Indian polymer scientist R.A. Mashelkar was named the winner of the 2018 TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize on 27 November for his seminal research on smart polymer gels that have yielded a long list of useful innovations.
Mashelkar, 1993 TWAS Fellow, was honoured for work that has contributed to high-impact developments in agriculture, medicine and more. He has had substantive influence shaping India's science and technology policies and he served as chairman of India’s National Innovation Foundation for 18 years.
The TWAS-Lenovo Prize was announced at the 28th TWAS General Meeting in Trieste, Italy. The annual prize, now in its sixth year, includes an award of USD100,000 provided by the Chinese technology company Lenovo, the global leader in consumer, commercial, and enterprise technology that is the largest PC company in the world. It is one of the most prestigious honours given to scientists from the developing world.
"We are enormously happy to congratulate Dr. Mashelkar for his accomplishments setting the stage for innovations in polymer science," said Lenovo Senior Vice President George He. "His research has been spectacular and it is indeed our honour to present this year's TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize to him, and we wish him many fruitful years of discovery and innovation in the future."
"Dr. Mashelkar is one of the most distinguished scientists in his field, and in polymer research," said TWAS President Bai Chunli. "His work has had an impact on a broad range of applications from agriculture to medicine, and it reflects a deeply ingrained spirit of science: that investment in fundamental research can give rise to discoveries in applied science that have a real and powerful impact on people's lives."
Mashelkar, born in 1943, lost his father at the age of six and his mother moved to Mumbai. He went to a municipal school there and often couldn’t even afford a notebook for his classes. But he excelled anyway throughout his childhood and into adulthood, developing a hungry curiosity and a keen interest in science. He eventually made it into the prestigious Jai Hind College and what is now the Institute of Chemical Technology, both in Mumbai, and earned a Leverhume Fellowship at Salford University in the U.K.
“I dedicate this greatest honour in my life to my late mother who, despite extreme poverty, gave me the precious gift of education," Mashelkar said after learning of the honour.
The TWAS-Lenovo Prize is the latest recognition for his work in a long and productive career. Besides Fellowship of Royal Society (1998) and US National Academy of Science (2005) as well as Engineering (2003), he has been honoured with Padmavibhushan (2014), the second highest civilian honour in India, as also Star of Asia (2005), the first ever scientist then to get it. He has been decorated with 41 honorary doctorates from universities around the world.
The promise of polymers
R.A. Mashelkar’s story is the story of a developing world scientist who returned home to help. After serving six years in the U.K. as a lecturer in chemical engineering, he returned home to India in 1976, years before the growth and development that has brought new wealth to the country. He had no access to computers, to imported chemicals or much other essential laboratory equipment. Nevertheless, he joined with India’s National Chemical Laboratory and began important work advancing the country’s prowess in polymer science and engineering.
His group sought uses in India for a special kind of polymer, of which even a single gram could pick up hundreds of grams of water. India is dependent on rain for agriculture, and sometimes the rains start but then stop again for weeks. By coating seeds with this gooey polymer, they would have much longer access to water after a rainfall, helping to ensure that farmers would have a successful crop yield.
“So we started using chemistry for the good of the people,” Mashelkar said, “and then we started asking: Why does such a polymer absorb such huge quantities of water?”
To the naked eye, the gel resembles jello. But zoom in to the microscopic level, and it looks like a series of long chains, that are linked across to each other with smaller molecules. When water enters, the chains repel each other creating spaces in which enormous quantity of water gets absorbed.
Through more work, they discovered the polymers also suddenly expand and then collapse at very specific temperatures. Still the science behind such super-absorbing and suddenly swelling-shrinking polymers was not well understood. They started searching for the basic mechanism behind such sudden transition, as they dug for answers, they accidentally discovered something exciting that was also strange.
One gel polymer, when shaped into small cylinders that were just a few millimeters long, changed shape entirely when soaked in water that containins metallic ions, transforming the gel into a hollow sphere. When immersed in water these metallic ions bind to the water-loving molecules on the gel’s surface. Then the surface becomes water-hating and tries to minimise its surface by turning into a sphere. As the ions bind more tightly to the surface, the polymer chains are stretched and a tear forms in the gel’s centre, thus creating a hollow sphere.
When Mashelkar’s team first realized this was happening, it was so bizarre that they were thrilled. “This is something we did not expect at all,” he said. “It was not planned. And that hollow shape has a lot of applications, such as drug delivery, allowing you to slowly release a drug in a person’s body.”
The many uses of intelligent gels
As Mashelkar’s group continued to make discoveries, the polymer gel field found innovation after innovation and success after success. The study of smart hydrogels became a hot area of research and a long list of applications emerged.
Mashelkar’s group created gel-based enzymes – microscopic substances with multiple functions that can be turned on or off by a trigger, such as light. For example, by switching the ultraviolet light off, the enzyme would carry out a chemical reaction but by switching the UV light on, the enzyme would stop being active, thus stopping the chemical reaction.
Mashelkar’s group also discovered a gel with self-repairing properties, which heals tears on its own, behaving like a healthy living tissue. This material can patch up tricky-to-monitor wounds or even help in doing ‘suture less’ surgery.
“In the gastrointestinal tract, say you have tissue damage, then you can repair that damage by using the gels,” Mashelkar said.
One specific polymer discovered by Mashelkar’s group excited the scientific communicty so much that they started exploring its use for a variety of novel applications.
A leading group from MIT developed a drug designed to pass through the stomach unaltered and disintegrate in the intestine. This was possible because the gels containing the drug were extremely elastic and could be stretched or folded significantly without breaking. The same polymer was used by another group for creating superior synthetic bone grafts.
Another research group showed that Mashelkar’s specific polymer could be used to plug pores that lead to the loss of fluids during oil exploration.
Mashelkar emphasised that the greatest satisfaction is not his own discoveries but the fact that many scientists have been able to use his foundational work as the basis for countless more applications.
“In a developing country we may start with something practically useful to the farmers and their work,” said Mashelkar. “But exploration of fundamental science is absolutely critical so that more applications can actually come out, and some of them come out accidentally, of course! That is the story of science in general, because while we have organized science, a lot of these discoveries are unorganised.”
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The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – supports sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has more than 1,200 elected Fellows from nearly 100 countries; 14 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through more than three decades, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the government of Italy and essential programmatic funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). It is a programme unit of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).