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Indira Varma researching polymers

indraverma.jpg (76629 bytes)

by

Isidore Domnick Mendis

 

Professor Indra K. Varma, is a polymer scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi. She developed the flame resistant polyamides for NASA, and has also co-authored several books. She received the Dupont International Award for Polymer Characterization by Thermal Analysis.  "Plastic waste management is one area where I would like to work in the future because this is an issue which is of concern to all of us today," says Prof. Varma who now occupies the Reliance Chair at the IIT.

For a workingwoman, especially one who is also managing both the family and a pressure-cooker, a dedicated career can be a daunting task. But, says Prof. Varma, "You have to have a determination that you will not fail either at the domestic front or in office. That's what's kept me going. And I can assure you today my family is both supportive and proud of me."

 

Even as we step into the next millennium, there seems to be a change in the profile of a number of Indian workingwomen. They are making amazing strides in their chosen fields.

Professor Indra K. Varma, is a polymer scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi. She got her doctorate in chemistry and D.Sc from the Glasgow University, in the U.K and joined IIT in 1966 as lecturer in the department of chemistry and became a professor in 1977. From 1997 to 2000 she was appointed head of the Centre for Polymer Science and Engineering.

Prof. Varma has also published more than 275 papers in reputed scientific journals besides being the principal Investigator in eleven projects sponsored by CSIR, ISRO, UNDP, DST, DNES, MHRD, DRDO and NIST (USA). She has made significant contributions in the field of polymers and her specialization is the synthesis of polymers. Prof. Varma has four patents to her credit in the field.

In 1979, she went to the US for two and half years to work in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) laboratory in California on a special project. Says Prof. Varma, " NASA was interested in developing a material which doesn't burn in air." So Prof. Varma got down to developing the flame resistant polyamides. For the breakthrough in this project she received seven certificates of recognition and cash award from NASA.

Space Shuttle

In 1995, the space centre again invited her for eight months to work on a project involving electrically conducting polymers. " I was overwhelmed at seeing the Shuttle from such close quarters," she says. But the job assigned to her was more than just marvelling at the Space Shuttle. She played a pivotal role in developing a thermally stable polymer that would not burn in the air when the spacecraft travelled at a tearing speed in the atmosphere.

The scientist is not aware how many of her patents are still in use. As other scientists were also involved in the projects the patents have become the property of NASA.

The patents in the joint names of Prof. Varma and other scientists are: Phosphorous Containing Bisimide Resins (Indra K. Varma, G.M. Fohlen and J.A. Parker--June 1981); Phosphorous Containing Imide Resins (Indra K. Varma, G.M. Fohlen and J.A. Parker--July 1983); Elastomer Modified Phosphorous Containing Imide Resins (Indra K. Varma, G.M. Fohlen and J.A. Parker, December 1983); and Phosphorus Containing Imide Resins (Indra K. Varma, G.M. Fohlen and J.A. Parker, January 1985).

Besides certificates of excellence from NASA, Prof. Varma is also the recipient of Dupont International Award for Polymer Characterization by Thermal Analysis (1987). She has co-authored a number of books notable among them being, Recent Trends in Polymers and Composites, Thermosetting Resins - Properties, Synthetic Polymers as also a book for the undergraduate students of Indira Gandhi Open University and a class Xl NCERT book of Chemistry (1977).

 

" Polymers have a wide array of applications both in domestic and industrial life. In the house they are useful in the form of plastic combs, buckets, bags, jugs and jars. Industrially they have played a key role in the development of spaceship, aircrafts, electronic and construction industry," says Prof. Varma who was also a visiting professor, at the department of polymer technology at Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology last year.

She says the consumption of polymers in India is low as compared to the rest of the world. During the last ten years global demand for polymers grew from 67 million tons in 1989 to 108 million tones in 2000.

" There is no alternative or substitute to polymers. Researchers must concentrate on improving the quality of production and making it more efficient. The other two areas of focus should be the safe disposal of waste and recycling of plastic. These are our areas of emphasis at the IIT," she says.

Significant Research

Understandably Prof. Varma gives all credit to the IIT for her progress that has given her the opportunity to do her research on polymers. Some of her significant contributions in the area include the synthesis and characterization of thermally stable polymers, modification of synthetic and natural polymers and structure property relationship in polymers.

Under her tutelage at the Centre for Polymer Science & Engineering at the IIT, 37 students have been awarded Ph.D. degrees and five students are currently working towards their doctorate on topics like flame resistant polymers, thermally stable polymers and adhesive from proteins.

However, the initial years were not easy ones for the scientist. After her return from the Glasgow University, she applied for a research officer's job but the organization turned her away saying that such specialized jobs were not meant for women. " At that time the mindset of people in the industry was male-centric. Only men were expected to do serious scientific work," says Prof. Varma who later got a job at the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Allahabad before joining IIT in 1966.

Over the years, she says, there has been a change in attitudes. " There has never been any gender bias in IIT. In fact my male colleagues have been positively encouraging." One of her now-retired colleagues was her husband Dr. Dharmendera Varma who was professor at the department of textile technology. Both her son and the daughter have done their B.Tech from IIT and are now working in leading companies.

For a workingwoman, especially one who is also managing both the family and a pressure-cooker, a dedicated career can be a daunting task. But, says Prof. Varma, " You have to have a determination that you will not fail either at the domestic front or in office. That's what's kept me going. And I can assure you today my family is both supportive and proud of me."

Prof. Varma has virtuous plans after retirement in October 2002. " Plastic waste management is one area where I would like to work in the future because this is an issue which is of concern to all of us today," says Prof. Varma who now occupies the Reliance Chair at the IIT.

Despite the fact that there are fewer women in the field of science and technology as compared to men, their contribution is no less significant. Says Prof. Varma, " See the number of women in these fields and then see their contribution. If you work out the ratio it would equal or even be higher than that of men. That's because women usually don't have many distractions and are more focused if they go for higher studies."

Women like Prof. Varma are the sought-after role models for the younger generation of aspiring girls - both in schools and colleges.

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