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Fertile field for science

New Delhi, Oct. 2: Shantanu Chowdhury took six months of coaching classes to prepare for the joint entrance exam of the Indian Institutes of Technology but skipped the exam and watched a movie instead.

Chowdhury, who had then just completed Class XII at St Thomas Higher Secondary School in Kidderpore, Calcutta, didn’t like the concept of entrance exams and had virtually no interest in engineering but he liked chemistry.

Last week, 25 years after his decision to dodge the JEE, Chowdhury was picked for India’s most prestigious science award — the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize.

Now a scientist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi, Chowdhury was chosen for research on the biochemistry of strange, previously unknown structures formed by genetic sequences.

Five of the 11 recipients of the 2012 SSB Prize have roots in Bengal. Senior scientists say that ratio appears to reflect Bengal’s unusually large imprint on Indian science observed earlier through a geographical analysis of science scholars and anecdotal accounts.

The geographical analysis conducted by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) shows that Bengal delivered the largest number of scholars selected through a nationwide screening test for careers in scientific research or teaching in a recent five-year period.

Bengal accounted for 1,942 scholars selected through the National Eligibility Test conducted by the CSIR and the University Grants Commission, followed by Delhi’s 1,764 scholars, between 2002 and 2007.

“In Bengal, there is still respect for scholarship in science,” said Samir Brahmachari, CSIR’s director-general, who had graduated from Calcutta’s St Xavier’s College in 1972 in chemistry, before moving to the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, for a PhD.

Physicist Arindam Ghosh at the IISc, another 2012 SSB Prize awardee, also studied at Calcutta’s St Xavier’s College, where, he recalls, “some really great teachers fuelled his interest in physics”.

Ghosh was picked for the prize for his efforts to use a single sheet of atoms to design novel electronic devices.

Krishnendu Sengupta, another physicist and 2012 SSB Prize awardee, took the JEE, but chose the five-year Masters in Physics course at the IIT Kharagpur.

“I don’t have a ready answer about why I chose science — curiosity perhaps,” said Sengupta, who’s got the prize for theoretical studies of a material called graphene, which has potential applications in futuristic electronics.

Debashish Goswami at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, gets the 2012 SSB Prize for mathematical sciences, and Sandip Basu at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, will receive the prize for medical sciences. The awards are to be given away later this year.

Some scientists believe Bengal’s contribution to the pure sciences may be rooted in a culture that assigns high value to pursuits in the sciences and arts.

Others think it is the result of Bengal’s relative insulation from the massive flow into engineering colleges and the IT sector observed in the southern states.

Science historians credit Bengal with big contributions in the sciences during the 20th century through legendary figures such as radio pioneer Jagadish Chandra Bose, physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and statistician P.C. Mahalanobis, among others.

“What we’re seeing now could be a mix of this history and less inclination and opportunities to move into engineering or information technology,” said Ajit Khembavi, director of the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune.

About three decades ago, Khembavi said, there was this feeling that Bengal and Tamil Nadu made up about half of research staff in academic institutions. “Now there’s a clear majority from Bengal, and the numbers from other states appear random,” he said.

Among IUCAA’s 25 PhD scholars last year, six were from Bengal.

Similarly, large fractions of both MSc and PhD scholars at the IIT Kanpur appear to be graduates of universities in Bengal, said a professor of physics at IIT Kanpur who requested not to be named.

In his genomics laboratory in New Delhi, Chowdhury too sees many scholars and fellow scientists from Bengal.

The SSB prize may seem a vindication of his decision to ditch the JEE, against parental pressure. But Chowdhury says he’s forgotten the name of the movie he watched that day.

The SSB Prize, named after CSIR’s founder director Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, carries a citation, a plaque, an amount of Rs 500,000, and winners also get Rs 15,000 per month up to the age of 65 years. The 2012 prizes announced last week are expected to be given away later this year.

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