On a fine morning in 1969, two best friends set out to get themselves admitted into Dhaka Medical College (DMC). Suddenly, one friend stopped and took a sudden turn to the left that led to Curzon Hall of Dhaka University (DU). "Why are you going there? We are supposed to go straight," said the confused friend Anwar. "You go on. I'll be back," replied the other one. What he did was enrolling himself into the DU biochemistry department instead of Dhaka Medical College (DMC). That sudden change of mind marked the beginning of a man's journey towards greatness. The man is none other than Professor Mohammed Rahmatullah.
Dr Rahmatullah, dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at University of Development Alternative (UODA), and a globally renowned researcher and scientist, has been selected among the top two per cent of the most cited scientists in the world in a prestigious journal article published by Stanford University-based researchers in the USA. With more than 13,000 Google Scholar citations, 273 papers abstracted in SCOPUS and over 75 papers abstracted in PubMed, Prof Rahmatullah has been recognised for his work during the period of 2009-2019 in the field of 'Natural Products and Drug Discovery'-- consisting of pharmacological studies on medicinal plants. From being a simple university-goer to one of the known faces in the global scientific community, the journey had its fair share of ups and downs.
About Dr Rahmatullah
Born in 1951, Prof Rahmatullah grew up with his doctor father and home-maker mother. He inherited the habit of reading from his parents. This reading habit made him devoted to future studies and research, he believes. He completed his graduation from DU biochemistry and began teaching there as a lecturer. He then secured a Commonwealth Scholarship and went to Hong Kong to complete his PhD. His next stop was the USA, where he spent 18 years-- until everything changed.
Far from home
Following his PhD, Prof Rahmatullah worked at Kansas State University, Auburn University, and Weis Center for Research, USA from 1982 till 2000. During this period, he published over 20 papers in prestigious journals including 12 scientific papers in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Everything was going remarkably well until two horrifying incidents scarred him forever.
"April 19, 1995, I clearly remember the date," he said. "It was the day of the Oklahoma bombing." As soon as the news spread, his best friend in the US came running towards him and ordered him to leave the country at once. The anger was influenced by ant-Muslim sentiment. Even though, the man apologised to Prof Rahmatullah after it was discovered that some locals were responsible, this shocking display of Islamophobia left him stunned.
"The second incident happened in 1998," he sighed. One day, his daughter was refused to be assisted in the day care centre for no apparent reason. The confused girl asked why she was refused. The teacher blatantly replied, "I helped her because she is white and you are black!" That was the end of the line for Rahmatullah. A lawsuit was filed and the said teacher was fired. This is when he realised, he would always be judged there for the colour of skin and religion. So, he decided, it was time to come home.
Nobody else will solve Bangladesh's problems
Prof Rahmatullah has a very clear principle, "We have to solve Bangladesh's problems ourselves. Nobody is going to solve them for us." Today, brain drain has become a common scenario in Bangladesh as students with immense potential go abroad for higher studies and rarely return home. This is making Bangladesh intellectually weak. "If the youth keep going abroad and do not return home, who is going to save their country?" said the worried man. "Nipah virus, malaria and so many problems have failed our country for long. No other country has any headache about what is going on here. If we want to save our country, it is up to us."
On the other hand, Bangladesh is also a haven of opportunities and new discoveries. "Bangladesh has over 5,500 species of plants and we have not researched even 0.2 per cent of them," Prof Rahmatullah shared his insights. He sees Bangladesh as an open and opportune field for research. Given Bangladesh's abundant natural resources and loads of discoveries yet to be unearthed, it is the perfect place for young researchers to start their journeys.
To aspiring young researchers
Even though Bangladesh needs her brightest children in her service, it has to be acknowledged that the country is miles behind in terms of research facilities and equipment. Countries like India, Singapore, Thailand, USA, Canada, etc. are way ahead in this category. "In order to serve our country more effectively," said Rahmatullah "the youth should pursue their higher education in these countries so that they can achieve the proper knowledge they require. But they have to come home afterwards." That is how he believes the youth can properly utilise their goodwill for the betterment of the nation.
Inching towards a Covid breakthrough
Dr Rahmatullah is currently working on developing a drug that affects the C3 protease of the SARS-CoV2 or commonly known as coronavirus. "C3 protease is the reason this virus reproduces in the patient's body and causes harm. We are working on something called molecular docking which will fill the hands of the protease, like a key fitting into a lock, so that it cannot attach itself with anything else and the affected person is unharmed."
The road not taken
Many years have passed since he took that left turn at the DU campus that changed his whole career. And he has no regrets about it. "As Robert Frost wrote, I took the road less travelled and that has made all the difference." said the witty man with a smile. Even though he has reached various feats of achievements, he rather chooses to be humble. "I am no icon, I am just a man who is doing his job to the best of his abilities," he added. And that is the thing youth can learn from him-- remaining humble and doing what they are best at.
The writer is a student at IBA (DU). He can be reached at [email protected]