When asked what they do in their spare time, UH professors — and married couple — Oomman Varghese and Maggie Paulose share a look of amusement and simply counter with “What’s spare time?”
It may sound like they’re kidding, but it’s no joke.
This exceptionally productive team from the Department of Physics landed a spot on the Thomson Reuters 2014 list of the most highly cited researchers in materials science, helping earn them the distinction of being among the “World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.” They join the select ranks of those who, in the last decade, have published the greatest number of reports designated as Highly Cited Papers.
As you might expect, this dynamic duo’s prodigious research output doesn’t come easily. A peek behind the curtain into their lives reveals a life of almost complete commitment to research and writing.
While they were both born in the southern part of India in the state of Kerala — meaning, quite literally, the home of coconut trees — they met in Delhi in 1995. They were both attending the Indian Institute of Technology for their post-graduate studies. Varghese was pursuing his Ph.D. in physics when Paulose was recruited to join his group’s lab while working on her second master’s degree.
“Maggie started working with my professors, doing a six-month project as part of her Master of Technology program in materials engineering,” Varghese recalls. “That’s how we really started working together. I was a senior student helping her.”
Varghese says he initially was attracted to her values and character, finding they shared the beliefs. But he was also drawn to her complementary behavior.
“What I don’t have, she has. And what she doesn’t have, I have,” he says. “We were a good match.”
Although they weren’t thinking of that so early in their relationship, years later it turns out that this complementary dynamic plays a large part in their work success. Their corresponding strengths have proven to be very constructive. Varghese tends to focus on the purely scientific side of things, while Paulose zeroes in on the engineering aspects. As a result, this makes their work appealing to both theoretical and experimental researchers.
“We have a synergy in our common papers,” Varghese says. “While having our own independent papers is important to us, we collaborate significantly on research and have very good joint publications, well received by the scientific community, because of the balanced nature of our ideas. Our work is relevant both scientifically and technologically.”
Another key factor in their high citation count is the practicality of their research. It’s of utmost importance to each of them that their research should be of benefit to society. They don’t follow the mindset of just studying science for the sake of satisfying their own curiosity. Instead, they continually seek practical applications of their discoveries.
Working primarily with solid-state materials, they are actively exploring two areas to reduce the impact of human technologies on the environment.
One is solar cells, looking for a less expensive, more efficient medium to convert sunlight into electricity. Another, which seems especially appropriate to Houston, is tackling the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Their goal is to convert carbon dioxide back into gasoline or natural gas using sunlight — in essence, recycling it.
Another area of interest is developing sensors for disease monitoring, such as an extremely sensitive hydrogen sensor for monitoring or diagnosing diseases. One of their current projects is to analyze the gases in a person’s breath to diagnose cancer in its early stages.
Work in the lab has become a family affair that extends beyond the two of them. Their son, Tushar (11), is in sixth grade, and their daughter, Grishma (8), is in second grade. While many kids their ages may only catch a glimpse of life in the lab on television programs or through science celebrities like Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Varghese and Paulose’s kids get to see it firsthand … with their parents in the starring roles. The couple says, since they work in the same area and same place, they know who needs more time when research deadlines are looming.
“One of us is always in the lab, so we support each other to reach our goals,” Varghese says. “If I have to finish some work, Maggie will take care of the kids and duties. When Maggie has the work, I do it.”
That mutual aid approach carries through to their attitude about competition. They’re taken aback by the idea that professional competition would play any part in their marriage.
“We are not competitive,” Varghese says flatly. “Whenever we hear that question, we wonder why we should need competition. If you have a close relationship with your wife or husband, you wouldn’t feel competitive. The other person’s success is your success. We find working together to be a blessing.”
The only other thing that equals the importance of work and family in their lives is their religion. They both grew up in faith-driven families. It’s important to them that “everything is based on God.” As descendants of Syrian Christianity, they faithfully attend their native church and were happy to find a vast Indian cultural base when they arrived to Houston in 2012.
In the end, they find strong correlations between a successful marriage and a successful scientific partnership. They agree that many partnerships, even if not married, break apart because they lack understanding and compromise. To be successful in either, they say, you need to demonstrate mutual respect. Recognizing a partner’s abilities and weaknesses and adjusting to them leads to success.