Nature India | Indigenus

A grain of truth

Idlies not only belong to society but to science too. A well-fed scientist may churn out more discoveries than a starving one.  What is the point of science if it can’t give back to society solutions to the miseries plaguing it?

Runner-up, Nature India Essay Contest 2020

Kavitha with a (hopefully) fluffy dosa.

Kavitha Sankaranarayanan

Unkempt hair, shabby clothes, huge spectacles precariously perched over the nose, a disoriented look, one who prefers agarose-gels to beauty-gels, who trouble-shoots experiments instead of shooting goals on the field — the societal image of a scientist, though perceived as madness by the majority has still caught the reverie of a few like me.

I still vividly remember my interaction with a ten-year-old on potential career choices. Being a freshly minted scientist then, I felt it was my responsibility to help him make an informed decision, and thus possibly inspire a potential future Nobel Laureate (My mission – win the Nobel and inspire others into making the plunge into the fascinating world of science). With gusto, I sat upright and asked him “How about becoming a scientist?” He replied instantly “Hey no no…”. I was shocked. I think suggesting becoming a criminal might have evoked a less contempt on his little innocent face. This awakened me to the perception of scientists by the society. (Note to reader: This boy now aspires to become an aerospace scientist, so my chance at having inspired a potential Nobel Laureate still lives on).

Back then, the scientific community was isolated in its own niche and considered an intelligent, less fun, unsociable crowd. Things have moved on and now we find scientists adept at not only their work, but also equally skilled at other ‘extra-academic pursuits’.

With the advent of social-media platforms, science has reached even the remotest areas and it is not uncommon to hear an octogenarian in a rural location rant away about coronavirus and remedies to cure it. This digitalisation of daily life has to a large extent bridged the gap between science and society. Science is not, and should not, be limited to journal publications, medals/awards and honorary membership in societies.  What then attracts some humans to it? This kept me pondering until I came up with a few plausible reasons. Science is for the curious in nature; while most of us get awed by nature and its wonders, a few seek to satisfy their innate curiosity by figuring out the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of these mysteries. Given such a scenario, this clan of professionals are very much linked to the society and help in its progress.

Let me outline a project of high societal and gastronomic importance being researched by my team. India, along with the rest of the world, is facing the effects of global warming and if I were to break the news that rice production is on the decline, as one tucks into steaming hot fluffy idlies or crispy dosas, it may be a big jolt. India’s best scientific brains has been coming up with various solutions to tackle this crisis.

Plants, like all living things, need water to survive and wilt during water-deficit conditions. The key to battling this situation, as logic suggests, is to increase/make more-efficient water-uptake from the soil and to decrease water-loss from the plant. While most drought-tolerant plants have innate mechanisms to overcome such situations, most pampered crop plants including rice, do not. An understanding of these mechanisms would provide the key to developing robust varieties of these commercially important crop plants. My group has been interested in this aspect of biology, motivated by the cause of ensuring that dosas remain a viable breakfast option.

We have been investigating water-uptake mechanisms in the root-cells of these plants and how some varieties seem to be more efficient than others in imbibing water from an arid soil. Such knowledge could provide the much-needed information on these weapons that could be implanted through crop breeding techniques into the ‘weaker’ commercially important crops.

While efficient water-intake methods do help, it may not be effective unless and until the plant does not waste water from its tissues. This is orchestrated by small pores (stomata) in the leaf guarded by cells (aptly called ‘guard-cells’) which control stomatal opening, thereby regulating water loss through transpiration. My team has identified some key proteins in these cells which keep the stomata open and this discovery could lead to a possible method to efficiently regulate stomatal-function during drought conditions. This could also revolutionise the means of selection of ideal parents for crop-breeding.

The reason this is of importance in rice is that commercially important varieties, especially the popular ‘idly’ rice, is very drought-sensitive, while robust drought-tolerant varieties may possibly make rock-hard idlies. How do we continue producing drought-tolerant idly rice while retaining the ‘aromatic fluffiness’ of the idlies? This is where discoveries step in.

So back to the question: What is the connect between science and society? In this case, idlies not only belong to society but to science too. A well-fed scientist may churn out more discoveries than a starving one.  What is the point of science if it can’t give back to society solutions to the miseries plaguing it. What is society if it cannot inspire science by supporting and recognising the efforts with ample feedback and encouragement? Children in our country idolise and get inspired by scientists like Dr. A.P.J. Kalam who have reached the pinnacle of success by sheer hard work and tenacity.

Scientists inspire society and society inspires scientists. This symbiotic relationship is what is going to usher in a golden era of progress in scientific understanding. Here is to a period of amalgamation of science with society and let the ‘scientific-madness’ spread to every individual and manifest as a curiosity to learn and seek knowledge.

[Kavitha Sankaranarayanan heads the Ion Channel Biology Laboratory at the AU-KBC Research Centre of Anna University in Chennai.]

Suggested reading:

Announcing winners of NI Essay Competition 2020

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