By S. Ignacimuthu, SJ
Scientific research is an opportunity to take part in the ongoing plan of God’s creation. Rigorous intellectual pursuit, especially in science, has been an integral part of the Society of Jesus’ mission from the beginning. The testimony borne by innumerable number of Jesuits throughout the world is a clear indication of this special charism of the Society. Our Mother Society gave me also the opportunity to be involved in scientific research and thus contribute to this noble tradition of rigorous intellectual apostolate. My mission through scientific research is founded on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. The ‘Contemplation to obtain love’ is the cornerstone of my mission. The more I understand the mysteries of Nature, the closer I get in my relationship with God.
When I was doing my undergraduate studies in Botany during 1969 to 1972 at Loyola College, Chennai, the professors encouraged me and constantly motivated me to get interested in the subject. They helped me publish a paper on biodiversity in the College magazine. During Philosophy studies from 1972 to 1975, I had very good opportunity to promote my interest in science when I was in-charge of the museum at Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur and the care-taker for the orchid and fern gardens. I collected many species of orchids, ferns, cacti and insects and enriched the museum and the gardens.
Based on these experiences I wrote an article on ‘Growing orchids’ and another on ‘Growing cacti’ and got them published in the magazine sections of the newspapers like The Indian Express and The Hindu. A research article on the biological changes in Kodaikanal was published in a science journal with Fr K.M. Mathew, S.J. a renowned plant taxonomist, as the lead author. During 1975-1976, I had an opportunity to teach at St Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai which also gave me a taste for the subject. From 1976 to 1978, I did my M.Sc. Botany at St Joseph’s College, Tiruchirapalli. Fr Mathew filled me with great enthusiasm to pursue scientific research seriously and consider it as my special mission in the Society. He put me in touch with many good professors at Delhi University. I did my M.Phil. and Ph.D. at Delhi University along with my teaching in the department of Botany at St Joseph’s College. Professor C.R. Babu in Delhi trained me to take up scientific research and remain devoted to it.
The more I understand the mysteries of Nature, the closer I get in my relationship with God.
In 1986, I received two government-funded research projects which helped me publish some research papers. In June 1990, I was invited by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria to present a paper at the international conference. This helped me build contacts with some scientists. In 1993, I moved over to Entomology Research Institute (ERI) at Loyola College, Chennai. This formed a very good base for carrying out multidisciplinary research and bringing out many good publications.
Between 1994 and 1996, I went to Kaiserslautern Technical University, Germany, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, Technical University (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland and National Institute, Okasaki, Japan for my post-doctoral research. During this period, I learnt many modern techniques related to biological research. Based on my post-doctoral works I was able to publish many research articles which were later compiled together and submitted to the University of Madras, Chennai which awarded me the degree of Doctor of Science, in 2001.
Research at ERI
At Entomology Research Institute (ERI), Loyola, Chennai we made it a point to carry out socially relevant research works in different fields of biology and medicinal chemistry with the intention of promoting interdisciplinary research. We worked on various areas such as organic farming, sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, environmental protection, medicinal plants, human health, biospesticides to control mosquitoes and other types of insects, genetic engineering, tissue culture, molecular breeding and so on.
Many research articles and some books have been published on these. We have been conducting environmental awareness campaigns among farmers, women, schools and college students. Many popular books and articles were written to create greater awareness among the students and the public. We have been promoting organic farming and sustainable agriculture for many years. The farmers have been trained in various methods relating to organic farming. Many booklets have been prepared and supplied to farmers to be used as self-guides.
In 1993, I moved over to Entomology Research Institute (ERI) at Loyola College, Chennai. This formed a very good base for carrying out multidisciplinary research and bringing out many good publications.
We took enormous efforts to verify the traditional claims and substantiate them with scientific evidence. We have also used bioinformatics tools to validate these findings. All these have resulted in numerous publications and patents related to the above mentioned areas. Many natural extracts, compounds, oils and formulations were scientifically tested and recommended to the farmers for agricultural pest management. One of the products, Ponneem’, formulated by us is manufactured and marketed by Nimbion Organics company, Chennai.
