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JU and ‘anarchism outbreak’ win prizes

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OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Published 27.09.14, 12:00 AM

New Delhi, Sept 26: A biologist looking for anti-cancer molecules, a computer scientist who points out that his name is an anagram for “anarchism outbreak”, and a physicist tracking a molecular tug-of-war in living cells are among winners of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes for 2014.

India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) today announced the names of 10 scientists, all of them below 45 years of age, as winners of what is widely viewed as the country’s highest science award.

Souvik Maiti, a scientist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi, has bagged the prize for chemical sciences for his discovery that a class of organic molecules can block the activity of genetic material called micro-RNA and prevent the progression of certain cancers.

“This micro-RNA has been implicated in several cancers, including breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” said Maiti, who had studied BSc and MSc in chemistry at Jadavpur University before switching first to polymer chemistry, then biochemistry and studies on micro-RNA.

Soumen Chakrabarti, associate professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has received one of the two prizes awarded in engineering sciences. Chakrabarti, whose web page points out that his name is an anagram for anarchism outbreak, is trying to make web search engines smarter.

“The goal is to try and get search engines to understand human queries deeper,” Chakrabarti, who’s currently in the US on a sabbatical at the headquarters of Google, told The Telegraph.

“Suppose we ask a question: which scientists play musical instruments, the search engine should generate a list of all the scientists and the musical instruments they play, rather than just a list of different web pages,” Chakrabarti said.

The prize for biological sciences this year has gone to a physicist — Roop Mallik, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, who’s studying a tug-of-war between sets of proteins carrying cargo — bacteria or viruses, for example — inside living cells.

“This tug-of-war is a crucial housekeeping process in cells that is important in the process of transporting things to the correct places in cells,” Mallik said.

Microbes, for instance, need to be degraded at specific sites in cells where they are carried by these proteins.

Mallik, who completed MSc in physics at Allahabad University and a PhD at the TIFR before spending several years at the University of California, Irvine, has been studying this process for the past eight years. He says it isn’t unusual for a physicist to be pursuing biology.

“The same laws of physics apply to things inside cells,” he said.

Sachitanand Tripathi, a professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, has got the prize for earth, ocean, and planetary sciences for his work on studying aerosols, soot and other pollutants that can influence the weather and climate.

Tripathi’s research has shown that when two aerosols combine, their properties change. Soot particles, for instance, are hydrophoblic —repel water. His studies suggest that when soot particles become coated with pollutants called secondary organic aerosols, they attract water and have the potential to function as cloud-forming droplets. “But too many of these is not good, for then there’ll be clouds, but no rain,” Tripathi said.

The prize for medical sciences has gone to Anurag Agrawal, a doctor who’s discovered a novel mechanism for asthma and found a way to even reverse it. Agrawal, who graduated from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and is now at the IGIB, New Delhi, has found that dysfunction in mitochondria of lung cells triggered by changes in lifestyle can contribute to asthma.

His studies on mice have also shown that stem cells can be harnessed to donate healthy mitrochondria to lung cells and reverse asthma and other lung disorders.

The two prizes for physical sciences have gone to Pratap Raychaudhuri at the TIFR, Mumbai, for his work on trying to understand mystery mechanisms underlying superconductivity, and Sadiq Rangwala, at the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore, for his study of the behaviour of atoms at ultracold temperatures.

The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prizes, named after the CSIR’s first founder director, carry a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh, a citation and a plaque. The other 2014 prizes have gone to Kavirayani Ramakrishna Prasad at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, for chemical sciences, S. Venkataka Mohan at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad, for engineering sciences. The prize in mathematical sciences has gone to Kaushal Verma, a faculty member at the IISc, Bangalore.

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