Ajai Kumar Pathak: „The best religion is to help others and spread happiness!“

In June 2021 Ajai Kumar Pathak defended his doctoral thesis in molecular biology entitled “Delineating genetic ancestries of people of the Indus Valley, Parsis, Indian Jews and Tharu tribe” in the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Let’s meet Ajai!

Born in North-Indian state Uttar Pradesh(UP)’s, Jaunpur District, Ajai Kumar Pathak is the population geneticist currently residing in Estonia, working at the Genomics Institute of the University of Tartu in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Ajai’s doctoral thesis is the 5th in a series of PhD theses, addressing genetics of population history of the South Asian peoples, prepared in in the Chair of Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. Ajai is the 14th Indian student who has been awarded with a doctoral degree by the University of Tartu since Estonia regained its independence.

Ajai Kumar Pathak after his PhD defence in June 2021, with supervisors Professor Richard Villems and Opponent Professor Francesc Calafell (photo: Jüri Parik)

Ajai received good education in India

Ajai Kumar Pathak received both his Bachelor and Master of Science degrees from Purvanchal University, located in his hometown Jaunpur, UP of North-India. As the son of the physics teacher, Ajai was interested in science from an early age. His family would have seen him as a medical doctor, but young student understood that medicine without understanding genetics is not sustainable. His MSc dissertation from Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, India, engaged human genetics, more specifically the genetics of reproductive medicine.

During studies, Ajai became acquainted with Dr. Lalji Singh, the visionary scientist and founder of many institutes, popularly known as the “Father of Indian DNA fingerprinting”, who had a significant influence on his later choices evoking his deeper interest in genetics combined with the evolution and migration of humans. Dr. Lalji Singh was born and raised also in Jaunpur District as was Ajai Pathak and their co-operation had a strong impact on Ajai’s future.

Compared to the University of Tartu, Purvanchal University is rather young, established in 1987, consisting of 120 colleges and 28 000 students. The university, although it is not among the most famous ones in India, has a good teaching and research infrastructure affiliating eight faculties (Faculties of Engineering and Technology, Management Studies, Computer Applications, Medicine, Commerce, Applied Social Sciences, Science and Law).

After gaining MSc degree Ajai worked as a project assistant at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in India and soon started to participate in biotechnology entrepreneurship. While working in company he realized the need for a good specialist with PhD degree, so he decided to continue his education with doctoral studies.

Ajai’s colleagues at CCMB, Hyderbad had already had scientific collaboration with Professors Richard Villems and Toomas Kivisild from Tartu, Estonia, since the scientific excellence of population genetic studies in the University of Tartu is widely known. With the help of „DoRa“ programme scholarship grant, Ajai applied for a PhD Student position to Tartu to study the genetics of population history of the South Asian peoples.

Next step to Estonia, Europe – wonderful choice to combine science and family

Ajai Kumar had first met his PhD supervisor Professor Richard Villems in 2008, during HUGO-Human Genome meeting in India, before joining PhD under him. After arriving Tartu in spring 2012, he has lived here for nine years by now. Ajai and his family are staying in Estonia and his wife is also persuing her doctoral studies in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Tartu. Their son, born in India but grown up in Tartu, is fluent in Estonian due to the background of Estonian kindergarten, school and friends. The parents admit that their son, student of Miina Härma Gymnasium, is their best translator or interpreter in situations they get difficult with Estonian language although both Ajai and his wife speak Estonian at conversational level.

Ajai admits that Estonia is a wonderful place where one can find balance between working as a scientist and raising a family. Although being an Indian Ajai likes India to the most, he says that he also has high regard and likeness to Estonia which is like the second home for him and his family.

Science in Estonia

To highlight the importance of the topic covered by Ajai Kumar Pathak in his doctoral thesis, one must consider that India is the second largest country in the world as for population. There are approximately 700 languages spoken in India and it is one of the true cradles of the humanity, inhabited considerably before the Last Glacial Maximum. The Indian subcontinent region harbors 1.8 billion humans – almost a quarter of the global population. Therefore, understanding the genetic background of the Indian people, the historical movement of populations, particularly outside Africa is very important.

Knowledge about the genetics of South Asian people is necessary since South Asia was probably one of the first habitat of modern people after the large migration from Africa 50-70 thousand years ago. The understanding of the development of the genetic variation of homo sapiens is not possible without understanding the genetic history of South Asian people.

