Sudhir Kumar Sopory or S K Sopory or known by few just as Sopory is an Indian educationist, plant physiologist, scientist and former vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru Universitty, New Delhi. Prof Sopory is an elected Fellow of several major Indian science academies including four major science academies i.e. IAS, INSA and NASI and NAAS and International ‘The World Academy of Sciences’ (TWAS) and is a recipient of many honours, including the 1987 Shanti Swarup Bhatangar (SSB) Prize, the highest Indian award in the science and technology categories and The Government of India awarded him the India’s fourth highest civilian honour of the Padma Shri, in 2007, for his contributions to science and technology.
Prof Sopory is among the few 4615 Padma Awardees and one of the 3005 Padma Shri awardees (till May 2019), who has received the fourth highest civilian award of India. Research of Prof Sopory has led to the rapid development in the field of Agriculture Sciences that has vast applications and has been able to monetize soon. Today, he has to his credit a whole stress tolerance pathway and many varieties which could stand in harsh salinity conditions. In this way we would grow crops even in the areas like ‘The Rann of Kutch’ which is a large area of salt marshes where salinity in soil goes upto pH 10.2.
Sir, would you like to share some personal background?
I belong to a family of Kashmiri Pandits. My grandfather was an engineer and father had done Master in English, from the University of Lahore, and served the Govt of J& K, as Deputy Commissioner. I was around four years old when my father passed away. We were raised up by my mother with support from my Uncle and elder brother. After finishing my Masters from J&K University, I came to Delhi to look for a job, that was the need for the family at that time.
However, having failed in a few competitive tests, and some interviews, I finally took up my research work at DU and finished Ph.D under the supervision of Prof. S.C Maheshwari. For some reasons I also had to take a break from DU and joined Meerut College where I taught for about 5 months. I felt proud that my Ph.D viva exam was conducted by Prof M.S. Swaminathan, with whom I maintained communication all through, and had an opportunity to visit him, at his invitation, when he was DG at IRRI, Phillipines. After my studies I joined JNU and in between I visited many Institutes to upgrade my skills and knowledge.
Sir, were you determined to do research or some other circumstances took you in?
At the time I was doing B.Sc at the Sri Pratap College, Srinagar, they opened a one year simultaneous course in Botany honours. I took it along with my regular B.Sc course. This was tough, nevertheless, this course did invoke some interest in me for plants. However, even after my Master in Botany, where I met some good teachers, I was not sure if I should go for Ph.D, and in which area in plant sciences.
My initial interest was to continue to stay in the state for job or further studies but this did not mature. It is only after coming to Delhi and having met Prof Maheshwari (with Prof Sopory in photo on this page), under whose supervision I finished my doctorate, that I developed keen interest in plant biology. He induced me to read about research going on in different areas, other than my own immediate area of research, and said that in future we should move into an understanding of the biochemical and molecular mechanisms of plant development and physiological processes.
I have remained in close contact with him, and more so when he moved to ICGEB after his retirement, where I joined in 1997 and continued there till 2011( Jan). As I am answering this question of yours, I talked to Prof Maheshwari, who is now in Jaipur, I found that he is not keeping well. I pray for his good health.
Sir, who is your role model?
To be very frank with you, I do not have any single role model. To idolize one, there is danger to get caged in “monoculture”. During the last 40 years of my journey, I have learnt many things from different contacts; my professors, collaborators, colleagues and even students.
Sir, what is the role of technology in your research?
When I did Ph.D in early 70’s, my only tools were microscopes, spectrophotometers, and tissue culture facilities. Today, the imaging facilities have vastly enhanced. Similarly, the omics platforms that can bring out huge data in very short time are available. We can measure hormones, metabolites with high accuracy and presently it is possible to look at the functioning of single cells. Tremendous advancements in instrumentation, techniques and technologies have been made, and these are still evolving .We require these to answer precise question, as also to utilize the data for practical purpose.
Sir, how was the experience as VC-JNU when it is known as top political hotspot in the country?
I was in JNU as a teacher from 1973 to 1996 and as Vice Chancellor from January 2011 to January 2016. There is a wide gap between perception of reality about JNU. Here over 90% of faculty and students are seriously engaged in research and teaching or learning. In JNU, only 2-3% of over 1 lakh applicants can find admission, and students compete for space to sit in the library; we had to open it for 20 hours to meet the demand. Faculty and students publish regularly. As VC, I encouraged academic activity in all its dimensions and tried my best to interact with each and every faculty and student. I personally benefited a lot and learnt about the kind of work going on in non-natural science schools.
Yes, there is politics of all thoughts in the campus. But more than political activism there is academic activism and that is the reason why JNU stands top in all the national rankings in the country. If the uppermost functionaries in the University are apolitical, and non-partisan and selfless, rest of the things fall in place.
