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From neutrinos and Tb bacteria to quake-resistant buildings: How works of these young scientists have the potential to change the world

Earlier this week, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced its flagship Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes for 2022, after holding it back for a year. The Bhatnagar Prizes, given in seven disciplines to outstanding scientists under the age of 45, are India’s topmost science awards.

The surprising withholding of the awards last year, a first since the awards were instituted in 1958, was said to be the result of a desire on part of the government to reform the selection process. A committee was set up to suggest changes. While the committee is said to have completed its work, its recommendations are not yet known.

The awards, announced on Monday, September 11, had been finalised last year itself based on the selection process that existed at the time. As such, there has been no change in the nature of the award this time. It was expected that changes in the awards would also be announced simultaneously, but that has not happened.

Here is the list of winners of this prestigious award and the works for which they received this recognition:

PHYSICAL SCIENCES

Basudeb Dasgupta

Department of Theoretical Physics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai

Basudeb has been recognised for his work on neutrinos, and on the nature and possible methods of detection of dark matter. Neutrinos — not to be confused with neutrons which, along with protons, are found in an atom’s nucleus — are tiny particles, similar to electrons but without charge. Neutrinos are known to be the second most abundant particles in the universe, after photons or light particles. Produced in all kinds of nuclear reactions, natural or engineered, neutrinos are studied for information they hold on the source of their origins — the birth or death of stars, collisions or explosions happening in space or even the Big Bang.

Basudeb’s research seeks to understand how neutrinos are influenced by a large number of other neutrinos sharing the same space. It indicates that under certain conditions, neutrinos can change their state very suddenly. This can have implications for how stars explode and the abundance of elements created in stars.

Basudeb Dasgupta Basudeb Dasgupta

Basudeb also works on dark matter, something that is theorised but has not been detected. He has presented new ideas on the likely composition of dark matter, and has also designed methods to test these ideas.

Anindya Das

Department of Physics, IISc, Bengaluru

Anindya also works on very small particles, but of a slightly different kind. All subatomic particles, the fundamental particles that make up the whole universe, are classified in two groups — Fermions (for example, electrons, protons, neutrons and neutrinos) and Bosons (for example, photons). More recently, particles that are neither Fermions, nor Bosons have been theorised. Called Anyons, these have interesting properties.

Anindya Das Anindya Das

Anyons have not yet been detected, but their special properties have the potential to revolutionise technologies like quantum computing. They are theorised to exist at very low temperatures and mostly in two-dimensional systems. Anindya’s group at IISc is working with two-dimensional graphene (a one-atom thick sheet of carbon) and its hybrids to detect the presence of Anyons. His team has developed a new tool that can measure the tiny heat flows that can help in detection of these particles.

CHEMICAL SCIENCES

AT Biju

Department of Organic Chemistry, IISc, Bengaluru

Biju has been recognised for using new environment-friendly methods to synthesise biologically important compounds that have implications in the development of new drug-like molecules.

Transition metals like iron, copper, silver and gold have traditionally been used as catalysts in many chemical reactions. But transition metals are toxic, leave a significant environmental footprint and are costly. New methods of carrying out chemical reactions that do not rely on transition metals as catalysts, and yet are more efficient and environment-friendly have been developed. These methods are increasingly being deployed, particularly in synthesis of carbon compounds.

AT Biju AT Biju

Biju’s group has used such unconventional transition metal-free approaches to create carbon compounds that open new avenues for the synthesis of drug-like molecules.

Debabrata Maiti

Department of Chemistry, IIT-Bombay

Debabrata has been working on a problem similar to the one that is engaging Biju, but uses a slightly different approach to make his chemical reactions more efficient. Debabrata’s group has stuck with transition metals, but added a new class of molecules, called ligands, to get their desired outcome.

Debabrata Maiti Debabrata Maiti

Organic chemistry is all about breaking carbon-hydrogen (C-H) bonds and substituting them with other molecules to make new desired compounds. The effort is to make harder-to-access chemicals using easily available starting materials with the shortest possible number of steps. Debabrata has been working on efficiently activating C-H bonds at specific locations so that they can be broken easily and substituted with other molecules. He has been using transition metals like palladium, cobalt or nickel as catalysts. But his novel approach has been in finding suitable ligands that work in combination with the transition metals to make selective C-H activation super-efficient. Identifying the right metal-ligand combination for different situations is what Debabrata has been working on.

BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES

Ashwani Kumar

Molecular Mycobacteriology Laboratory, CSIR-Institute of Microbial Technology, Chandigarh

Ashwani’s work has resulted in new understanding of the behaviour of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the bacteria that causes TB and claims millions of lives globally each year. While most other bacterial illnesses can be treated with one antibiotic within 3-7 days, TB requires at least four medications for about six months. Interestingly, anti-TB medications kill Mtb quite rapidly in laboratory settings, but are not so efficient in actual conditions.

