New Exchange Program to Build Bridges Between UW and India

CONTACT: Aseem Ansari, (608) 265-4690,

MADISON – Although still recovering from jet lag, a group of 15 undergraduate students from India are getting situated in various labs across the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where they will spend the summer conducting research.

They are the first official participants in the university’s Khorana Scholars Program, which aims to create new opportunities for promising young researchers in one of the world’s most populous nations.

But the new program isn’t just about giving students a new scientific and cultural experience. Aseem Ansari, a UW-Madison professor of biochemistry who co-directs the program, explains that the Khorana Scholars’ visit is part of a broader effort to forge a closer relationship with India.

“The hope is that this program will lead to stronger ties between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and leading educational institutions in India and to the creation of virtual scientific communities across the globe,” he says.

The students, who hail from seven leading Indian universities, will fan out across campus to join labs in the College of Engineering, the College of Letters and Science, and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. While the students are expected to have some trouble adjusting to campus life here, organizers of the visit expect that they will return home more adept at navigating American culture-and with a deeper sense of what it means to be a research scientist.

To meet those goals, the visiting students will have help from Arpita Mandan, a senior at the Indian Institute of Technology, located in Kanpur, India. Mandan participated in a pilot version of the program last summer and is returning this year as a student coordinator, providing social guidance and emotional support.

“At the end of those 11 weeks, I had a good sense of what it meant to do research in science. I realized that it was much more exciting than just studying from textbooks, but it also required much more patience and hard work,” says Mandan.

The idea for this program took its first baby step toward becoming a reality in 2005, when Ansari first shared the concept with Ken Shapiro, an associate dean in CALS who now co-directs the Khorana program with Ansari. A year later, Ansari had a brainstorm after spotting a campus plaque devoted to the work of Har Gobind Khorana, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1968 after learning how genes are translated into proteins while a biochemistry faculty member at UW-Madison. The research laid the groundwork for Khorana’s later work synthesizing genes.

“No scientist from India is complete if they don’t know (about Khorana’s achievements) from the moment when they are anointed science majors in their late teens,” says Ansari. “They may not know what the genetic code is or what a synthetic gene may be, or how this led to the birth of modern molecular and chemical biology, but they know of Khorana’s greatness and that he did transcendental things.”

With Khorana’s support, Ansari named the nascent exchange program in his honor. Coincidentally, it debuts on the 40th anniversary of Khorana’s Nobel Prize.

The program is being funded by India’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum, and the UW-Madison’s chancellor’s office. In the future, Ansari hopes to see the program expand, possibly by sending UW-Madison students to India, fostering interactions between academia and private industry in both nations, and helping promote Indian rural development.