WASHINGTON : It’s not just the high-profile Indian American CEOs of billion-dollar companies. Indian origin scientists and researchers, too, have carved out a place for themselves across sectors and disciplines including academia and research; large corporates; hospitals; start-ups; government laboratories and non-profit organisations in the United States.
In fact, during his recent visit to the US, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar participated in a roundtable on science and technology innovation with India American scientist Sethuraman Panchanathan, director of National Science Foundation (NSF), the premier body in the US that supports research and education in fields of fundamental science and engineering.
Panchanathan, an Indian American scientist and alumnus of Madras University and Indian Institute of Science, was confirmed in June 2020, by the United States Senate after former President Donald Trump nominated him as the director of NSF in December 2019.
At the helm of America’s premier science federal agency, Panchanathan oversees its annual budget of $8.8 billion which is the funding source for 25% of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. But he’s not the only Indian American scientist in the top echelons.
Last month, the US Senate confirmed President Joe Biden’s nominee Dr Arati Prabhakar as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a role that makes her the President’s chief adviser on science and technology. An engineer and applied physicist, Dr Prabhakar most recently served as director of the high-profile defence advanced research projects agency (DARPA) under the US department of defence.
But despite such high-profile appointments; Indian American scientists are not as visible in leadership roles as Indian American technology CEOs yet.
“Scientists of Indian origin are doing truly pathbreaking work in computer science, economics, life sciences, chemistry, physics, and maths. But although there is proliferation of tech CEOs that are of Indian origin (e.g., Google, Microsoft, IBM, Twitter, etc), scientists still tend to be under-represented in leadership positions within academia,” Dr Vamsi Mootha, a top physician-scientist, who leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Harvard Medical School and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, told Times of India.
Dr Mootha, who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was young, leads cutting edge research at his laboratory which is focused on mitochondrial biology and the connections between mitochondrial dysfunction and disease. His team includes biologists, computer scientists and clinicians.
“I watched my parents work so hard and overcome discrimination to create opportunities for me and my three siblings – I don’t want their struggle to go to waste. Their journey motivates me to work hard and have a positive impact for the world,” he said.
In the early wave of immigration to the US for education, thousands of Indians went to American universities for PhDs in STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) and other streams in the 1960s and 1970s. “It is no surprise now that there are an estimated 20,000 Indian Americans academicians, including many who have risen to top positions as deans of engineering, physics and chemistry and presidents of universities, in top US universities,” says MR Rangaswami, founder and chairman of Indiaspora, a Washington DC based, non-profit organisation of high profile Indian Americans from diverse backgrounds and professions.
The organisation is actively engaged with several prominent Indian American scientists. Dr Priya Natarajan, professor in the departments of astronomy and physics at Yale University and well known for her work in mapping dark matter and dark energy, is a board member of Indiaspora.
For scientists in India, especially in the STEM disciplines, there are several challenges in carrying out research in India and often moving to western countries becomes the only option. Dr Mootha, who has been directing a research group for 17 years, and has consistently had both Indian-American as well as Indian trainees on his team over the years, feels that robust infrastructure, which is the key for life sciences research, is available only in a few places in India.
But he also sees opportunities opening up for Indian scientists in a big way, especially with an explosion of data. “India tends to have brilliant data scientists – and they are in a perfect position to partner with biologists and doctors to solve some of the mysteries of life using their keyboards,” he said.
But the path is not always easy for Indian scientists and researchers in the US as Dr Kaushik Rajashekara, an Indian origin professor of engineering at the University of Houston, who has won the prestigious Global Energy Prize for outstanding contributions to transportation electrification and energy efficiency technologies while reducing power generation emissions, has found.
“I moved to USA, from Canada, in 1987. Those days, it was not easy to find a suitable position with an Indian degree. Although I had a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, a recruiter suggested that I get another MS degree from a university in USA,” Dr Rajashekara, who received his engineering degree from IISc, told the Times of India.
As a scientist of Indian origin, he feels that he had to work much harder to get accepted by colleagues and prove that he could contribute in several ways. “Our English accents and our looks came in the way of getting acceptance. I felt it was easier for people, even less qualified, from Europe or Russia to get accepted than a person coming from India,” Dr Rajashekara said.
But things are very different now and Indian scientists as well as the institutions that they were educated at in India are accepted and respected. “These days Indian origin scientists and engineers are in almost in every university in USA.
Also, big companies like Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Twitter, etc., have a number of Indian origin engineers contributing at various levels of the organization. They have done significant breakthrough work at the management level and also at the R&D level,” he said.
He feels that for Indian scientists in India, the main challenge is the availability of the required items for experimental work. “In India, still the standard of living is lower and the infrastructure must improve a lot. So, most engineers/scientists move to US and other Western countries for economic reasons and for better standard of living.
Once, they move, they also do well in their career,” said Dr Rajashekara, who has close family members in Bengaluru and his village Devarayasamudram, Kolar district, and visits India often.
Last year, during a virtual interaction with Nasa scientists who were involved in the historic landing of Perseverance at Mars, US President Biden had told Swati Mohan that Indian-Americans were taking over America. Mohan, an Indian-American engineer, was the lead on the guidance, navigation, and control operations of Nasa’s Mars 2020 mission.
While President Biden was probably referring to the large number of people from the Indian community being elevated to top positions in his administration and to the C-suite of America’s top corporations; the Indian American scientists at Nasa, too, are finding their rightful place at the table.