Ajai Kumar Pathak has participated in putting together 16 high-level scientific papers. As Ajai’s scientific work has a huge significance to India, it has also been introduced in Indian newspapers (The Hindu, The Tribune,  Wikipedia, The India Science Wire, The Hindu Business Line, Down To Earth, Dainik Jagaran, Saamna, Prabhasakshi, Amar Ujala, Swarajya, Times of India and Brown Pundits), and even Estonian newspapers (Postimees, ERR news, and UT blog). Popularizing science has been also one of Ajai’s achievements and Indian media is familiar with his work.

In the future Ajai is hopeful to occupy a permanent academic position, teaching and mentoring young brains and moving ahead with his genetics research. In the future, he wants to carry the research combining the evolutionary genetic approaches to the modern and ancient human genomes, along with different OMICS profile datasets generated by large genomic biobanks, which altogether may unfold the molecular level genetic interactions that affect human health and diseases in an unimagined way. Ajai enlightens how the promotion system in Indian top universities differs from Estonian model being quite strict without no major exceptions made favoring candidates with non-stopped academic career. Professorships in India start from Assistant Professor, followed by Associate Professor and Professor all assuming years of work, excellent recommendations, significant scientific experience and supervised students. The next coming years for Ajai in Estonia, working as a researcher of population genetics in the Institute of Genomics, University of Tartu, are crucial to grow in his intended research area and in preparing himself to secure a good position in academia, having participation in top-level scientific articles, interesting research projects and supervising students.

Not only scientist, but a good person for the mankind

In spare time Ajai likes to sing, draw, wander in nature and practice yoga for living a healthy life both physically and spiritually. He enjoys social activities, welfare causes, and organizing community events. In 2015, he along with a group of Indian and Nepali students organized the India Day event “Sanskriti” – showcasing the traditional foods and cultures of the India and Nepal as part of the “Tartu-rich in Culture” a series of events, supported by the University of Tartu to promote the mingling of International students by introducing their culture and food to Estonians and University students of other countries.  In 2019 he organized the International Yoga Day in Tartu in cooperation with Indian Embassy. Ajai says that it is as important to give something to the world as it is to deal with yourself and your family. Ajai and his wife have been popularizing the Indian festivals in Estonia by organizing the significant one’s with friends in Tartu. For example two Internationally famous festivals of India:  Diwali – the festival of lights, and Holi – the festival of colors are regularly celebrated by organizing the community events with full of Indian music, classical dances and spicy food which is attended not just by most of South Asians but even by lots of local Estonians and other International enthusiasts.  
He is very helpful and understands his purpose in life in this world to share his knowledge and skills and be a good person at the same time. Ajai believes that best religion is to help others and spread happiness in the society and everyone’s life in every possible way!

An author of a chapter to a textbook

An interesting fact to the wider public is, that Ajai has written an invited chapter entitled “Human Population Genomics approach in Food Metabolism“ in an upcoming popular science textbook Future Foods: Global Trends, Opportunities and Sustainability Challenges explaining the connections between eating habits and genetics and how the population and nutritional genetics can help us to understand the gene-diet-health interaction at individual level, leading to the dietary choice based on individual’s genome and health condition.

In this chapter the author explains the linkage between eating habits of people throughout centuries, climate and health in the context of population. Such gradual transitions in climate and diets throughout human history has let them genetically adapt, increasing the count of beneficial genetic variants in a population rendering it fitness to the particular environment and diets. Food imbalance due to the genetic background is the cause of many physiological conditions and this is supposedly behind some present-day severe diseases that range from cancers, cardiovascular and obesity to diabetes, etc. Food is, therefore, central in solving many of the world’s leading health challenges. How food or diet affects health in different regions and among different groups of people is complex, and varies greatly owing to the genetic variations incurred by local adaptation. Food components can alter phenotypes by interacting with genes and changing their expression profile, thus affecting absorption, metabolism, or nutrient transportations. Ajai knows a lot about topics like that, and we are waiting more publications and progress to come!

Ajai is a wonderful person and highly valued colleague. Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology looks forward into his future accomplishments!

Out of office seminar in Sagadi with evolutionary biologists (photo: Jüri Parik)

Ajai Kumar Pathak’s doctoral thesis is available in DSpace.

A story with Ajai and his family by Erasmus Project done by exchange students: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2e4vismigM

The interview was carried out by Teele Eensaar (Project Manager) and Ermo Leuska (Communication Specialist).

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