In identifying molecular biologist Mihir Metkar as the primary contributor to its Covid-19 vaccine, the pharmaceutical company Moderna has underscored multi-decadal and seminal contributions of Indian Americans to the world of science. Given the nature of their work, thousands of Indian American scientists have been making transformative contributions away from the media glare.
Some of those contributions have been described in a recently released book Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans. From pioneering the theory of loop quantum gravity, as in the case of Dr. Abhay Ashtekar, to engineering oil-eating bacteria, as by the late Dr. Ananda Chakrabarty, and from monitoring a rover on Mars, as in the case of Dr. Ashwin Vasavada of NASA, to interpreting the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis, as in the case of the late Nobel laureate Dr. Har Gobind Khorana, Indian American scientists have straddled an astonishing range of breakthroughs in pure and applied sciences.
Dr. Metkar’s contribution to the Moderna Covid vaccine is just the latest example in a long series of often unheralded work that these scientists and engineers have done. So widespread and so regular have their contributions that as a group of professionals, they have become a cliché in the best possible sense of the word.
It is a measure of their standing in their chosen fields that at least three of them are Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, and medicine, one of them often regarded by the scientific community as the most likely recipient of it for physics and several others with major honors already attached to their names.
The grandest of all of course was the late Dr. Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, the 1983 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.” Chandra, as he was popularly known, was recognized for his work in what the Nobel Prize committee described thus: “Stars in the universe form from clouds of gas and dust. When these clouds are pulled together by gravitational force, energy is released in the form of heat. And when a high enough temperature is reached, reactions among the atomic nuclei in the star’s interior begin. Beginning in the 1930s, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar formulated theories for the development that stars subsequently undergo. He showed that when the hydrogen fuel of stars of a certain size begins to run out, it collapses into a compact, brilliant star known as a white dwarf.”
This is how Chandra recalled the beginning of his life in America in his Nobel Prize biography: “I took my Ph.D. degree at Cambridge in the summer of 1933. In the following October, I was elected to a Prize Fellowship at Trinity College for the period 1933-37. During my Fellowship years at Trinity, I formed lasting friendships with several, including Sir Arthur Eddington and Professor E.A. Milne. While on a short visit to Harvard University (in Cambridge, Massachusetts), at the invitation of the then Director, Dr. Harlow Shapley, during the winter months (January-March) of 1936, I was offered a position as a Research Associate at the University of Chicago by Dr. Otto Struve and President Robert Maynard Hutchins. I joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in January 1937. And I have remained at this University ever since.”
His association with the University of Chicago remained until his death on August 21, 1995, spending nearly six decades of exceptionally productive and diverse work in various branches of physics. Apart from numerous research papers, Chandra wrote ten books. He also served as the editor of the prominent Astrophysical Journal for nineteen years. It was in 1999, four years after his death that NASA launched Chandra, an X-ray observatory named in his honor. The observatory studies the universe in the X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Interestingly and notwithstanding Dr. Chandrasekhar’s standing as one of the foremost physicists/scientists of the 20th century, another brilliant mind from India won a Nobel Prize a decade and a half before he did. It was Dr. Har Gobind Khorana. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1968 was awarded jointly to Robert W. Holley, Har Gobind Khorana, and Marshall W. Nirenberg “for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.”
Twelve years younger than Chandra, who was born October 19, 1910, Dr. Khorana too received a Government of India Fellowship which made it possible for him to travel to England and study for a Ph. D. degree at the University of Liverpool.
After some job and country hopping, which took him to Vancouver in Canada first, then back to India for a while, he eventually came to America in 1960 when he joined the Institute for Enzyme Research at the University of Wisconsin. By the time of his arrival in America, his interest in both proteins and nucleic acids took root at that time had already struck roots for about a decade starting in Cambridge. It was that work that led him to his Nobel Prize.
The third Nobel prize winner from the community is of relatively recent vintage. It was in 2009 that Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was awarded jointly along with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”
The Royal Society, which is a fellowship of some of the world’s most eminent scientists where he was elected president in 2015 for a five-year-term, describes his work thus: “As the site within living cells where the genetic information is read to synthesize proteins from amino acids, improved understanding of the ribosome has yielded many fundamental biological insights.
He determined the atomic structure of the 30S ribosomal subunit followed by structures of the entire ribosome in many different states and in complexes with several antibiotics. More recently, he has been using electron microscopy to visualize ribosomes in action in higher organisms. This work has advanced our understanding of how the ribosome works and how antibiotics inhibit it. In the past, he has also worked on histone and chromatin structure, which help us to understand how DNA is organized in cells.”
