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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Indian-origin Physicist with roots from Chennai, who wanted to play cricket, up for this year's Nobel?

He had hopes of becoming a cricketer when young (and a wicketkeeper at that!), and even got into serious league level playoffs. However, fortune had different plans for Dr. Ramamoorthy Ramesh, a Professor at UC Berkeley. He ended up making great contributions in scientific research and getting international acclaim for his work on complex materials, more specifically in the area of complex multifunctional oxide thin films, nanostructures, and hetero-structures.

A graduate from Vivekananda College, Chennai, India, he got a further degree in metallurgy from the famed Indian Institute of Science, where he briefly worked on superconductivity. Later, he went on to get his PhD from UC Berkeley in Material Science and has never looked back since. Some of the implications of his work have led to materials used in Solar nanotechnology, Memory drives used in computers, and other similar products.  
Dr. Ramamoorthy Ramesh (Center), one of the leading contenders for this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Image source: Thomson Reuters
Currently his name is one among this year’s top seven possible Nobel contenders in Physics, according to the annual list of citation laureates prepared by Thomson Reuters. They have, so far, accurately forecast 35 Nobel Prize winners since its inception in 2002. The annual Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates Study mines scientific research citations to identify the most influential researchers in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine and economics.

In an exclusive video-chat with Dr. Natarajan Ganesan, a Biomedical research scientist and founder of 'Scientists of Indian Origin', Dr. Ramesh spoke at length about his roots from Chennai, his journey to the United States in pursuit of higher studies, and eventual entry into the world of science that has ranged from magnetic materials to high temperature superconductors and beyond.

“Keep your ears open”

“My impression is… the actual discovery is accidental. You just have to be ready for it” said Dr. Ramesh while trying to elaborate on the process of discovery.  When asked if the discoveries he made so far were accidental OR a matter of observational co-incidence he said, on a contemplative note, that it’s a combination of both; and that it was quite hard to separate the two.  Focusing on the need to be aware which area to further pursue while working on a phenomenon is also very key to the process of making new discoveries, he said. For example, his monumental work on the phenomenon of ‘Colossal magnetoresistance’ (CMR), was a result of shifting the focus from working on the oxides of some metals to their properties on ‘colossal behavior’.

When asked specifically about reports of his contributions to the development of better memory drives used in computers, he went back to his days in the early 90s with Bellcore (now Telecordia Technologies) when he was working on ways to expand upon his theoretical work. Having also been an engineer for the better part of his career, one of his motivating factors was ‘what cool things could one do if your research work was successful’. Working on real world problems such as the reliability of data storage systems, one thing led to another when he started getting ‘right kind of data’ for not so right hypothesis. “You just got to look out” he said casually.

For the younger generation

Dr. Ramesh was very unassuming when asked for any specific words of advice to the younger generation of researchers wanting to get into scientific exploration. “Doing science is a lot of fun” he said and added further that, “sometimes you got to work long hours” but “in the end the process is very rewarding”.  However, he also gently reminded that “we do not make too much money” “but we enjoy what we do”.

Indian roots and the guiding philosophy

Dr. Ramesh had his basic education in Chennai, India before moving to United States for further research. Originally hailing from Thanjavur (near Mayavaram and Kumbakonam), his parents had a high school education. He also has a sister who has a PhD in Microbiology. However, his busy lifestyle has not made him lose his connections with his family and cultural roots. In fact, he equates the molecular nature of his work on complex materials to that of Indian families, with “million different cousins, grandmothers and aunts”. Though remarking in jest, he goes on to give the exact nature of the analogy with ease.

