“Max-Planck makes global science possible”

April 22, 2013

Vinayak Sinha (35), an atmospheric chemist and assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali, heads a Partner Group of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. His counterpart is Jos Lelieveld, Director at the Mainz-based Institute. Their common goal is to develop new measurement systems and models to understand specific trace gases over the Indian region that control the self-cleaning capacity of the atmosphere and have consequences for public health and climate.

Mr. Sinha, Max Planck Partner Groups are a specific instrument to strengthen international cooperation. How do you benefit from this program?

It has provided me with an international platform to sustain the important scientific links I established with German colleagues during my doctoral and post doctoral work at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz. The financial support facilitates flexible and more intensive research. Currently, five scientists plus three junior researchers are involved in the activities. In addition, Partner Groups strengthen institutional links, not just person-to-person collaborative links. This is something that strongly appeals to my idea of “global science”.

How did you come in contact with the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry?

I was about to complete my Masters in Analytical Chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, in 2004 and was searching for exciting Ph.D opportunities. While surfing the Internet, I came across a call for Ph.D applications by the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, of which the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry is a Partner Institute. I read about the impressive analytical chemistry work which involved developing instruments for flight deployment to probe clouds and blue skies, and immediately submitted my application. In a week’s time I was informed that, although no open positions were available at that point, the school board had found my application interesting and wanted to interview me. The interview was held in Mainz and it was a wonderful experience for a young student from India to be invited to Germany and experience firsthand the vibrant and friendly atmosphere that permeated the Institute. I was touched by the kindness shown by the IMPRS coordinator who calmed my nerves by taking care of all of the logistics, and director Prof. Jos Lelieveld  who spent a full hour explaining the importance of atmospheric chemistry research in today’s global context. I caught a glimpse of Nobel laureate Prof. Paul Crutzen too and knew then that, given a chance, this is where I would love to do a Ph.D.

What are the key issues of your joint research with Jos Lelieveld?

The Max Planck Partner Group that I lead at IISER Mohali in collaboration with Prof. Jos Lelieveld is focused on developing fundamental understanding of hydroxyl radical chemistry and reactive volatile organic compound emissions that occur in the lower part of the atmosphere over India, through state of the art in-situ measurements and atmospheric chemistry models.  A vast knowledge gap exists throughout India in this area of atmospheric chemistry primarily due to the absence of data and technology – highly sensitive mass spectrometric and optical techniques – to perform such sensitive measurements. We will address this gap by measuring the composition of the atmosphere in order to draw conclusions as to how it is affecting air quality, health, and climate.  

What does your interim balance look like?

In just 1.5 years, we have set up India’s first integrated proton transfer reaction mass spectrometer air quality facility for studies of emissions and chemistry, and have acquired a full year of data. We have captured the seasonal variability of all the primary air pollutants simultaneously with key reactive volatile organic compounds that are important emission markers and precursors of secondary pollutants. Our Research Group is the first group in the world to have ever measured methanol, acetone, acetonitrile, acetaldehyde, isoprene and monoterpenes in India's air. A  paper has just been accepted for publication in India’s foremost scientific journal “Current Science” and  five conference papers were presented on the research work performed in Mohali at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2013.

Do you have an example of new findings in short?

Yes, we found surprisingly high levels of ambient benzenoid compounds released into the air from post harvest crop residue burning in North India.  The study combined real timechemical measurements, satellite remote sensing data of fire counts and back trajectory of air masses.. Many of the benzenoid compounds were measured for the first time in ambient Indian air.  Generally traffic and industrial sources are regarded as the major sources of such compounds into the air. Anyway, such high levels of benzenoids for 1-2 months per year aggravate smog events and enhance cancer risks in northwestern India.

Mohali is more than 7,800 kilometers away from Mainz. How do you stay in contact with your German colleagues?

Through summer visits, meetings at research conferences, e-mails and phone calls. Until recently I had been co-advising a doctoral student in my former Research Group led by Dr. Jonathan Williams at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. The student graduated in December 2012 and the partnership was very helpful in keeping up contacts with colleagues not directly involved in the Partner Group activity.

How would you describe the prospects and resources for excellent research in India?

In particular for outstanding young researchers with 3-4 years of postdoctoral experience, India presents very attractive options today, as several new premier institutes like IISERs, which are focused on basic research, have been set up in the last five years. These new institutes provide a young person with the opportunity to grow rapidly with the institute. Fresh ideas flow and are nurtured with abundant and generous financial support from the government for such institutes in India. In comparison to Germany, I would say there is considerable scope for improvement in terms of technical staff for experimental facilities.

What makes Mohali an excellent location for your research?

The same level of administrative support, vibrancy, atmosphere of intellectual excellence that I experienced at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and, as add-on, the presence of more than five hundred curious undergraduates who never get tired of asking fundamental questions!

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