While most attention on her is focused on the fact that she is the first woman to head the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the largest network of research laboratories in the country, Dr Nallathamby Kalaiselvi’s core expertise is very much in sync with some of the most pressing national scientific priorities.
A “materials electrochemist”, as one of her former colleagues described her, Kalaiselvi’s most important scientific contributions have been in the efforts to improve efficiency of lithium-ion batteries. She is credited with developing novel materials to be used as electrodes in lithium-ion batteries that improve their storage capacities.
“Electric mobility… that is something very close to her heart, and that needs improved batteries. Also, wider utilisation of renewable energies like wind or solar,” said Dr T Prem Kumar, a former colleague at the Central Electrochemical Research Institute (CECRI) in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. “We are still some distance away from creating efficient batteries to store the energy harnessed from these sources. India is very actively looking for these solutions right now, and I think she is just the right person for the top CSIR job at this moment.”
Kalaiselvi joined CECRI in 1997 and rose to become the institute’s director in 2019, again a first for a woman scientist. She did not have a background in electrochemistry when she joined CECRI. She was an organic chemist and had taught the subject for about three years at a private college after completing her PhD from Annamalai University in Chidambaram.
“But she took a liking for electrochemistry when she started working on lithium-ion batteries. She is a very fast learner, and soon started publishing research papers on the subject,” Dr Prem Kumar said.
She received some big independent projects, and used the Raman fellowship to go and study at the University of Texas. Incidentally, her daughter, an engineering graduate, is now pursuing PhD from the same university.
Hailing from Vikramasinghapuram, a small municipal town in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, Kalaiselvi was raised almost like a boy by her teacher-father. Another former colleague recalled her saying that, as a child, she used to enjoy playing all the boys’ games.
Kalaiselvi studied entirely at government schools and colleges in Tamil Nadu.
“She is a very powerful public speaker, in both Tamil and English. And she likes to speak extempore… about science and other things as well,” Dr S Sathiyanarayanan, chief scientist at CECRI and a long-time associate and collaborator of Kalaiselvi, said.
Prem Kumar said this could be because she used to frequently participate in debates and discussions in schools and colleges. “There is a tradition of public debate called Pattimandram in Tamil Nadu. A certain topic is picked up, usually from the epics such as Ramayan and Mahabharat, and participants are encouraged to critique those episodes. This is common in families, schools, colleges and at community events.”
“Kalaiselvi was a very active participant, and participated in some of these at the local All India Radio station. This has made her a formidable public speaker,” he said.
Sathiyanarayanan, who described her as “friendly and amiable” but a demanding boss, said Kalaiselvi was very passionate about technology and its applications to solve real-world problems.
“She doesn’t like it when a technology developed by a research group or a laboratory remains unutilised because it couldn’t be scaled up or made marketable,” he said. “As the director of CECRI, she made a lot of efforts to upgrade the semi-developed technologies, so that they matured and were accepted by the industry. I think that would be something that she might push as head of CSIR as well.”
According to Prem Kumar, Kalaiselvi often laments about the fact that basic sciences is losing out on talent to engineering. “We must be able to attract the best talents to basic sciences, she says. But for that we have to provide opportunities for research, facilitate hassle-free funding, and develop the right atmosphere. I am sure that she would make some efforts in this direction,” Kumar said.