Stars of science shine in the city

Video by Arvind Prasanna and Anjali Venugopalan 

Text by Anjali Venugopalan

Chennai, Feb 11:Can you drown in quicksand? No, but pulling yourself out is nearly impossible too. Does a bigger brain make you smarter? Not really – it’s the number of connections between the neurons in your brain that make you smarter.

Scientists from the country’s premier institutions were here at TTK Academy answering questions like these as a part of Science at the Sabha, an evening of lectures aimed at making science accessible to the public.

“You’ve got to be a little irreverent in science,” said Guru Kumaraswamy, just as he showed a clip from the movie ‘MelleTirandathuKadhavu’, where heroine Mala falls into quicksand and starts screaming for help. Even she looked like she would disappear into the quicksand, Kumaraswamy told an amused audience (who expects pulpy Kollywood in a science lecture, after all?) that it was impossible to drown in quicksand. But at the same time, a rescue would be painstakingly slow and difficult, because quicksand solidifies upon shaking.

Kumaraswamy has done his PhD in chemical engineering and is currently Principal Scientist at CSIR’s National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. “Research is fun. You’re discovering something, and it’s like you’re a child again,” he said, while ruing the fact that science at the school level wasn’t fun at all. He himself is involved in a corporate-sponsored program called Exciting Science that reaches out to school kids to make science interesting.

R Rajesh, physicist and faculty member at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), says, “It’s a good time to be a scientist because we’re well-funded.” The funding for science in this year’s budget was raised by 10%, although it’s share of the GDP remains a paltry 0.8%.

Last year on Aug 9, many thousands participated in the ‘March for Science’, demanding that funding for science be raised to 3% of the GDP. Vijay Kodiyalam, mathematician and faculty at IMSc, agrees.

However, both said that an area of concern is the lack of women in the STEM fields. February 11 also happened to be the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To celebrate this, there was an exhibition of posters of women scientists from different parts of the country by Life of Science, a website dedicated to covering women in science. Here’s a girl posing with the poster of Asima Chatterjee, a chemist.

ShubhaTole, a neuroscientist from Tata Insititute of Fundamental Research who gave a talk on how the brain develops in the embryo, says, “It’s this sense of limitation that we imbue in our girls right from the time they’re children – that they’re going to have to make compromises… that someone else is going to make their decisions for them.”

There are pockets of hope, though. Tole takes the example of Wellcome Trust/DBT India alliance, a team of researchers funded by UK-based biomedical charity Wellcome Trust and the Indian Department of Biotechnology. She says that fellows at the institution, even if they’re early-career, have the option of hiring junior research fellows to help with their work.

“Your work will keep moving along, even if you’re on maternity leave.” She says that although attention gets divided when a woman has a baby, work doesn’t need to stop. “I’ve found myself sending emails at 4 in the morning just because I happened to be awake to nurse the baby.”