2 Indian-Americans win prestigious ‘genius grants’

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Sep 23, 2016 22:44 IST
Subhash Khot, an alumnus of IIT-Bombay, is one of the recipients of the 2016 MacArthur fellowships. (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

It‘s called the “Genius Grant” and each award comes with $625,000, no strings attached. But no, you can’t apply for it, or have a well-connected uncle enter you for it.

Those being considered have no inkling and when the call comes, they are always surprised.

Manu Prakash, who was among the 23 winners announced on Thursday, almost didn’t answer the phone. The India-born Stanford biologist was handling his four-month old twins then. “I was very sleep deprived when the phone rang,” he told Stanford, the university’s in-house magazine. But he did answer, eventually.

Prakash was one of two India-born men among the MacArthur Fellowship awardees for 2016. Subhash Khot, a computer scientist from New York University, was the second. They are both from the Indian Institutes of Technology — Prakash from Kanpur and Khot from Mumbai. There is a third India-linked winner this year — Bill Thies, an American working at a Microsoft lab in Bengaluru.

The John D and Katherine T MacArthur Foundation, which has offices in India, awards an unrestricted number of fellowships every year to people who have shown “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances”. 

Past winners with an India connection include writers Ved Mehta and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, poet and scholar AK Ramanujam, classical musician Ali Akbar Khan and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer.

Nominees, drawn from a wide variety of fields, are brought to the foundation’s notice by a changing pool of nominators who remain anonymous, as do evaluators and selectors. Applications and “unsolicited” nominations are not accepted.

Prakash will never know how he got selected but there’s no question he deserves the fellowship. He is a physical biologist and inventor, the foundation said, who has used his “expertise in soft-matter physics to illuminate often easy to observe but hard to explain phenomena in biological and physical contexts and to invent solutions to difficult problems in global health, science education, and ecological surveillance”.

He has used tiny air bubbles travelling through “microfluidic channels”, such as water, to create a basic computer. And perhaps because he grew up in India, he tries to create things that are affordable, such as a Foldscope, a lightweight optical microscope built using origami that costs less than a dollar.

Khot is a theoretical computer scientist who studies, in simple terms, what computers can do and what they can’t. His research is bolstering a sobering realisation among computer scientists that there are a lot of computational problems that can’t be solved fast.

“As computers come to drive ever more aspects of our lives, greater understanding of the limitations of computing is increasingly important,” said the foundation

Thies, who went to MIT, is also a computer scientist. Since joining Microsoft Research India in 2008, he has developed a way to deliver and monitor tuberculosis medication, called 99DOTS, that is crucial to preventing the spread of the drug-resistant strain of the disease. And through CGNet Swara, he has collaborated with journalists, the foundation said, for citizen journalism among physically and socially isolated tribal communities.

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