‘I will not be surprised
if 20 years from now he
wins the Nobel’
‘Nithin is clearly above
Family and friends tell P Rajendran what
makes Nithin Tumma so special.
should inhibit the growth of the tumor, too — at
least, in theory.
Outside that lab, a lot of claims could be made,
but putting up testable evidence for it quite another thing.
To Ghebrehiwet’s pleasure, Nithin got answers
confirming the theory, so that any scientist could
describe the results with that top adjective for
The next labor of Nithin involved gC1qR’s role in
A protein on the HIV’s surface, gp41, tends to
bind to gC1qR on special white blood cells and sets
off a cascade of events that makes those very white
blood cells targets for immune attack.
Nithin’s task was deceptively simple: Find exactly where gp41 attaches itself on gC1qR.
“Nithin is a brilliant computational biologist,”
Ghebrehiwet said. “Using computational wizardry,
he ventured to find out where the interaction between gC1QR and HIV occurs.” (For those particularly interested, gp41 plugs itself to amino acids 171-
In retrospect, Nithin’s success may all sound
good, but there were a few hairy moments for him
two weeks in when he made his big mistake, contaminating a great many cells.
There are mentors out there who toss erring juniors out on their ear, but Ghebrehiwet was a little
In fact, later, Ghebrehiwet appeared to have real
difficulty recalling the incident, until, details provided, it all came back to him.
“That’s how people learn,” Ghebrehiwet said,
charitably. “We all make mistakes.... I told him to
clean it up.” He argued that such mistakes are not
deliberate, but a result of a lack of knowledge.
“Growing cells in the lab, if you are not experi-
enced it’s cumbersome. We have to teach them and
correct the process. People like Nithin are so bright,
we can tell them without admonishing them... and
they blossom. There are mentors who scream at
them. I’m not one of them. I kill people with kind-
ness,” he said. “All we need is to give them a push.”
Still, Ghebrehiwet had a word of caution for
Nithin when he was leaving.
‘Remain very humble,’ Ghebrehiwet recalled
himself as telling Nithin. ‘I know — everyone
knows — you are brilliant. Let everybody talk
about you; don’t talk about yourself.... Remain
focused in your work.’
Still, Ghebrehiwet himself takes some pride in his
charge. “I will not be surprised,” he says, “if 20 years
from now (Nithin) wins the Nobel Prize.” ;
Nithin Tumma has just become an adult, but he has changed how his extended
family sees itself, particularly leaving an enduring impact on his
cousins, his maternal aunt
Madhavi Santapuram feels.
“He has changed the dynamics of
everything,” says Madhavi, who was
the first relative to see Nithin after
he was born, and who he loved and
even feared a little for a long time.
As a child, he once asked his elder
cousin — Madhavi’s son — and
close friend, ‘Pranav, do you really
love her? Because she is so strict.’
Madhavi walked in just then and
the boys kept looking at her, not
knowing quite what to say.
Nithin used to spend so much of
his summers at their home that he
was not sure where his immediate
family ended and the Santapuram
“He thought for a long time that Po-oja (Madhavi’s daughter) was his sister. And he kept asking his parents
(why she lived away),” Madhavi remembers.
According to family friend Sapna
Reddy, “He is talkative. He is driven,
but he is not abrasive. There is a fine
line. We would go to his house during
Christmas (where he would) speak of
his work. He would (go and) come
back from his computer from time to
time. That phase — it was amazing to
see how much he multi-tasked.”
Reddy, who went to the same med-
ical school as his mother Kavita and
who works in Toledo, Ohio, describes
Nithin as very inquisitive and someone
wanted to always stand apart.
“My boys are also bright, but Nithin
is clearly above the benchmark,” she
says, describing how her son Arjun
once pointed out that he was surprised
to see an investment almanac in
Nithin’s collection of books.
The boy was not just into science and
research, she says.
“He would not want most predictable
Nithin Tumma, standing back row center, with the science club that he set up at the Fort Gratiot
Middle School. His teacher Julianne McCalmon still remembers how influential he was.
COUR TES Y: JULIANNE MCCALMON
things. He always wanted to pick and
come up with a different outlook,” she
says, pointing out that while most mid-
dle school children usually follow what
the teacher said, “Nithin wanted to
take it a step ahead.”
Nithin was not really into the details
says Madhavi Pammidi, another friend
of his mother. “But what is different is
that this kid thinks out of the box: Why
not change the temp? Why not put it
According to Pammidi, “Thousands
of kids are followers. A kid like this
would be wasted on mundane things.
He must do innovative things.”
Sapna Reddy described how Nithin
drove himself, taking AP biology in
middle school, over his mother’s stren-
His father Dr Suresh Tumma did not
mind because Nithin seemed eager and
so helped him when the boy floundered a bit.
Teacher Julianne McCalmon, of the
Fort Gratiot Middle School, described
how Nithin had set up and developed a
science club at his old school.
“He was so influential with so many
kids,” she says, describing him as thor-
ough, asking open-ended questions,
while still being very respectful.
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