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Meet India’s bright, young minds

In these days of economic gloom and terror, Barney Hendersonfinds a beacon of light — a bunch of exciting young scientists at the cutting edge of discovery.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2009 13:26 IST
Barney Henderson

The sun worshipper

Vitamin D comes from the sun. And the sun shines down on India bountifully. However, Dr Ravinder Goswami discovered a decade ago that 80 per cent of urban Indians and 70 per cent of rural Indians suffer from a severe deficiency of Vitamin D.

The solution: Forget about trying to stay ‘fair’ and soak up the sun, for 90 per cent of the body’s requirements of Vitamin D come from sunshine.

“We in India stay covered most of the time. In urban areas, we’re always indoors during the day, including children who are in school. And in rural areas, those working in the fields cover their heads,” explains the physician.

Besides, Indian skin also does not easily absorb Vitamin D.

It was through his groundbreaking research — first carried out with his guide Dr N Kochupillai in the mid-1990s — that Dr Goswami came up with these worrisome findings.

However, says Dr Goswami, just one hour of exposure every day of a mere 10 per cent of the body’s surface can protect against a huge list of serious health problems.

In the young it can help improve growth and height; in the old it can prevent loss of height and stooping.

The lack of Vitamin D decreases bone density resulting in rickets and increased risk of fractures in adults. Vitamin D deficiency has also been shown to possibly increase the risk of thyroid problems, prostate cancer and diabetes.

All that needs to be done, Dr Goswami says, is: “Men should wear half-sleeved shirts and families should make sure they spend at least Sunday mornings out in the sun. Avoid using sunscreen; at best, use one with a maximum of SPF 6. Our research has also shown that one sachet of a Vitamin D supplement taken once a week for eight weeks gives protection for six months.”

His ongoing research, that has included the largest study of patients in the world on this subject, has recently shown that women particularly are vulnerable to Vitamin D deficiency because they also have poor calcium intake.

“What drives me is the fact that there is little pioneering medical research by clinical doctors in India. We must carry out our own R&D and not rely on other countries, because — as has been shown with Vitamin D deficiency — many medical problems are country-specific,” explains Dr Goswami.

Immersed though he is in his research — “I love my work and don’t feel the need to switch off; I’d be happy doing it day and night” — Dr Goswami likes to play the violin when not in the laboratory. “I realised that when I retire I will have to do something,” he laughs, “so four years ago I started learning the violin!”

Tails he wins

Have you ever wondered why a lizard’s tail grows back perfectly, how a fly grows its wings or why your arms are almost exactly the same size and shape despite having developed independently?

These are questions that have intrigued Dr L.S. Shashidhara; the answers could hold the secret to preventing and treating cancer, which is caused by rogue cells that multiply without reason. His 15 years of studying why a fruit fly grows wings addresses the very fundamentals of human life.

Dr Shashidhara says that it was his long discussions with his father on the seminal work of English scientist Charles Darwin that first got him interested in evolution. The inquiring young mind, thus nurtured in the village of Lingadahalli in Karnataka, went on to win a scholarship to Cambridge University, then returned to his motherland and began his groundbreaking cell research.

Today Dr Shashidhara is an expert on living cells. Since fruit flies and humans have thousands of genes in common, he has broken down the genetic make-up of these flies to establish how and why their cells grow or get deformed. This work has significantly increased our understanding of cancer.

“Our work using an insect model was used successfully to develop and test cancer drugs in 2001,” he informs. “The treatment of deformed cells is the same in a fly and in a human.”

“Pure science is about gaining a deeper understanding of life,” says the 45-year-old. “And trying to understand nature is itself a motivating factor. I find the manner in which cells work and organise themselves just so exciting. It has given me an insight into how life evolves. That is the philosophical side. On the practical side, my work can help the understanding of how a disease begins.”

Dr Shashidhara, who is also “deeply interested in teaching”, has recently set up the biology department at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, which “aims to integrate undergraduate teaching with high quality research”.

A self-confessed workaholic, Dr Shashidhara says he has to make a conscious effort to drag himself away from the lab to spend time with his family (“It’s important to do that”). “I enjoy my work 24x7,” he says. “I get immersed in it, go into virtual hiding and work day and night. The excitement of a new discovery drives me on.”

