“Science and scholarship are what will provide solutions to the most pressing problems of our times. Research is what will help us understand our society and its needs. Recognition of scientists and steady funding is what will transform India’s research environment,” remarked Kris Gopalakrishnan, President, Infosys Science Foundation, during his opening remarks at the Infosys Prize award ceremony held in Bengaluru on 13th January .
Now in its 15th year, the Infosys prize recognizes mid-career researchers for their significant contributions to scientific research in India, across six fields, namely, Engineering and Computer Science, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences. The prizes were handed out by the chief guest at the event, Prof. Brian Schmidt, Vice Chancellor at Australian National University and winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. The winners received a pure gold medal, a citation, and a prize purse of USD 100,000.
The winners were: Sachchida Nand Tripathi, Professor, Sustainable Energy Engineering (SEE), IIT-Kanpur, in Engineering and Computer Science category; Jahnavi Phalkey, Founding Director, Science Gallery Bengaluru, in History; Arun Kumar Shukla, Professor, Biological Sciences and Bioengineering, IIT-Kanpur, in Life Sciences category; Bhargav Bhatt, Fernholz Joint Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University, in Mathematical Sciences category; Mukund Thattai, Professor, Biochemistry, Biophysics and Bioinformatics, National Centre for Biological Sciences, in Physical Sciences category; and Karuna Mantena, Professor, Political Science, Columbia University, in Social Sciences category.
Research Matters caught up with Mukund Thattai and Arun Kumar Shukla for an exclusive interview about their journey in science and winning the award.
Sensors of our cells
Prof. Arun Kumar Shukla, a professor at the Biological Sciences and Bioengineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Kapnpur (IIT Kanpur), won the award in the Life Sciences category.
“It's not an individual recognition, but a recognition of the work that we are carrying out and by extension it is a recognition of the students and fellows in the lab. I’m just their representative to collect this,” he remarks about winning the award.
Prof. Shukla was awarded for his work in understanding an important aspect of cell communication called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs are receptors on the boundary of a cell wall that relay information, like light , sound, odours, hormones etc, from outside the cell to the G protein within the cell. The G-protein then performs the appropriate task that enables us to respond to that information, by seeing, hearing, smelling or initiating other biological processes.
“Cells have to communicate with the outside, so that the cells can respond to events or external stimuli. For this GPCRs are one type of receptors. There is nothing in our bodies that happens without a GPCR being involved. The way we think, the way we see, the way we smell and the way our heart beats, all of that happens through the GPCRs,” explains Prof. Shukla.
“One third of the medicines are prescribed to target a GPCR in our body. So, GPCRS are very important cellular sensors not just from the perspective of understanding the basic biology or the fundamental principles of life, but once we understand how they work we can leverage that information to design better drugs,” he adds about the importance of studying GPCRs.
His lab at IIT Kanpur has been on the forefront of understanding GPCRs and using that knowledge to improve our healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
On completing his PhD from Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt, Germany and a short stint at Duke University, North Carolina, USA, Prof. Shukla decided to move back to India and joined IIT Kanpur.
“If I had stayed there (abroad), I may have been one in 200 scientists working on the same thing. But if I could do the same thing here, it could help set a new direction in the country and also motivate students to pursue something challenging within our country,” says Prof. Shukla on his decision to return to India.
On returning, despite many challenges, like lack of infrastructure or expertise in the country, he successfully established a new direction for cellular biology research in the country.
“Making incremental changes may be good for publishing but you really have to take on challenging questions, so that if you are successful, it can define or redefine the field,” he remarks about the need to pursue cutting edge research in the country.
Prof. Shukla is optimistic about the improvement of scientific infrastructure in the country and believes that prizes like the Infosys prize could even act as an incentive to bring back more Indian students studying abroad.
“Despite the hassles, hurdles, frustrations at times, we still have to keep at it. And while we continue to do our science, we also have to contribute towards improving things for our future generations. Because, if we don’t who else will,” he concludes about the need to work towards improving the science infrastructure in India.
Physics of living machines
Prof. Mukund Thattai or Mukund as he’s known, was awarded the 2023 Infosys Prize in the Physical Sciences category. He was awarded for his work in understanding the evolution of complex cells or eukaryotes from primordial prokaryotes, and for pioneering the area of physics of life in the country.
After completing a PhD in Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mukund joined the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru.
“I did my PhD in the Physics Department and I was doing physics experiments but with biological samples. Back then, I didn’t think I was doing biology. So, my first entry into biology was sort of accidental,” remarks Mukund about his journey to joining NCBS, despite his PhD in Physics.
Once at NCBS he got the opportunity to learn about the complex biological processes and, in Mukund's own words, “rearticulate the problem for myself”. He decided to focus on one particular aspect of cellular mechanism- the Membrane-trafficking systems – the flow of material within and outside a cell. With the help of Prof. Satyajit Mayor, the then Director of NCBS, Mukund was able to host a 3-month workshop at the prestigious Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at Santa Barbara, California, USA.
“It’s a kind of retreat for scientists. We called cell biologists, evolutionary biologists and physicists and put them in one place. We used that time to learn about basic aspects of evolution and cell biology and then to get a clear articulation of the problem,” says Mukund. “So, I had the luxury of making a second entry into biology which was not accidental and took a lot to put together,” he adds.
The workshop and ensuing conversations led to Mukund exploring the evolution of Eukaryotic cells from the Prokaryotes, by understanding the physics behind the mechanism of membrane trafficking systems. His work not only was uncharted territory requiring deep understanding in biology and physics, but also a part of an emerging area of physics referred to as bio-physics.
“I really have to thank NCBS for allowing someone like me, with no formal training in biology, the opportunity to work on what I want. It’s really freeing when you have such institutional support,” remarks Mukund.
Expressing delight at winning the award, he says “When one individual wins a prize, it's an endorsement of the entire ecosystem around them, including the collaborators, students and others, which is extremely enabling. I think events like these are a great way to celebrate science as a whole.”.