Australia

A top scientist who overcame poverty is now mentoring Australia's brightest young minds

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Chennupati Jagadish grew up in rural India, where studying proved a challenge. Now one of Australia's leading physicists, he is opening doors for the nation's best young scientists.

Lydia Feng reports from Lindau, Germany

World-renowned nanotechnology expert and physicist Chennupati Jagadish has come a long way.

Born and raised in the small farming village of Vallurupalem in southern India, his early life was humble, to say the least.

Science-obsessed from a young age, he would trek five kilometres barefoot each day just to get to school. At night, he would study by the light of a kerosene lamp.

But, he says, he was always aware there were others even poorer than him.

Chennupati Jagadish
Chennupati Jagadish grew up in India.
Supplied

His academic persistence paid off. Jagadish became the first person in his family to travel outside of his hometown and complete a university degree.

But he didn't stop there, spending the past 40 years forging a global career as a world leader in the creation of high-performance laser devices.

Since moving to Australia in the early 1990s to take up a professorial role at the Australian National University, Professor Jagadish has written more than 900 scientific papers, received a UNESCO Medal and been awarded the nation's highest civilian honour - the Companion of the Order of Australia.

Chennupati Jagadish
Professor Jagadish has written more than 900 scientific papers.
SBS News/ Lydia Feng

But despite all the accolades, the 61-year-old says it is mentoring Australia’s emerging scientists that he finds most rewarding.

“It’s really important to me to nurture the next generation. They are the future of our science and our society,” he told SBS News.

It’s really important to nurture the next generation. They are the future of our science and our society. 

- Chennupati Jagadish

This week he’s doing just that at the world’s biggest gathering of scientific minds - the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings in Germany - where he’s leading this year’s delegation of young Australian physicists.

Chennupati Jagadish
Professor Chennupati Jagadish is leading this year's Australian delegation at the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.
SBS News/ Lydia Feng

The five-day conference, now in its 69th year, represents a unique chance for 13 young Australians to meet and hear talks from their heroes.

They include newly-minted Nobel Prize winners Donna Strickland and Gérard A. Mourou, who won the award for their advances in laser physics. Professor Strickland was the first female winner in 55 years.

Professor Jagadish says, for him, being at the conference is a chance to help open potentially career-making doors for the aspiring scientists. 

“Who knows what these collaborations can lead to in the future,” he said from the banks of the picturesque Bavarian town.

Chennupati Jagadish
Jagadish was the first to leave his village.
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His efforts to inspire have not gone unnoticed by the group of young Australian scientists.

One of them is Eliezer Estrecho, an ANU PhD candidate, who grew up in the Philippines.

Unlike senior scientists who can be intimating, he says Professor Jagadish “treats us like colleagues.”

From personal experience, Professor Jagadish knows how important it is to have good support as a young scientist.

He attributes much of his own success to his father’s encouragement and the generosity of his maths and English teachers back in his childhood village.

With their help, he says he was able to gain entry to the highly-competitive Andhra University, before completing his PhD in Delhi and post-doctoral study at Queen’s University in Canada.

“I’m so grateful for all they have done. If it weren’t for their support, I would still be ploughing the fields of India,” Professor Jagadish said.

Chennupati Jagadish
The scientist is grateful for the education he received.
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Heading up the delegation in Lindau is not the only way the physicist is giving back.

In 2015 he and his wife Vidya - who is also a scientist - established an endowment fund to help students from developing countries to undertake research at university.

“Dreams are universal but opportunities are not. Growing up, I had so many barriers and I wanted to remove those barriers for them,” he said.

Dreams are universal but opportunities are not. Growing up, I had so many barriers and I wanted to remove those barriers for them.

So far, the fund has helped 53 students from India and Indonesia study at ANU, but Professor Jagadish says that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

“There are so many people who don’t have any opportunities at all. We should not just reflect on ourselves, we should help others.”

Chennupati Jagadish
With his wife, Vidya
Supplied

Next month he’ll be travelling to Jakarta at the invitation of the Indonesian government to share his remarkable story with hundreds of young scientists and academics.

He’s relishing the opportunity to spread his simple message for success: “dream big, work hard, work smart and never give up”.

But he's also keen to highlight the realities that come with the journey too.

“I want to share with them one failure is not a big deal and failures are a pathway to success.”

From Oxford to Singapore, Professor Jagadish spends several days a year travelling the world as a distinguished professor at a handful of universities, but he never forgets his roots.

Every few years when he returns to his childhood home, he visits the teachers who changed his life. 

“I’m very grateful to India for giving me an education and I’m grateful to Australia for making me a great scientist.”

Lydia Feng travelled to Germany with the assistance of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email yourstory@sbs.com.au

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