Life in a lab - The New Indian Express

Life in a lab

Published: 12th November 2012 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 10th November 2012 12:02 PM

Every research holds the potential for a surprising discovery, something that perhaps will overturn conventional wisdom. It takes time and requires scientists who can work together, think creatively, question assumptions, and follow the clues. Meet seven scientists who do all the above effortlessly.

Ajit Kumar Barisal

- Diana Sahu | Bhubaneswar

A teacher and a scientist. This may sound arduous for many, but Ajit Kumar Barisal has been enjoying every bit of both. He is a reader in the Electrical Engineering department of Veer Surendra Sai University of Technology, Burla, Odisha. Recently, he received Young Scientist Award-2010 from Odisha Bigyan Academy for his contribution to the field of engineering and technology.

Taking advantage of the recent developments in soft-computing techniques, Ajit has modified Particle Swarm Optimisation, Bacteria Foraging Algorithm, Artificial Immune System and Differential Evolution for solving power system optimisation problems like multi-objective generation dispatch and short-term hydrothermal scheduling. “Generation scheduling is an important daily optimisation task. Though a little money saving is achieved with soft-computing methods..., still when calculated annually, the amount of money saved is considerable. The major contribution of my research work was to develop methods so that consumers can derive the benefit of getting reliable, affordable, clean power at a reduced cost and environmental pollution is reduced,” explains Ajit.

Presently, he is working on hydrothermal scheduling and power dispatch of hybrid power system with artificial intelligence and renewable energy sources. Apart from engineering, Ajit takes a keen interest in table tennis, gardening and travelling.

Rati Ranjan Nayak

- Diana Sahu | Bhubaneswar

Scientific research is an essential investment for the long-term welfare of any developing country, feels scientist Rati Ranjan Nayak, who recently got the Young Scientist Award-2010 from Odisha Bigyan Academy for his pioneering work in physical science.

After obtaining his PhD in Chemistry from Utkal University in 2002, Nayak has been researching soft materials for biomedical application. He created biodegradable polymers from renewable resources like soyabean oil and castor oil.

Presently, he is studying synthesis and evaluation of amino acid-based surfactants, hydrogels of amino acid-based surfactants and their applications. He’s also busy with developing sustainable processes for producing edible oils.

With more than 200 citations and 28 conference proceedings, Nayak has also filed for two international patents. Currently, he works as a scientist in the Centre for Lipid Research, CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad. “I am working towards developing high quality research as a part of my commitment to the HRD programme,” says Nayak, who loves to spend time with his family when he is not busy in the lab. “I am also passionate about dance and music,” he adds.

Arindam Ghosh

- Sangeetha Samuel | Bangalore

The next decade will witness the rise of nanomaterials, believes Prof Arindham Ghosh, a semiconductor physicist at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The Shanthi Swarup Bhatnagar Awardee for 2012 is currently working on ultra-thin semi-conductor membranes in nanotechnology. “Graphene is the material that received the Nobel Prize in 2010. These ultra-thin membranes of semi-conductor materials are being used in electronic devices, solar energy photovoltaic applications and in sensors,” he gives an example.

According to Prof Arindham, the next five to 10 years are crucial for nanotechnology. “There are various materials that are available in natural nano forms. For instance, flexible electronics in display, coatings in various forms for automobiles and rockets, just to name a few,” he says.

While the 41-year-old is positive about the scientific climate in India, red tape is definitely a sore point. “There is a good amount of research going on which is accountable to taxpayers. The funding in terms of money is not the problem but there are issues which are bureaucratic in nature like the time the ministry takes to respond to proposals,” points out Prof Arindam.

A cricketer, Prof Arindam believes that sport refreshes the thought process and has suggested students to indulge in some sport. “I make it to the sports page more often than to the main pages,” he says.

Dipti Prakasini Das

- Diana Sahu | Bhubaneswar

For Dipti Prakasini Das, a 34-year-old scientist at Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology (IMMT), Bhubaneswar, uncovering the unexpected has almost become a routine. The junior scientist at CSIR-IMMT received CSIR-Young Scientist Award in chemical sciences on September 26. She earned this honour for developing novel photocatalysts for hydrogen generation and environmental abatement under visible light illumination, preferably solar radiation. The award came with a cash prize of Rs 50,000 and a research grant of Rs 5 lakh per annum for five years.

According to IMMT, her study opened up a new domain in environmental pollution abatement and generation of hydrogen energy and chemical conversions by utilising solar energy.

Dipti joined CSIR-IMMT in 2001. In 2006, she finished her PhD from Vidyasagar University, West Bengal. She has developed a good number of photocatalysts for degradation of organic/inorganic/dye pollutants under solar light illumination. “For the last two years, I have been engaged in process of hydrogen generation from water under visible light illumination. My target is to use all the developed catalysts for utilisation of solar light,” says Dipti.

Women, she says, have a different approach to a problem. Unlike men, they look at the little things also which help them gain a different perspective. “As far as science is concerned, I dream of developing a large-scale photo-reactor, which can purify water under solar radiation for 100 per cent degradation of any kind of contaminants; a reactor which can generate hydrogen energy continuously without deactivation,” says Dipti, who likes chatting with her mother and friends, listening to music and cooking when not working with chemicals.

