Celebrating success in scientific research, Infosys Science Foundation identifies outstanding researchers and scientists across six fields: engineering and computer sciences, humanities, life sciences, mathematical sciences, physical sciences and social sciences. A gold medal, a citation and a purse of `55 lakh should only spur this year’s seven laureates profiled here to greater heights. In the words of the winners, praise from the eminent jury comprising Pradeep K Khosla (chancellor, University of San Diego, USA), Amartya Sen (economist), Inder Verma (expert on genetics), Srinivasa SR Varadhan (mathematician), Shrinivas Kulkarni (professor of astrophysics and planetary science) and Kaushik Basu (senior vice-president and chief economist of World Bank), has only been the icing on the cake. You could well be next year’s winners. In the meantime, keep a tab on www.infosys-science-foundation.com
India’s rich in heritage and tapping into it is Lahiri, professor, Department of History, University of Delhi. “My area of work is Indian archaeology. Whether it is protohistory such as the Harappan Civilisation or it is historical India and the archaeological imprint of Emperor Ashoka or even the archaeological dimensions of modern India, from the 1857 revolt to the partitioning of India’s past in 1947, the idea has been to try and makes sense of the past through what exists on the ground — artefacts, monuments, sites and many related aspects of the material past,” begins the prof who’s in her early 50s. Simultaneously, Prof Lahiri is also interested in how her area of work has evolved. “Archaeology as a modern discipline emerged only in the middle of the 19th century. While there is a material reality out there, there are specific historical conditions which influence what we make of that reality — what influences the nature of archaeological work, how has the intellectual and cultural milieu impacted on the work of archaeologists, why was the Harappan Civilisation discovered more than 50 years after Harappa was excavated — these are some aspects of the history of archaeology which have fascinated me,” says Lahiri who has an MA, MPhil and PhD from University of Delhi.
Appalled that the material past of India, which is the raison d’être of archaeology as a discipline, is disappearing at an unstoppable pace, Lahiri has tried to address the problems by taking it up with the government and by continuously writing about it in the media. As a researcher, Lahiri has found the support of her husband Kishore and son Karan, encouraging. Lahiri acknowledges that the prize has been a huge honour for her and the discipline of archaeology. “For me, archaeology has been a lot of fun — wandering around the countryside, looking at mounds and monuments in all kinds of places, learning from those landscapes and from the people who inhabit them. And then to be told that Infosys foundation has honoured this fun and work with the humanities prize; well it feels tremendous,” she gushes. Having made no plans about her prize money, prof Lahiri will continue to research, publish and mentor students. Besides archaeological pursuits, she enjoys reading and music.
Ayesha Kidwai | Humanities — linguistics
Grammar has always been perceived by us as a manual on how to speak correctly, but Prof Kidwai begs to differ. “Generative linguists are interested in grammar as a system of rules that underlies every utterance an individual makes, whether or not she is educated and irrespective of whether grammar books prescribe it to be correct or not. All languages, whether Sanskrit, Persian, Naga, Kharia, Hills Meri, Khasi, English, or Swahili, have such underlying systems and this when taken together with the fact that only humans ‘know’ language, leads us to ask how many such systems of grammar are inherent to being human, and whether we can entertain the hypothesis that all these varied systems are structured by some uniform principles. My own work has been to investigate aspects of the grammar systems of big and small languages spoken in India to contribute to linguists’ answers to these questions,” begins Kidwai who was rightfully bestowed the Infosys prize for her work that proposes a novel theory of binding in extensive analytical investigation of Hindi. Kidwai completed her MA and PhD in linguistics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is now back at her alma mater as a prof.
Reflecting on the biggest challenge she faced, the 46-year-old says, “ It should be the absence of a community of peers interested in the same questions during the time I was doing my doctoral work at JNU. For many years, I was the only student studying generative syntax in Delhi; there were no books in the library, no conferences, no means to travel and learn from others’ work, and no international standards to aspire to. Luckily I had a JRF fellowship and could spend most of it ordering books and dissertations from abroad. My life really changed when towards the end of my PhD, I came in contact with generative linguists working at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, in a summer school and I met a handful of other students and professors who were as misguided as I was and it was with their help, and particularly my dear friend and colleague, Tanmoy Bhattacharya, that I found my academic community. In the years that have followed, of course, Tanmoy and I with some help from the internet have managed to change all that; and now, through the annual theoretical syntax summer school we both run — Linguistics Summer School in the Indian Mountains — and with the bright students we have been able to attract, we have overcome this challenge,” says Kidwai.
