Scientists take to the ramp
(appeared in Nov 2015)

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A group of young researchers displayed their skills in reaching out to the scientifically untutored at the India finals of Science Slam at Bengaluru on Friday, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

Science Slam is an international science communication competition that is conducted by EURAXESS, a European Union funded resource of information and support to researchers who are working or intending to work in Europe. The competition challenges young scientists to create a live, multimedia assisted presentation which captures the interest of a mixed audience and explains an area of research to them in simple language with precision and imagination. The contest, which is in its third year, is open to early career researchers in any discipline, including social sciences and humanities. Winners are selected from each of six regions - ASEAN, India, Japan, China, Brazil and North America - and the winner in each region travels to Europe to work and interact in one of Europe’s top research institutes.

The inspiration, as (Ms) Ainhitze Bizkarralegorra Bravo, EURAXESS country head, Denis Dambois, Head of research and innovation, EU delegation to India and Arnab Bhattacharya, scientist and science communicator at TIFR, Mumbai explained, was to get scientists to move out of their labs and talk to common people in ways that common people would understand, so that everybody could share in the work of scientists, and, as Arnab put it, people could know where their taxes were going.

The live event in the auditorium of Alliance Française at Bengaluru was the finals of the contest for India, after many rounds of review of videos of presentations by researchers from all parts of the country. The finals were judged not by the review committee, but by the live audience, consisting of students, other researchers, teachers, industry persons and also persons from other walks of life. The grading was in respect of clarity, structure, imagination and creativity and originality.

A brief account of the presentations of the six finalists follows.

K K N Anbuselvan from Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru opened with asking who in the audience would like to travel in space. While there were many daring ones who responded, Anbuselvan wished them a happy flight, but said that the re-entry to the earth was perhaps more challenging. This brought him to the topic of his work, the heat generated when a spacecraft returns to the earth. Although the atmosphere is thin at high altitudes, the returning craft moves so fast that the temperature rises to many thousand degrees, which no known material can stand for long. But the instruments in the craft, as well as the astronauts are protected by the ‘heat shield’ which has special refractories and insulators. At these temperatures, Anbuselvan explained, the molecules in the air broke up into bits of charged particles, and the flow of these charges jammed radio communications anyway.

The subject of his research, Anbuselvan explained, was to see if the heat shield could be magnetised so that it affected the flow of charged particles, which could lead to less generation of heat. Theory said this could be done, but they were working on doing it in practice, Anbuselvan said.

Sumeet Kulkarni from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research and also Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, both at Pune, works in the area of detecting gravity waves. Sumeet explained Einstein’s conception of the force of gravity being in fact a distortion of the fabric of space, due the presence of bodies that have mass. And when masses moved back and forth, or oscillated, Sumeet said, they set off feeble waves of gravity. But these were feeble indeed, even when the objects were the most massive in the universe, the black holes or neutron stars, the changes in distance because of the gravity waves were of the order of a millionth of the billionth of a millimeter. Measuring such a change, to check if it happened at the time a pair of black holes somewhere in the universe had collided and exploded, called for an arrangement with sensors placed over 3,000 km apart, an arrangement called LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). And as a blip in the distance being measured could occur at any instant, LIGO was linked to synchronised telescopes, to catch a visual glimpse of the fleeting cosmic event, Sumeet explained.

from Ashoka University, Sonepat, studies the nature of dysnomia, or a marked difficulty in remembering names, which could be an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Abhilasha explained that objective testing for memory loss was not possible through recall of general lists of objects, words, etc, but had to be in respect of what actually mattered to individuals, A special software package, called CELL, developed by Stanford University, was able to analyse the email record of a person to arrive at a list of words whose recall could more accurately reflect the working of the person’s memory. A great problem in Alzheimer’s disease was that physical changes were at advanced stages by the time they were detected. The use of CELL may be able to clinically detect dysnomia or features of memory loss at the very early stages, to help possible victims of Alzheimer’s to take measures to adapt, and hopefully to alleviate symptoms, Abhilasha said.

Varsha Varnakantha from National Institute of Nutrition, at Hyderabad, works on genetic features that make persons likely to develop high blood pressure. Varsha explained that more than 25 of Indians suffered from this disease. Moreover, she said, one positive role played by Vitamin D, in which 68.5% of Indians were deficient, was to control blood pressure. Varsha then explained that the tendency to lack Vitamin D was associated with features in certain portions of the DNA. DNA profiling of persons may then be a good way to alert those at risk and help them take measures like exercise and exposure to sunlight, she said.

Naresh Salokar, of the Central Institute for Research on Buffaloes, Hissar, is in the work animal cloning to make the best stud bull available to the dairy industry. It was by selecting the best mate for the female buffalo that the best quality and quantity of milk could be assured, Naresh said. The audience was visibly surprised to hear that the prize bull from the Sonepat Institute was valued at seven crore and that a price of 25 lakh had been paid for female buffalo.

As the prices would indicate, the best strains of buffalos and particularly studs were in short supply, he said. The institute was hence perfecting the techniques of transferring genetic material body cells of prize stock, into egg cells from a female, to create embryos that would grow to term.

Souvik Mandal from the centre for ecology at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru described his work on how the common wasp is able to find its way back to its nest. Unlike the bee, which was a honey collector, which moved from flower beds to the nest, the wasp was a predator who found prey over a wide area and its navigation, usually over distances of 300 to 500 metres, was more complex, Souvik said. The wasp was even able to get back to the nest when released 1,000 meters away, he said. Considering the size of the wasp, such a distance was like 175 km for a human, he said.

Souvik described his research, which was by marking wasps with coloured spots and then releasing them at different places, and then to take a census when they were back in the nest. He described a spiral flight pattern of the wasp as it moved away from the nest, which helped it navigate. It was also found that wasps appeared more confident when they were in familiar surroundings and also as they grew older, he said.

The research has the potential of showing how the simple brain of the wasp functions, which would have lessons for application in other navigational problems, Souvik said.

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