Dr Smell

A lump of cheese lies behind one door. Behind the other is nothing. It is a choice between a decent supper and going hungry and rats, somehow, know which door to open to get their reward.

Dr Upinder Singh Bhalla’s research has shown that rats see, hear and, crucially, smell in stereo. That may not sound very exciting to you, but hold on: these findings have led to a greater understanding of how the human brain works.

“Rats smell in stereo,” Dr Bhalla explains. “Their two nostrils have independent sensory organs so a rat can work out where a smell is coming from, locate food behind two different doors and get its reward.” Dr Bhalla and his team have carried out in-depth studies of the brain tissue of a rat, of how its senses function and how its memory works.

This research has helped in the understanding of human memory and how our own brain processes information. “By understanding memory, we can contribute to research on bio-chemical drugs to treat memory disorders and what to do when something goes wrong with the human brain,” the 45-year-old explains.

Dr Bhalla, who was born in London, grew up in various Indian cities including Jaipur, Chandigarh and Delhi, and went on to study at the University of Cambridge and get his PhD from the California Institute of Technology. He is driven by the thrill of a new discovery. “It is immensely exciting when you are on the brink of something new. It is also a motivation to be contributing in a small way to human understanding of the brain while also contributing to the reputation of Indian science worldwide,” he says.

A keen sportsman, Dr Bhalla cycles to work and likes to swim and play basketball. “I love reading anything from science fiction to poetry,” he adds. And confesses, “I also have a soft spot for Indian sweets — each of the computers in our office is named after an Indian sweet!”

Molecular mastermind

A raindrop falls on a lotus leaf. As this bead of water rolls off the shiny surface of the leaf, it picks up specks of dirt and cleans the plant. This is the lotus plant’s natural cleaning technology.

When adapted by man, such tips from nature could help in the development of solar panels (read on to find out how). Harnessing the power of the sun to drive our power stations and bring light to millions of Indians is the ultimate energy solution.

In India, we have sunlight in abundance. Fortunately, we also have one of the country’s leading scientists working for 10 years to help make India’s solar power dreams a reality. Indeed, Dr A Ajayaghosh is a world authority on supramolecular assemblies and light-induced sensor systems.

In lay speak, Dr Ajayaghosh’s research team makes use of light-emitting materials for their studies. These materials are what have made your TV screens go from being a ‘box’ to a sexy sliver; helped mobile phones become hand-held offices, and digital cameras get both highly advanced and affordable.

Most importantly, however, these materials are also potential candidates for the development of solar panels to produce electricity. Remarks the 46-year-old, “Solar power is the cheapest, cleanest source of energy and available all year round. We will eventually have to use it as an alternative to fossil fuels and to reduce global warming. And it is the biggest possible challenge to make it efficient.”

Specifically, Dr Ajayaghosh is researching the development of cheaper, flexible and energy-efficient organic materials for electronic applications. Recently, he has shown that the nanocomposites (composites of molecules) developed by his group mimic the lotus plant’s self-cleaning ability.

“Like many chemists, I get my inspiration for how molecules work from nature. Chemists try to understand how molecules are held together in nature and translate these principles with artificial molecules,” he said.

Dr Ajayaghosh grew up surrounded by the bounties and lessons of nature in Velimon, a small village in Quilon district of Kerala. His father, a farmer, and the rest of the family went to great lengths to find the money for his education at the University of Calicut.

Efforts that have paid off handsomely for the country today. “The driving force behind my work is to make solar technologies efficient. It is the energy of the future and India must invest in high quality science to make it a reality.”

“My one motivation,” he says, “is to learn from nature and try and figure out how a deep understanding of molecules can translate into potential applications.”

The young man and the sea

It is called the IOD and it strikes when seas are unusually cool on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean and warm on the west. It causes winds to flow from east to west — a reverse of the usual pattern — and increases clouds and winds across the Indian subcontinent. Its effects are far-reaching, causing droughts in Indonesia and Australasia and floods in east Africa.