Aninhalli R Vasavi Social Sciences — Sociology and Anthropology
On November 10, when Vasavi got a call saying that she had bagged the Infosys Prize 2013 for social sciences, she was taken aback. “Me, a prize?” was the professor’s initial reaction. As a senior fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, her pioneering research spans four main areas: Agrarian society at the intersection of economy, culture and environment; school education in varied regional contexts; globalisation and its impact on the moral economy of urban occupations; and social science as seen from the vantage point of Indian languages and regional cultures.
Her important contributions help enrich the understanding of farmer suicides and rural schooling. She reckons it is not immediate economic reasons like debt or crop failure, but transformed social experiences associated with them — especially individualisation of formerly collectively managed risks — that cause farmer suicides. Her concept of ‘School differentiation’ demonstrates how the presence of as many as 11 different types of schools shape choices of parents and teachers and determines the pedagogical experience of children. Vasavi did her MA and MPhil in sociology from the University of Delhi, and a PhD in social anthropology from Michigan State University, USA.
“I have over the years tried to integrate research, teaching and writing with developing outreach programmes to disseminate ideas related to society and culture. I am currently trying to set up an alternative learning place for rural youth,” says the 55-year-old. Unlike natural sciences, management and technology which have several institutes of excellence, there are only a few institutes in the social sciences and this poses multiple challenges to engaging in social science research and teaching in India, believes the professor.
Quitting institutions and periodically being unemployed, Vasavi credits her family for having her back. Currently, working on a book manuscript as part of her fellowship with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, Vasavi intends to use the prize money for supporting research on rural and agrarian issues. “And I am learning a lot,” she signs off.
Rajesh S Gokhale | Life Sciences
Preparing for a scientific meeting, Gokhale was caught off guard when he received a call informing him about the prize. “Isn’t that great?,” was all the expert on polyketide synthases happened to mutter. Gokhale’s award is for his discovery of fatty acyl AMP ligases in tubercle bacillus, their role in the generation of the lipid components of its cell wall and of their existence in other organisms, where they play a role in biosynthesis of complex molecules. “Mycobacterium Tuberculosis is a deadly bacterium that spreads through air and mainly infects patients’ lungs, killing one person every minute due to TB. These tiny organisms possess a resilient waxy cell envelope coat made up of unique lipids, which is encoded by its unique set of genes. Disrupting this barricade is one of the promising approaches to tackle this infection. Our studies discovered clusters of multifunctional enzyme called Polyketide synthases (PKS) and Fatty acyl-AMP ligase (FAAL) that assist in the formation of unique lipids in Mycobacteria. The current treatment regimens include a combination of drugs that needs to taken for six-nine months. ‘Systemic drug’ approach that will target multi-gene families of proteins is the driving force behind our research, which in future could expedite the treatment of Tuberculosis,” explains Gokhale on his work, though it might have been Latin to some of us.
Serving as director of the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi, the 47-year-old believes translating discovery into societal utility is the toughest thing. “Right kind of mentorship is key to inculcating ambition in young researchers,” he says. With a companion who hails from a research background, work has been all the merrier for the self-confessed sports enthusiast.
Rahul Pandharipande Mathematics
A leader in algebraic geometry, Pandharipande is in particular being lauded for his work on the Gromov-Witten theory for Riemann surfaces, predicting the connection between Gromov-Witten and Donaldson-Thomas theories, and for his recent work with Aaron Pixton that establishes this connection for Calabi-Yau 3-folds. As if understanding our raised eyebrows, he tries to explain his work in layman terms, “Algebraic geometry is the study of zero sets of polynomial equations in several variables. The subject has a central role in mathematics with connections to number theory, representation theory, and topology. Moduli questions in algebraic geometry concern the behaviour of solution set as coefficients of the polynomials vary. At the end of the 20th century, several fundamental links between the algebraic geometry of moduli problems and path integrals in quantum field theory were made. The subject today uses insights and techniques with origins in both mathematics and physics.” The 45-year-old got his AB degree from Princeton University, USA, in 1990. He earned his PhD in 1994 from Harvard University, USA.
