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Inspirational support

Posted on Monday, March 9, 2015

Abhishek Sharma, a PhD student at CSIR-Central Institute of Aromatic and Medicinal Plants and the 2011 INSPIRE fellow, on what made him apply for the award. Aaditi Isaac reports

While preparing for the UGC-CSIR-National Eligibility Test for a PhD fellowship, I saw a newspaper advertisement for the Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) fellowship. The Union department of science and technology was inviting applications from students who finished first in their MSc exams. At the time, I was going for industrial training through Department of Biotechnology Biotech Consortium India Limited (DBT-BCIL). I topped my MSc biotechnology class and gained work experience at DBT-BCIL, a prerequisite for the fellowship.

The fellowship is valid for five years and covers the recipient’s (not the family’s) medical expenses. As a senior research fellow, I receive Rs 21,600 per month, starting from the third year of my PhD at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Central Institute of Aromatic and Medicinal Plants (CIMAP), Lucknow. During the first two years of my PhD, as a junior research fellow, I earned Rs 19,200 a month.

When I secured the INSPIRE fellowship, I was encouraged to pursue research in the area of cancer by my guide, Ajay Kumar Mathur (chief scientist). According to him, a breakthrough can make the manufacturing and production of the most sought-after anti-cancer compounds easily available and help the world fight the disease.

So, I am working on metabolic engineering in the area of plant biotechnology. My focus is on anti-cancerous compounds – vinblastine and vincristine – produced in minute concentration in plants. Given the demand-supply gap globally, I am trying to increase the production of the compounds in plants with the help of biotechnology. Even if we collect all the plants of the world, they would only produce around two to three kg of these compounds whereas the current requirement of the world is around 10-12kg per year. Vinblastine or vincristine cost $10-15 million per kg. As of now, India imports the compounds because these are not produced on a mass scale and there are only a few qualified people who can extract them from plants. Even if we can enhance the production by .01%, it would make a huge impact. The biggest challenges are in the form of poor infrastructure and limited funds for buying chemicals.

The INSPIRE award helps me financially. However, this is not the first priority of research scholars – they are passionate about what they do, so science always takes precedence over other things.

As to my long-term objectives, I would like to pursue my post-doctoral research in science in a way that can help humanity live without any fear of disease.

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