In a virtual ceremony on 2 December 2020, the Infosys Science Foundation announced the winners of the twelfth Infosys Prize awards. The awardees represented a diversity of fields and research areas, spread across six categories: Engineering and Computer Science, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences
The Infosys Science Foundation (ISF), a not-for-profit trust, announced its twelfth Infosys Prize awards on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, on a virtual platform. The prestigious award includes a gold medal, citation, and a cash prize of USD100000.
The award recognizes and celebrates outstanding contributions from researchers of Indian origin across six categories: Engineering and Computer Science, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences.
The jury comprised eminent scientists from all over the world represented by six jury chairs: Arvind (Engineering and Computer Science), Kaushik Basu (Social Sciences), Akeel Bilgrami (Humanities), Chandrashekhar Khare (Mathematical Sciences), Shrinivas Kulkarni (Physical Sciences), and Mriganka Sur (Life Sciences).
Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science, MIT, USA
The Infosys prize 2020 for Engineering and Computer science category was awarded to Hari Balakrishnan for his outstanding contribution to mobile telematics. Balakrishnan’s work is recognized for its impactful, practical applications.
He is currently working on helping people drive better and preventing accidents. The project incorporates algorithms that collect real-time data from sensors embedded in mobile phones to understand how people drive. This data, combined with behavioural science, gives feedback to the driver to drive safely. This technology is currently undergoing trials in India.
Balakrishnan has several iconic projects to his credit and is a successful entrepreneur. He was the first to develop an accurate indoor navigation system called Cricket. Another noteworthy project is the CarTel — real-time mobile sensing and data accumulation system that equips vehicles with sensors to detect surface conditions of roads. “One of my favourite of Hari’s projects is the Pothole Patrol, based on CarTel systems,” said Arvind, jury chair, while congratulating him.
Professor of History, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata
In the Humanities category, this year’s winner is the eminent historian Prachi Deshpande. She is well-known for her sophisticated treatment of South Asian historiography (the study of how history is written by historians). Deshpande’s research focuses on the sociocultural history of historiography, language, and regional identities.
Her path-breaking book Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India (Columbia University Press, 2007) closely examines the emergence of modern history-writing practices in Western India from the Maratha period. Her book has had an immense impact on our understanding of the importance of historical memory in shaping regional identities.
A prolific writer, Deshpande also has several papers, anthologies, and essays to her credit.
Group Leader, Structural Biology Laboratory, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad
Rajan Sankaranarayanan bagged the Infosys Prize in the Life Sciences category. The prize recognizes his seminal contribution in understanding one of the most fundamental mechanisms in biology: the error-free translation of the genetic code that makes proteins. “The structural portraits you have generated “speak a thousand words” and reveal selection mechanisms that are conserved across life,” said jury chair Mriganka Sur, congratulating him on his award.
His work has applications in protein engineering and in the drug design of antibiotics and immunosuppressants.
Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, Stanford University, USA
The winner of the Infosys Prize, 2020 in Mathematical Sciences was Sourav Chatterjee, a versatile probabilist and an alumnus of the Indian Statistical Institute. He earned his PhD from Stanford.
His groundbreaking work in probability and statistical physics find particular mention in areas such as fluctuations in random structures, concentration, and super-concentration inequalities. His contribution plays a critical role in emerging fields such as large deviations for random graphs that occur in computing, social, and business networks.
Congratulating him, jury chair Chandrashekar Khare said, “You are one of the most powerful problem-solvers in the field of your generation.”
Professor, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru
In Physical sciences, the Infosys Prize went to Arindam Ghosh, who has contributed immensely in the field of two-dimensional materials for next-generation electronics. His work involves realizing an atomically thin graphene composite that is highly sensitive in converting optical radiation into electric current. These atomically thin, two-dimensional semiconductors for thermoelectric and optoelectronic devices for new generation electronics will impact quantum technology and sensing.
“We hope your win will inspire many more young people to take up experimental physics,” said jury chair Shrinivas Kulkarni in his congratulatory note.
Professor of Economics, Harvard University
The Infosys Prize 2020 in Social sciences was awarded to Raj Chetty, one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history. Chetty completed his PhD at the age of 23 from Harvard and returned there as a faculty.
Chetty’s pioneering research identifies barriers to economic opportunity. It develops solutions to help people escape poverty and gain improved life outcomes. His remarkable work has the ability to gain insights from large datasets with the potential to influence major economic shifts.
Leveraging education for progress
In his opening address, Narayana Murthy, ISF president and co-founder of Infosys, emphasized that every country that desires to become a developed nation should prioritize higher education and research. “Good ideas are a result of a high-quality education system and a leading-edge research system,” said Murthy.
He added that good ideas also require a mindset of learning to learn, critical and independent thinking, and proactive problem-solving skills.
“It is these qualities that the winners of the Infosys prize embody, and the Infosys Prize contributes to this mission by honouring those scientists whose work has the potential to improve our world,” said Murthy.
The ISF has initiated other programs to attract youngsters to a career in research. One of them, The National Lecture Series, requires the Infosys prize winners to talk to university students “about the exciting opportunities a research career offers in India,” said Murthy.
In his acceptance speech, Raj Chetty said that his childhood exposure to science greatly influenced his career in science. This observation was later reflected in his research on data concerning the children of one million US patent holders. “We found that kids who grow up around scientists are much more likely to become inventors themselves,” said Chetty.
Balakrishnan also recalled his endless curiosity as a child which shaped his career as a scientist, adding that “asking why and how are fundamental to research.”
All the awardees acknowledged the role of their teachers at various institutions, who played an active role in inspiring and mentoring them.