In conversation with P. Balaram, director of Indian Institute of Science who has just been conferred the G.M. Modi Award for Science

Meeting up with Professor P. Balaram, after battling the chaotic morning traffic of Delhi, was like the cliched chalk and cheese experience. With measured steps and a gentle smile, a bespectacled Balaram ushers you inside the Indian National Science Academy on the city’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, its guest house his address for a day.

Balaram, director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, is here to receive this year’s G.M. Modi Science Award. A Padma Shri and a recipient of numerous awards, Balaram, smiles meekly while responding to the question as to how he looks at the burst of accolade on him, “I have stopped counting the awards now.”

Other opportunities

An alumnus of IIT, Kanpur, 60-year-old Balaram’s expertise is in bio-organic chemistry and molecular biophysics. During his long span as an academic, he has seen a lot of change, in terms of students’ interest, technological advancement and the standard of teacher training, an important component of scientific education.

“Science is not the most popular subject among students anymore simply because there are so many opportunities other than science now,” he hits at the reality first. With teaching standard coming down gradually, and education becoming a warfare of percentage scored, he often finds students interested only in notching up marks but no interest beyond it in their fields of study. “But when they continue at the Institute, I often see that they are actually not bad. So we need good teachers to generate deep interest in them in different subjects.”

Talking of engineering, a popular subject among students, Balaram agrees that the traditional image of engineering is changing. “Nowadays, most disciplines border on science and engineering.”

Excited about the Institute completing hundred years this year, Balaram says there are many new programmes on board to mark the centenary year.

“But I would like to point out that the celebrating part is over. With the Institute turning 100 now, we are focussing on what’s next. So there is a major phase of expansion happening. We are rebuilding many labs. We have now centres for neuro sciences, climate change, earth sciences and nano electronics with state-of-the-art greenroom facilities for nano culture.” Also, a lot of vaccine research is taking place in the Institute. “Some are reaching product level.” Recently, the Karnataka Government has given the Institute a huge plot of land in Chitradurga district. Balram plans “to use that space for experiments that need large areas. We also hope to start an energy research centre in the new campus.”

Luminaries

With the Institute producing luminaries like Homi Bhava, Vikram Sarabhai, and among others G.N. Iyer Ramachandran, the brain behind the molecular biophysics centre there and better known for the groundbreaking Ramachandran drop discovery, Balaram is a proud warden of the institution founded by JRD Tata. Though many in the scientific community feel that Ramachandran should have been awarded the Nobel for his pioneering research, Balaram has a clincher, “We should stop worrying about how the West rates us. It is not good for our self-confidence.” To drive hope the point, he picks a parallel from Bollywood: “It is like our Bollywood trying to get an Oscar. We are probably the best in making films the way we do, then why do we need to do things to fit into the Oscar category?”

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