Queen’s Honours List: Prof Suresh Bhargava’s compelling story

By Indira Laisram
Prof Suresh Bhargava // Pic supplied

Sitting in his Melbourne home, Professor Suresh Bhargava is basking in the congratulatory notes and good wishes coming his way. With reason. His name features in the prestigious 2022 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. “I am happy. It means that my adopted country has accepted my hard work over the period of thirty years in my scientific field and towards helping build a strong relationship between India and Australia,” he tells The Indian Sun over phone.

Every year, Australia recognises individuals “whose achievements span community service, science and research, industry, sport, the arts and more, representing the very best of Australia.” However, for Prof Bhargava, an interdisciplinary scientist, the Member of Order of Australia, 2022, is not the only feather on his cap (more on that later).

Bhargava’s journey into the field of science and, later, technology had its beginnings in small town Meerut, north India. While a child he was inspired and intrigued by the fact that gold was being used in Ayurveda for medicinal purposes. “There was a curiosity in childhood as to how medicines based upon these metals were so impactful because people are using it,” he says.

With time, the curiosity began to feel urgent and overwhelming. He would go on to complete Master of Science in Chemistry from Meerut University at the age of 18.

Prof Suresh Bhargava // Pic supplied

In 1979, Bhargava went to the University of Exeter, England, to do his PhD where he found himself working with great scientists such as the late Eddie Abel, late Nobel laureate Geoffrey Wilkinson, to name a few. “Prof Abel treated me like his son and motivated me to complete my PhD in two and half years with 15 papers in hand. In fact, he declared me as one of the best international PhD students,” he recalls with pride.

It was on the recommendations of Prof Abel that got Bhargava to Canberra in 1983. It so happened that Prof Abel wrote to Prof Martin Bennett at The Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, saying he had a good student and whether he would like his “good student” to join him. “So, I joined ANU on invitation.”

Working with these great scientists including Prof Bennett changed his life completely, reflects Bhargava.

At the ANU Research School of Chemistry, Bhargava started making gold compounds “not for medicinal purposes but out of curiosity”. However it became a project that got bigger. He started testing the compounds 10 years ago in medicinal applications. “That also came out beautifully good,” he says.

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In fact, when Bhargava came out with this novel compound, he was told by Prof Bennett at ANU then that he was actually “sitting on a gold mine”.

In 1990, Bhargava joined RMIT University where he established a state-of-the-art research centre that is now world-renowned as CAMIC (Centre for Advanced Materials and Industrial Chemistry). The centre has developed new products and technologies that benefit society and produced real-world graduates.

“When I took over, I quickly realised the university has a very good platform for translation research to solve the real-world problems,” says Bhargava, who is Dean (Indian research partnerships) and Founding Director of CAMIC. The Molecular Engineering Group at RMIT, led by him, has engineered gold-based molecules that target cancer cells and leave healthy cells unharmed.

Bhargava’s patented research on gold based metallo drug as substitute of market drugs cisplatin for cancer treatment is revolutionary. Recently, he secured a one-million-dollar grant for collaborative Indo-Australian research with Indian Institute of Science & Technology, Hyderabad, to continue his research. “A lot of cancer bodies are very much interested to see what is happening,” he informs.

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Bhargava’s work has catapulted him into a recognisable name in interdisciplinary science. Translation research is his domain. “You have to become a multidisciplinary scientist; you cannot work on chemistry alone. You need engineering because engineers translate science into technology, again, you must work in collaboration with biology and physics for greater impact and to understand the right solution of problems,” he says, adding, “I cross the boundaries of the disciplines of science all the time because I am developing the concept of solution engineering. As Prof Martin Bennett says, scientists must join hands with engineers to provide solutions for tomorrow.”

Translation research has a double focus for Bhargava. “One focus is getting the answer for the cure, second focus is to bring the graduates from all over the world,” he says. Bhargava has till date supervised more than 60 PhD, at least 28 from the Indian sub-continent.

His advice to students is: “Do not wait to become a professor to introduce your ideas. Develop the attitude of creating a start up from very early. Start working in a collective intelligence area.”

But Bhargava also has a mission that is perhaps broader than his other roles. With a lifelong passion to connect India and Australia, he has been on governmental advisory roles on Indo-Australian relations and has been one of the founding architects of the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund.

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“Both countries have a lot to offer to the world. That has been realised with both our leaders and with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as well,” he says.  “Quad is also offering fellowships in science and technology. We are, at the moment, working together on many problems which can change the issues of energy, the environment, hunger, et al. The sky is the limit.”

And the ties between the two countries can touch great heights, believes Bhargava because “Australia has the top technology in the world and India has the market of 1.4 billion people as also the brightest minds”.

The belief and mission also seem rooted in his Indian sensibility and philosophy. “I think we Indians have one problem, when we leave India, India never leaves us. The DNA of India remains in our blood. That forces us to connect with the motherland, but the adopted country also gives us opportunity to fly high. My mission is to contribute my bit to make the world a better place than when I entered it. And then my journey is accomplished.”

Clearly, Bhargava’s career has been defined by so many achievements. A Fellow of seven academies around the globe, he also recently joined The World Academy of Science, UNESCO. He is closely working with IIT Bombay on the applications of 3D printing technology under VAZARA fellowship.

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Bhargava’s closing thoughts are tinged with a bit of regret—drawing attention to the fact that India still has not recognised his contribution. “The time has come for the Indian government to realise that the diaspora sitting far away also needs recognition and appreciation. They are doing equally or even better to contribute to their motherland.”

His words are, in some sense, poignant. The future does depend on collective, collaborative successes of great minds. And acknowledgement from the motherland is always special!

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