ACG chat with Dr. Moorthy Narayana

ACG chat with Dr. Moorthy Narayana

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Dr. Moorthy is a PhD holder in Chemistry who has made significant contributions in the field of research. With years of experience, Dr. Moorthy has published numerous papers in high impact journals and has authored several books on Chemistry. His expertise in the field has been recognized internationally, with inclusion in the list of top 2% scientists worldwide

1. Tell us about your background in Chemistry

I pursued my undergraduate studies in University College, Trivandrum, which was a government college under Kerala University and highly regarded at the time. The teachers there were devoted and meritorious, and took extra care to finish the syllabus and spark interest in their students. The college has produced numerous notable figures in science, literature, and politics who have contributed to the state, nation, and beyond. Later, I pursued my Masters at IIT Kanpur. During my time at IIT, I was introduced to the exciting prospects of a career in research. With access to some of the best faculty in the field, including world-renowned scientists, I continued on to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

After completing my studies, I secured a job in the agricultural research sector with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which was introduced to me by my professor, the famous Agricultural Scientist Prof. Swaminathan. I worked at the CTCRI (Central Tuber Crops Research Institute), Trivandrum for 33 years, during which I received several research awards, conducted advanced research in some of the best institutes in India and abroad, and published numerous papers and books.

While the journey wasn't always easy and came with its fair share of challenges, I am grateful for the experiences that I gained and the opportunities that I had. It was an honor to learn that my work had been recognized and that my name was included in the list of top 2% scientists worldwide, prepared by Stanford University for multiple years.

2. How and why did you get interested in Chemistry?

Though I was initially interested in English literature and was a wildlife enthusiast, I ultimately chose to study chemistry. My interest in the subject was piqued by my family's scientific background. I considered pursuing medicine and engineering but had reservations due to my aversion to blood and the memorization required, and engineering due to concerns about job prospects. Ultimately, I felt that chemistry was the right fit for me.

3. What motivated you to go to IIT Kanpur? How did you hear of it?

I happened upon IIT Kanpur by chance when I asked one of my favorite professors, Prof. Dharmaraja Iyer, where to find the best MSc course. He recommended IITK and I followed his advice, applying and receiving an interview offer despite not having my degree certificate. I endured a long and difficult journey from Trivandrum to Kanpur, but found the campus to be an ideal environment for academic excellence. Although my family struggled with my move so far away, they eventually accepted it as a worthwhile opportunity.

4. What did you do your Master’s and PhD in?

I studied general chemistry during my M.Sc. course, but in the final semester, I opted for organic chemistry as it seemed more challenging. I was inspired by Prof Ranganathan who taught Organic chemistry. I pursued my Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry under the guidance of Prof Devaprabahakara at IITK. My thesis focused on synthesizing cyclic compounds and obtaining novel products through reactions with reagents. The work mostly aligned with the basic research mandate of IIT.

It may be relevant for readers to know about Basic vs Applied Research when deciding what area of expertise to pursue. While some argue that all research should be applied and based on need, most advances in science and technology have come from basic research carried out over many years. Basic research publications have been critical for pharmaceutical companies as even slight variations in structure or configuration can lead to deleterious effects. Despite criticism that basic research is not applied, technologies like LASER, NMR, and computers have found widespread applications in medicine, engineering, space research, agriculture, and other fields. A balance between basic and applied research is necessary, and they should complement each other. Interestingly, basic research is often compared to Goddess Saraswathi (knowledge) and applied research to Goddess Lakshmi (wealth)

5. What challenges did you face at IITK and how did you overcome them?

At IITK, personal issues like health, food, and communication with home were the only major problems. Communication was difficult back then, with only post available, and the hostel food was okay, but many students frequented restaurants outside campus. At CTCRI, as a pure chemistry researcher in an agricultural research institute, I had to fight to get equipment and chemicals for my research. Despite criticism for being too focused on publications, I established a successful lab on starch research and received five research awards. Despite being overlooked in promotions, I was recognized as one of the top 2% of scientists worldwide post-retirement.

