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Top honour for 2 Indian American scientists

March 01, 2011 20:26 IST

Two Indian American scientists -- Dr Romesh C Batra and Dr Kodi S Ravichandran -- were among the four Outstanding Scientists of 2011 honoured with the Governor's Award for Science Innovation by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

Batra is the Clifton C Garvin Professor of engineering science and mechanics, Virginia Tech, while Ravichandran is the Harrison distinguished teaching professor of microbiology, chairman, department of microbiology, and director, centre of cell clearance at the University of Virginia.

They received their awards last month at the Science Museum of Virginia's general assembly reception in Richmond.

Batra is a world leader in the science of failure of materials exposed to extreme loads like those produced by roadside bombs, better known as improvised explosive devices. The National Research Council invited him to evaluate research from the army's Warhead Mechanics and Survivability and Lethality directorates.

His pioneering work has wide-ranging applications in defence and civilian industries, including improved bullet-proof vests, lightweight composite helmets, tank walls, shields to protect vehicles against blast loads, goggles, windshields and boats exposed to underwater explosions.

The impact of his work is also seen in the development of computational tools and mathematical models for a company to analyse damage from bird strikes to aircraft engine blades and quantification of damage in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's solar probe panels and cooling system caused by the impact of dust particles travelling at 300 miles per second.

Ravichandran, whose peers call him a 'superstar', is a leader of research on how our bodies remove approximately a million cells per second without harm. Failure to promptly remove dying cells is linked to chronic inflammation, developmental defects, auto-immune diseases, including lupus and arthritis, and atherosclerosis.

Ravichandran's laboratory addresses cell clearance, from how a dying cell 'advertises' its presence to phagocytes (other healthy cells that eat dying ones), how phagocytes specifically recognise dead cells and how a phagocyte digests the ingested cargo.

In the past year, Ravichandran's laboratory has identified a new type of 'find me' signal released by dying cells, identified the cell membrane gate through which the signals are released, defined the importance for an engulfment protein called ELMO1 in cell clearance, and identified new players within the phagocyte important for digesting the dying cells.

Batra, who says he "developed a passion for teaching and sharing knowledge with others during my high school and college days," is an alumnus of the Thapar Institute of Engineering and Technology in Patiala, Punjab.

He recalls how "with a lot of luck and without taking TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and GRE (Graduation Record Examination) examinations, I received a graduate research assistantship from the University of Waterloo, Canada, to pursue studies from my Master's degree."

His interest in continuum mechanics propelled him to apply to the Johns Hopkins University for his doctorate.

"That was one of the most fortunate and riskiest decisions of my life," Batra said, adding, "My training at Hopkins instilled in me a love of research and discovery to the point that I abandoned my goal of returning to Thapar College and made the United States my home."

For the last 35 years -- 15 of them at Virginia Tech -- he has challenged students to analyse real world problems and, based on students' evaluation of instructors, has always been on the Virginia Tech dean's list of excellent teachers.

"My classroom philosophy in sharing knowledge with students has been to treat them as colleagues, stress fundamentals, and challenge them to apply basic concepts to real-world problems," said Batra, who last year received the Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award sponsored by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

In 2009, Batra won the Engineering Science Medal from the Society of Engineering Science for his singular work on material failure and also received the Lee Hsun Research Award from the Chinese Academy of Sciences for his work on understanding material behaviour under explosive loads.

Ravichandran is an alumnus of the Madras Veterinary College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from where he received his PhD, followed by post-doctoral studies at the Harvard Medical School. He called the governor's award "a truly wonderful recognition to the students and post-doctoral fellows who performed the work that formed the basis for this award."

Moving to the US in 1987, after his PhD and post-doctoral studies he joined the UVA as an assistant professor in 1996 and moved up the ranks to be a full professor and also chair the department of microbiology and head the centre for cell clearance.

The award, he added, "also brings recognition to the University of Virginia, which has been my home for the past 15 years."

Image: Dr Romesh C Batra (Left) and Dr Kodi S Ravichandran (Right)


Aziz Haniffa