Sir, how research done by you can be useful to common people?
My research has basically revolved around an understanding of the mechanism of light and stress mediated gene expression and inturn the physiology and development in plants. Having identified many genes and pathways that can be linked to these processes, especially to abiotic stress etc., we can use this knowledge to develop transgenic approaches to manipulate gene expression or develop markers to improve crops which can be grown under unfavourable environmental conditions or plants which can overcome the impact of stress that may come during their life cycle.
Sir, how do you think scientific research, which contains a lot of technical language and data, can be more accessible to the general public, specially of India?
Science communication is an important area that has not been well nourished in this country. We need to bridge the gap between knowledge producers and technocrats with the consumers of the data, and the general public. This gap can be filled up by persons like you and the magazine like Biotech Express.
Sir, what you think about GMOs when regulations are in favour of scientists?
The technology of genetic engineering or genome editing for creating transgenics that overproduce a useful protein or which do not produce a protein that is of hindrance to plant development and adaptation, is becoming more and more advanced and precise. There are good regulations in place and if anyone obeys these honestly then these biotech plants can provide a vast resource of novel variants, with added advantage, which can be used in our breeding programs to develop crops that produce more, are tolerant to diseases or abiotic stresses and also those that are water and nutrient efficient. There are tremendous opportunities and hence we should go ahead with the safe use of this technology in our agricultural system. Currently, however, unfortunately, ignorance and resistance from some quarters is driving the debate on this technology against its adoption in the country. We will pay a price for this activism in the long run.
Sir, what do you enjoy most about being a scientist?
There is nothing else that I enjoy as much as reading about new developments in science, in teaching, if get an opportunity, and in a small way contributing to science through my research. I enjoy this activity as it allows me to learn and understand a bit more about the vast nature of biological world. Science to me reveals the nature of universal consciousness that pervades all around. It connects me to myself.
I wonder how a human mind functions which on one hand can scan the outer physical world at the Astronomical level, and at the same time voyages into the inner biological and cellular world at the Angstrom level.
Sir, any message to Life Science community of India i.e. to students, researchers and scientists?
Keep the curiosity of a child alive in you. Ignorance follows knowledge and that feeling and realization should become the passion for more discoveries and innovations.
Science is a wonderful activity, remain engaged. But do not overlook other aspects of life. Read philosophy. That helps to sharpen one’s thoughts and explanations.
More about Prof S K Sopory
Prof Sopory is currently holding position of SERB Distinguished professor in International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology ICGEB), New Delhi, India.
Prof Sopory was born on 7 January 1948, secured his graduate degree (BSc) in 1966 and postgraduate degree (MSc, Botany Hons.) in 1968 from Sri Pratap College, Sri Nagar of the University of Kashmir. Subsequently, he moved to Delhi to start his career by joining University of Delhi as a member of faculty and pursued his doctoral studies there to obtain a PhD in plant molecular biology in 1973.
After securing the doctoral degree, he joined Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1973 as an Assistant professor and worked there till his superannuation in 1996, holding positions such as associate professor (1978–1984), professor (1985–1996) and Vice-Chancellor.
Professor Sopory has many notable awards to his name and been member of several national committees of DBT, DST, ICAR, CSIR, UGC, academic bodies of over two dozen universities and institutions, Science and Engineering Research Council of DST; and Council Member of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore. He served(s) on the Editorial boards of many national/international journals. He was Vice President, INSA (2004-06), Society of Plant Physiology and Biochemistry and Secretary, Plant Tissue Culture Association of India.
Prof Sopory has also been awarded Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 1987 work in the field of physiology of plant growth and development for his researches that led to a better understanding of the mode of action of phytochrome, and the possible involvement of calcium as a second messenger in higher plant cells. SSB Prize carries the value of Rs 5,00,000 (Rupees five lakh ) and a citation and the purpose of the award is to recognise outstanding Indian work in science and technology.
i. Fellow, Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, 1992; ii. Fellow, Indian National Science Academy, Delhi, 1992; iii. Fellow, National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad, 1994; iv. Fellow, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, 2002 ; v. Fellow, The World Academy of Sciences, Trieste, Italy, 2005; vi. Fellow, Guha Research Conference, 1989 vii. Max Planck Society Fellow, 1976; viii. Fulbright Fellow, USEFI, 1982 ix. Humboldt Foundation Fellowship, 1991
President/Vice-President of Organizations
i. Vice-President, Indian Society for Plant Physiology and Biochemistry 2001-2003; ii. Secretary(Elected), Plant Tissue Culture Association of India, 2001-2010; iii. Vice – President , Indian National Science Academy, 2004-2006 iv. Vice-President, Society for Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology, New Delhi, 2009-2011; v. President, Indian Society of Plant Physiology, 2013-2016; vi. Vice-President, National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad, 2015-2016
Awards Given to Prof S K Sopory
i. Padamshree, Govt. of India, 2007 (civilian honour given by the President of India)
ii. Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award, (CSIR) 1987 (given by The Prime Minister of India).