6. Tell us more about your career in agricultural research. What interested you to pursue this field?

My work at CTCRI involved a hybrid of chemistry and agricultural research. I chose to focus on tuber starches, which had not been extensively explored. However, due to the lack of analytical equipment at CTCRI, I had to travel to other institutions across India to get the analysis done. Despite this, my work drew wide attention and I was able to publish in international journals, attend conferences, and even author a book on tuber starches published by CABI, UK. My experience and contacts from IIT proved to be helpful. My work was recognized, and I was even deputed to the UK under Indo-UK collaboration and later secured a sabbatical at Lund University, Sweden with a famous professor. Additionally, I was involved in projects on biofuels and biopesticides.

7. Can you describe the technical skills as well as the mindsets required to succeed in this field?

To excel in the competitive field of research, one must possess a keen interest, unwavering devotion, and sincerity. The journey may be riddled with failures and obstacles, but they must be overcome with patience and persistence. Shortage of resources, including chemicals and reference materials, can be managed by scouting for facilities and resources outside of one's institute. Establishing communication with experts in the field is crucial for gaining new ideas and analyzing samples. Attending seminars and symposia can broaden one's knowledge and expertise. Self-confidence and hard work are essential in research, as unexpected results may occur, and time schedules do not apply. One must be open to opportunities and not let them go to waste. For instance, an unexpected downtime due to a power outage in my time at UK allowed me to finish analyzing many samples, leading to an award-winning research project. Quality publications are critical for merit, and revisions based on expert feedback can increase chances of acceptance. Serendipitous discoveries should never be overlooked, as they can lead to exciting and novel applications.

8. What are other careers one can pursue in Chemistry and Agriculture, besides research?

In today's world, interdisciplinary research has become the norm, with scientists and technologists often transitioning to more challenging fields. With cutting-edge technologies being developed almost every month, there is immense scope for exploration in fields such as engineering, medicine, science, food science, and agriculture. The emergence of Robotics, AI, sensors, nanotechnology, drone, remote sensing, LiDAR, and machine learning has opened up new and challenging avenues for people from all disciplines to contribute. The medical and pharmaceutical industries are actively seeking experienced individuals in fields such as Bioinformatics, CRISPR technology (cancer research), Stem cell therapy, and organoid intelligence, which involve significant chemistry interventions. Additionally, smart agriculture, intelligent and smart packaging for food products, Green Hydrogen, lithium-based batteries, and Solar cells are future prospective areas, with many start-ups based on these technologies looking for young and enthusiastic people to employ. The development of a country depends heavily on the success of these start-ups by young and energetic entrepreneurs, and all countries are supporting such ventures. Therefore, the future looks promising for those venturing into start-ups based on these technologies.

9. Besides IIT, what are the best places to pursue an education in Chemistry and Agriculture? Both in India and abroad

Back in the day, there were only a few options for higher studies and research, such as the 5 IITs and IISc, but now students have a plethora of options. In India, there is now an IIT in each state, new IISERs have been established, and private universities with modern facilities offer courses in the latest technologies. It is up to the students to identify their areas of interest and understand their prospects. Moreover, universities abroad are also welcoming foreign students, with European, American, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabian universities offering excellent facilities. Collaborative arrangements between universities from different countries can also be utilized to gain expertise from multiple universities or institutes.

10. What advice would you give to high school students interested in these fields?

Nowadays, with the abundance of information available, school students have a plethora of options when it comes to choosing their courses and universities. However, regardless of where they decide to study or what subject they choose, their ultimate aim should be to excel and achieve their goals. It's important for them to keep in mind that cheating and unethical behavior such as plagiarism, data falsification, and fabrication will only hinder their progress. While not everyone can be a Nobel Prize winner, everyone has the capacity to contribute to their field and be proud of their achievements. Inspirational quotes by Swami Vivekanada and Late Prof. Abdul Kalam serve as reminders to aim for excellence and to never give up in the face of failure. By staying focused and having a single-minded devotion to their goals, students can transform their dreams into thoughts and thoughts into actions that lead to success.