Ashwani’s research has focused on two hypotheses. First, Mtb cells can switch from being in an actively growing state to becoming inactive and non-replicating. In the inactive state, they do not respond to medicines. Second, Mtb have also been found to form biofilms around themselves to protect them against medicines and the host body’s immune system.

Ashwani Kumar Ashwani Kumar

These two findings fundamentally alter TB biology and can pave the way for development of new drugs that can cure TB faster.

Maddika Subba Reddy

Laboratory of Cell Death and Cell Survival, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting Diagnostics, Hyderabad

Maddika has made some fundamental contributions in understanding the communication between different proteins in cells. There are thousands of different proteins, some of which provide structure or shape to the cell, while others carry out a variety of functions in the cell. Interaction between their proteins is essential for normal functioning of cells. Any deviation from routine interactions can lead to diseases.

Maddika Subba Reddy Maddika Subba Reddy

Maddika’s work has focused on identifying several protein complexes that ensure the internal environment within the cell remains stable even when there are changes to the external environment. The identification of these protein complexes provides new insights into the origins of human diseases and the development of potential therapeutic interventions.

ENGINEERING SCIENCES

Dipti Ranjan Sahoo

Department of Civil Engineering, IIT-Delhi

Dipti’s research focuses on making earthquake-resistant buildings. His team has developed new designs, several novel energy-dissipating devices and high-strength construction materials. The energy-dissipating devices work on a new concept of ‘structural fuses’ that quickly dissipate, or effectively absorb, the energy imparted by the earthquake, thus minimising the possibilities of building collapse or damage.

Dipti Ranjan Sahoo Dipti Ranjan Sahoo

Dipti has also worked out an efficient algorithm to get optimised design solutions for concrete-filled steel tubular composite columns. For faster and cost-effective constructions, he has proposed new detailing of connections between composite columns and concrete beams in tall buildings.

Rajnish Kumar

Department of Chemical Engineering, IIT-Madras

Rajnish’s research touches upon energy, water and environment. He has built a globally-visible research programme at IIT-Madras on marine gas hydrates, the ice-like solids found in deep oceans that keep vast resources of potential energy trapped inside them. Technologies for extraction of these gas hydrates are not yet mature. Rajnish, in collaboration with scientists from some other laboratories, has developed a process of methane recovery from marine gas hydrates which is ready for field trials.

Rajnish Kumar Rajnish Kumar

He has also set up a pilot project to demonstrate the possibility of carbon capture and sequestration. Such technologies are vital for reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Another pilot project that he is working on demonstrates a technology to purify industrial effluent water. This technology seeks to replace the traditional RO membrane-based process that is not very sustainable and results in lots of wastage.

MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES

Apoorva Khare

Department of Mathematics, IISc, Bengaluru

Apoorva has diverse research interests in mathematics, including matrix theory, algebra, and combinatorics. His research in matrix analysis has made new progress in a classical area with modern applications in big data problems, including statistical analysis of climate change and disease detection.

Apoorva Khare Apoorva Khare

On the theoretical side, his research has revealed new links between analysis and algebra. Apoorva also works in representation theory, a branch of algebra that finds applications in several areas of modern number theory to mathematical physics, including its famous use in the standard model of particle physics.

Neeraj Kayal

Department of Mathematics and Computing, Microsoft Research Lab India, Bengaluru

Neeraj works on complexity theory, number theory and algebra. Early in his career, he co-developed a famous method, called the AKS primality test, to test whether a given very large prime number was prime or not. In recent years, Neeraj has been focused on improving the efficiency of computer algorithms. His work on complexity theory provides the theoretical framework to understand the limits and efficiency of computer algorithms.

Neeraj Kayal Neeraj Kayal

He has also made important contributions in algebra, number theory and geometry. Neeraj is an outlier, in that he won the Infosys Prize before the Bhatnagar award came his way.

EARTH, ATMOSPHERE, OCEAN AND PLANETARY SCIENCES

Vimal Mishra

Water and Climate Laboratory, IIT-Gandhinagar

Vimal’s research focuses on climate change solutions, particularly those related to water. His work tries to understand the impact of climate change and human activities on water resources. He has been studying changes in hydrological cycles, the impact of groundwater use for irrigation, and water-related extreme weather events like floods and droughts.

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His work has shown the influences of changes in water resources on other variables like temperature, humidity and heat stress. His group has developed operational monitoring forecast systems that try to predict the possibility or severity of extreme events like drought.

MEDICAL SCIENCES

Dipyaman Ganguly

Translational Research Unit, CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, Kolkata

Dipyaman’s group is engaged in understanding the role of immune cells in clinical contexts in which the immune system turns hostile towards the host. Such situations lead to what are known as autoimmune diseases or metabolic disorders which are collectively grouped under autoreactive inflammations.

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His research also explores a more fundamental question in the functioning of immune cells. This is related to the role of mechanical cues within the body in regulating immune cells. His group had carried out a number of studies during Covid-19 to understand the role of undue activation of the immune system in some patients with severe diseases.

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