Deepak Asudani and his two children Ananya and Aarnav have published the first of a series of educational books on DNA and genetics aimed at schoolchildren who are curious to learn about what makes them unique whilst highlighting the similarities we share. Damian Doherty spent some time talking to Deepak about this family literary project.
Q: Before we get into the book, Deepak tell me a little bit about your work at UCSD?
A: So, my work at UCSD is actually very fulfilling. It’s a blend of academic, clinical and administrative work. As a Clinical Professor of Medicine with the School of Medicine at University of California in San Diego, I teach clinical medicine to medical students. I also have other trainees including interns and residents. It is quite rewarding to contribute to teaching the next generation of physicians. From a clinical perspective, I am a hospitalist, or in other words a hospital medicine physician. A hospitalist may be thought of as an inpatient physician, a ward attending, a physician who looks after the patients through their continuum while they are admitted in the hospital for a variety of ailments. That would be a generalist – with care provided during the hospital stay.
I also direct the international patients’ program which is a unique and robust program that is designed to provide care to patients that arrive here from around the globe. It has a profound effect on helping people improve their health.
Q: So the pandemic hit but it seems every cloud has a silver lining. What was the genesis of Jackets and Genes?
A: I wouldn’t call it a silver lining. Knowing the toll the pandemic has taken and continues to damage in some ways, it’s hard to see it that way. Although, it has facilitated communities to come closer, demonstrated resilience, propelled scientific discovery and prepared us for potentials of similar future catastrophes, there has been tremendous and lasting impact which we will have to accept.
I think there is greater appreciation of friends and families, the value of connections. When I talk about propelled scientific discovery, I allude to the rapidity with which the global community sped to find solutions. I will however, agree that the genesis of book has rooting in the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, there were so many questions (mainly from our kids) that I fielded around the virus, the vaccines, genetic structure of organisms and base pairing – we essentially catalogued those questions and then thought why don’t we write about them systematically? Initially we thought of doing one book, but we quickly realized it is too ambitious to contain lessons in one book. In addition, the audience were going to be school children, motivated to explore STEM – so it makes no sense to provide such a lot of information together. As you would agree, the kids may not see genetics as the fanciest thing to learn about. The challenge was to present the discipline in a fun and intriguing way. The kids and I had multiple drawing board sessions to think of how we could structure the book. As much as it was about the contents, it was also about how we present that. I am used to talking to med students and physician learners but believe me teaching a younger audience is so much more difficult. First off, we were wondering how do we even introduce the topic? We wanted to get on the word right away! The book begins with a stumped Casey, when principal Newman announces “Casey, your word is ‘genes,’”. We wanted the reader to think about the word from the very sentence and challenge themselves about what that means. The reader will also be thinking – do i know this word? And immediately relate with Casey. And if they knew the word the thought will already be a mini victory.. Hah! I know that word. The book’s settings we wanted to keep organic something my coauthors could relate with. For instance, the name of the school (presented as Academy) is a combination of school names that the kids actually attend. Also, later in the book, the word making challenge using limited letters is something I frequently engage the kids in, and I thought it would help to bring home the message about how a limited number of base pairs can produce such a variety. Ananya and Aarnav made sure that we present the concepts in a way a school kid 8-14 would understand.
There is a compelling need to increase genomic awareness and literacy in school curricula.
Q: How long did the process take from epiphany to print?
A: I would say close to 2 years. The conversations started right after the pandemic started. The kids noticed people were acting stragely, masks were being plastered on everyone, a state of panic ensued and schools were going remote. All this prompted many discussions which led to what ifs and buts. It was clearly palpable that the kids wanted to know more. It took us a few months to design the setting of the book, choosing characters, naming them and writing down rough narratives. Choosing what the kids would say, who the teachers would be, how would the art teacher help with the understanding of DNA structure, the sequence of presentations, including diverse demographic background to highlight diversity at a genetic level, including one of our pets to bring home the message of genomics among animals – there were endless questions that we talked about. And the best part – it made the pandemic more bearable and led to a product that we can call our own. Teamwork. The plus is that the kids’ interest in genomics is now deeply entrenched.
Q: What have you learnt about the publishing process?
