Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize 2020: Pathbreaking research that won 14 scientists India's top science prize
The prizes are awarded annually to scientists below 45 years of age for outstanding research contributions in one of seven disciplines.
Fourteen scientists were announced winners of the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award – the country's highest science prize. The awardees were announced by the Union science and technology minister Dr Harsh Vardhan at the Foundation Day celebration of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on Saturday, 26 September.
The SSB prizes are awarded to Indian scientists below 45 years of age for conduction outstanding research in one of seven disciplines. The prize – which includes a citation, a plaque, and a cash award of ₹5,00,000 lakh – is awarded annually to recognise outstanding research accomplishmnets in applied or fundamental areas in the following disciplines:
- Biological Sciences,
- Chemical Sciences,
- Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean and Planetary Sciences,
- Engineering Sciences,
- Mathematical Sciences,
- Medical Sciences, and
- Physical Sciences
In addition to the recognition and cash prize, CSIR will also grant the winners with an honorarium of Rs.15,000 per month.
The Prize is bestowed on a person who, in the opinion of CSIR, has made conspicuously important and outstanding contributions to human knowledge and progress – fundamental and applied – in the particular field of endeavour, which is his/her specialization.
Dr Subhadeep Chatterjee from the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad was one of two winners of the SSB award for Biology.
Dr Chatterjee was chosen for identifying a reversible, non-genetic process that bacterial cells use to regulate their population, with a process known as quorum sensing (QS). The discovery has served as a landmark contribution since its publication, inspiring further interesting areas of work in theoretical modelling of QS in bacteria.
His research has since helped better understand a family of economically-significant plant pathogens (Xanthomonas). Discoveries made though Dr Chatterjee’s research have also thrown light on fundamental systems that bacteria use for social communication, how bacteria metabolise iron, and other kinds of regulation in bacteria. His contributions in understanding basic quorum sensing mechanisms in Xanthomonas, the coordination of cell systems and signals from the environmental (e.g. iron) have been particularly pronounced.
Dr Vatsala Thirumalai from the National Centre for Biological Sciences shared the SSB award for Biology with Dr Chatterjee. Dr Thirumalai heads the Neural Circuits and Development Lab at NCBS, which works on understanding the hierarchy, mechanisms, and development of neural circuits that generate movement. They use an interesting model system to study how movement is generated – zebrafish, a small fresh water tropical fish.
The embryo and larvae of zebrafish are transparent, making it easy for researchers to observe its internal organs – and importantly for Dr Thirumalai, the brain.
Her research has made leaps in understanding how the central pattern generators and descending motor control from the brain develop in zebrafish. She is further looking to study the workings of the brain's circuits that control movement in adult zebrafish.
Dr Jyotirmayee Dash from the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Kolkata shared the SSB award for Chemistry with Subi Jacob George from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.
Dr Jyotirmayee Dash, an assistant professor and researcher in chemical biology and organic synthesis at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, is also an awardee of the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt fellowship and the Marie Curie fellowship. She was the only woman to be nominated alongside 11 of her peers for the Swarnajayanti Fellowship in 2015-16, which she ultimately won. Dr Dash is also the first Odia woman to be awarded.
Among others, Dash's research focus has largely been cancer. Her most significant contributions to research have been in chemical biology, to better understand nucleic acid (DNA/RNA) targets for cancer. The findings have led to new molecules and structures to target, in anticancer research, in the hunt for effective, potential anticancer therapies.
The other awardee for Chemistry, Prof Subi George, is an associate chair and researcher in organic chemistry at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. Known for his work in the fields of supramolecular chemistry, materials chemistry and polymer chemistry, George's research spans both organic as well as inorganic and material chemistry.
His exceptional contribution to the field includes a proof-of-concept study that successfully recreated the growth and organisation of a polymer with molecular cues that could be controlled by his research team. They acheived "critical control over its length and dispersity" in the process, which is a pathbreaking advancement in supramolecular polymerisation. Living systems have been the inspiration for much of supramolecular research so far.
Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean and Planetary Sciences
Abhijit Mukherjee from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur is one of the awardees for the SSB prize in Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean and Planetary Sciences. Nominated for his work in groundwater exploration for suitable and sustainable drinking water sources across India, Mukherjee is currently working on a project on using AI in predicting groundwater availability in different parts of India.
Mukherjee was the first to develop a model for regional groundwater flow in the western Bengal basin and explored arsenic-safe aquifers in extensive parts of the Gangetic plains and delta. These are two areas in particular that suffer from poor groundwater quality and/or groundwater insufficiency.
Suryendu Dutta from IIT, Bombay also bagged the SSB prize in Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean and Planetary Sciences, for his contributions in the fields of organic geochemistry and molecular palaeobiology. His innovation was in plant-derived organic chemicals (specifically, terpenoids) – an important source of liquid hydrocarbons in India's petroliferous basins. The evolution of plants in these fuel exploration sites is poorly documented in the subcontinent.
Dutta has studied the evolution of plant terpenoids from Permian to Eocene (~300 million to 34 million years ago) on the Indian continent. The terpenoid signatures that Dutta and his team have studied suggest that western India was once covered by dense, closed rainforests – where rainforest trees in the Dipterocarpaceae family thrived in the subcontinent's tropical climate.
