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'No limits': Physicist’s journey from rural India to president of Australia’s top science body

Professor Chennupati Jagadish (middle) with visiting students from India at Australian National University. Source: Supplied by Chennupati Jagadish

Chennupati Jagadish, who has been appointed president of the Australian Academy of Science by 572 of the country’s elite scientists, recalls his humble beginnings studying by kerosene lamp in India.

Professor Jagadish, a physicist and pioneer in nanotechnology, said he is humbled and grateful for the honour. 

"I started my life in a small village in India and came to this country with my wife and our two-month-old daughter in July 1990. I never imagined I would be an academy member, let alone become its president," Prof Jagadish told SBS Hindi. 

"The process of getting into the academy is so competitive that only 20 distinguished and respected scientists make it every year."   


Highlights:

  • Professor Chennupati Jagadish arrived in Australia in 1990
  • He is the first India-origin scientist to lead the Australian Academy of Science
  • Prof Jagadish, an expert in nanotechnology, will assume charge in May next year

The academy is an organisation of Australia's top research scientists which claims to provide independent, authoritative and influential scientific advice. It has been instrumental in providing reports to the federal government on coronavirus and climate change.   

Prof Jagadish is the first person of Indian origin to be elected president of this prestigious science body.  

Professor Chennupati Jagadish is a pioneer in nanotechnology and owns a few patents.
Professor Chennupati Jagadish is a pioneer in nanotechnology and owns a few patents.
Supplied by Chennupati Jagadish/ANU

He was born in a village in India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh to a Telugu-speaking family. Prof Jagadish said his father left teaching for farming and their family relocated to another remote village when he was 10.  

"There was electricity in the village, but our house didn't have the connection. So, I studied with a kerosene lamp until class (Year) 7. Our village didn't have a high school, so I would walk for miles to attend one in the neighbouring village," he said. 

Prof Jagadish was saved from this daily hike after his high school maths teacher Chaganti Sambi Reddy decided to take him in. 

Prof Jagadish said he was a good student, but his class (Year) 12 results failed to secure him admission into engineering college, which left him and his family disappointed. He said most Indian families preferred their children to either become doctors or engineers at that time.   

Despite the poor results, Prof Jagadish didn't give up on his higher education dream. Instead, he pursued a Bachelor of Science degree from Nagarjuna University and a Master of Science (Tech) degree from Andhra University in 1980.  

He completed his MPhil and PhD degrees from the University of Delhi in 1982 and 1986. His expertise was in electronics and semiconductors. 

Professor Jagadish arrived in Australia with his wife and their two-month-old daughter in 1990.
Professor Jagadish arrived in Australia with his wife and their two-month-old daughter in 1990.
Supplied by Chennupati Jagadish/ANU

Prof Jagadish became a lecturer in physics and electronics at Delhi University's Sri Venkateswara College. In their free time, he and his fellow lecturers would apply for post-doctoral research fellowships at overseas universities. 

"At that time, there was no computer or internet. So, we would apply using the applications published in science magazines available in our library," Prof Jagadish remembered. 

"However, these applications never carried a deadline. So, we wouldn't know if the position was still open. But, we applied anyway." 

Prof Jagadish said he received more than 300 rejections in three years.  

"We joked among ourselves over who could pull out a rejection letter fastest, or who had the most ejection letters. We spent half of our salaries on those applications." 

Prof Jagadish got his first break with a post-doctoral research fellowship when a professor friend returned from overseas and referred him to Queen's University in Canada.  

"The fellowship was in the field of magnetism, which was different from my field of semiconductor, but I still took it. I worked hard and excelled in my new field so well that people noticed and began inviting me for talks. I was able to publish 10 papers," Prof Jagadish proudly recalled. 

Prof Jagadish then received an opportunity to work in Australia, joining the Australian National University in 1990 and becoming its distinguished professor in 2009. 

Today he heads the Semiconductor Optoelectronics and Nanotechnology Group in the university's Department of Electronic Materials Engineering.  

Prof Jagadish has published more than 980 research papers (including 700 plus journal papers) and won many awards, including the 2000 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.  

Professor Jagadish holds six US patents and has supervised 65 PhD students.  

It doesn't matter where you start in life or how difficult your life has been. Everything is possible if you believe in yourself, work hard and smart, and adapt to the local conditions 

"I’ve had my failures too. I couldn't make it to engineering college. But it's possible to get over your limitations. 

"Today, I am recognised as a physicist and an engineer. Last year, I was elected as the international member of the US National Academy of Engineering, which is the most difficult one to get into.  

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