Science for humanity

Science for humanity

National Science Day is celebrated on February 28 to mark the discovery of Raman Effect. The theme this year is ‘Women in Science’ and here are a few trailblazing Indian scientists...

Understanding India’s dogs


Dr Anindita Bhadra 

Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Science
Education and Research, Kolkata


India, with a massive population of free-ranging dogs, often sees many cases of dog-human conflicts. Although dogs were the first animals to have been ‘domesticated’ by us, we do not yet understand much about the nuances of their communication, behaviour or societies. That’s where Anindita Bhadra’s research lies — in deciphering these behavioural aspects of free-ranging dogs through the lens of ecology. 

“The process of evolution from wolf-like ancestors to the modern-day dogs through domestication is not understood clearly. That’s what makes studying free-ranging populations interesting,” she says. In the last decade, research at her Dog Lab has shown how free-ranging dogs understand human gestures, learn from their past experiences, use gazing to convey messages and the dynamics in dog societies. 

As one of the few researchers in the world to study free-ranging dogs, Bhadra’s studies help us avoid conflicts and unfortunate incidents. “Dogs don’t respond to our aggression with aggression but tend to avoid conflict. Therefore, instead of beating them, a simple threatening gesture can drive them away,” she says, pointing to one of her study results.

A recipient of the INSA Young Scientist Award and the founding-chairperson of the Indian National Young Academy of Science, Bhadra is also the Executive Member of the Global Young Academy.

“For me, they have been windows into a different world, which allowed me to interact with a diverse young people, discuss various issues and do things,” she says. 

All this success as a scientist did not come easily. “I am a mother of two, which means that I have gone through two pregnancies. The first was during my PhD; and it was a cakewalk. However, the second was a different story. My career was jeopardised due to institutional politics, slander and uncertainty over my tenured position,” shares Bhadra.

She thanks her family, friends and supervisor, Prof Raghavendra Gadagkar, for their support during these testing times. “I took my professional struggle as a challenge and kept working. I had the satisfaction of teaching, and soon, we started getting noticed by the community for our work,” she says. 

 

Disentangling the
mystery of mathematics


Dr Neena Gupta

Associate Professor,
Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.


 

Neena Gupta works in the field of mathematics, specifically Commutative Algebra and Affine Algebraic Geometry. Remember those polynomial equations of geometric shapes, representing a circle or a parabola, from school? As the number of variables and the degrees of the equations increase, these equations start to get more complicated to solve. Affine Algebraic Geometry deals with the understanding of the properties of geometric objects that arise as solutions of systems of polynomial equations. 

Gupta’s achievement to date has been the solutions she has proposed to two mathematical problems that were unsolved for years. One is the ‘Zariski Cancellation Problem’, proposed by O Zariski in 1949, which asks if cylinders over two geometric structures have similar forms, can one conclude that the original base structures also have similar forms?

The other is the problem posed by Masayoshi Miyanishi. Her work has provided insights to initiate research into other open conjectures. 

In 2019, Gupta won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award — India’s highest honour for research in science. She was the only woman among the recipients for the year and is the 17th woman till date to receive the recognition. But, her love for mathematics goes beyond these honours. “The pleasure which I get in solving problems in mathematics is much more than any award,” she says. 

A supporting ecosystem is vital for success, and Gupta acknowledges the people who have her back. “My parents were keen on getting me higher education. My PhD supervisor, Prof Amartya Kumar Dutta, has been very encouraging. Also, I am fortunate to have a supportive husband and in-laws,” she signs off.

Redefining our relationship with plants


Dr Gitanjali Yadav
Scientist, National Institute of Plant Genome Research, New Delhi, Lecturer, University of Cambridge

 

Infatuated with orchids since childhood, Gitanjali Yadav decided to pursue her passion by becoming a botanist. Today, her research provides insight into the silent language of plants, and towards improving crops for a food-secure future. “In a nutshell, my work is at the interface of geography, botany and climate,” she says. 
Yadav’s work aims to understand how plants communicate with and react to their environment through a sophisticated and flexible chemical production line, to generate a massive diversity of natural products called the terpenome.

She works at the interface of biology and data science to construct predictive models for producing terpene, and believes that computational approaches can guide genome engineering to design bioactive molecules.

Yadav is also trying to improve the efficiency of RubisCO — a key enzyme in the global carbon cycle, feeding all life on Earth. Much of its abundance can be ascribed to the enzyme being fat and lazy. Over the last 600 million years, nature has evolved and optimised ways to improve its efficiency, and this is where Yadav’s work comes in. “We use graph theoretical approaches and complex networks of gene expression to understand methods of carbon acquisition for photosynthesis, collectively called the Carbon Concentrating Mechanisms (CCM)”.

She is investigating CCM in unicellular green algae and hopes to get some cues to incorporate into crops, thus helping food security.
A recipient of many national and international accolades, including the GYA-IAP Science Leadership award, she has also been on the National Core Committee of INYAS. “It is a matter of pride for me to be part of INYAS, where women members comprise a substantial chunk, beating national and global gender statistics,” she says.
Yadav shares a snippet about being tagged as a ‘Page 3 scientist’ long ago. “I had become famous for publishing a high-impact paper soon after starting my job,” she says, “I worried that it had to do something with ‘transient success’, or even worse, face value!”

However, over time, she made peace with it and now considers it a challenge. “To be Page 3 is to be extraordinary, a breaker of conventions or stereotypes, and that’s not a bad thing, after all!” 

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