Backdoor Humanitarianism

HOW A SCIENTIST IS HELPING BLIND CHILDREN IN INDIA

Here’s what I believe: If you plan for the most vulnerable, the world works better for everyone. Organize a busy street so a deaf child with a physical disability can cross it safely and suddenly you’ve got a street safe enough for an elderly person who moves slowly or a pregnant woman with a heavy briefcase or a harried father with three small kids in tow. That’s how it works. Plan for the most vulnerable. Watch the fun.

Pawan Sinha, a remarkable person who recently visited the small city in North India where I live, is a neuroscientist at MIT. His special interest is visual learning and how the brain recognizes what it sees. Many scientists stay inside their laboratories and study their data. And God bless them. They make important discoveries, and some of them even change the way we live. But Pawan Sinha isn’t one of those. Back in 2003, while he was visiting family in New Delhi, a four-year-old blind child approached his car to beg. “I’m not an ophthalmologist,” he told me, “but even I could tell that she had cataracts. They were operable. Her blindness could have been cured.”

Here’s what makes Pawan remarkable. He didn’t just start raising money to operate on every kid with curable blindness he could find. He thought about his training and what he was good at, and he came up with an ingenious idea so breathtakingly simple it makes everyone who hears it wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Pawan knew that if he went in search of funding for children’s surgeries, it would be a long and tedious process that made its appeal to humanitarian generosity. “I know how to write scientific grants,” he explained to me. “I have no idea how to fund-raise for a cause.” So why make it a cause? Why not make it a scientific research proposal instead?

One of the major challenges in neuroscience is to understand how the human brain learns to perceive objects. Most research in this area focuses on infants, but that has obvious limitations. Just for starters: infants can’t tell you what they are seeing. Pawan realized that children with surgically corrected vision—children who had never seen before but now could—would be a gold mine for the kind of research he was already doing. He wrote a grant proposal for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requesting funds to provide state-of-the-art surgeries in India for children with curable blindness—as a preliminary step in a study of how children learn to see.

He got the grant. “My respect for the NIH, already enormous, increased immeasurably,” he said. “They knew that the bulk of this grant would go toward corrective surgeries for children in India. But they also understood and appreciated the research implications of those operations.” Pawan calls his effort Project Prakash. (“Prakash” means light.) This is how he describes its progress:

The Prakash initiative is beginning to create a remarkable population of children across a wide age range who are just setting out on the enterprise of learning how to see. We have begun following the development of visual skills in these unique children to gain insights into fundamental questions regarding object learning and brain plasticity. A particular strength of this approach is that it affords us an opportunity to continuously follow the development of visual skills and associated neural markers from before the sight restoration treatment to after.

Now Pawan wants to establish a center for kids with curable blindness here in our state in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas: a hospital where the surgeries can be performed, a school where the children can be brought up to speed before they return to their communities, and a research center that will study the whole process.

For the children and their families, of course, the main thing will be the surgery itself and the children’s entry into the ordinary life of school and, later, employment. For Pawan and his colleagues, the main task will be to test long-held beliefs about the brain’s ability to acquire complex visual skills after several years of congenital blindness. The implications of this research could be enormous. Not only is the NIH on board; Health Department officials here in India are also intrigued and excited.

All this is happening because someone thought about planning for the most vulnerable. Pawan told me his plan will require him to raise $20 million. I told him that was petty cash, and he agreed. He said he recently gave a presentation at the NIH and was staying at the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel. Checking in, he happened to notice a sign that said, “We hope you enjoy your experience in our newly renovated lobby. It has been redesigned at a cost of $17 million.”

Lobbies are nice. But we can do better. For three million more, thousands of kids will get new lives. Researchers will be able to explore ideas that could benefit millions. That’s a bargain anyway you look at it.

Published in the 2012-10-26 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.

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