My colleagues and I have written more than 800 research articles which have been appreciated by scientists from all parts of the world. More than 400 gene sequences have been submitted in Genbank for public use. So far we have carried out more than 45 major research projects through which more than 100 students were able to get their doctoral degrees. Our papers have been cited more than 26,000 times by other scientists.
Many natural extracts, compounds, oils and formulations were scientifically tested and recommended to the farmers for agricultural pest management.
Research at Xavier Research Foundation (XRF)
In 2018, I went to St Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai to establish XRF and promote research. Here we are working on similar lines as mentioned above. During Covid-19 pandemic we developed herbal Xavier Hand Sanitizer. We have also developed Xavier herbal termite controller, Xavier herbal hand wash, Xavier herbal disinfectant and Xavier herbal mosquito coils and incense sticks.
We are establishing an Agro-tourism centre with a view to expose students and public to organic farming and integrated agriculture. Through another project we are equipping the laboratory with high-tech instruments for good research. We are working on the ‘Flora of Tirunelveli Hills’ in four volumes.
Patents, Awards and Recognitions
Based on these works, 2 US Patents and 12 Indian Patents were obtained. 10 more Indian Patents are in the pipe line. One trademark was also secured. An insect species is named after me: Jacthrips ignacimuthui. One natural molecule is named after me: Ignaciomycin.
Recognizing the significant contributions, the Government of Tamil Nadu awarded ‘Tamil Nadu Scientist Award for Life Sciences’ in 2001 and ‘Karmaveerar Kamarajar Award for Environmental Management’ in 2008. The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi made me a prestigious fellow of the academy in 2009. I am a fellow of Royal Entomological Society, London, England and a fellow of Entomological Society of India. I am the Chief Editor of the Indian Journal of Natural Products Resources, Government of India.
In October 2020, I was identified as one of the top 1% Scientists in the field of Plant Biology based on the number of citations by Professors of Stanford University, U.S. (DOI.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000918). Following this, Very Rev. Fr Arturo Sosa, SJ, the Superior General of the Society wrote a beautiful letter on 3 December 2020. “You manifest one of the most important characteristics of the Jesuit Mission – Intellectual pursuit. In a world of superficiality, you live a life of intense search and scientific knowledge….As I have always reminded our brothers the intellectual apostolate is part of our Jesuit DNA. You are a living witness to that reminder.”
I was given Saint Peter Canisius award on 6 August 2022 at Boston College, USA by the International Association of Jesuit Universities for my contribution to higher education. I was given Dr A.P.J. Abdul Klam award on 15 August 2022 by the honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr M.K.Stalin, for my contributions in the field of Development of Science.
One of my books on ‘Environmental Awareness’, written in Tamil, got the best book award from the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1994. I have written more than 80 books; nearly 55 of them are on topics related to science. Many of my books are used as text books in universities and colleges both in India and other foreign countries.
A word to young Jesuits
Passion is very important for anyone who wants to attain certain level of perfection. This has been true in the case of a number of sports stars and other achievers in other fields. With regard to research and intellectual pursuit, a strong desire to contribute something is very important. Only this will push us on steadily to move forward in spite of the many obstacles and difficulties on our way. Along with passion, hard work is also very essential, since there is no substitute for hard work. Only persistent and enduring hard work will bring the desired results. We need to stay motivated to do our best.
If we believe nature is God’s gift to us, then finding new things in nature and proclaiming them is also an aspect of revealing God to others. I must acknowledge the tremendous grace of God which has guided me all through. I was able to do all these because of the love the Society of Jesus had bestowed on me. I owe everything to our Mother Society.
God has blessed me abundantly and I have given in return whatever He has given me. I owe these achievements to the hard work and dedication of my staff and students who have toiled with me in this labor of love.
Fr. S. Ignacimuthu, SJ, is Director, Xavier Research Foundation, St Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai – 627 002, Tamil Nadu, India. Email : email@example.com.