Meet the Infosys Prize winners from Bengaluru

In conversation with Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director, Science Gallery Bengaluru, and Mukund Thattai, professor, Biochemistry, Biophysics and Bioinformatics at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), who have won the Infosys Prize in the Humanities and Physical Sciences categories, respectively

November 30, 2023 11:05 am | Updated 11:05 am IST - Bengaluru

Jahnavi Phalkey.

Jahnavi Phalkey. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K / THE HINDU

Dr. Jahnavi Phalkey

“Science and engineering are perceived in this un-characterised continuum with no history or grounding in time or place. But the only way we know how to conduct human activity – even when it is virtual – is at a specific time and in a specific place,” says Dr. Jahnavi Phalkey, Founding Director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, who was recently awarded the Infosys Prize in the Humanities category “for her brilliant and granular insights into the individual, institutional, and material histories of scientific research in modern India,” as the website of the Infosys Science Foundation puts it.

Communicating these larger narratives of science in an engaging, more comprehensible way has been an intrinsic aspect of her work, whether it be through writing, conversation, film or her vision for the science gallery. “One of the main purposes of Science Gallery Bengaluru is to create a public discourse on why science research matters in everyday life and to raise questions about our collective relationship with fundamental knowledge,” she says. “Our job, in a way, is not to pare down or reduce complexity. It is to express it credibly in a language that is more accessible.

Jahnavi, the author of the book Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-century India and the director of Cyclotron, a film about the world’s oldest functional particle accelerator, believes that creating a public life for research is important. “What happens in a lab doesn’t stay in the lab,” she says. Ignoring the public life of research has consequences for both the public and the researcher, believes Jahnavi. In the case of the latter, it could impede them from learning how to contextualise their work, gain a deep perspective of their own discipline or understand the consequences of it, she says. “As a result of that, you will not have a well-grounded practitioner. That is why we come up with sewage-treatment solutions, questions about the cosmos, or even weapons that are obviously not in sync with how we believe society should be organised or what good life is all about,” she says.

And yes, as she adds, it is also true that when regular citizens do not understand the implications of certain fields of research and practice, their everyday lives get irreversibly shaped by it. “I think the lack of public discourse means that people are rendered increasingly incapable of making decisions on things that impact their lives,” says Jahnavi, who firmly believes that the history of science, the sociology of science and science journalism are fields that need to be developed.

She herself holds a PhD in History of Science & Technology from the School of History and Sociology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, a programme she meandered into after reading civics and politics at the University of Bombay and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. “I just decided to give it a shot and to see what happens. Within six months, I knew I was home,” says Jahnavi, who took over the Science Gallery Bengaluru in January 2018 after spending several years as a tenured faculty member at King’s College London. “That was 23 years ago. I stayed with it and am still excited about it.”

Mukund Thattai

Mukund Thattai | Photo Credit: HANDOUT E MAIL

Dr. Mukund Thattai

Dr. Mukund Thattai, who recently received the Infosys Prize in the Physical Sciences category for his groundbreaking contribution to evolutionary cell biology, calls himself an “accidental biologist”. It was mathematics and physics that he was drawn towards at school, an interest deepened by Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the thirteen-part television series presented by the American astronomer Carl Sagan, that was screened on Doordarshan in the 1980s. “He talked about every aspect of science in that TV show. It was fantastic.” He even went on to apply to college at Cornell University, where Sagan was a professor. “Unfortunately, I never met him. He had cancer in a very advanced stage when I joined college and passed away before I could meet him,” recalls Mukund, who graduated with a B.A. in Physics from Cornell in 1999. “This is one of my big regrets.”

He then applied to grad school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focusing on condensed matter theory. “The study of condensed matter systems has impacted many parts of physics,” he says, adding that these are systems built out of many interacting pieces, lots of electrons and atoms that are individually simple, but collectively they behave in complex and unexpected ways. “Sometimes there is emergent simplicity from this microscopic messiness,” says Mukund.

It was in Bengaluru, where he was home from a break from graduate school in the early 2000s that he was first introduced to a part of biology that he knew nothing about earlier. “My mother, a doctor, took me for a lecture at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), where I now work,” recalls Mukund, who remembers being amazed at how quantitative, conceptual and deeply interesting these topics were. “I went back to MIT, realising that there seemed to be a part of biology that I knew nothing about, which contains ideas from physics. I wanted to do something about it,” he says

He went on to take a graduate-level course in biomolecular computation by the physicist and neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, going on to read papers about how genes could be combined using the mathematics of electric circuits. “These were papers which contained a lot of math, and the ability to describe things using mathematics is something I am very good at,” says Mukund, who then joined the Dutch biophysicist Alexander van Oudenaarden, a pioneer in stochastic gene expression and single-cell RNA measurements, as one of his first three graduate students. “It was just a wonderful time as a graduate student – being in the centre of something like this and being quite successful at it,” he says. “I was in the right place at the right time doing the right kind of work in an atmosphere where physics is going on, but also biology and appreciation for theory.”

In 2004, he joined NCBS, where he set up an experimental lab to pursue his research interest. But not long after, he turned to studying the evolution of cells. “The cell is the fundamental way to understand biology. Everything happens there,” says Mukund, who also spent three months in 2010 at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, running a programme called Evolutionary Perspectives on Mechanisms of Cellular Organization or Evocell2010, for short.

“My goal was to learn about the eukaryotic cell that makes up humans, plants, and amoeba,” he says, holding up a notebook containing the notes from this workshop.  He flips it open to show me a page that includes this sentence: Is there an evolutionary cell biology? “It wasn’t there at that time. It became a field, partly because of this meeting.,” says Mukund. ‘Over the last 10 years, everything I worked on is somewhere from this book.”

He returned to NCBS and started working on what is today called evolutionary cell biology. “I realised that there was a space for someone who could do both the physics of how the cell is put together at a molecular stage while simultaneously studying where these molecules came from in an evolutionary sense,” says Mukund.  His work focuses on studying the dynamic endomembrane organelles of the eukaryotic cells – those which contain a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles, unlike the smaller, simpler cells of prokaryotic organisms like bacteria and archaea – attempting to answer a larger question: where did this very complex cell, the common ancestor of all living eukaryotes come from.

Mukund strongly believes in the centrality of evolution to biology. “Evolution is a very powerful framework for organising biological data,” he says. Referring to a 1973 essay by the well-known geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, titled Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, he adds. “We should bring evolution to the centre of pedagogy. It is a very powerful way of thinking about things.

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