A: Tons. And to be accurate in publishing is not easy and children’s books even more so. A key issue was trying to write about something that was more than just superhero fiction, taking something rather dry – and to try to make it interesting. Publishing is a jigsaw; many aspects go into that. Conceptualizing, writing, editing, proofreading, fact checking, illustrating, blending, pagination, working with publishers – a lot goes into it. Honestly, there were moments we thought whether it is even worth doing it. But I am glad things worked out the way they did. I bet the next book will only be easier. At least I hope so. Regardless, it was fun and all in all, we enjoyed it!
Q: You launched the book on April 25th National DNA Day – what has the response been like so far? Have the kids been signing book for their friends?
A: You are right, it was slightly before the National DNA Day, in time for April 25th. Some of it was by design. We have received an amazing response so far. There have been discussions about some school districts introducing the book to their students. School libraries intend to carry the book in their collection. Also, there have been some corporate entities that have expressed an interest to provide the books to their employees. Essentially, we have had folks tell us that this is what they wanted to know when they were beginning to learn about genomics. We haven’t had a formal author signing yet but they just enjoyed signing the books for their friends and families. What they enjoy more is telling stories about these characters. What I find fascinating is that they have developed a sense of bonding with the book characters. They relate to them now and enjoy talking about their characteristics. There is something predictable about them – Casey, Anikas, Thomas and Gabriella – they feel they know them and know how they will respond and behave.
Q: Did Ananya and Aarnav have any interest in genetics prior to the pandemic? Do you think other than the potential influence of your own career – has living in San Diego perhaps given them some subliminal awareness given the plethora of world class scientific institutions, biotech companies and healthcare providers?
A: I am not sure if they had significant interest in genetics prior to the pandemic. They probably picked up a few things here and there and were curious. Ananya has often naively asked why we can’t just fix sickle cell disease. She somehow knows it is a single gene mutation and she wonders why we can’t just fix the error If it is just at one place. I guess she relates to the delete or ctrl+x buttons to fix the error. I must admit Aarnav is very fond of trivia and on one of these trivial pursuits he decided to read about transcription and translation. It was kind of interesting when he rattled off the steps involved – I might still have the video I took when he was seven talking about central dogma. I am just glad he asks most of his questions to Alexa.
Being in San Diego has most definitively contributed to awareness around genomics. I agree several world class companies have a presence here – it is a stellar ecosystem. The institutions and biotech companies alike are heavily committed to contributing to genomic literacy, R&D, and making a difference.
Q: What are your aspirations for the books?
A: Okay, not to come across as a cliche, but the most important aspiration is to increase genomic literacy among young school students. It would be an absolute thrill if it inspires just one kid to be the scientist that discovered something monumental. To know that the kid thought of this purple little book on genetics as their starting point for the passion towards genomics will be awesome. I feel the young minds need to know about genetics early on. This generation is exceptionally smart, and they are terrific innovators. There is so much promise that the next generation has that we all are bound to be surprised by the amazing discoveries they will make. We want the book series “The Curious Scholars” to introduce the nuances of genomics – and provide the foundational comprehension of what genetics is all about and to do so in a fun way.
Q: How important is a book like this in not just educating children but also parents at home about their genetic makeup, predisposition to disease and their overall healthspan?
A: As I mentioned earlier, the intent of this book is to lay foundational understanding of genomics. The target readers are young students. “Jackets and Genes” is geared towards a late elementary to early middle school reader, and as the books in the series grow in complexity, it will be steered towards an early high schooler. At that point, when the book “En’gene’ring and More” comes out – it probably won’t be as illustrated. Well, the illustrations will be more about genetic sequencing, genetic engineering, splicing, CRISPR and other relevant aspects than they will be about Anika, Casey, Gabriella and Thomas.
It’s interesting you asked about parents. I think the focus is the kids learning about genetics but yes, the book series will cover these aspects as well. For instance, the hereditary principles, predispositions will appear in “Copy and Paste”, genetic makeup will find a place in “Gnomes and Genomes” and discussions around modifiable attributes. Although not designed as a playbook for revolutionary ideas, the book series addresses the many attributes you mention, including health span and disease processes. In fact, I have had a CEO text back and tell me that the book allowed him to put things in proper perspective and gave him clarity that he was looking for. I think he was just kind in appreciating the book. The first book is very simple and ordinary with an agenda to lay the foundational framework, but sure the subsequent books will get more complex.
Q: Katie Risor the illustrator has done a lovely job in bringing the narrative alive. Were you all involved in helping Katie with that process?
