The real Celtic tiger: interview with Prabhu Kulkarni

Prabhu Kulkarni is currently a member of the SCI Board of Trustees, was previously Hon. Secretary and Chairman of the SCI Republic of Ireland International Group committee (1983-1991) and is still an active member of the Group. Here he talks about his career in Ireland and how he succeeded in bringing five Nobel Laureates together. Prabhu was awarded the SCI Distinguished Service Medal in 2004 and the Lampitt Medal in 2008 (read report).

What first attracted you to joining SCI?
I joined in 1977 because a number of senior researchers of the then company I worked for were SCI members and introduced me. There was not much happening in Ireland at that time with regards to networking, so it was a great way to meet other scientists.

What is SCI’s greatest strength?
In a nutshell – transfer of knowledge from the old to the young. When I became Hon. Secretary of the Republic of Ireland Group in 1983 and Chairman in 1989-91, we galvanised huge numbers of students through SCI’s generous bursaries and fellowships, giving us the perfect opportunity to get young students involved in SCI to help the next generation pass down knowledge from the old to the new.

What do you think has changed between the time you started your career and now?
More companies are now consolidating at a global level, which means they employ fewer people. This equates to more pressure and less time as fewer people do the jobs – as a result, not as many people turn up to lectures and conferences where once they used to be packed. The challenge for SCI is how to continue transferring knowledge from the older generation to the new in the face of declining numbers of people who do not have the time to volunteer or attend lectures.

You came over from India to study for a PhD at Trinity College in Dublin back in 1967 – any regrets?
No regrets – although my intention was always to go back after completing my PhD, fate had other plans and I met a lovely Irish girl who persuaded me to stay. I am pleased to say we have been married for 38 years and I’ve never looked back.

Do you think staying in Ireland held back your career?
Not at all – quite the opposite in fact. Ireland is one of the most hospitable places and made me feel welcome from the minute I set foot here. Although small in comparison to other nations, it was fantastic for developing my career. Once you have achieved the standards required – because everyone knows everyone – any barriers to career development completely disappear.

Would you name a highlight in your career?
There are two that come to mind. In February 2000, I arranged and chaired an international conference in London on ‘Chemical Control Regulations in Europe – from Chaos to Harmony’. 80 delegates from 15 countries, including several EU member states, attended the conference addressed by eight speakers from Ireland, Austria, Denmark, Belgium and the UK.

In April 1991, as Chairman of the SCI Irish Group, I proposed and participated in a joint programme with the RSC, Institute of Chemistry of Ireland (ICI) and Royal Dublin Society (RDS) – the result was a ‘Celebration of Chemistry Dinner’ in Trinity College, Dublin. At this meeting, five Nobel Laureates from the UK, USA, Sweden, France and Ireland attended as guests, along with the Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland, the Lord Mayor of Dublin and a number of ambassadors. It was the only event of this type ever arranged in Ireland.

Republic of Ireland Group

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