"In the scientific community, these things take a long time. A person called Spencer Wells from Stanford had contacted me in 1997 and 1998 regarding the issue. He had done a lot of work on early migration and was interested in working among the Indian population. But nothing came of it," Pitchappan said.
It was while Pitchappan was attending a conference in Oxford in 2000, when providence struck.
"I had just stepped out of the Welcome Trust Centre, where the conference was on. It was drizzling outside. I saw this frail girl walking down towards the bus stop. We got talking and spoke about our areas of interest," The girl, a Russian, told Pitchappan that she worked for a professor called Spencer Wells and was working on the same subject.
"I told her even I had been in touch with a person of the same name but that he was from Stanford. She told me that we were talking about the same person. She also agreed to set up a meeting the very next day," Pitchappan said.
When they met (almost three years after their first e-mail correspondence) Wells, who had just completed work on the Central Asian population, told Pitchappan that his work was complete and that the paper was ready to go for publication.
"But the study felt incomplete without anything from India, Wells told me," Pitchappan said. Wells asked Pitchappan if they could collaborate and study the Indian population. Pitchappan agreed.
"I wrote a mail to Wells saying I will send him the samples if he thought we can do it right away. He agreed to that and we started working. There was a major conference coming up within a month and we wanted to finish the study before that," Pitchappan said.
The research undertaken by Wells and Pitchappan described the migrations of humans from Africa to other parts of the world. After the paper was presented, Wells got back in touch with Pitchappan, as he felt that there were bigger issues related to the subject.
"Wells told me that at least five per cent of my samples had a gene marker called M130. When I heard this, I knew what it meant. The M130 marker is the one which we use to identify the first out-of-Africa migration!"
There's a reason why this discovery was significant and why Pitchappan was so elated with it.
Image: Virumandi with his parents.
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