Published on 23/04/2024
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Professor Aleks Subic and Professor Raghunath Mashelkar FRS
Professor Aleks Subic and Dr Raghunath Mashelkar FRS
  • Dr Raghunath Anant Mashelkar delivered the 2024 Aston University Annual Distinguished Lecture
  • He has been president of the Indian National Science Academy and director general of the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and has received multiple honours and awards
  • He was also presented with an honorary professorship in recognition of his outstanding contribution to academia and beyond.

Dr Raghunath Anant Mashelkar delivered Aston University’s 2024 Annual Distinguished Lecture to more than 70 invited guests on 22 April.

One of the world’s renowned figures in polymer science, research leadership and intellectual property rights, Dr Mashelkar, a chemical engineer, is a global leader and inspiration in his native India and the wider international research community.

In recognition of his outstanding contribution to the research community, Dr Mashelkar was bestowed with an honorary professorship at the end of the lecture by Professor Aleks Subic, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Aston University.  

The title of Dr Mashelkar’s lecture was ‘Trapeze Artistry in Biomimetic Smart Gels’. ‘Smart gels’, made from synthetic polymers (types of plastics), can be developed with specific functional properties, such as reacting to changes in temperature and pH. Whilst Director at India’s National Chemical Laboratories, Dr Mashelkar led work which discovered smart gels which can mimic biological functions (biomimetic), including being self-healing, self-organising, and acting as enzymes in chemical and biological processes. 

Their properties can be reversibly switched on or off, or they can change volume or shape, through the use of pH or temperature, the ‘trapeze artistry’ of the title, giving them many uses. This included temperature-responsive comfortable insoles for diabetic feet, drilling fluids which can quickly, but reversibly, plug an oil well, and medical devices for the digestive system, which resist the acidic environment of the stomach to deliver drugs, but dissolve harmlessly in the alkaline environment when they leave the stomach.

One of the defining factors of Dr Mashelkar’s work has been serendipity. He told the story of a smart gel that dried to become a completely different shape when dried in his laboratory’s old oven rather than the new oven. One of his research team discovered this was due to the presence of copper ions from corrosion in the oven, which changed the way the molecules arranged themselves and led to a whole new area of research on polymer self-assembly. As he said:

“Eyes do not see what the mind does not know. Look at the 'failed' experiment very carefully, maybe the next big breakthrough is waiting there!”

Dr Mashelkar also spoke on his life story, from a young boy in India, attending the local municipal school, to addressing thousands of the world’s best minds at places like the World Economic Forum and the World Bank. His great passion now is ‘Gandhian Engineering’ based on the principle of more performance, from fewer resources, for more people. He created the Anjani Mashelkar Award, named after his mother, for the best low-cost, high-technology innovations. Winners have included an Internet of Things-based maternal healthcare system for rural areas and a smartphone app to assess lung health.

Dr Mashelkar is proud of his work on Gandhian Engineering. Speaking after the lecture he said:

“Rising inequalities create social disharmony. Now, you can’t make the inequalities vanish because you can’t make poor people rich overnight. What is needed is access. Can we give access equality, despite the income inequality? And that’s the principle of Gandhian Engineering. In my lecture I showed a photograph of a poor lady in a hut with a mobile, and a rich lady from a city who also had a mobile. This is equal access. It was not possible previously when mobiles were so expensive. In India now we have good public infrastructure. Data is now Rs 4 per GB and wireless is free. Once you start giving access, there is a parity.”

Professor Subic said:  

“It was a privilege and a pleasure to welcome such a celebrated scientist as Dr Mashelkar to give the Aston University Annual Distinguished Lecture this year. Once again, we have brought a renowned international leader to engage with our community and present some of the most exciting research going on in our world today, while also inspiring the next generation of researchers and international citizens. I am deeply honoured that Dr Mashelkar has accepted an honorary professorship from Aston University in recognition of his international standing and significant contributions to scientific research and innovation.”

The distinguished lecture series was established by Professor Subic in 2023. It brings influential speakers to the University to address major scientific breakthroughs, as well as social, cultural and policy issues. The first distinguished lecture was given by Nobel Laureate Peter Agre in 2023.

Speaking after the lecture, Dr Mashelkar said: 

“I am absolutely honoured to get this honorary professorship from Aston University. Aston University is excelling in a number of areas. In terms of its future, I consider that to be very bright for the simple reason that the University’s dynamic Vice-Chancellor is making big changes with speed and skill, with expansion, inclusion and excellence. To be honoured with an honorary professorship is one of the greatest satisfactions and fulfilments of my life.”

The lecture was followed by a drinks reception to allow guests to meet Dr Mashelkar and further discuss his work.

A video recording of the 2024 Annual Distinguished Lecture will be made available on the University website at a later date.
 

Notes to Editors

About Aston University

For over a century, Aston University’s enduring purpose has been to make our world a better place through education, research and innovation, by enabling our students to succeed in work and life, and by supporting our communities to thrive economically, socially and culturally.

Aston University’s history has been intertwined with the history of Birmingham, a remarkable city that once was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution and the manufacturing powerhouse of the world.

Born out of the First Industrial Revolution, Aston University has a proud and distinct heritage dating back to our formation as the School of Metallurgy in 1875, the first UK College of Technology in 1951, gaining university status by Royal Charter in 1966, and becoming the Guardian University of the Year in 2020.

Building on our outstanding past, we are now defining our place and role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (and beyond) within a rapidly changing world.

For media inquiries in relation to this release, contact Helen Tunnicliffe, Press and Communications Manager, on (+44) 7827 090240 or email: h.tunnicliffe@aston.ac.uk.

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