The Hematologist

September-October 2010, Volume 7, Issue 5

The Accident That Changed My Life: How an Engineer Got into Hematology Research

Mohandas Narla, DSc

Published on: September 01, 2010

Vice President for Research, New York Blood Center, Councillor, ASH Executive Committee

My entrée into hematology was a total accident. I arrived in the United States in 1968 with a degree in chemical engineering to begin graduate studies in the School of Engineering at Washington University, St. Louis. Having suddenly lost a mentor (though happily, not through carelessness) with whom I had started on my doctoral dissertation on properties of gases at high temperatures, I had to quickly find a new topic for my dissertation. By good fortune, I met Bob Hochmuth, who had just started a research program on mechanics of blood flow through capillaries. As his first doctoral student, I measured elastic and adhesive properties of human red blood cells, equipped only with a comprehensive ignorance of all things biological. When Marcel Bessis, a renowned French hematologist, visited St. Louis in 1973, I casually mentioned that I would be interested in working with him in Paris. A few months later he offered me a position at his Institute of Cellular Pathology; I accepted with alacrity, not realizing I would be the only non-biologist in the Institute — nor did I speak a word of French. The three years I spent in Paris transformed my career; they revealed to me the complexity of biology in general and red cells and erythropoiesis in particular. I was smitten with the idea of applying my engineering background to the study of red cells, and I have stayed faithful to this pursuit ever since. Gil Tchernia, a pediatric hematologist in Paris, had an enormous impact on my career, because throughout the years he regularly identified for me clinical problems that were worth pursuing from a scientific perspective, and much of what I have done and I am doing still has origins in the discussions I have had with him.

My first contribution to hematology research was inventing, with Marcel Bessis, the ektacytometer to study differences in the deformability of red cells in a variety of disorders. Realizing that my engineering background had not prepared me for a deeper understanding of the pathophysiological implications of the phenomenon I was studying, I began, in 1976, to look for collaborators with expertise in such fields as hematology, biochemistry, biophysics, cell biology, molecular biology, and genetics to expand the depth and scope of my research activities. This journey, spanning the last four decades, first at University of California, San Francisco, then at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and now at New York Blood Center, has been extraordinarily rewarding in that it has allowed me to work closely with a succession of wonderful colleagues with diverse expertise from around the world. Our research efforts have focused on red cell membrane disorders; hemoglobinopathies, including sickle cell disease and thalassemias; malaria; and, more recently, normal and disordered erythropoiesis. An appealing aspect of the red cell field is its collegiality, and it has been a pleasure to be associated with so many talented scientists, whose friendship and support has meant so much to me.

As my research career progressed, I was pressed to take on administrative responsibilities, first as director of the Human Genome Project at Berkeley National Laboratory for three years in the mid 1990s and most recently as vice president for research at New York Blood Center since 2001. While these administrative positions take time away from research, they provide me with an opportunity to recruit and mentor young scientists, which is a truly pleasurable experience. It gives me great joy to see my former students, postdoctoral fellows, and young investigators pursue exciting and rewarding careers in research.

I have been a member of the American Society of Hematology since the 1980s and have attended every annual meeting since 1976. As a basic scientist, I feel completely at home in our Society and have been privileged to serve on numerous committees and as an associate editor of Blood since 2003. My fascination with red cells continues unabated. There is still a lot to learn, and there are more people to meet and opportunities to watch the discipline of hematology flourish and grow.

My family constantly reminds me of the charmed life I lead with wonderful colleagues and great friends around the world. I tell them that my accidental embrace of a career in hematology research is totally responsible for this joyous life, and I cleave to the fine sentiment expressed by the poet, Hilaire Belloc: “There’s nothing worth the wear of winning/Save laughter and the love of friends.”

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