With an apparent interest in Carnatic music, he equated the discovery process to the discovery of a new raga. To illustrate further he said, “Let me give you an example… If you are a Lalgudi Jayaraman (who passed away not too recently)… you play the instrument 8 hours a day”. He went to add that In the process of such a rigor and training, if one were to keep the ears tuned, you either discover a new raga OR a new phenomenon (as was in his case). When asked about the possible nomination for this year’s prize in Physics, he remarked philosophically ‘Karmanyevaadhikaaraste…’ (कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते…) (Quoting from the Bhagavad Gita), thus summarizing his entire attitude towards research and not expecting much from the fruits of his labor. On a professional level, he continues to maintain connections with his research colleagues and scientists back home in India, sometimes on a daily basis.

(c) Copyright - . All rights reserved. No part of this posted material may be used without direct consent from the author - Natarajan Ganesan

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bringing science closer by 2030, one endeavor at a time...

Image Credits: Adapted from Wikipedia
and with permission from Endeavorist
I clearly remember the Y2K happening, and wondering what lay ahead, as the century was giving way to another. Suddenly, more than a decade passed by, and we are nearly getting to half past the next. Lots of things happened in that span of time; from world events like ‘September 11’ and ‘Arab spring’, to tech booms that changed the world, like iPhonefacebook and #socialmedia. In the meanwhile, I moved on from lab research to doing things on my own, making stuff on the web for genetics and #genomics-research. Today I see the globe connected in ways more than I could have ever imagined as a grad student. People are already beginning to talk of #2030now as the next milestone.
So that leads me to think...(and you may join me in this thought process). By 2030, what positive things would have happened that we wouldn't have dreamed of by now? What will today's smartphones, apps and video games give way to? How are we going to further harness the power of social media than exchanging quotes from Warren Buffet and his likes (OK! I meant it in jest. I actually admire him). How can we gather more hands and minds to do cool new things? The power of technology is evidencing itself in more ways than I could have imagined. Yet, I see the need to do more relevant things.
One among the next wave I see, is the power of #crowdfunding. Social media is quickly getting to be a thing of the past. Crowdfunding is the future. In case you didn't know what this word meant, just search the internet. You will quickly gather how it represents the power of each cent and dollar, using the reach of social media, from each person around the globe. These efforts are beginning to see many small projects fruitioning to the level where bigger investors can step in. Thanks to the #2012JobsAct, a wider pool of investors could now be able to participate with lesser restrictions. Yes! This needs further fine-tuning, but this is one positive change I see, which is beginning to define the next couple of decades.
What does all of this have to do with Science? Well... science is more than just making new medicines or space toys. It could also be things that are more mundane, yet so relevant. A school teacher somewhere may wish to build a model for his project; another person somewhere in the world might wish to build a well for his village, while another may dream of preserving the local flora and fauna by creating an info-base. A researcher like me could think of making a cool newinteractive app for cancer patients to assist their near and dear in making more informed decisions (something I badly needed not too recently). All these could benefit greatly from the power of crowdfunding. Recently, I chipped in my own couple of dollars to fund a school project called Aera, from Stamford, CT. The project wanted to use high altitude balloons to both study high altitude life and encourage the pursuit of aerospace science. Just that! A dream by two high school students. Nothing big here! However, all these #endeavors go a long way in kindling that scientific temper. All this, through the power of crowdfunding and social media. Not just any crowfunding platform, but something powered by the #endeavorist (I like that word) in each of us.
And, that brings me to science-centric crowdfunding. All of us love carrying out or supporting those cool little projects like what I described above. But, what if I needed something beyond money? An extra pair of hands for a community science project; some mentor-like support from experts whose profiles I already checked out? Suddenly, we are talking of blending social media, crowdfunding and professional networking. This is where I see some trendsetting approaches happening, and very soon too. Like I used the word before, 'Endeavorist' is an emerging platform that aims to blend these experiences together. I expect platforms like these to make a more positive difference around the globe. Now, that might make some Miss World like hopes and statements a few steps closer to reality.
These are just some of my thoughts for #2030now. What are yours?

(c) Copyright - . All rights reserved. No part of this posted material may be used without direct consent from the author - Natarajan Ganesan