Partnerships: McGill and India

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Since the 1960s, McGill University and India have forged a relationship through countless research ventures, teaching activities and development projects. There is also a network of students and alumni. In 2011, the University boasts more than 600 alumni in India, and the total number of students coming from India to study at McGill has grown by almost 40 per cent in the past five years. There are currently more than 300 students from India (not including those who are permanent residents of Canada) at McGill, which also has more than 30 faculty members of Indian origin.

Among Quebec and Canadian universities, McGill has long been a leader in India studies, dating back at least to the founding of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute by Michael Brecher, R.B. Angus Professor in the Department of Political Science, in 1968.

In recent years, memoranda of understanding between McGill and Indian universities and research institutions have been multiplying rapidly. McGill researchers and their counterparts in India are making major advances in areas of common interest—a long list that includes low cost housing, psycho-oncology, water management, and the intersection between transport, health, environment and equity, as well as those mentioned here. The geographic spread of research partners in India is as broad as the range of disciplines they cover.

REDUCING CROP LOSSES Despite the large volume of food production in India, up to 30 per cent of grains and 40 per cent of fruits and vegetables never make it to market, costing farmers $15 billion (U.S.) annually.

For the past 30 years, McGill’s Vijaya Raghavan has been looking at reducing post-harvest waste to get food where it’s supposed to go—into people’s mouths. “One-third of India’s poor could be fed if you captured crop losses each year,” says Raghavan, a James McGill Professor in Bioresource Engineering in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

In 1989, with financial assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Raghavan started working with the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore to establish a post-harvest technology program at the university and to implement simple yet effective storage and food-processing technologies in farming communities. This activity has proven to be very successful in reducing crop losses and ensuring food security and has continued through other CIDA-funded projects, which have grown to include other agricultural universities in southern India.

An important outcome has been the development of Agricultural Processing and Post-Harvest Technology Centres—knowledge transfer sites where farmers can receive training in food processing, storage, pasteurization and baking techniques. These centres also provide technical resources for farming community self-help groups.

FASTER PLANTS AND BETTER FUELS At the other end of the food production line, plant scientist Don Smith is fascinated with the dark underworld of why things grow. Smith, also a professor in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Science, studies the complex interaction of plants, bacteria and microbes in the earth.

So far, Smith and his team have made several ground-breaking discoveries, including bacteria whose chemical signals encourage plant growth, and a new class of bacteriocins that kill bacteria while stimulating plant growth.

According to Smith, a country like India has great need for such affordable growth-enhancing technology. “A substantial slice of India’s agriculture involves farmers who don’t have a lot of money, so the cost of buying fertilizers can be crippling.”

Passionate as he is about boosting crop yields, he’s just as excited about developing biofuels— plant-derived, low-pollution fuels that may power our cars and airplanes in the not-so-distant future. Smith works with partners in India as part of an ongoing project between McGill and the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi.

Among Smith’s graduate students is Sowmya Subramanian, the daughter of a prominent Indian physicist. Her research efforts have already unveiled some key aspects of microbe-to-plant signaling that are likely to improve food production and the ability to produce biofuels with minimal “food vs. fuel” conflict.

CANCER-FIGHTING FUNDAMENTAL RESEARCH When errors in normal growth and development occur at the start of life, miscarriages or birth defects are often the result. When errors occur later on, diseases like cancer or neurodegeneration result. Advances in developmental biology are essential if we are to comprehend the basic causes of major disorders that ultimately impact a large proportion of humanity.

Paul Lasko, chair of McGill’s Department of Biology, has made several trips to India as part of a collaboration with the National Centre for Biological Science. “India is a great place to work,” he says. “The students are very smart, highly motivated about science and extremely well trained. Also, in contrast to many other places, communication is so easy. In my area, to describe what is going on you have to use language in a fairly abstract way. Often the English of my Indian colleagues is better than my New Jersey English, and that’s a real advantage!”

Lasko’s research focuses on messenger RNA (mRNA), a molecule of RNA (ribonucleic acid) that produces proteins. “For a long time mRNAs were thought to be ‘dumb’,” Lasko explains, “and that once they were made, the protein would just automatically be synthesized from them. That’s turned out not to be true.”

In fact, protein synthesis from specific mRNAs is highly regulated, and the RNAs themselves can be localized to a particular position within a cell. Lasko’s group has discovered mechanisms by which these localized mRNAs can be inactive in one part of a cell while activate in another.

NANO-SIZED WITH BIG POTENTIAL Microsystems and nanosystems are miniaturized engineering devices that are manufactured using extremely small structures. This relatively new field is in the midst of important growth, since the technology presents a staggering array of uses.

“A Pentium chip is a microsystem,” explains researcher Srikar Thattai Vengallatore, of McGill’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, “but in our labs we are looking at microsystems that can do many more things in addition to signal processing. These small-scale systems can be used in communications, drug delivery, detecting disease, portable power generation and energy harvesting, for example.”

In 2010, the government of India chose McGill as one of five Canadian universities for nanotechnology partnerships.

Part of Vengallatore’s work is focused on alternate energy sources, including micro-scale fuel cells and micro engines. Working in collaboration with other researchers in Quebec, he recently developed a single-chamber solidoxide microfuel cell that can recover electrical power from automotive exhaust.

Vengallatore’s relationship with India and its academia goes a long way back: As a child in the mid-70s, he practically grew up on the campus of the Institute of Science in Bangalore. In 2007, he returned to the Institute to give some talks. “I found the changes to be enormous, it’s a very vibrant and friendly place, very intellectually active.”

MATERIALS FOR THE AEROSPACE INDUSTRY Developments in materials science are revolutionizing the aerospace industry, and McGill’s Stephen Yue, chair of the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering, has been leading the field, particularly in the development of advanced aerospace materials.

He has been building up support for a project between McGill’s Institute of Aerospace Engineering and the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials in Hyderabad. “We’re looking for a strong industrial buy-in, which fulfils two goals for McGill: increasing our collaboration with India and working more closely with the aerospace industry.”

Yue’s aerospace research interests revolve around the use of high temperature deformation processing to control the final microstructure and mechanical properties of titanium alloys, superalloys, steels, metal-matrix composites, biomaterials and magnesium alloys.

But Yue has an even cooler side to his research: cold-spray manufacturing, a new process that creates surfaces by building up layers of metal powder without the use of heat. Significantly, the technology lends the ability to repair things in situ.