Dr. Ramakrishnan divides his time between the United Kingdom and the United States. His has been an interesting disciplinary shift from being a physicist to a biologist to a chemist. He has been quoted in interviews as saying, “No physicist today would call me a physicist. I have trained in physics a long time ago.” Not having done physics for over four decades and not having been a practicing physicist he has said chemistry is a very broad discipline that connects at one end with physics and the other with biology. He calls himself a molecular biologist. “To do molecular biology you have to know some chemistry but again hardcore chemists would not accept me as a chemist,” he has said.
Dr. Ramakrishnan’s early interest was in mathematics and physics but he said recognized that he perhaps did not have it in him to become a top-tier mathematician or a physicist. After his graduation from the University in Ohio as a 19-year-old, he shifted his focus to biology and went to the University of California in San Diego.
“Making a fundamental breakthrough in physics is very difficult. Back in the mid-1970s, there were really no major conceptual advances. Meanwhile, every issue of the Scientific American that I read had a report about some major breakthrough in biology,” he said during a lecture at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai in January 2020. Even though he considers himself “a failed physician”, his change of discipline to molecular biology and chemistry paid off eventually winning him the Nobel Prize.
In terms of Dr. Ramakrishnan’s observations about physics, while there are those who believe that physics has hit a sort of a dead-end in the past few decades, there are also those who have pursued new fundamental areas with extraordinary passion. One physicist whose name stands out and is often considered to be in contention for a Nobel Prize is that of Dr. Abhay Ashtekar, a theoretical physicist and the 2018 winner of the prestigious Einstein Prize given by the American Physical Society (APS).
Over four decades after he began his scientific engagement with gravitational science, Professor Ashtekar was honored by the APS “For numerous and seminal contributions to general relativity, including the theory of black holes, canonical quantum gravity, and quantum cosmology.”
Dr. Ashtekar is currently a professor of physics, Evan Pugh Professor, Holder, Eberly Chair, and director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos at the Pennsylvania State University.
It is a measure of Dr. Ashtekar’s standing that Sir Roger Penrose, regarded as one of the foremost physicists of our time and the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics at age 89, has described the Indian American scientist’s work in loop quantum gravity in his best-seller “The Road to Reality” thus: “I must say that both the Ashtekar variables and the later description in terms of loop variables strike to me as powerful and highly original developments in the quest of the quantum theory of gravity. … In fact I have little hesitation to say that these developments are the most important ones in the canonical approach to quantum gravity that started roughly half a century ago by (Paul) Dirac and others.”. Elsewhere, he has called Loop Quantum gravity the most promising approach he has seen to quantum gravity.
From loop quantum gravity to oil-eating bacteria is quite a leap but Indian American scientists have taken that as well. Among those pursuing this field, perhaps the most notable has been the late Professor Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, known as the “superbug superhero.”
During his many interactions with the author, Dr. Chakrabarty was always passionate about the need to seek new frontiers constantly. “Science is about being never sitting idle because it is just a never-ending quest,” he would say. For him, that quest began in 1971 while working at the General Electric Research and Development Center. Working on a method of genetic cross-linking, he ended up with a way to transfer genes that would help degrade oil; hence the name “oil-eating bacteria.”
He used what is known as a plasmid transfer technique which led to a new stable bacterial species that was called Pseudomonas putida. Dr. Chakrabarty called it a “multi-plasmid hydrocarbon-degrading Pseudomonas”. What was extraordinary about this particular bacteria was that it was capable of eating up two-thirds of hydrocarbons found in a typical oil spill at a much faster rate, about one or two orders of magnitudes, than previously existing strains of oil-eating microbes. In a sense, Dr. Chakrabarty’s bacteria used fuel oil as its nutrient.
“This was too me applied science at its best. I understood the implications quickly but then it was a long legal fight,” he said.
The long legal fight that he referred to, in fact, became a very significant precedent in America. As described by the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), where he was an Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, “By 1980, the eight-year-long process to patent the evolved strain of Pseudomonas ended in the U.S. Supreme Court. The then-novel problem of patenting a living cell led to the famous 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case called “Diamond v. Chakrabarty,” which opened the door for subsequent patenting of recombinant microbes as well as higher organisms.
In June, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., hosted a multi-speaker conference on the 40th anniversary of this ruling that began with a brief oral presentation by Chakrabarty. The Chakrabarty patent was of immense importance for the growth of biotechnology companies.”
The university tribute also noted this, “Chakrabarty’s fame as the name on the first patent for a recombinant microbe led to a second career as an expert and lecturer on legal issues of patenting and intellectual property rights of biological significance. He sat on many American and international committees and taught in workshops for American and international judges on these matters. For his achievements in genetic engineering technology, he was awarded the prestigious civilian Padma Shri by the government of India in 2007. He was for many years a global roving ambassador for UIC.