A: Katie has been a terrific partner with developing this book. She has illustrated the book remarkably well, and beyond what we had envisioned. We did have several back-and-forth meetings with her. It was quite intriguing that we all would hop on to Zoom calls and go over our visualizations, Katie would listen and draw some sketches. Once we review the sketches, and approve both for our liking and scientific accuracy, she would finish the illustrations. To be honest, she really remained fully engaged with the story and all the characters have emerged with several attributes that we can relate to. Thomas is more artsy, and Gabriella and Casey are nerdy smarts. Anika is smart and organized. The challenge that we will have now is how do we depict the kids two years older in the next iteration of the book. She was just as excited as we were. Katie took a lot of personal interest in the illustrations. So, for instance, the illustrations around National DNA Day, she was creative enough to pull the Nature article and produce an illustrated version. For illustrations showing the building of a DNA there are base pairs loaded on the wheel wagon like the raw material.
The hardest part for us was how we would meaningfully tell the difference between genotype and phenotype. Yes, we were involved in helping Katie with the illustrations, but the credit is all hers.
Q: You alluded to Dr Seuss’ book ‘Happy Birthday To You’ in a short social media post you wrote back in 2016, where he says, ‘Today you are you, that is truer than true, there is no one alive that is youer than you’ You were musing over this lovely notion of a genetic selfie, this appreciation of each human life being in essence a genomic masterpiece. You described DNA in that post by saying ‘There is something captivating about the amino acid base codes spiralling down the helix in a magical tandem swirl, Something tells me Dr Asudani’s book has been rattling around in your mind for longer than even you might even think?
A: Ha! You are right on the dot. It has always fascinated me – the diversity that ACGT creates is extraordinary and is nothing short of being magical. I bet you agree that an individual is a genomic masterpiece. Although I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write a book but certainly wanted to highlight how emphatically I feel about genomics. What made it a series is the realization that there is so much more that needs to be understood.
Q: Albert Einstein said, ‘The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education’. How important will it be for us to take books like yours into the classroom, at the elementary level and use as a springboard to integrate genomics and genetics into the national curricula?
A: It is true that formal education may compel a learner to think on structured lines and impedes the creativity, but that does not necessarily imply the formal education has limited value. In fact, I can vouch for the value that formal education brings in. It may take away some of the disruptive approaches and restrict innovation, but systematic learning has a lot of value for me. We need to realize the gains in understanding genomics have been rather recent and we are still learning. The Human Genome Project and its successful completion, the tools that we now have for genetic sequencing, the technologies we have now for gene editing have all become mainstream only relatively in recent times. It is astounding that we have made such rapid gains. For instance, take the Covid-19 pandemic, we knew nothing about the virus and the scientific community, health systems, all came together to come up with diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics in record times. This speaks monumentally of systems being in place.
I think a book like this has a very specific role. It is to promote genomic literacy among our students, that is foundational awareness and comprehension, I do agree integration of genomics and genetics in national curricula is critical – especially in the wake of challenges that we face. I do see a momentum towards that already. The potential genomics portends in enormous, not just for humans but in animal husbandry and agriculture. So concerning literacy – I would say the more the merrier, the sooner the better.
Q: Other than fun educational books like Jackets and Genes, what more do we have to be doing as an Industry to amplify the need for improved genomic literacy, do you know of any programs that are looking to further the outreach into the community or help with physician engagement?
A: There is great impetus in promoting genomic literacy. NHGRI has made fantastic efforts in doing so through their outreach efforts, grants, educational offerings and many more. In fact, NHGRI has a dedicated Education and Community Involvement Branch (ECIB) and many other initiatives geared towards education and dissemination of genomic literacy for various levels of learners and community. Similarly, corporate entities are doing their share especially since the sphere they operate in deals with people, they feel accountable and are in the arena to make a difference.
They have very strong commitment towards CSR and ESG engagements. It’s actually refreshing to see these companies doing a lot in genomic education. For instance, Illumina Inc. has a lot of cool activities like strawberry DNA extraction, Adventures in Genomics, Virtual Lab and many more Genentech, through its Futurelab initiatives like Science Garage, is committed to a science education program that is inspirational to next gen scientists. ThermoFisher Scientific through their Signature Science and STEM partnerships have for years spearheaded advancements of STEM in classrooms. Oxford Nanopore recently concluded London Calling 2022 with an entire day dedicated to STEM initiatives. The widespread commitment to genomic literacy is quite compelling. Clearly, these are the leaders in genomic arena, and they are doing a remarkable job in brining genomics literacy. Not just the corporate entities, the governments have also channelled their focus on genomics. There are public private partnerships… Be it Genome Institute of Singapore, India’s Biocon, UAE Genomics Council or anywhere in the world, Latin American countries, Israel, Denmark, countries making in the 100K Genome club… the more I think about it the more I am convinced that it is prime time for STEM focus on genomics.