iii. H.L. Chakravorty Award, Indian Science Congress, 1986. (given by The Vice-President of India)
iv. Career Award, University Grant Commission, 1985
v. Salgram Sinha Award, National Academy of Sciences of India, 2001
vi. Birbal Sahni Medal, Indian Botanical Society, 2001
vii. Birbal Sahni Centernary Gold Medal Award for Life Time Achievements in Plant Sciences, Indian Science Congress Association, 2005 (given by the Prime Minister of India)
viii. S.S. Katiyar Award , Indian Science Congress Association, 2010
ix. Corresponding Membership Award for Non-USA scientists 2010 American Society of Plant Biology. (given first time to an Indian Plant Scientist since its inception in 1932)
x. Prof. R.N. Tandon Memorial Award, National Academy of Sciences, India, 2012.
xi. B.M. Johri Memorial Award, Society of Plant Research, India, 2012.
xii. Jawaharlal Nehru Birth Centenary Award, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi 2014.
xiii. T.N. Khoshoo Memorial Award, Orchid Society of India, 2014.
xiv. Conferred D.Sc (Honoris Causa) by Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, 2012 and Rani Durgawati Vishvidyalaya, Jabalpur, 2014.
xv. Life Time Achievement Award, Biotechnology Society of India, 2017
Award lectures of Prof S K Sopory
i. Gadgil Memorial Award Lecture, Plant Tissue Culture Association, 2000
ii. R. N. Singh Memorial Lecture, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, 2000
iii. P. Maheshwari Award Lecture, Indian National Science Academy, 2000
iv. Panchanan Maheshwari Memorial Lecture, Delhi University, 2001
v. N.B.Das Memorial Award Lecture, Society of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology, 2002
vi. Platinum Jubilee Award Lecture, Indian Science Congress Association, 2003
vii. Tenth Godnev Award lecture of the Belarus Academy of Sciences, Institute of Photobiology (delivered at Minsk, Belarus; 7th April 2003)
viii. N. Narayana Memorial Award Lecture, Biochemical Society, Indian Institute of Sciences , Bangalore, 2005.
ix. S.P. Ray-Chaudhuri 75th Birthday Endowment Lecture Award; Indian Society of Cell Biology, 2009 ( first time to a plant scientist).
x. Dr Yellapragada Subba Row Award Lecture, Indraprastha University, Delhi 2009
xi. G.V. Joshi Lecture Award : Indian Society of Plant Physiology, 2010
xii. Sisir Kumar Mitra Memorial Lecture Award, 2011-2012, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi.
xiii. First H.C. Arya Lecture Award, Plant Tissue Culture Association ( India), 2011
xiv. Dr. Gopinath Sahu Memorial Award Lecture; Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, 2014
xv. 45th Lal Bhadur Shastri Award Lecture, IARI, New Delhi, 2015
xvi. H.S.Srivastava Memorial Award Lecture, BHU, 2016 ( Science Society Lucknow).
xvii. R.D. Asana, Award lecture, Plant Physiology Division, IARI, 2017
xviii. Pran K Parija Award lecture , Cuttack University, Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, 2019
xix. VI Kashyap Award lecture, Panjab University, Chandigarh, 2019
Member of Editorial Boards:
i. Physiology and Molecular Biology of Plants, 1994-1995, 2003-
ii. Journal of Plant Biochemistry & Biotechnology, 1995.-
iii. National Science Academy Science Letters 1995-2002
iv. Plant Physiology and Biochemistry 1997-
v. Plant Biology 1999-
vi. Indian Journal of Experimental Biology 2001-2008
vii. Indian Journal of Biotechnology 2002-
viii. Phytomorphology. (Int. J. of Plant. Sci)-2007-
ix. Journal of Food Agriculture and Environment, Finland, 2003-2006
x. The Journal of National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka. 2005-
xi. Molecular Plant : Blackwell Scientific Publ. England. 2007-2012
xii. Member, Consultation Board of IDOSI Journals, Canada 2006-
xiii. Tree Physiology, Canada, 2006-2008
xiv. J. Plant Physiology, Germany, 2008-
xv. J. Biomedicine and Biotechnology (Section Pl. Biotech)( 2009-15)
Note: The interview was conducted by Kamal Pratap Singh, Managing Editor, Biotech Express and published by Biotech Express Magazine in the May 2019 issue.
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