As with any other laureate, Pandharipande’s work was not without glitches, “The hardest part of my work concerns the geometry of virtual fundamental class. These moduli spaces carry a hidden structure, which can be viewed as coming from either deformation theory in mathematics or the path integral in physics. Almost all of my work, in one way or another, relates to this hidden structure. It is the aspect which I find most fascinating.”
Married to a Portuguese mathematician (no surprises here), Ana Cannas da Silva, the couple have made Zurich their home for the past two-and-a-half years and absolutely dote on their daughter. A pleasant surprise it was for the professor when he heard that he had made it. “Prizes can show young people both the existence of such questions and the possibility of solving them. However, the role of teachers, books and the level of the academic environment is crucial.” In the coming months, Pandharipande intends to carry forward to his research projects concerning the moduli of curves, sheaves, and maps in algebraic geometry besides running, swimming, reading and eating.
V Ramgopal Rao | Engineering and Computer Science
Innovation and entrepreneurship go hand in hand and mostly don’t fail anyone including Rao who serves as Institute Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Chief Investigator, Centre of Excellence in Nanoelectronics, IIT-Bombay, Mumbai. Rao’s wide-ranging contributions to nanoscale electronics, for insightfully integrating chemistry with mechanics and electronics to invent new functional devices, and for innovation and entrepreneurship in creating technologies and products of societal value has brought him the Infosys honour.
“My main area of research for a long time has been Complementary MOS Oxide Semiconductor Technology (CMOS) devices and technologies — the basic CMOS transistors that are the building blocks of modern mobile phones and other electronic gadgets. My work has primarily focused on reducing power dissipation in these technologies and on the integration of high voltage and functionally diverse components on the CMOS platform enabling the future systems on chip. By embedding a variety of sense and interact functions on these platforms, the goal is to build future intelligent systems,” says the 48-year-old. Future mobile phones should be capable of serving healthcare diagnostic requirements in addition to warning about the presence of harmful substances in the environment, believes Rao who holds a BTech from Kakatiya University, AP (1986), MTech from IIT-Bombay, Mumbai (1991) and Dr Ingenieur from Universitaet der Bundeswehr Munich, Germany (1997).
The prof’s goal for the past decade has been to develop technologies that have societal relevance. He focused on addressing the growing needs of people at the bottom of the pyramid. “Much of what I do can be termed as frugal innovation, which is to make high technologies relevant for a common man, who makes less than `100 per day. At IIT-Bombay we are working on a low-cost cardiac diagnostic system for early detection of cardiac problems, a low-cost hand held explosive detector for security agencies, and sensors for agricultural applications for Indian farmers. While technologies can be developed with support from the government, we realised that for the deployment of prototypes and products, we need industry involvement,” he says. Indebted to his wife Anupama, a doctor, for the strength she has provided him over the years, he says the Infosys prize has only made him more happy. “Having never worked for money, I shall be happy if I could get my devices across to the common man,” concludes Rao.
Shiraz Minwalla | Physical Sciences
A specialist in quantum gravity research, Minwalla’s claim to the Infosys prize is his contribution to the study of string theory, quantum field theory and gravity, and for uncovering a deep connection between the equations of fluid and superfluid dynamics and Einstein’s equations of general relativity. “I have demonstrated that Einstein's equations of general relativity reduce, under appropriate circumstances, to relativistic generalisations of Navier Stokes equations of hydrodynamics. The context for this discussion is the AdS/CFT correspondence of string theory. AdS/CFT asserts that certain conformal quantum field theories admit a reformulation as higher dimensional theories of gravity under appropriate circumstances. Now it has long been expected that the dynamics of any quantum field theory reduces, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics. If you put these two statements together it should follow that Einstein's equations of gravity reduce, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics,” he explains.
The 42-year-old believes that the biggest challenge is to ask the right questions. “Most questions you really want an answer to, like for instance, how did the universe begin? — probably cannot be addressed by a head on analysis. We simply do not know enough, at the moment, to begin to address these questions in a meaningful way. At the other end of the spectrum there are plenty of questions that you can answer, but whose answers will not teach you much: these are answerable but boring questions. Really good research lies between the two extremes: it addresses questions that can be quantitatively addressed, and whose answers have a chance of being very interesting and teaching you something. Coming up with such questions is the most difficult — and most important — aspect of theoretical research, says Minwalla who did his MSc in physics from IIT-Kanpur and completed his PhD in physics from Princeton University, USA. Currently he is a Professor at Department of Theoretical Physics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. His future plans revolve around continuing to grapple with the questions that still need answers.