Get a glimpse | Scientists
Two decades ago, no sales pitch was needed to encourage a child to take up a career in science. But over the years the subject has lost out to the more high-profile management courses and professions related to the creative arts and humanities.
B.N. Jagtap, head of the atomic and molecular physics division at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, slots the romance with science in India into three phases: “The first is the ‘nationalistic phase’ which existed before independence, where science was perceived as part of the freedom movement. Post-1947, we had the nation-building phase, success stories of which include nuclear science, space technology, agriculture and allied areas. The third phase started with the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, when the question of science delivering products assumed importance.”
Today, he says, we are living in the time of “applied sciences”, and are, once again, on the threshold of change. People are realizing that as a scientist you need not be stuck in a lab job that has little application.
Pure academicians as well as consultants with the research and development (R&D) departments of companies and government organizations tell us what a life in science demands today. Edited excerpts:
BN Jagtap, 56
Head, atomic and molecular physics division, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc), Trombay, Mumbai
How he got here: B.N. Jagtap grew up in a small town called Kudal in Sindhudurg district, Maharashtra. His introduction to scientific thinking came in primary school, when he studied math with his father, a schoolteacher. “I was fascinated with science right from my childhood. Participating in science exhibitions used to be great fun,” he recalls. He went on to do his BSc from Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai. “I was in the second year of college in 1974 when the first Indian nuclear test was done in Pokhran. I think my decision to join research was made right then.” After college, he did a one-year orientation course in nuclear sciences at Barc.
In the initial years at Barc, he worked on the laser programme. “Lasers had arrived on the international scene in the mid-1960s and it was a very young field of research. Laser physics and technology draw heavily from the physics of atoms and molecules, and their interactions with light. This is how I got into the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics,” says Jagtap. He completed his postdoctoral research work at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and has been at Barc for 35 years.
"When I started out, ‘self-reliance’ was a dream... That is why many of my generation thought of staying back."
Current work: Jagtap’s work is wide-ranging—including molecules of importance in astrophysics, atmospheric sciences, prebiotic molecules (molecules which were formed before the molecules responsible for life on earth) and ultra-cold atoms (atoms that are cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero). His work also involves photonics, an area like electronics. “In electronics, the electrons are responsible for the operation of a device, whereas in photonics the job is done by photons, relevant in the context of efficient light sources and solar energy conversions,” he says.
In addition to this, he teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and the Homi Bhabha National Institute, Mumbai, and edits a quarterly magazine, Indian Nuclear Society News.
A day in the life of a scientist: Jagtap’s day usually begins at 8am with lectures. After this, he spends time responding to mail, doing administration work, preparing project reports and evaluating PhD theses. The rest of the day is for research and development work. Once home—by 8pm on most days—he spends time preparing for the next day’s lecture. Saturdays are invariably spent editing the Indian Nuclear Society News, writing research papers and preparing for conferences. While this may seem like all work and no play, a career in research provides its own leisure time. “We travel to deliver talks and present papers, and that provides a change from the day-to-day routine,” he says.
Most interesting project: “Our work in laser cooling of atoms in our laboratory was quite an achievement. We started with almost a clean slate and built the entire infrastructure and knowledge base in a very short time,” says Jagtap. Ultracold atoms have a direct application in the hardware of quantum computers—computers based on quantum physics, which are expected to be much superior to today’s classical computers.
The skills for science: “You have to be passionate about learning new things. Scientists are a curious and inquisitive lot. It’s important to ask risky questions. Also, be prepared to fail and to experiment all the time. Through school we learn about Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein, and science seems like an individual pursuit. I always tell my students that science is teamwork.”
Challenges: “While science and technology have changed the life of human society, there still exists some mistrust and fear of science when things are unknown and not communicated clearly. For instance, the case of nuclear energy. We need to produce electricity that satisfies our demand and at the same time preserves our environment. Nuclear energy is safe, reliable and virtually emission-free. Yet there is opposition, and it is based on irrational fears and unfounded logic. Or take the example of biotechnology for enhanced long-term food security. Scientists need to communicate their scientific thought to society.”
A career in science in India vs overseas: “When I started out being a scientist, ‘self-reliance’ was a dream in those years. That is why many of my generation thought of staying back. While most of us spent several years in laboratories abroad, at the back of our minds, we always wanted to return home and implement those new ideas in our own labs.”
Money matters: “After spending some 35 years in an institute like Barc, you can expect a gross salary of over Rs.17 lakh per annum. In addition to that, Barc has provided me fairly big accommodation in a green environment, which is a luxury.”
Satyam Suwas, 43
Associate professor, department of materials engineering, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore
How he got here: Born in a village in Bihar’s Sitamarhi district to a family of agriculturists, Satyam Suwas did his schooling there before graduating in science from Ranchi University and heading to the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, in 1989 to do his master’s. “I developed some kind of fascination for science over there. And the more I studied it, the more drive I got to pursue it,” he says. While his early interest was in physics, in time Suwas specialized in materials science at BHU, which would give him an opportunity to work in the applied fields.
“After a point I felt that pure physics was becoming too abstract for me,” he confesses. “Material science branches out from the physics of materials, so it wasn’t a drastic transition, but streamlining into something that had application potential,” he explains. Followed by another master’s degree in materials and metallurgical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and a PhD on titanium alloys, Suwas worked at the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory in Hyderabad from 1999-2002. In September 2002, he headed to the Université de Metz in France and in 2004, to the RWTH Aachen University in Germany for postdoctoral studies. On his return to India in mid-2005, he joined the IISc.
