If you go to talks at NIH, you’ve seen him—with his signature mop of white hair and a skip in his step. He is convinced, after a life in science, that nirvana may be only a lecture away. Like a physicist hungering for a GrandUnified Theory, Dewanjee wants mostly to know how that thing between his ears works.
“I want to understand my brain!” he says. “I want to know why a beautiful woman, or a great scientist, sticks in my hippocampus.”
Although he has only been at NIH—“the greatest place in the world”—for about 10 years (and officially retired since 2005), it can seem like more since he is ingesting what this place has to offer at such a prodigious pace.
“How can I learn things faster if I don’t go to lectures?” he wonders. “I know it is a humble, futile effort, but I learn something at every lecture. I am connecting this puzzle, this maze. I have to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I like to play with medicine and biology to make things work.”
The play began somewhere between 74 and 76 years ago—he doesn’t know which birth date is accurate, so like a scientist, he adopted 75 as his current age—in Burma, now Myanmar. Shortly after his birth, Dewanjee’s family migrated to Bangladesh and later to India in 1971.
Early in his life, teachers recognized his aptitude for science. But his family was poor, so “after high school, I was on my own,” said Dewanjee. “My father could not support me.”
He got a scholarship to Dhaka University in India, where he studied chemistry, earning both undergraduate and master’s degrees. He taught inorganic chemistry at the college level for a year, then went to McGill University in Canada, where he switched to nuclear science for his Ph.D.
“I learned my biology by attending lectures,” he says. “I never had it in my life, not even in high school.”
Dewanjee made his mark in science by using his knowledge of chemistry to make new metal complexes useful in imaging damage to the heart muscle following myocardial infarction (MI). Much of his work has involved solving the problem of unwanted blood clotting in artificial hearts and lungs. He and his colleagues introduced radioactive metal-complexes that played a critical role in diagnosing MI and stroke. They also pioneered the use of radiolabeled platelets in studies of thrombi and emboli.
“Precise measurements with radiolabeled probes and cells helped us to make proof-of-principle that worked and quickly discard hypotheses that did not,” Dewanjee explains. “We also assisted in the withdrawal of the use of cancer-causing Teflon particles in patients with urinary incontinence.”
Asked if he ever falls asleep at a talk, Dewanjee replied, “Never! Never, when the work is exciting. Only if the lecture is boring.”
Photos: Bill Branson, Rich McManus
He jokes that his “15 minutes of fame” took place in 1974, while he was at Harvard Medical School. He and a coauthor published “Cellular Necrosis Model in Tissue Culture: Uptake of 99m Tc-Tetracyclines and the Pertechnetate Ion” in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine.
The paper meant something to Dewanjee mainly because of its promise of improving patient care—his technique might someday relieve human suffering. What he calls “the goal of translation” continues to inform his choices of lectures to attend at NIH—not as keen on basic science, he wants chiefly to know “How does this help the patient? I like speakers who relate their work to the pathology of disease.”
Does he ever fall asleep at a talk? “Never! Never, when the work is exciting. Only if the lecture is boring.”
If he happens to be on travel, Dewanjee is not averse to watching a talk on videocast, but that is not his preferred method of feeding.
Dewanjee has the leisure to set attendance records at lectures because he retired from the Clinical Center’s radiology department. Since then, he has been a volunteer at FDA’s Cell and Gene Therapy lab, teaching imaging methods to FDA staff at its Mouse Imaging Facility. In 2010, he joined NEI’s Neurobiology, Neurodegeneration & Repair Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Anand Swaroop in Bldg. 6. The frustrations Dewanjee has encountered there in attempts to replace retinal cells with photoreceptor cells have prompted him to learn ferociously. The sting of failure has prompted his obsessive self-improvement.
Using cells labeled with green fluorescent protein and a charge-neutral gadolinium complex to enhance MRI, he has conducted studies of the uptake of this complex in neural stem cells after injecting them in the mouse brain, but with aggravating results.
“I will work until I find an answer,” he says. “I am learning genetics, which is a new field for me.”
The long curve of Dewanjee’s learning has touched on many significant nodes, including postdoctoral work at Amherst College and faculty positions at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Brigham Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, the Mayo Clinic, the University of Miami School of Medicine, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and research positions at NIST, FDA and, finally—and most gratifyingly—NIH.
If his resume reflects the rebel, that’s only because following his nose has always been paramount with Dewanjee. “No one told me what to do,” he reflects on a life governed by curiosity. “Sometimes I change my field. Now I can learn in my own way—no grants and no teaching.”
He credits the residents he taught at Tufts, Mayo and Miami with improving his own skill as a speaker (he gives half a dozen talks a year when he visits India). “They used to criticize me after my presentations,” he recalls. “‘You speak too fast. You have an accent, too.’”
An aficionado of the art of lecturing, Dewanjee has his personal favorites. Topping the list are Dr. Valentin Fuster, a professor of medicine and cardiology at Mt. Sinai Hospital, and heart surgeon Dr. Y. Joseph Woo of Stanford.
Though most of Dewanjee’s research career has involved the heart—which he tends to dismiss now as a mere pump—his “ultimate goal is to understand how the brain works. I want to understand the whole eye and the whole brain, as long as I live.”
A self-proclaimed “ambassador of good health,” Dewanjee works out daily, riding his exercise bike and hustling up Center Dr. from Bldg. 6 to lecture halls in Bldg. 10 and Bldg. 45.
Next time you sit in an NIH auditorium, look down front, past the postdocs, the clinicians and those skiving off for an hour in hope of scoring post-talk cookies. There you will find the most optimistic man of indeterminate age on campus, and perhaps NIH’s smartest person.