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Padma-Winning Bengaluru Biologist Becomes India’s Principal Scientific Advisor

At a time when Indian ministers have been committing one faux pas after another on subjects of evolution and Stephen Hawking, its a relief to have a real man of science in this distinguished position.

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Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, one of India’s leading biologists, was appointed the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India on Monday. The Bengaluru-based geneticist and development biologist had retired from his post as Secretary, Department of Biotechnology earlier this year.

VijayRaghavan takes over from nuclear scientist Rajagopala Chidambaram, who has served as PSA (a post created by the AB Vajpayee government in 1999) under three prime ministers since 2001. On its page, the government describes the role of the PSA in some detail here (hyperlink).

Born on February 3, 1954, this self-confessed “air force brat” studied chemical engineering at IIT-Kanpur, before enrolling for a PhD in Bioengineering in Switzerland.

His love for genetics stems from an article he read in Switzerland by Obaid Siddiqi, one of India’s most prominent molecular biologists. In the article, Siddiqi reportedly writes about understanding the nervous system using genetics.

“I found the formalism of genetics easy to grasp, and that excited me very much,” he told Nature magazine, a leading global science publication.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Prof. K VijayRaghavan. (Source: Facebook)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Prof. K VijayRaghavan. (Source: Facebook)

Instead of pursuing his earlier programme, he left Switzerland and began working on his PhD under the guidance of Siddiqi at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. Following TIFR, VijayRaghavan underwent further training at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, before embarking on a postdoctoral fellowship at the famous California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

In 1988, he left Caltech and took up a position as the head of a lab at TIFR. Meanwhile, VijayRaghavan, Siddiqi and a few other scientists were working towards setting up the now famous National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bengaluru.

In 1992, the NCBS, which is part of TIFR under the government’s Department of Atomic Energy, was set up with Siddiqi as the founding director. “We were in the trenches together—young, some very talented, all very driven,” VijayRaghavan tells Nature. “We had a sense of rebellion.”

In 1996, VijayRaghavan took over from Siddiqi as director and played a significant role in the further development of NCBS as an elite institute of scientific research. One of his lasting contributions to the institute was establishing a master’s programme in wildlife ecology and conservation at a time when very few professors supported the idea.

Prof K VijayRaghavan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Prof K VijayRaghavan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“Everybody left that meeting feeling like we’d done the right thing (in pursuing the programme),” says Satyajit Mayor, director at NCBS. “The way the discussion and the dialogue and the arguments were put across, quite masterfully, was so Vijay.”

Also Read: Ignored For the Nobel Prize, This Unsung Scientist Is The Father Of Fibre Optics! 

Little surprise that the programme went on to become one of the institute’s most successful ones. VijayRaghavan held onto the post of director until January 2013, and on Republic Day that year, he was conferred with the Padma Shri for his contributions.

Today, the 64-year-old scientist is a member of many Indian and international science academies, including the Royal Society, which has listed his scientific achievements in the passage below:

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan is a geneticist and developmental biologist who has deepened our understanding of muscle development through studies performed in the fruit fly, Drosophila. He identified the mechanisms that control the nervous system and muscles during development and investigated how they control movement. He examines how a set of control genes called the Hox genes oversee the specialisation of muscles and nerves during the development of an embryo. In particular, Krishnaswamy’s work has contributed to our knowledge of the molecular and cellular steps in the growth of flight muscle.

Also Read: How a Sea Journey By CV Raman Placed India On The Global Science Map

The vibrant scientist is very active on social media as well. Responding to his appointment as PSA, VijayRaghavan tweeted about what he wants to achieve. However, there is one tweet which stands out.

It will be interesting to see how he decides to embark on this process of democratising access to science in the Indian context, considering the plethora of languages and dialects spoken across diverse regions.

Having said that, for a government whose ministers have committed one faux pas after another on evolution and Stephen Hawking, it is a relief that it has chosen a real man of science to advise it.

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