Ramanujan Fellows Conclave

Athulaprabha Murthi

The Ramanujan Fellows Conclave, a conglomeration of scientists from diverse and unrelated fields was held in Pune last week touching upon issues like administration in institutes, the future of science and technology with a healthy dose of science. Athula reports…

Named after the genius Mathematician Ramanujan, the fellowship is a re-entry fellowship for those overseas to enter the world of Indian science. The fellowship, instituted by the Department of Science and Technology, funds fellows in all fields of science- spanning engineering, physics, mathematics, biology, ecology, geophysics and other areas that fall into the realm of science.

Organized on the same lines as the Ramalingaswamy Fellows Conclave held at Hyderabad a few weeks ago, the Ramanujan Fellows Conclave was held in Pune, from the 3rd to the 6th of May. Though similar in structure, this was a unique meeting in many ways. The participants ranged from theoretical physicists who work on string theory or fluid state dynamics to those who crosstalk into mechanics of living matter or neurobiology of flight to chemists who synthesize anti-cancer drugs. The research talks ranged from studying the activity of the sun to studying the effect of urbanization on human behavior in Urban Ecology. It must have been an interesting exercise for the participants to communicate one’s science in a manner that enables an absolute novice to understand the intricacies of the subject. Much to their credit, majority of the speakers’ managed to achieve just that.

The fellows’ presentations were interspersed with talks from senior scientists and administrators who shared the experience of doing science in a very different India, when funding was scarce and quality research required constant innovation. The first day started with interesting talks by Dr. K.N Ganesh (Director IISER Pune) and Dr. Vijaylakshmi Ravindran (IISc). Prof. Anil Gupta from IIM Ahmedabad presented a very interesting perspective of small innovations in science. He emphasized the need for a reductionist and holistic approach towards science and research, which in his opinion go hand in hand. For example – it is essential to have genomic and translational science while continuing our investment in basic sciences, which decipher molecular processes to the minutest details. Discoveries from the latter are vital to feed into the former.

Amongst the many inspiring mentor talks were those of Sushanta Dattagupta (Vice Chancellor –VisvaBharati University) who gave an overview of his journey through various universities and institutes to VisvaBharati where science, art and culture come together. KanuryRao (ICGEB) shared his journey through science of immune cells to his present research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis. T. Padmanabhan, G. Padmanabhan, S. Umapathy, Dipankar Chatterjee, M. Vijayan and Sriram Ramaswamy all had interesting tidbits about their scientific journey. Each emphasized the young scientists to push themselves beyond limits and work outside their comfort zone. Though a risky endeavor that is how one manages to deliver their best.

Apart from research talks, panel discussions on topics such as fellowship administration in different institutes, future of science and technology in India and funding options for fellows allowed all to voice opinions on various issues plaguing Indian Science, with the hope that changes will come forth through DST.The issues discussed ranged from institutional policies towards administration of the fellowship to topics/​issues in science that ought to be pursued in India. The fellows also had a one-on-one session among themselves free of all senior scientists and administrators. The major aim of this was to be able to voice concerns freely. A report of the suggestions, concerns and opinions will be sent to DST and in the future, we should be seeing changes in the way fellowship is administered as well as hopefully, an increase in the awarded fellowship amounts.

Beyond the presentations and the panel discussions, the most important component of the meeting was definitely the opportunity for the fellows to interact over the period of 4 days. Though most Institutes and Universities have all science departments, how often does one from physics or engineering department attend talks in biology or vice versa? A meeting of this cadre to my knowledge does not happen anywhere else in the world. So that is a start, we might be setting a trend, a trend that could yield interesting collaborations, scientific endeavors and great science to look forward to.