Dr Amol Arvindrao Kulkarni from the CSIR's National Chemical Laboratory in Pune was among the awardees of the SSB prize for his contributions to the field of engineering. He specialises in the design and development of microreactors for production of pharmaceutical intermediates, dyes, chemicals in perfumery as well as nanomaterials. The various flow reactors he has designed have transformed complex, batch processes into a continuous processes that are at least two orders of magnitude more energy/resource-efficient. Dr Kulkarni's designed several flow reactors that are licensed to Indian industries
Dr Kulkarni has also established a first-of-its-kind microreactor laboratory in India, and developed the first-ever scalable continuous process for silver nanowires.
Dr Kinshuk Dasgupta from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai shared the SSB Award for engineering with Dr Kulkarni.
Dr Dasgupta's work is primarily centres around carbon nanomaterials, their synthesis and potential uses. His technology has been used in the "Bhaba Kavach" – a bulletproof jacket used by the Indian Armed Forces. The jacket has an armour panel that protects against bullets of various threat levels. A special process designed by Dr Dasgupta developed is used to make the armored panels, using boron carbide ceramics hot-pressed with carbon nano-tubes and a polymer to give it flexibility. The superior performance of the lightweight 'Bhabha Kavich' jacket comes from the indigenously-developed mix of components by Dr Dasgupta at BARC.
"Earlier, bullet proof jackets had to be imported. They were expensive and heavy. But now these jackets will be lighter, less expensive and perfect substitutes for those imported jackets as well," Dr Dasgupta told the Bengal Story in an interview.
Dr Anandavardhanan was awarded the SSB prize in mathematics for his research in number theory.
"I work in an area where one investigates certain algebraic structures called ‘groups’ with a view towards number theory, called the Langlands programme," Anandavardhanan told the Times News Network.
"It was Chandrasekharan sir, my math teacher at the Government Arts and Science College in Kozhikode, who channelled me to the world of mathematics," he added.
An IIT-B professor since 2005, Anandhavardhanan's research has been focussed on automorphic forms (an important, complex analytic tool in number theory and arithmetic geometry) as well as representation theory (seeks to understand all the possible ways that an abstract collection of symmetries can arise).
Rajat Subhra Hazra from the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata is the other SSB awardee in the mathematical science category. Dr Hazra's most recent research in probability theory is a study of the mathematical limits of semiflexible polymers.
Dr Hazra is currently Associate Professor in the Theoretical Statistics and Mathematics Unit at ISI, Kolkata.
Dr Bushra Ateeq, currently Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, shared the SSB award in medicine with Dr Ritesh Agarwal from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh.
An alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Dr Ateeq's research focuses on cancer biomarkers and the chaimn of events at the molecular scale that result in prostate and breast cancer. Her research group at IIT Kanpur is exploring the genetic and epigenetic changes that trigger cancerous growth and progression of the disease using novel strategies and approaches.
With her research, Dr Ateeq's overarching goal is to aide in the discovery and development of more effective therapies against specific causative pathways or alterations in prostate and breast cancer. Cancer has numerous likely causes that, and ultimately affects the cell's pattern of expression of genes, resulting in cancer. Ateeq's group is exploring the complex landscape of mutations in Indian prostate cancer patients. This analysis could be helpful in also understanding other diseases better.
Dr Ritesh Agarwal, Professor of Pulmonary Medicine at PGIMER, was also awarded in the medical science category for his contributions in understanding a fungal infection called allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) – his key area of research. Dr Agarwal has been systematically exploring the perplexing disease over a decade, with over 90 publications to show for the epidemiology, diagnosis, management of ABPA – many of them being first-time descriptions.
Over the last few years, Agarwal has managed to validate many existing diagnostic tools and classification criteria to diagnosis and classify ABPA. These are now used to diagnose ABPA around the world.
The most significant work of Dr Agarwal is in the treatment of ABPA. Before his research, there was no dosing protocol for oral glucocorticoids. His research has shown that lower doses of oral steroids are sufficient in the treatment of ABPA. Moreover, two of his studies demonstrating the efficacy of antifungal drugs are practice-changing, as patients can now be spared of the serious adverse effects of glucocorticoids.
Dr Rajesh Ganapathy from the International Centre for Materials Science (ICMS) at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research shared the SSB award for physical sciences with Surajit Dhara, from the University of Hyderabad.
Dr Ganapathy's research focuses on soft condensed matter physics. His recent research has been largely around the glass–liquid transition – a gradual, reversible transition of amorphous material from a hard and brittle (glassy) state to a viscous/rubbery state when heated. The glass-liquid transition is among the most enduring challenges in modern condensed matter physics.
Dr Ganapathy was also part of a team that designed crystalline material that could selectively scatter certain colours of light and not others. This was done using colloidal particles, to produce 'structured colours'. Creating crystals that can scatter light in the red, green and blue wavelengths, structural colours could be rolled in as a replacement for conventional LED and LCD monitors.
Surajit Dhara shared the award for his contributions to colloidal physics in the last five years. Dhara has studied and made outstanding contributions in emerging areas of liquid crystal science and technology. Highlights of his research work include the development of colloids and liquid crystals with tunable interaction, movement and controlled assembly, and the development of liquid crystal droplets using tunable microresonators and microlasers.
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