Please tell us about yourself
For Dr. Vinayak Sinha of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali, it would be an understatement to say that love for research was in the air. Inspired by Nobel Laureate Professor Paul Crutzen to study atmospheric chemistry, Sinha’s research expertise lies in the quantification and analysis of pollutants in the air. He is deeply concerned with how these reactive and toxic compounds are produced in the atmosphere and the impacts they have on human health.
In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Sinha shares about his research and the challenges facing the scientific community.
How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
We seek to probe sources and sinks of reactive atmospheric pollutants, especially the •OH radical. We also seek to understand how air chemistry removes these reactive emissions.
Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
This would be the recently completed project at IISER Mohali. The project objective was to set up a measurement facility and initiate measurements of tropospheric •OH reactivity and several volatile organic compounds within India, many of which had never been quantified before. We also analyzed levels of emerging contaminants.
In the course of this project, we had to build and deploy an instrument capable of quantifying the total reactive pollutant loading of an air mass. We discovered that isocyanic acid, at exposure concentrations as low as one part per billion, can cause carbamylation of biomolecules involved in vision and arthritis.
We were surprised that this toxic chemical, which is a close chemical relative of the gas responsible for the Bhopal gas tragedy, occurs in our atmospheric environment through a secondary formation process similar to that which produces ozone.
What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I would like to provide a physical science basis for meaningful and smart interventions that can lead to more sustainable interactions with the atmosphere and the environment at large. By developing a process-based quantitative understanding of sources and sinks of reactive atmospheric constituents relevant to the South Asian atmospheric environment, I hope to propose smart choices pertaining to the types of urban greenery that would benefit our cities. I also wish to calculate the cost to the environment of certain widespread practices. Such information could help drive sustainability efforts.
Who (or what) motivated you to go into such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual field of study?
While studying for my Bachelor’s (BSc with Honours in Chemistry) and Master’s degrees (MSc: specialization in organic chemistry of natural products) at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, I was inspired by the Chancellor’s ideals of using education and skills to work for societal benefits. I completed my Master of Technology (M. Tech) in Analytical Chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi in 2004. With just this ideal in mind, I was open to pursuing a variety of research disciplines.
However, when I finally got a chance to learn about the life and work of Nobel laureate Professor Paul Crutzen and do a PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry where he was an emeritus director, my motivation for studying atmospheric chemistry took form. Along with this came a stronger desire to contribute to my home country, India.
I must say that one may have desires, but there needs to be enablers and facilitators of those desires, and I would like to acknowledge specific persons such as my group leader at Max Planck for Chemistry, Dr. Jonathan Williams, whose infectious enthusiasm inspired confidence in me to take up grand challenges.
Dr. John Crowley, whose eye for detail in kinetics fascinated me, also deserves mention, as well as Professor Johannes Lelieveld, who could expertly summarize complex scientific findings. I also greatly appreciate Professor N. Sathyamurthy, founding director of IISER Mohali, who provided excellent mentoring and encouraged me to pursue my research goals during the most crucial phase of starting my independent research group.
What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
The biggest adversity in any research area is generally the issue of prevailing mindsets and schools of thought that are not in sync with the times. These mindsets are often systemic and not adaptable to the needs of specialized research areas.
The lack of access to the kind and quality of technical R&D one finds in developed countries like Germany, and a reliance on imports for spare parts of research equipment, can sometimes be frustrating and energy sapping. Nonetheless, things are getting better with time.
What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix it?
A major problem is the inability of the academic research community to put its message across and galvanize society, and the powers-that-be, to invest in basic science. Researchers need to convince people that rational thinking is a way of life, and that society should not succumb to counter-productive, populist quick fix solutions that may cause greater damage in the long term.
If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I would probably have been a writer, but only if I could figure out a way to earn my bread and butter!
Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I enjoy watching my three- and seven-year-old daughters choreograph their latest dance videos. I also like reading autobiographies of people who have made a positive impact on the world.
If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would choose to eradicate hunger.
What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
The next several decades belong to Asia, which will have to lead the world in overcoming global challenges. Thus, we need to seize the moment and not let our future generations down. With great power comes great responsibility, so let’s act accordingly. Collectively, we have all the talents needed to succeed!