View from India: Award-winning solutions to benefit society

The winners of the Infosys Prize 2021 have been announced, recognising their outstanding contributions to science and research. The work of this year’s laureates addresses some of the greatest challenges of our time such as the effect of climate change on fragile ecosystems and contribution towards effective conservation strategies.

The award from the Infosys Science Foundation (ISF) comprises a pure gold medal, a citation and a prize-purse of USD 100,000, tax free in India. Winners were chosen in six fields: Engineering and Computer Science, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences and Social Sciences.

Many of the winning initiatives are interdisciplinary. “Climate change is a vast field. It requires research in physical science areas of battery-energy-grid, and AI of computer science” said Nandan Nilekani, chairman of the board and co-founder, Infosys Limited, speaking virtually at the ISF function.

Other thrust areas include the design of a robust platform for rapid testing of deadly diseases like Covid-19 and TB (tuberculosis) and understanding the nuclear force to harness nuclear energy for the benefit of humankind. “Right now, we have a few cases of Omicron, the new strain of the virus. We should continue to maintain social distancing and avoid assembling in large crowds,” cautioned NR Narayana Murthy, founder, Infosys.

The intent of the award is to acknowledge and reward the work done by researchers and create icons for the younger generation. An event of this stature intents to encourage many more individuals to pursue innovative thinking. “The Infosys Science Foundation has recognized excellence for the last 13 years. By recognising and celebrating the creativity and innovation of these remarkable individuals, we hope to inspire and encourage others and society at large. While results may not always be immediately apparent, we must remember that the long arc of knowledge, discovery, and invention will benefit mankind in unexpected ways as we have seen with mRNA vaccines during this Covid crisis,” said Kris Gopalakrishnan, President of Infosys Science Foundation. “With the Infosys Prize, we not only reward apparent breakthroughs but also the far-reaching potential of the work of these stellar researchers and scholars.”

The winners

> Dr Chandrasekhar Nair, awarded in the Engineering and Computer Science category, has a new point-of-care testing platform for PCR based medical diagnostics. Dr Nair, CTO of Molbio Diagnostics, has arrived at a battery-operated, rugged, field-usable PCR device titled TrueNat. An acronym for Polymerase Chain Reaction, PCR-based testing enables direct testing of genes (human or of infectious agents) from patient samples. The testing which is otherwise an expensive process, is now fairly affordable and the device can be deployed at scale. What makes this worthwhile is that it enables point-of-care testing for early detection of diseases in a pandemic-driven world.

> The manner in which imperialism and colonial history can influence culture and religion caught the attention of Dr Ângela Barreto Xavier. Dr Xavier who is from the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal, has focused on Goa. Located on India’s west coast, Goa was a Portuguese colony from 1510 to 1961. It was an important trade hub for the Eastern spice trade. The Portuguese influence on Goa can be seen in its architecture, gastronomy and cultural norms. The potpourri of influences led Dr Xavier on. Her analysis and research of the conversion of Goa and its people has been insightful. This has made her a winner in the Humanities section.

> Professor Mahesh Sankaran from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) has been awarded in the Life Sciences category. The tropical savannah ecosystem in the Western Ghats, which he studied, threw up many revelations. His expertise on the subject has influenced various conservation strategies and shaped rational conservation policy. Professor Sankaran’s work has also led him towards international reports on climate change. Incidentally, the Western Ghats, which is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, is home to over 30 per cent of all plant, fish, herpeto-fauna, bird and mammal species found in India. Against this lush backdrop, Prof Sankaran has done pioneering work on the Western Ghats along with its biodiversity.

> Transportation, security and internet access are among the applications of algorithms, but it requires an understanding of their limitations, intrinsic qualities and operational efficiency. The work of Dr Neeraj Kayal of Microsoft Research Lab on complexity theory provides mathematical tools to understand the efficiency and limitations of algorithms. Dr Kayal’s contribution to Computational Complexity stems from his understanding of algebraic computation. This can be understood in terms of the development of deep lower bound techniques proving limitations of this natural model, as well as designing efficient algorithms for reconstruction and equivalence of such algebraic circuits. Understandably he is a winner in the category of Mathematical Sciences.

> Nuclear forces calls for a detailed understanding in order to harness nuclear energy, highly energetic processes as well as the cosmos. Without proper knowledge, it’s likely to result in devastating consequences. Professor Bedangadas Mohanty from the National Institute of Science Education and Research in Bhubaneswar realised this and investigated the nuclear force. Even while at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, he determined the transition temperature of the quark-gluon plasma to hadronic matter. The Physical Sciences awardee had also observed heavy antimatter nuclei, nuclear spin-orbital angular momentum interactions and other effects in quark-gluon plasma. When we look at the big picture, mankind is gearing up to venture beyond the solar system and encounter many wonders of the universe first-hand. Prof Mohanty’s work helps prepare us for the adventure. As of now, Prof Mohanty’s beneficiaries include astronomers, nuclear chemists, physicists and individuals who use nuclear energy.

> Dr Pratiksha Baxi from the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU, New Delhi has won the Social Sciences award. Dr Baxi is credited for her work on sexual violence and jurisprudence. Her ethnographic research and meticulous analysis reveal how gendered violence is reproduced by juridical practice. A combination of legal studies, sociology and anthropology has resulted in such extensive work. Not just that, but Dr Baxi has influenced a growing field of inquiry into the social life of law.

Moving behind the winners, one hopes that research oriented work would evolve into solutions for addressing cyber security and food scarcity, among other pressing issues. Perhaps a combination of basic and applied research could help in arriving at some sort of solution. “In the past few centuries, and certainly in the future, the history of the world has been and will be shaped by the countries that lead in science and intellectual exploration. For any nation and society, world-leading science is a matter of prestige and a contribution to excellence in the country and the world,” said Professor Gagandeep Kang, FRS, Professor at CMC Vellore, and congratulated the winners.

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