This is the story of a great man, the fundamental impact he had on modern molecular biology, and the legacy he has left behind for future Indian students to thrive. This is the story of Khorana and the enduring footprint he has left in the hearts and minds of many at MIT.
Har Gobind Khorana was born in Raipur, a small village in Punjab, which is now part of eastern Pakistan. He was home-schooled by his father, the village tax clerk. Khorana recalls, “Although poor, my father was dedicated to educating his children, and we were practically the only literate family in the village inhabited by 100 people.” This strong sense of value in education is something that stuck with Khorana as he grew. He went on to study at Punjab University and then left India in 1945 to pursue his PhD at the University of Liverpool.
Early in his career, Khorana performed some of his most groundbreaking work, which would lay the basis for modern molecular biology. It was at the University of Wisconsin that Khorana first began to understand how nucleic acids code for protein. Khorana and his team deduced that different combinations of three RNA nucleotides code for unique amino acids, such as CAC codes for histidine and GCA codes for alanine. Thus, strings of RNA nucleotides can be translated into functional proteins composed of the corresponding amino acids. The great achievement of this work was almost immediately recognized with the Nobel Prize in 1968, which he shared with Robert Holley and Marshall Nirenberg.
In 1970, Khorana moved his home to MIT, where he stayed for nearly 40 years until retiring in 2007. It is at MIT that he showed a chemically synthesized gene could be biologically active when introduced into bacteria. Many of the methods developed for chemical synthesis are still used today to make DNA oligos, which are essential in fundamental techniques like polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and molecular cloning. Beyond his profound contribution to the field of biology, Gobind was an active member of the MIT community with a passion for mentoring young scientists. His colleague and close friend, Uttam RajBhandary, remembers how important it was to Khorana to connect with his students and instill a scientific curiosity that would drive the next generation of scientific progress. Aseem Ansari, who was a postdoc at MIT, knew of Khorana’s accomplishments and his commitment to education and mentoring and was inspired to found a program in his name.
The Khorana Program was founded in 2007 by Ansari at the University of Wisconsin. The program allows India’s highest ranking undergraduate students to do research for a summer term at a top U.S. university. After being selected, students are matched with a host faculty member and are given independent research projects for the 10-week term. The government of India, through scientific agencies such as the Scientific and Engineering Research Board (SERB), provide the stipend, airfare, and health insurance for Khorana Scholars. Living accommodations and administrative fees are covered by the host institution or mentor. SERB, in partnership with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), also offers funds for U.S. scholars who wish to do an 8-12 week internship in India through the U.S. Scholars Bose Program.
Uttam RajBhandary’s deep friendship with Khorana spurred his active involvement, along with Mandana Sassanfar, in forming the MIT chapter of the Khorana Program in 2012. And in 2013, the program hosted 35 students across 10 different institutions. For these students, this is more than just a research opportunity; it is a chance at gaining experience and connections to make them eligible candidates to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. As one scholar phrased it, “It is really a make it or break it opportunity for us.” And with this, they bring an unrivaled determination to the lab.
Many of the Khorana scholars have had success in their subsequent studies, including at our very own MIT. Vivek Dwivedi and Chetan Srinath, respectively in their third and second years of the biology PhD program, are both Khorana alumni. Dwivedi participated in the Khorana Program in 2011 at the University of Wisconsin. He recalls the Khorana Program as “a truly life-changing experience that played a major role” in his current success, reinforcing his love of research “as well as providing … the credentials to get through to one of the best places in the world to do biological research.” He now works in Bob Horvitz’s lab at MIT, where he studies the microRNA pathways involved in cell extrusion in C. Elegans as a model for small intestine extrusion biology. Srinath was in the first year of Khorana scholars to come to MIT in 2012, where he worked in Phil Sharp’s lab. Srinath is now in the Burge Lab at MIT, where he is interested in the spatial regulation of RNA decay. He attributes much of his current success to the opportunity that the Khorana Program provided. In addition, many scholars go on to pursue degrees outside of biology. Haritha Reddy Chileveru was the first Khorana Scholar to attend graduate school at MIT. Now in her fifth year in the Nolan Lab in the Department of Chemistry, she studies the mechanism by which defensins, components of the human innate immune system, kill bacteria.
Khorana alumni feel a sense of commitment to the program and to helping future generations of Khorana Scholars. Every year when new scholars arrive, Khorana alumni and other current students serve as mentors to help the new scholars transition to life in Cambridge and to performing full time research. They are also able to provide invaluable scientific guidance and advice for graduate school admissions. Dwivedi recalls the deep connection that typically develops between the visiting students: “About three days before we were all to depart, all of us almost simultaneously broke down and started crying because we were going to miss each other so much. It was a very strong bond that formed over the 10 weeks, and we value that even today. Professor Ansari’s vision of a seamless network of scientists, where even 10 years later we can call each other, is already becoming a reality.” Like many Indian students that come to study in the U.S., Dwivedi plans to return to India after completion of his degree and bring back what he has learned about the scientific process in the U.S. The Khorana Program is helping to nurture the growth of an International Indian scientific community that will foster the spread of ideas and resources.
Har Gobind Khorana was known to be an exceptionally modest man among his friends. Before passing away in 2011, Khorana was able to meet the third class of Khorana scholars at a meeting held in his honor at the University of Wisconsin. RajBhandary recalls Gobind’s sheer joy in meeting this group of young, motivated scientists. The program has grown beyond individual classes of students into a community of scientists. Khorana probably would have shied away from taking any credit, but because of his character, scientific prowess, and the impact he left on the people around him, the Khorana Program exists today. At MIT, his legacy is larger than life for program participants, and will continue to resonate through generations of scholars.