In 1999, while the software field was booming and the American dream shone bright, a young computer scientist was packing her bags to return to India. “When I told my advisor in the U.S. that my husband and I had decided to go back, he told me I was crazy. I told him I wanted to return because I wanted to put India on the research map of the world.” And today, this is exactly what Sunita Sarawagi is doing.
Sarawagi, a professor of computer science at IIT Bombay, is one of the six winners of this year’s Infosys Prizes. She won the award in the category of Engineering & Computer Science. According to the jury, Sarawagi was “one of the earliest researchers to develop information extraction techniques that went beyond the world of structured databases to the kind of unstructured data one finds on the World Wide Web.”
A self-proclaimed “100% nerd,” Sarawagi is constantly trying to strike a balance between high-quality globally-appealing research and India-related problems. One such problem with real-life implications was ‘address cleaning’. While it is relatively easy for humans to make sense out of postal addresses, it’s not so for computers, she said. “Indian addresses can be very messy. Your home address, the address of this hotel, can be written in many different forms, and it gets tricky for companies like Flipkart or Amazon to access information like the PIN code.”
To solve this problem, she has been using machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence (AI) that gives computers the ability to ‘learn’ rather than be pre-programmed to perform a task. Fortunately for Sarawagi, striking the balance between quality and relevance is a lot easier today as AI applications are everywhere in our app-driven lives.
Question of relevance
It’s not as easy for researchers of fundamental science such as Manjula Reddy, a cell biologist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. She too won the $100,000 Infosys Prize last month, in the Life Sciences category. For Reddy, who is renowned for her discoveries about the way bacterial cell walls behave, the obsession with ‘relevance’ can grow tiresome. “It is a slightly unrealistic pressure on people like us,” she says. She compares scientific research to any artistic enterprise and believes the increase in the knowledge base is an application in itself. “It is relevant because it is important to understand nature’s secrets, to know how organisms function.”
Fundamental science, biology in particular, has a way of sparking off unintended life-changing applications. Reddy’s work, for example, has been garnering eyeballs because of its promising implications in the face of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance has been named by World Health Organization as one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development. The misuse of the existing classes of antibiotics by humans is accelerating the emergence of bacteria that are immune to them. So critical is the situation that it is no longer sufficient to manage antibiotic use. We need new and effective antibiotics.
Revealing the secrets of bacterial cell walls puts Reddy in a great position to contribute towards a new way to target disease-causing bacteria. It is no wonder that the Infosys Prize jury has recognised her “bold and creative experiments that provide novel insights into how bacterial cells physically grow, and suggest new ways to target antibiotic-resistant microbes.”
In contrast to the U.S.-trained Sarawagi, Reddy is almost entirely homegrown. She completed her Ph.D. from the same institute where she now works as a Principal Scientist. Interestingly, her path into science wasn’t straightforward.
Though she enrolled for her Ph.D. in 1986, when she was in her early 20s, it was not until 2002 that she was able to complete it. She had to shift labs and restart her doctoral work due to bad luck as well as some compromises she chose to make for her family.
It was only in 2007, at the age of 42, that she earned the opportunity to start her own lab at CCMB. And for this reason, this award is much more than a personal one for Reddy. “I feel it is for all women who struggled and then came to this stage,” she said, adding that she received about a hundred emails from women she didn’t know to say that the award motivated them. “In fact, many women in CCMB itself came and told me that they now felt confident to tell their parents not to pressure them to get married.”
Sarawagi too looks at this award as something beyond personal recognition. “I think awards help make youngsters feel that science is valued.”
Awards for Indian women scientists are still a rare thing. The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, the highest honour for an Indian scientist awarded by the government, has gone to only 18 women (3%) of almost 559 awardees since 1958, with women being awarded in only 15 of 62 years. The Infosys Prizes are among the few to buck this trend, with 16 women (23%) of 69 awardees. When asked about the measures that can be taken to keep diversity a priority, the current president of Infosys Science Foundation, S.D. Shibulal, shied away from the specifics, choosing to maintain that it’s all about merit and nothing else. He did, however, point out that the age limit of 50 is relaxed to 55 for ‘exceptional cases’ including women who have taken a break in their career. “I think talent-spotting is the job of the jury; a wide net is cast,” he said.
One of those casting this net is Mriganka Sur, the jury chair for the Life Sciences award. In an interview during the 2018 ceremony, Sur stressed the need to focus on diversity, especially because “an explicit goal of the Infosys Prize is to put people up as role models for young Indians — and this means not only the boys.” He wished to reassure those concerned that the jurors were balanced in terms of gender. However, it must be pointed out that in the 11 years of the prize’s existence, there has never been a woman chairing any of the juries.
More reassuringly, Sur went on to articulate the vicious circle that acts as a hurdle in the pursuit of gender balance in science awards. “If the nominations are not there, you can’t pick a winner. But for nominations to be there, there has to be a pool of talented women whose work is recognised, and for this, women need to get the job, they need the resources to make the scientific discoveries. More women in the scientific population is better for Indian science. Science cannot be done by 50% of the population!”
The writers are core members of the feminist science media collective TheLifeofScience.com