Rakesh S Laishram

- Meera Manu | Thiruvananthapuram

A scientist at Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnolgy in Thiruvananthapuram, Rakesh S Laishram has characterised the mechanism of Star-PAP, a protein that controls the genes that cause cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.

The identification of Star–PAP’s mechanism spurred Rakesh to further explore it. He has been working on it right from his postdoctoral days (2008-2011) at Department of Pharmacology, University of Wisconsin, USA. “I was fascinated by how novel a mechanism it has. Unlike other proteins, Star-PAP regulates only selective genes. If we understand how it is regulated and how it links with other proteins to control the expression of target genes, it can be used for therapeutical purposes in the future,” says the 33-year-old.

Rakesh graduated in Chemistry (Honours) from Manipur University, Imphal, in 2001. He finished his MSc in biosciences from Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, in 2003. His tryst with research started at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, where he was a summer research fellow for three months in 2002. There, he worked on protein synthesis in Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, the bacterial species that cause TB. He was a research scholar at Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, from 2003 to 2008.

With over a decade’s experience in scientific research, Rakesh advices youngsters to prepare “to fall into failures first” as  research may feel frustrating at times. “A combination of several factors like interest, perseverance, consistency and strong motivation has to go well with every research. Sometimes, you may not get results though you work hard for days but you should keep going,” he says.

Rakesh also cautions you not to go astray when success comes. “When success comes, I get excited. Still, I am alert that it is just a beginning and not an end. My dream is to devote many years to research,” he says.

Umakanta Subudhi

- Diana Sahu | Bhubaneswar

Apart from being effective antioxidants, Vitamin E and curcumin (turmeric) are capable of regulating hepatic antioxidant gene expression in hypo and hyperthyroidism. This finding of scientist Umakanta Subudhi fetched him the Young Scientist Award of Odisha Bigyan Academy recently. Through his research, Subudhi, a scientist in Bioresources Engineering Department of CSIR-Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology, Bhubaneswar, has shown that oral supplementation of exogenous antioxidants like Vitamin E and curcumin alleviates hyper- and hypothyroidism-induced oxidative stress. “Curcumin is remarkably free of toxicity, as shown by the fact that the dry curcuma rhizome (turmeric) has been approved for human consumption and is widely used as a food condiment,” he says.

This young scientist is working on two projects — biodesulphurisation of coal and branched DNA biomaterials. While biodesulphurisation of coal deals with finding out potential bacteria for removal of organic sulphur from coal. His branched DNA biomaterials project deals with designing and developing branched DNA materials from linear genome through self-assembly. “These branched DNA biomaterials have many advanced applications in tissue engineering, assembly of nanomaterials, drug delivery and nanoelectronics,” Subudhi adds.

Besides the Young Scientist Award, Subudhi, who is in his early 30s, had received Junior Fellowship award, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, in 2004, and Senior Research Fellowship award, Indian Council of Medical Research, Government of India, in 2008. “I like two things in life — science and society. From Monday to Saturday, I work on science and on Sunday, I engage myself with family and friends,” Subudhi says.

A Krithika Gokulnath

This 35-year-old structural biologist has set her eyes on the ultimate honour — Krithika Gokulnath hopes to become the first Indian woman scientist to win a Nobel Prize. As a postdoctoral research fellow at Centre of Advanced Study in Crystallography and Biophysics (CASCB), University of Madras, Chennai, Krithika is busy researching the atomic structure of proteins. Science piqued her curiosity quite early. With an excellent mentor in her father — Prof N Anand was VC of Vels University, Chennai, and a botanist — Krithika didn’t have to look further for inspiration. “My dad used to take me to his lab. I saw how tissues grew into plants. It was very inspiring,” she says.

The botany graduate (1998) switched to biochemistry for master’s as she found BSc botany ‘superficial’. A chance viewing of a video on structural biology during her MSc changed Krithika’s outlook on science. “I was fascinated by the fact that we can visualise proteins and study its functions,” she says. From 2001-08, she read for her PhD in structural biology at CASCB. Presently, Krithika is studying the proteins of Thermus thermophilus, a bacteria. She also won a WOS (Women Scientists Scheme) fellowship worth `23 lakh from Department of Science and Technology in August. “It’ll be interesting to study its heat variant. Even at 80°C, its protein structure is intact. Normally, proteins can’t survive at this temperature. The difference in protein sequence can be exploited to design a drug that will kill bacteria but not human cells,” she explains.

As a young scientist who had to take a two-year break due to motherhood, Krithika realises the road ahead is filled with pitfalls. There are a lot of labs abroad. It is easy to get fellowships, publish papers and pay is lucrative there. Here, a postdoc gets Rs 35,000 a month, which is not attractive enough for someone who has to support a whole family,” she says.

However, she has hope in her field. “Crystallography is at an advanced stage in India. Except synchrotron (a facility that allows electrons to spin around a large circular ring, which is constructed in a vast area of land), everything else is available. We have the legacy (GN Ramachandran, founder of CASCB, devised a technique that’s eponymously named after him as Ramachandran Plot and is a standard test for all research projects) and the facility to move forward,” she says. If Krithika is not busy at lab or neck-deep in chores, you will find her either painting, clay modelling, sketching etc. Krithika is blessed with a son, Aakash, and husband Gokulnath.

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