It is the Indian Ocean Dipole, or IOD for short, which affects the strength of the monsoon across the subcontinent and has scientists scratching their heads in worry. It is often called the ‘Indian El Nino’ after the strong ocean current that has caused natural disasters on a huge scale in the Pacific.

One Indian oceanographer is at the eye of the storm. Dr P.N. Vinayachandran was part of the team that discovered the IOD in 1999 and has subsequently been working on what causes it and how to predict it.

The major IOD events occurred in 1997, 2006 and 2008 and Dr Vinayachandran says scientists are worried: “It is certainly a matter of concern that the trend appears to be increasing and becoming more frequent,” he says. “We need to find what triggers the phenomenon so that we can forecast when it will occur.”

If scientists are able to crack this problem, giving advance warning of drought or floods, it could help save many lives.

“At the Bangalore centre, we use ocean modelling and satellite technology to map the Indian Ocean and try to understand oceanic dynamics,” explains the 44-year-old who grew up in the village of Meledor in Kerala. “We also observe the oceans jointly with the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa.”

Dr Vinayachandran and his team at the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences are also using modelling technology to identify ocean productivity and areas where tiny ocean plant growth known as phytoplankton are most common.

“We use satellite data of ocean colour to find where phytoplankton blooms,” he explains. “In a practical application, this information can tell fisherman where the most fish will be. For example, the Bay of Bengal is highly productive during the northeast monsoon.”

Unsurprisingly, Dr Vinayachandran is a keen swimmer.

A star in the making

While his friends played cricket and dreamt of becoming stars, the young Gupta spent his free time gazing at the sky. Thirty years later he is closer to the stars than any of them and leading the way in India’s astronomical research.

Dr Yashwant Gupta’s speciality is discovering and researching pulsars, which are highly magnetised, rotating, neutron stars. By studying pulsars, which are 10 to 15 kilometres in size and rotate at an astounding rate of once every second, scientists have been able to test various landmark scientific theories — notably Einstein’s theory of relativity.

From his base at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in Pune, Dr Gupta helped build the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) — one of the world’s leading observatories — in the late 90s.

He was subsequently involved in the discovery of two new and very interesting pulsars. The first, in 2004, was found in a special cluster of stars in the Milky Way galaxy that houses our solar system. The second, found in 2005, was a rare example of a young pulsar (when Dr Gupta says “young”, the pulsar is still at least 5,000 years old; the typical age of a pulsar is 150,000 years).

“Pulsars are the most exotic objects in the universe,” Dr Gupta explains. “The discovery and study of pulsars are important because, by monitoring the variations in the arrival times of the pulses, various competing scientific theories of gravitation can be tested and the laws of physics can be verified to a high degree of precision. In the same way that the whistle of a train changes pitch as it moves away, we can observe small changes in the periodicity of the pulses and question what has affected these changes.”

Once a pulsar has been discovered, it can take a year to detect just one small change in the pulsar. The 5,000-year-old pulsar has been observed for over three-and-a-half years by Dr Gupta’s team, and during that time just three ‘glitches’ or hiccups in the pulsar’s rotation have been found. “You have to be very, very patient and wait for years — these things follow their own timescales!” says Dr Gupta. “The dream,” he adds, “is to discover a pulsar that is orbiting a black hole — that could really open up a range of new, exciting possibilities and help us understand the laws of physics.”

The Pune observatory opened in 2002 and is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week for scientists from around the world. “I have both an engineering and a physics background, so I was involved in designing and building the telescope,” Dr Gupta explains. “It uses highly complex digital electronic equipment.” A planned upgrade of the GMRT that is scheduled to be completed by end-2011, will keep it “at the cutting edge globally”, he says.

Dr Gupta’s obsession with the stars began when his father bought him a telescope for his 14th birthday. So while other kids played cricket, he spent all his free time star-gazing from his terrace along with friends from his Jamshedpur school’s astronomy club. The prodigious young scientist would go on to study his PhD at the University of California, San Diego. But he returned to India. “I took the decision after my PhD,” he explains, “because I wanted to show that India can produce world-class scientific research.”

“I also enjoy spending as much time as I can with my family,” he says, “but my work is pretty intense and doesn’t leave much free time.”