of things. He pursued his goals and became an accomplished physician. I, on the other hand, didn't know what I wanted to do, or wanted to be, until my mid 20s. I was lucky, though. While I was studying in the US, I had the option to look around, and found what I wanted to do.
What made you get into biotechnology?
My father wasn't very supportive of my getting into medicine because he had been through it all--he knew about how tough a doctor's life is, and how difficult it is to juggle personal and professional lives. He wanted me to stay away from it. However, biotechnology was something that got his approval. It was cutting-edge, new. People were calling the future a biotech era, and all of that piqued my interest. Plus, biotechnology has the capacity to bring about positive changes in the field of medicine. All these factors led me towards this field.
What were the turning points or defining moments in your life?
When I completed my PhD from Australia and returned to Nepal, I got a job at Kathmandu University (KU). That helped me find a place for myself here in Nepal. But then after a couple of years, I realised that I did not have the kind of environment I needed to grow, and I quit. The second turning point in my career was when I met Dibesh Karmacharya. He was thinking of returning to Nepal for good and starting something radical. He contacted me through my website, we sat together and did a lot of research, and that's how the organisation Centre for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN) came to fruition. Intrepid, a molecular diagnostic lab, came much later. Of course, all the projects that have come our way have been learning experiences--from the first big project that we got from UNICEF to USAID's Tiger Genome Project.
What does CMDN do?
CMDN is a research-based NGO, and what sets us apart from other organisations is that we focus on laboratory-based research. The laboratory where all this happens is an independent entity--Intrepid. So all the research work that happens in Intrepid and CMDN brings most of the funds. The two private entities work in perfect symbiosis, and we apply for different projects that are health related. If there is some work that needs some tests, we give it to the lab, whereas the field work is done by CMDN. We are constantly working with the Ministry of Health and Population, and support many of their work; we also groom and prepare doctors and lab technicians to be able to deal with any outbreaks in the remote districts.
And what kind of work does Intrepid do?
Intrepid is a molecular diagnostic lab where we deliver molecular diagnostics clinical services for detection of various pathogens and other prevalent diseases caused by viral, bacterial and parasitic causative agents. Our aim was to provide tests that would otherwise have had to be sent to neighbouring countries. We wanted to be able to detect certain diseases right here.
What were the challenges you faced while setting up this place?
Nobody believed us when Dibesh and I went up to them, saying we wanted to start a new enterprise where we would be doing cutting-edge work in the health and conservation field using the latest technology found in Nepal. People were sceptical about our vision, so much so that banks refused to trust us with loans to set up this place. And then there were other problems like load shedding, lack of human resources, procuring qualified people to do the work, among others. But this is how I feel: your challenges never cease; you just have to keep your eye on the goal and keep taking the next step towards completing it.
Why is the work that is carried out at Intrepid relevant for ordinary citizens?
Until 10 years ago, we didn't know which type of disease affected which pockets of population, or what kind of viruses and bacteria were present in our population. For example, cervical cancer is caused by a virus, and we need to know what kind of population this virus targets. Now, we can answer these questions. We are finding out about these new viruses or unknown viruses that can affect the population. The ordinary population benefits from this information because clinicians are informed about what's going on in the health sector, and this helps the government to come up with evidence-informed policies.
You've always been vocal about the misuse of antibiotics. Tell us about your concern regarding this subject.
For this, let me take you back 15 years, when I was doing my PhD in Australia and working with the concept of probiotics (natural bacteria found inside the human body). The more I did research on the 'good bacteria', the more I got to know the effects of antibiotics on the human body. It alarmed me to see how easily we were abusing antibiotics in humans and animals, because this abuse would eventually lead to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance occurs when germs outsmart drugs. In today's healthcare and community settings, we are already seeing germs stronger than the drugs we have to treat them. This is an extremely scary situation for patients and healthcare workers alike. At that time, in 2004, there were some murmurs about this issue, but nobody was paying any serious attention to this. Then I came back to Nepal and got busy setting up my own place. And in the last five years, I have gotten engaged with the Global Antibiotics Resistance Partnership (GARP): the findings have been nothing short of a revelation. I'm starting to see where things are going, nationally and internationally, and it's not a good picture.
Apart from being a research scientist, you're also involved in Nepali films. What made you get into this sector?
I believe every child, growing up, dreams of becoming an actor. I was no exception, but in my case it was just that--a dream. I got involved in biotechnology and life took its own course, but I was always aware of Nepali movies, which most of the time left me wanting more. As luck would have it, I met Deepak Rauniyar through my nephew Eelum Dixit, who's very much invested in films, and that's how I ended up producing Highway. Most recently, I played a small part in Arpan Thapa's Aadha Love. I enjoy the challenge of portraying a character on screen, becoming somebody else for a brief period of time. Acting is like a catharsis from the daily grind. Indulging in a little bit of such activities allows me to return to my work with a fresh spirit.
Do you see yourself working in films in the long run?
Acting has been quite an eventful journey for me. I have met some amazing people in this industry. If everything works out, I might be doing another film very soon, and if there's a good story, who knows, I might be open to investment. Whatever project I take up, I try to see it to completion: there's no such thing as a one-off attempt in my dictionary. Whether it's science, public health, films, theatre, I'll make sure I give my full attention to everything I do. Call it a genetic or self-trained trait, I'm able to multitask, and because I love what I do, I haven't had a moment of regret.
(Photos by Nirnit Tandukar)