A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
The Tata Institute of Fundemental Research campus in Mumbai.
I sincerely believe that this Institute can make a great contribution to the scientific knowledge of mankind.... You may perhaps feel that advanced physics, mathematics, astrophysics are particularly abstract subjects, research in which is unlikely to produce material or practical results within a reasonable period of time, I should, however, like to point out that most of the great practical advances in science, and, therefore, in industry, have had their origins in fundamental research, without which they would have been impossible or would have been long delayed.
Excerpted from J.R.D. Tata's letter to an industrialist friend seeking support for the TIFR venture in 1945.
NOW in its seventh decade, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) has emerged as a premier research institution. Founded as a national centre for the study of nuclear science and mathematics, the institute has, over the years, fulfilled its mission of producing internationally acclaimed basic research, with its activity spanning all branches of natural, mathematical and computer sciences, as well as providing science education.
One of its thrust areas has been the training of young scientists, an activity that is considered an integral part of the academic pursuits at the institute. TIFR's Graduate Programme leads to the award of a master's degree in science and a doctorate. The institute got deemed university status in 2003.
Students at the master's level or its equivalent apply for the positions of research scholars at the institute. After a rigorous procedure, about 100 students are selected for the training programme. They begin work on original research projects under the guidance of institute members, leading to the submission by each of a Ph.D. thesis.
The thorough grounding offered by the institute is evident in some of the outstanding work produced by these students. For example, Poonam Chandra, a graduate student in astrophysics, contributed significantly to the discovery of `the most violent explosion in our galaxy in the past 100 years'. This work, made possible by the Giant Metre-Wave Radio Telescope (GMRT) of TIFR, was published in Nature magazine this year.
Incidentally, the GMRT itself is a unique research facility located in Narayangaon near Pune. It consists of 30 fully steerable gigantic parabolic dishes, each with a diameter of 45 metres. The dishes are placed over an area of 25 square kilometres, forming an incongruous landscape of vineyards interspersed with gigantic dish antennas. The GMRT, a challenging experimental programme in basic sciences, is used to investigate the epoch of structure formation in the universe and to study millisecond pulsars. It is operated by the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, one of the TIFR's three national centres, located in Pune. Established in the early 1960s, the centre has considerable expertise in the design and construction of radio telescopes, including the control of large antennas.
In a completely unrelated area of microscopic proportion, namely living cells, the significant discoveries of graduate students Pranav Sharma, Rajat Varma, Sarasij and Ira on the properties of cell surfaces were published in Nature and the prestigious biology journal Cell in recent years. Incidentally, it appears that theirs is the first research piece from India to be published in Cell.
Dr. Homi J. Bhabha showing N.A. Bulganin, Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, and N.S. Khrushchev, member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, a model of the central laboratory of the TIFR, during their visit to the institute in November 1955.
Another arm of the TIFR, the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, is engaged in basic research in the frontier areas of biology, which include biochemistry, biophysics and bioinformatics; genetics and development; cellular organisation and signalling; and neurobiology. Additional research is planned in the current areas, in plant biology, and in emerging areas at the interface of biology and the physical sciences.
The TIFR's research effort in key areas of theoretical science is strong. The Theoretical Physics group studies condensed-matter systems such as superconductors, the physics of elementary particles produced at accelerators, and the study of quantum gravitation and black holes via String Theory. Its School of Mathematics has important mathematical theorems in diverse areas to its credit. It also publishes technical monographs and is an important centre for international conferences.
One of the unique features of the TIFR is the presence of many disciplines under one roof, a testament to the eclectic interests and versatility of its founder, Homi J. Bhabha. "There are some areas of study that are unique to the TIFR. Globally speaking, we are at the frontier in nanoscience and nanotechnology, in interdisciplinary research in the fields of biology, chemistry and physics, and in our work with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope," says its Director, Professor S. Bhattacharya.
A unique aspect of study at the TIFR is the interdisciplinary research that happens between physics, chemistry and biology. Prof. G. Krishnamoorthy, the Dean of Graduate Studies and whose research is also of an interdisciplinary nature, points out that such studies are gaining momentum in the TIFR. Some of the quick examples drawn by him include cross talk between synthetic polymer chemists and semiconductor physicists in developing new age electronic display devices; between ultra-fast laser spectroscopists on the one hand and molecular biologists and cell biologists on the other in addressing problems such as recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and repair and mapping of neurotransmitters and their dynamics in live cells; between high resolution NMR spectroscopists and molecular biologists in seeking the basis of biological reactivity; between cell biologists and immunologists and optical physicists in their quest to understand the mechanical properties of cells; between material scientists and ultra high-power laser physicists in finding exotic phenomena such as hard X-ray generation from nanoparticles. He also says that having all branches of science under one roof generates interdisciplinary collaboration as researchers from several disciplines see each other every day. This ideal climate, which is one of the hallmarks of the TIFR, is now being emulated in several large campuses both in India and abroad.
However, the question of how a protein polymer with a given sequence of amino acids folds into a well-defined structure remains unsolved. This `protein folding' problem has attracted some of the best minds from a variety of fields and is a sure example of the success of interdisciplinary research. At the TIFR, collaboration between molecular biologists and laser spectroscopists has resulted in several breakthroughs in understanding the details of protein folding and protein aggregation leading to fibril formation. Such studies have immediate medical implications in the search for cures for neurodegenerative diseases caused by misfolding of proteins.
In a molecular biology laboratory at the TIFR.
The TIFR has been actively involved in science education. Every summer, it runs a six-week Visiting Students Research Programme, providing an opportunity for undergraduates to participate in research activities. Those who perform exceptionally well are invited to join the institute as Research Scholars on completion of their degree.
The TIFR also has a more fundamental engagement with science education. The Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), one of the TIFR's national centres, is devoted to curriculum development, to the promotion of excellence in science and mathematics education, and to the popularisation of science. "We have two basic aims," says HBCSE Director Professor Arvind Kumar, "promoting equity in terms of the universalisation of science and mathematics for all and promoting excellence via the Olympiads and the National Initiative on Undergraduate Science (NIUS). Our aims of equity and excellence complement each other." Over the years the centre has become a successful training ground for students who participate in International Olympiads in physics, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry and biology.
The HBCSE lays special emphasis on the problems of the underprivileged. Some years ago, along with the Department of Tribal Welfare, it initiated a five-year Ashram school project in which tribal teachers were trained in teaching science and mathematics and passing on the benefits to tribal students. Similarly, the HBCSE has created techniques to improve the learning and retention capacity of underperforming students. It has contributed significantly to textbook writing at the national and State levels. It carried out extensive fieldwork in rural, semi-urban and urban areas and has a strong collaborative programme with several national networks. Currently, the HBCSE is working on developing a science curriculum for schools. The primary curriculum is complete and work has begun on the secondary school level curriculum. The HBCSE has a component of science popularisation in which mobile exhibitions and low-cost laboratories are used to bring science alive to young people.
Bhattacharya cites a "basic ethos of good people and good science infrastructure" as the reasons for TIFR's reputation as one of the best research institutes in the country. Those associated with it maintain that it is "one of the most exciting places for scientific research".
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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