Current work: While a lot of time is spent in guiding and teaching, Suwas is predominantly involved in research for industries and manufacturers. “Metals and alloys are used in all aspects of life, including structural, aerospace, automotive and naval applications. My work is around the broad aspect of structural materials that will help these industries,” he explains.
A day in the life of a scientist:“This profession requires 24 hours of involvement. Whether it’s doing experiments, discussing, reading or thinking, I’m involved in one of these four processes at all times. I work six days a week (sometimes more), and I don’t remember the last time I took a long holiday,” he says. However, this depends on the type of work you are involved in. “I’m doing several projects where there are deliverables.”
Most interesting project: One of Suwas’ ongoing projects is for a leading aircraft manufacturer, to develop a higher-performance alloy for aircraft bodies and engines. “With increasing air traffic, aircraft will need to be faster in the future. Higher speeds imply higher temperatures. Our team is working towards developing alloys which are stronger and can withstand elevated temperatures,” says Suwas.
The skills for science: “Dedication, passion and perseverance is what it takes to be a scientist. Unless you have passion, you’ll get tired soon. You may not succeed in a few attempts, so you have to keep trying.”
"Dedication, passion and perseverance is what it takes to be a scientist. Unless you have passion, you’ll get tired soon."
Challenges: “Constantly changing technology is hard to keep up with. Today you work out an alloy that can withstand a certain stress level; tomorrow the requirement would have gone up. Also, the tools of research are changing constantly. The electron microscope that I used while doing PhD is obsolete now,” says Suwas.
A career in science in India vs overseas: “Premier Indian institutes and scientists are well-recognized globally. However, scaling with the vastness of our country, the numbers are too less in the field of research.”
Money matters: Some “10-15 years into science can fetch you Rs.95,000-1 lakh per month. If you work in the research and development lab of a multinational, you earn higher, or sometimes on a singular project, they pay consultancy fees.”
Yamuna Krishnan, 38
Assistant professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Tifr), Bangalore
How she got here: Born to an architect father and literary mother, grandparents who were doctors and editors, Krishnan grew up in an environment of science and arts. As a teenager, she used to experiment at home. “It was mostly repeating things I had read in my textbooks. How a siphon works, how one can grow small sea creatures in brine, making soap from oil, making invisible ink; these things kept me busy,” she recalls.
After high school, Krishnan took up chemistry. “I understood the language of molecules and reactions as if I had known it all along,” she says. In June 1994, she completed her BSc in chemistry from the Women’s Christian College, University of Madras, and enrolled for an integrated PhD programme in chemical sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. In 2001, she won a fellowship to work in the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge, UK, where she studied an unusual form of DNA—the four-stranded quadruplex DNA.
In time she found herself gravitating towards biology. “I chose to jump into the deep end, and position myself in a biology-centred institute. In 2005, I set up my own lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tifr, in Bangalore,” says Krishnan, adding that colleagues greatly helped her transition from chemistry to chemical biology.
Current work: Krishnan heads a lab of 10-14 students working towards a PhD. Her own research is on DNA. “Short lengths of DNA behave as rigid rods on the nanoscale. By using molecular glue, one can fix these little rods to each other exactly where you choose. So, in essence, one can use DNA to build shapes, just the way one can use Lego building blocks to make a little car, or a house, or a see-saw,” explains Krishnan.
A day in the life of a scientist: “No day is the same. This is the exciting thing about being a scientist and in research. It is like a box of chocolates, you never know what each day is going to bring,” she says. Her usual day is 9-6 at the lab, but research is on her mind 24x7. “I watch TV with the laptop on my lap, putting together some documents. I drink my morning coffee with my laptop, sorting out my day’s work. Even when I go for a run, I’m doing mental gymnastics thinking about some finding and what it means,” she says. She believes that science is a lifelong learning process. “The more you understand, the more you realize remains to be understood.”
"No day is the same. This is the exciting thing about being a scientist and in research. It is like a box of chocolates."
Most interesting project: Krishnan is working on a plug-and-play DNA-sensor technology that researchers can use to study living cells. “These can be reporters for how cells react to various chemicals. So if one screens thousands of chemicals for their effect on diseased cells, these DNA devices might help identify potential drug molecules,” says Krishnan.
The skills for science: “In terms of attitude, I would say you would need curiosity and passion, knowing how to work as a team, flexibility about the path to reach your goal, and belief in your abilities to realize it.”
Challenges: “Competing with the best internationally despite the viscosity of the system. For instance, if I need a chemical in India that needs to come from abroad (most of the time, this is the case), if it arrives within a month we are lucky. If one is in Europe or the US, the same chemical would take one-seven days to reach you.”
A career in science in India vs overseas: “In my experience, the institutes I have been in and been through are on a par with the rest of the world. We have some of the best minds of the world in India. I myself chose to come back to India because I knew that it was possible to do cutting-edge work here. I wanted to prove a point to myself that one could be an originator of radically new trends in research while working from India.”
Money matters: “For someone with a work experience of 7-10 years in science, working at premier science institutes in India, with work that includes academic responsibilities as well as researching for industrial purposes, varies between Rs.65,000 and Rs.85,000 per month.”
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