A characteristic difference that I see is that in yester years the focus was towards more advanced learners, and now the educational focus is more encompassing of younger learners. It’s a global trend. It is exciting to see greater engagement with schools and communities.
Q: Can you remember what your own inspiration was to pursue medicine?
A: I have always enjoyed science and math, but I wouldn’t say I was determined to pursue medicine. I think it was the momentum from the fact that my sister was in medical school, and I just followed the path. I don’t think I out many thoughts into it and I would credit her for choosing a great career and I just had to follow.
Q: I see you dedicated the book to your mother who you lost very sadly at the end of 2020. What do you think she would have made of this book?
A: The adulation from her would likely be on the lines of autosomal recessive single gene with tendency to skip a generation and gloating about the grandkids. No, seriously, she would have been just happy talking about it all the time. Mom was a very simple person, she may have not really made much of the contents, but she sure would have enjoyed it as a picture book with all the fancy colors and arts. Just as the dedication reads: our genetic code for affection, kindness, and everything beautiful – that is what she was.
Q: Should we keep an eye out for two sibling founders of a next gen precision medicine company in 2035?
A: I think for now they are enjoying the moment. They do think genetics is cool and cryptic. They plan on putting down their imagination and painting their version of DNA on the canvas. Ananya is fascinated by the structure of DNA especially the double helix and also finds genetic diseases and how they work incredibly fascinating. Aarnav has a special liking for RNA. He thinks RNA comes in several varieties, like flavors. I think the mRNA vaccines have made him think that RNA is cooler. The kids are now shortlisting the name of the next kid in the class, with obviously U as the first letter. Any suggestions are welcome.
Concerning the next gen precision company, I don’t know. But for sure, they are working on the storyline for the second book “Gnomes and Genomes”. As a teaser, they find a garden gnome appear mysteriously next to a canary palm in the school, a lead in to talk about genomics among plants. They will also be trying to find out about what breed Griffin is by doing the dog DNA testing.
All I can say, for now, they are just excited to learn more and share more.
Q: Have you started to put the foundations down for the next book or are you taking a well-earned rest?
A: Oh yes, most certainly. We wanted to introduce the concepts gradually based on their complexity. As the reader progresses through this book series the scientific concepts will mature, with the characters advancing by two years in each of the follow up books. The characters Casey, Gabriella, Thomas and Anika grow with the readers and become two years smarter and two years more learned.
The subsequent books in this scientific series, geared toward their pursuit include:
Gnomes and Genomes – This is where they will learn more details about genomes, Human Genome Projects, gene libraries, gene sequencing, and much more.
Copy and Paste – This book will teach your child about the basics of transcription, translation, protein synthesis, and what keeps the genetic material intact through generations.
En‘gene’ering and More – This will cover some of the genetic engineering techniques that are used in applied genomics for treating diseases, applications in forensics, and gene editing, and will provide more insight in addressing real world issues through genomics.
What surprises me is how engaged Ananya and Aarnav are with this whole book project. It is interesting how they see inspiration around them. We recently visited Breckenridge, Colorado for a skiing trip. They were mesmerized with the snow laden mountains, and they thought of having that as a theme in one of the books of this series. Still not sure how it will play out but, the school kids will have a field trip somewhere in the mountains, to change the book setting from just being in the school campus. As I alluded to earlier, the dog DNA kit will be featured to highlight the applied aspects of genetic testing. What is also important is that the young readers realize the importance of genomics in disease diagnosis and manifestations. In fact, one of the classmates in a subsequent book has Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, another with sickle cell disease. It is paramount for us that the young readers understand that disease processes have a genetic basis and more importantly they have the empathy and sensitivity that needs to be instilled early on. Gene sequencing, NGS, microbiome, CRISPR all will find a place in the forthcoming books. This little project excites me just as much. There is so much to learn, so much to tell and so much to explore!