In recent decades, Chakrabarty’s favorite Pseudomonas cells were the source of small extracellular proteins, especially azurin, as anticancer pharmaceuticals. His work in this area was published in research journals and books, presented in meetings, and developed by start-up companies.”
By the time he died at age 82 on July 10, 2020, Prof. Chakrabarty had put in six decades in scientific research on the cutting edge of his chosen field. “We Indians seem to have a particular knack to grapple with these challenges. It is a pity that doing science in India has always been so hard. That explains why so many Indians distinguish themselves abroad, especially here in America in a vast diversity of fields, including far away from Earth,” he said.
Speaking of Indian Americans doing science far away from Earth, for NASA planetary scientist Ashwin Vasavada, work on average is about 225 million kilometers away.
Sometimes it moves as far as over 400 million kilometers. It is a good thing Dr. Vasavada does not have to travel to Mars where NASA’s most ambitious mission to date, the $2.5 billion Curiosity Mission, is digging rock and soil samples.
With a BS in Geophysics and Space Physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in Planetary Science, California Institute of Technology, Dr. Vasavada is now in the midst of what could potentially upend our definitions of life. Dr. Vasavada is among the new young generation of Indian American scientists doing exciting work.
As someone engaged in the geologic studies of Mars with regard to surface properties, volatiles, and climate history, he is at the cutting edge of finding out whether Mars ever had or has habitable environments capable of supporting microbial life.
As the Deputy Project Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission with its Curiosity Rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, he helps lead an international team of over 400 scientists.
A son of Gujarati parents, who came to America in the 1950s, Dr. Vasavada very nearly chose a career in music over science, but in the end, his parents persuaded him otherwise.
Excerpts from Dr Vasavada’s interview which was done in two parts, one when the Curiosity Rover had landed in 2013 and again in 2014. It was updated again earlier in July 2020.
Asked what has been the most exciting find or high for the Curiosity Rover, Dr. Vasavada said, “Curiosity determined that Mars once was a habitable planet. It explored the site of an ancient lake, where the water was fresh and abundant, and other chemicals necessary for life were present. Since then, we’ve spent a year driving toward Mt Sharp, a 5-km high mountain. Along the way, we’ve found more and more evidence for rivers and lakes in the ancient past. Everywhere we look, there are sandstones deposited by flowing water, and pebbles rounded by rolling in streams.”
In terms of the eventual colonization of Mars, whenever that might happen, how would we look back at the Curiosity and Opportunity missions? “In one sense, we’ll look back to Curiosity and Opportunity as the pioneers that preceded us. On Earth, our early explorers were other humans. In our exploration of the solar system, we send robots like Curiosity ahead of us. In another sense, we’ll look back at these robots as scientists aiming to understand whether life ever existed on Mars. By the time we colonize Mars, it will be too late. The moment the first human sets down on Mars, we likely will no longer be able to detect traces of Mars life apart from our own contamination,” he says.
From Mars as part of our solar system and therefore our universe, Indian American scientists have also been involved in ideas that may seem bizarre. For instance, as cosmic discoveries go, not much can get bigger than possibly detecting another universe. Observational cosmologist, Dr. Ranga-Ram Chary has been in science headlines lately for a discovery that may well turn out to point at an alternate universe, apart from the one that we live in.
After studying data of a period of the universe barely 270,000 years after the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago, Dr. Chary says it is hard to imagine that there is not another universe. A researcher at the U.S. Planck Data Center in Pasadena, California, Dr. Chary, who grew up in Delhi and spent his early years in the Indian capital, has detected a glow in certain regions of the nascent universe that is 4500 times brighter than what theory predicts. One very likely explanation of the glow is that it could be light from a neighboring universe leaking into our own.
The era of the universe, that Dr. Chary studied by using a detailed map of the cosmic microwave background (CMB)* created by the Planck telescope is called recombination. It was a time when electrons and protons combined to create hydrogen and in the process emitted light. While that light would be necessarily faint, what Dr. Chary found were spots that were markedly brighter, prompting the possibility of another universe.
The list of Indian American scientists is a long and distinguished one and it keeps strengthening every year. Perhaps the most important measure of that is the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers which was founded by President Bill Clinton and continues as a practice. Year after year Indian American scientists are routinely featured in this list. Considering that the Indian American population, at about four million, is barely one percent of America’s total population, their high presence in such lists and honors, not to mention their truly transformative contributions, is an exceptional accomplishment.
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Mayank Chhaya is a respected journalist and writer with close to four decades of reporting out of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the United States. He has reported all major news stories out of India since 1982. He is a widely published commentator on global affairs but in particular on South Asian and Sino-Tibetan affairs.
This article was edited by Tarun Basu. He is a media veteran of over 40 years, having worked with both national and international media houses. Most recently, he is the editor of Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans.