The nuts and bolts of getting science done

A tour across some of India’s most sophisticated research facilities guided by the technologists who run these hi-tech spaces.

By Sruthi S. Balakrishnan

It’s Christmas, and Catarina Rozario is hosting family and friends for the holiday. She gets a call from work – something is wrong with the particle accelerator. Unfazed, Catarina agrees to pop in and lend her expertise, despite being heavily pregnant at the time. Within the hour, the problem has been solved and she is back home amidst the Christmas cheer.

Catarina is one of many faces in the background of science, running what are known as core research facilities. These spaces within research institutes house instruments and equipment key to every scientists’ end goal – data. The machines require extensive training to operate, but it is rarely scientists who manage them. Instead, technicians, technologists, and facility managers bear the responsibilities of maintaining the instruments, training scientists and developing methods. Designated as scientific or technical officers, their contributions to research are equally valuable to those of scientists.

Catarina Rozario

Core facilities frequently provide 24/7 access, especially because scientists are notorious for working all hours of the day. “The accelerator is operated around the clock and users (scientists) are allotted [limited] time slots. If there is a problem, we have to fix it quickly,” said Catarina, a Scientific Officer at the TIFR-BARC Pelletron LINAC Facility (PLF) in Mumbai. The PLF shoots ions at high speeds along the accelerator, helping scientists advance particle physics. When Catarina joined the facility in 1997, she was the only woman working in shifts to operate this beam. “In those days, the LINAC booster was just being developed, so there was a lot of enthusiasm, dedication and late nights,” she recalled. Naturally, this lifestyle became inconvenient after she had children. “Both pregnancies were challenging, with the LINAC work in full swing and nearing completion,” she said. To save on valuable commuting time and optimise her workload, Catarina asked for and eventually received housing on campus. On-campus housing can be a game-changer in the life of a busy scientific officer. “This lets me take care of my kids better. If something goes wrong [at the PLF], I can just go, fix it and come back quickly,” she said.

Bhagyashree Chalke remembers finding herself at a similar crossroads early in her career. She joined the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics in TIFR, Mumbai, as a scientific assistant in 1994, a job that required her to stay away from home for days at a time on field trips to the TIFR Balloon Facility in Hyderabad. After her son was born, these visits started taking a toll on her family and she asked for a transfer. Fortunately, TIFR came through and she switched to the Department of Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science. Today, Bhagyashree is a scientific officer who, with her team, oversees five electron microscopes – massive beasts that let you peer closely at objects measuring mere nanometers across. Like Catarina, Bhagyashree too is expected to cater to the round-the-clock demands of research. “My aim is to ensure zero downtime,” she said.

Bhagyashree Chalke

Seasoned troubleshooters

Demanding schedules notwithstanding, scientific officers are enthusiastic about keeping themselves updated with new methods. Bhagyashree, for example, had to master the fundamentals of electron microscopy after her interdepartmental transfer. Her background in electronics aided her greatly while taking on this challenge. She is now a formidable authority in the field, and scientists readily defer to her expertise when they have questions. In her 20 years at the facility, she has overseen more installations, breakdowns and repairs than anyone else in her team. And the effort is worth it: “Actually being able to see things that most people cannot, identifying the chemical composition of materials…being a part of these discoveries is very exciting!”

At PLF, Catarina is well known for her inventiveness. She credited R G Pillay, former head of the PLF, for encouraging the team to develop indigenous solutions instead of relying on imported parts. Of all her custom fixes, Catarina is particularly proud of designing an interlock system which coordinates the opening and closing of three connected rooms to protect users from radiation. “I have always had an interest in designing components, and it was very satisfying to see how this worked out,” she said.

It took several years of diligent work for Catarina to have her expertise acknowledged. “Being a woman, it is always there…we cannot always speak up for ourselves. Now people appreciate the benefits of all those components I developed,” she said. Even with something as routine as maternity leave, Catarina had to dispel misconceptions. “After having kids, there is a perception that you cannot devote so much time [to work]. You have to work harder to prove that you are capable…”

One way or the other, women in science have had to routinely contend with the additional pressure of demonstrating their capabilities. Chhaya Patole, a facility in-charge at the Bangalore Life Science Cluster (BLiSC) is regularly mistaken for a student. Her short stature and youthful face hide nearly a decade of experience. “People think that I am a fresher. It is only after I sit down and talk to them that they understand my knowledge base and technical expertise,” she said. Chhaya heads the Mass Spectrometry Facility at BLiSC. A mass spectrometer fragments molecules into even smaller pieces, allowing scientists to discern the composition of materials ranging from plasma to plant extracts.

Chhaya Patole

With mass spectrometry, Chhaya stressed that it’s not so much about the molecules as it is about the machine; these instruments need delicate handling and are infamous for frequent breakdowns. Fortunately, her PhD gave Chhaya plenty of practice. “During my PhD, I worked a lot on mass spectrometry. I spent more time fixing the machine than running samples, so that gave me experience on how to handle it.”  Another key challenge for Chhaya is keeping her facility up to date. “If we only provide old methods, we are not developing in a scientific way, not seeing how we can creatively use techniques to ask new questions,” she said. Chhaya envisions for her facility a future as a national hub for mass spectrometry. “I want to increase the user base, develop new methods, find collaborations and maybe become a training centre for ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) or DBT (Dept. of Biotechnology).”

To PhD or not to

As providers of hi-tech scientific services that many institutes cannot afford in-house, accessibility is a high priority for many facility managers. The National Nanofabrication Centre (NNFC) at IISc, Bangalore, provides resources for scientists to make nanoscale devices smaller than the thickness of a human hair. “Not all institutes have access to fabrication centres. So we have this programme called INUP through which researchers can apply to train with us without worrying about paying for it from their own pockets. That way our knowledge base is free,” said Savitha P., the Chief Operating Officer at NNFC.

Savitha P.

Overseeing the instruments, a 50+ strong staff and around 200 users a month is a tall task, for which Savitha believes that her PhD background is an asset. “I feel that with a PhD, you’re faster at breaking down a problem and finding the solution. Experience in reading literature and pulling out details also helps.”

A PhD is a qualification demanded by several institutes when it comes to these positions. However, there are cases where they decide that experience trumps a degree. Monisha Mohandas is a Facility Manager at the centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering (BSSE) in IISc. She joined the institute after her Bachelors in Engineering and became one of the first members of the BSSE’s core facility in 2013. Monisha is responsible for two atomic force microscopes (AFMs), highly sensitive instruments that use a probe to poke at samples and record surface contours of metals, DNA or anything else. When the BSSE got its new microscopes, Monisha trained at the manufacturer’s facility in South Korea to become one of IISc’s most experienced AFM technologists. She was promoted to her current position earlier this year, beating out several other candidates, some of whom had PhDs. “In the end, experience dictates a lot of things. It is definitely my biggest plus point,” she said.

Monisha handles several instruments apart from the AFMs, and a host of administrative duties, largely by herself. Being a one-woman facility can be frustrating, she admits. “Some days I have to use both AFMs at once, so I will literally be running between both machines, making sure everything is working,” she said. Monisha works closely with scientists, figuring out the best way to prepare samples and extract the information they need.

Monisha Mohandas

(Almost) equal partners in science

A mutual and dynamic scientist-technologist relationship is often crucial for moving science forward, with one side providing scientific input and the other providing technical proficiency.  A clear demonstration of this can be found at Raman Research Institute (RRI). Here, Srivani K S works as the Deputy-in-Charge and Senior Engineer of the Electronics Engineering Group, building instruments that transform analog radio signals from space into digital bits on the computer. The job keeps Srivani on the cutting edge of science. When she joined RRI in 1995, field programmable gate array devices, used to speed up computations with minimum hardware, had just arrived on the fore. In India, RRI were among the first to build these kinds of circuits for radioastronomy. RRI’s scientists depend on engineers like Srivani to devise the instrumentation they need for experiments. “Sometimes the whole team [scientists and engineers] will go on a retreat so that we can brainstorm,” said Srivani.

It’s hardly surprising that scientists are effusive in their praise of the technologists who work by their side. “Engineers do the heavy lifting in building instruments. As scientists, we define the big picture… but they help flesh out the details. Their support is critical to the success of our experiments,” said Mayuri S. Rao, a scientist at RRI. Ralandinliu Kahmei, a postdoctoral researcher at IISc who uses the NNFC, added that technicians provide a lot more than just technical inputs: “Sometimes students walk in with materials, unsure of which experimental parameters will yield viable results.. The technical experts really get involved here, discussing and helping students get the most out of each measurement.”

Srivani KS

When it comes to monetary equivalencies, the pay grades of scientific officers are offset from those of scientists by one level. For example, as per the Seventh Central Pay Commission, the pay grade for Scientific Officer E is equivalent to a Scientist D (ranks increase from B to H). The salary caps of officers also set in earlier than those of scientists. At higher ranks, however, these gaps are narrower.

For women in particular, a scientific staff position offers a rewarding alternative to the tenure track, which can be quite unforgiving when it comes to age and career timelines. Both Monisha and Savitha joined IISc after working in companies after their B.E and PhD, respectively. They said that this “gap” between obtaining their degrees and joining academia was never looked upon unfavourably. Despite these advantages, Indian institutes lack gender parity in such positions. Even IISc, with its over thirty departments and adjoining facilities, has less than ten women in facility management positions. There also remains a general lack of appreciation for scientific staff. Last year, DBT released a booklet on Indian women in science, covering both historic and current women who have made waves in science. But they completely overlooked technical forces behind research. The same shortcoming was seen in a booklet released by IndiaBioscience. While we have covered a lot of ground when it comes to women in science, we can only achieve true representation when the contributions of both those at the forefront and in the background of research are equally acknowledged.

Note: This article is part of TheLifeofScience.com’s Season 5 series which is being supported by DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance. The featured image is by Ipsa Jain. All photos courtesy the people featured, unless otherwise mentioned.

By TLoS Team | Published on Aug 27, 2020 in Technology

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