Friday, March 13, 2020

Dr. Darshan Brar, leading IRRI breeder, passes away at 76

Dr. Darshan Singh Brar, former head of IRRI’s Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology (PBGB) Division, passed away from a heart attack on the evening of 11 March at the age of 76.

For 25 years from 1987 to 2012, Dr. Brar worked with his fellow scientists at the institute to broaden the gene pool of cultivated rice. With his expertise in genetics, plant breeding, and molecular cytogenetics, Dr. Brar successfully transferred novel genes from wild species of Oryza to cultivated rice, an important plant breeding approach that has revolutionized rice farming around the world.

A bemedaled scientist for the world

For his leadership and contributions to rice breeding and cultivation, Dr. Brar received the CGIAR 2007 Outstanding Scientist Award, which honors original work by a senior scientist whose contributions have actual or potential regional or international significance that furthers CGIAR goals. 

In the same year, he received the Gold Medal Award from Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and was one of two recipients of the Koshihikari International Rice Prize, which recognizes outstanding achievements by rice researchers. In 2009, Dr. Brar accepted the Friendship Award from the Republic of China, the highest honor given to non-Chinese who have made outstanding contributions to the country's economic and social progress.

Dr. Brar received his Ph.D. at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU). Prior to working at IRRI, he was a Fellow at the National Research Council Canada, the University of Nottingham UK, and the University of Tsukuba Japan. He also worked for his alma mater PAU as a cytogeneticist (1979-1982), Professor of Biotechnology (1986-1987), and upon retirement from IRRI, as Adjunct Professor.

His affiliations include fellowships with the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in India, the Indian Society of Genetics and Plant Breeding, the Crop Improvement Society of India; the Punjab Academy of Sciences, and the Crop Science Society of Philippines. After his stint at IRRI, Dr. Brar was appointed as Secretary of the Board of the Gurdev Khush Foundation.

A mentor and colleague like no other

Former IRRI peers Casiana Vera Cruz, Paul Teng, Timothy Bertotti, and Sadiq Bhuiyan describe Dr. Brar not only as a highly regarded scientist, but as a generous, friendly, and soft-spoken colleague whose passing is a real loss to the rice community.

“An outstanding feature of Dr. Brar’s personality as a manager was his ability to get some of the most ‘difficult’ people to agree with him and his proposed course of actions without making an issue of the difference of opinion – it still is a mystery how he did that and now all hopes of solving that and learning from him are gone,” said Ajay Kohli, IRRI’s Platform Leader for Strategic Innovation.

Kohli first met Dr. Brar when he was still a student at the institute in the early 1990s. Plant Molecular Biology and Biotechnology was an upcoming subject then and Dr. Brar was very supportive of the new technologies for their use in making a difference to the farmer’s lives.

“He wished to see IRRI students achieve top academic standards and would continually push for publishing in top journals. He was the happiest and proudest person when I got my very first paper in a top journal. One hardly ever comes across that genuine passion and real connection which fosters happiness and satisfaction from the students’ and the alumni’s achievements,” Kohli said.

Of Dr. Brar, IRRI’s Chief Information Officer Marco van den Berg also has this to say: “Darshan Brar had a work ethic like nobody else that I know. Rumor has it that he once surprised the personnel department by contesting his salary increase, insisting that he didn't want it because the money could be better spent elsewhere in the institute.”

A father and friend to many

Kohli remembers how Dr. Brar demonstrated a life lesson to him one evening. He and Dr. Brar came back to IRRI after dinner at Dr. Brar’s place, deciding to work at the laboratory from 08:30 to 10:30 pm like they used to. Suddenly, Dr. Gurdev Khush, then IRRI’s principal plant breeder, pulled up at the NCBL gate at the same time and for the same reasons.

Kohli recalls, “When I started walking towards the gate, he (Dr. Brar) held me back saying, ‘You don’t walk in front of your boss.’ When we reached the door, he held it open for me and gestured for me to go ahead. I said I can’t go ahead, you just taught me to stay a step behind. I insisted on him to go ahead but no rewards for guessing who won that argument.”

Dr. Brar responded, saying, “It’s different between you and me.” Dr. Brar was 18 years Kohli’s senior, more than the age difference between Dr. Brar and Dr. Khush. According to Kohli, he admires Dr. Brar’s quality of being able to rise up to the challenges and bend down for the solutions, something that distinguished Dr. Brar and one legacy to remember and follow him by.

“As I heard the news that Dr. Brar is no more, I felt that I have lost a mentor, a guardian who always stood for me whenever I needed him. May His soul rest in peace in heaven. May God provide strength to his wife, his kids, his family and near and dear once to him to bear this loss,” said Arvind Kumar, Director of the IRRI South Asia Regional Centre (IRRI SARC).

Jauhar Ali, Senior Scientist at IRRI and one of Dr. Brar’s closest friends, fondly remembers Dr. Brar as witty and jovial, an avid walker, yogi, and listener of classical Indian music.

Van den Berg shares, “The picture I will always have of Darshan is one taken with a very soft focus, almost like an aquarelle painting: soft, friendly, balanced yet with an amazing sense of humor. Many smiles will appear on many faces when remembering him for many years to come.”

Born in Punjab, India on 07 March 1944, Dr. Brar is survived by his wife, Sukhvinder Kaur, and two daughters, Hardev and Rajdev.


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