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String duet

Sandip Trivedi, a theoretical physicist and Shubha Tole, a neuroscientist . Both, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awardees
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First Published: Fri, Feb 08 2013. 06 03 PM IST
Sandip Trivedi and Shubha Tole at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint.
Sandip Trivedi and Shubha Tole at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint.
He is a theorist, inclined to look at the big picture, thinking in abstract. She is an experimentalist, a practical person good at organizing events like a Thanksgiving dinner for 70 undergraduates when she’d just landed in the US for her PhD, “without even having a clue what the bird looks like”.
He specializes in theoretical physics and is known for his contributions to string theory; she is a neuroscientist who is credited with discoveries which help understand how the brain develops and how its blueprint might have evolved from something simpler.
A shared passion for science and Indian music brought them together, although they work on two ends of the scientific spectrum, so to speak.
Shubha Tole and Sandip Trivedi are one of those rare couples who have both won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award, the highest prize for a scientific body of work in India.
In Sandip’s words, “What I do is to think about why the universe is the way it is, she thinks about why it is that we can think about the universe.”
Sandip and Shubha met at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, US, when they were both pursuing PhDs in the late 1980s. “We probably met during the Diwali function of the Indian students’ organization of Caltech,” says Shubha.
“Sandip faked an interest in ballroom dancing to date me,” she adds. She still studies Kathak, while Sandip plays the tabla.
Even then, both were sure they wanted to come back to India and contribute to Indian science. Shubha looks back at the decision with satisfaction, even if she had to face the typical difficulties of an experimental scientist in India—delayed shipments of chemicals, power problems, inadequate equipment, and so on. “I don’t know if I could have made the same discoveries in the US. Here, I did something I wouldn’t dare start in the US. We delayed starting a family for three years when I had to set up my lab, until we were 35 and 38,” adds Shubha. They have two children, aged 10 and 7.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: They talk about all the big things. The little things, they let the more invested partner decide."
The couple returned to India in 1999. It was easier for Sandip to come back. After all, as Shubha puts it: “He just has to buy pencils and erasers (to do his work). Occasionally, they (theorists) have to buy computers and make a big song and dance about it.”
They got married in 1989, a year after they met, while still students. Science is a hard master (or mistress) and there were some choices and sacrifices both had to make in the initial years. For example, when Sandip had to apply for a faculty position at a time when Shubha was looking for a post-doctoral position. “He refused all jobs (in the cities) where I had lovely offers for a post-doc.”
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Sandip handles the children’s homework. Shubha: He’s good at getting them to understand and stimulating their interest in a wide range of subjects. We are too busy managing our own territories of work and the children to have the energy to get into the other’s territory. If one of us is doing something, the other is usually relieved or grateful."
“Then, a new job opened up in Chicago. There was nobody in Chicago doing what I wanted to do (study the development of mammalian brains). Eventually, after a chance conversation (with a fellow student), I found (out about) Elizabeth Grove, (who) was starting a laboratory there,” recalls Shubha. Grove discovered the mechanism which created the map of the cortex.
“That’s why it helps to be married to someone successful, because anywhere I go, she managed to get a job,” interjects Sandip. “She always had a can-do attitude, which helped.”
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Shubha: We are almost completely opposite in our personalities, what we read, how we would like to spend a free afternoon...but we share the fact that we love to read, that we enjoy each other’s company, even though we may be doing different things in the same room. We also share the big things—a love of nature; both of us would rather spend a vacation in a national park than a glitzy city; a love of the arts—music and dance."
Now, Sandip is a professor in the department of theoretical physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and Shubha at the department of biological sciences, in the same organization. Both won the Bhatnagar prize while at this institute, Sandip in 2005 and Shubha in 2010. Shubha is famous for discovering the gene that decides that creator of the cortex, that part of the brain which plays a role in the functioning of memory, perceptual awareness and how we learn languages. Sandip has 56 published papers and a work on how “research forges important connections between superstring theory, cosmology and particle physics”, according to the Infosys Science Foundation, whose award he won in 2010.
"DO NOT OPEN: Shubha: Don’t know...can’t think of any."
“Professionally, we have fun talking to each other. At a deep scientific level, the quest for truth is so appealing that it is fun to discuss,” says Shubha. Still, the theorist versus experimentalist divide permeates their personal lives in a way that is complementary. That means Sandip helps the children with their homework and explains concepts, and Shubha—who confesses that she doesn’t have the patience for such things—with their more practical projects, like building models.
What keeps them motivated is their love for science. Both feel the need to spread scientific awareness and participate in outreach programmes.
“In science, you don’t come up with a great idea every day. When you love doing the small calculations and experiments, you should love it… if a big result comes, it comes, but otherwise you are at least enjoying what you are doing,” says Sandip.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 08 2013. 06 03 PM IST