Dr Ashutosh Sharma wins Infosys Prize, 2010, Nanotech
Sumita Vaid, 29 Aug 2013

Dr Ashutosh Sharma likes to sketch during meetings and science conferences as it helps him focus. After high school, he wanted to study Philosophy but his parents, relatives, teachers, peers all persuaded him to take up engineering! Currently, he is Institute Chair Professor and Principal Investigator of the Centre of Nanosciences (supported by the Department of Science and Technology, India) at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.  He has won numerous awards, the most recent being the Infosys Engineering Science Prize, 2010 for his contribution to nanotechnology and surface sciences. In a chat with Sumita Vaid Dixit of Careers360, Professor Sharma talks about the commercialisation of education, research opportunities in India and his charcoal sketches.

Q. Were you drawn to the sciences from an early age or was it your parents’ ambition?
A.
I had nothing against sciences; in fact I was really good at them! However, my first love, when I finished school, was Philosophy and I wanted to take that up in college. However, as you can imagine, my parents, relatives and even my friends and teachers seemed surprised and somewhat concerned about this preference. They thought I should go to IIT and become an engineer. There were no jobs in Philosophy save in teaching, I was told. When I look back, I realise I did what I had to do.

Although, I still think study of Philosophy is a perfectly good way to train a mind, as are history, archaeology, fine and performing arts and many other things that our best minds shy away from doing owing to the societal pressures and also due to lack of awareness!


Q. Why choose a career in research?
A. This is something I had decided rather early in my life, perhaps as early as the age of 12 or so. Why? Because, it appeared to excite and challenge my brain to learn new things. Besides, I wanted to be free in my pursuits and not allow a boss or whoever to tell me to do this or that! After my BTech from IIT Kanpur, I went to the US for a PhD; however, many other researchers at the time chose it due to a lack of options.

Q. Not many people come back, why were you determined?
A.
In my humble view, life is rather mechanical and much too streamlined in many other countries. Sure, there is less corruption, rules are observed, and life is easy in many ways. However, there are more challenges in India. Everyday living itself is a challenge! Life is also more colourful in India. From the research point of view, in the US one is just a cog in a big machine. You may get more professional opportunities in the US, but you are just another professional and the American’s have such a fine-tuned system that it can function without any specific person, even if you are a Nobel laureate or whatever. So, in a sense one can have a greater usefulness, impact and a sense of having made some little difference in India. Yes, there are infrastructural issues in India but conditions for serious research work have vastly improved. It is a great time to be a scientist and do science in India.

Q. What kinds of challenges that you have had to face during the course of your research work, or still face as a researcher?
A.
When I first joined IITK in 1990, research infrastructure and funding for research were limited. So, I had to take up theoretical research for nearly eight years. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but one couldn’t do everything important one wanted to. Support for participating in international conferences was also very low.  There were huge problems even with the basic needs like the power supply, telephone, cooking gas! My wife and I did all our cooking on a solar-cooker plus a microwave for nearly three years! Many of these limitations are now fading fast. There ought not to be too many reasons now for an Indian scientist to be globally competitive. 

Awards & Achievements

  • Kapitsa Medal from the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, 2010
  • R. C. Mehrotra Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award, The Indian Science Congress Association, 2010
  • First Indian to receive the TWAS Prize in Engineering Sciences, 2008
  • Distinguished Alumnus Award, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, 2007
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany, 2006
  • Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in Engineering Sciences, 2002
  • Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences
  • Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, India
  • Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy
  • Fellow of the Indian National Academy of Engineering
  • Fellow of TWAS-the Academy of Sciences for the Developing world

Academic history

  • B Tech (Chemical Engineering), IIT, Kanpur, 1982
  • MSc, Pennsylvania State University, 1984
  • PhD from The State University of New York at Buffalo, 1987

Q. How would you compare American students with Indian?
A.
Not all American students may be as bright as our top students going to IITs but they are more confident in their views, they are always willing to roll up their sleeves. Our students are at the other end of the spectrum, they know a lot and are good at solving mathematical problems but they have little confidence and less stamina for innovative thinking. In India, it’s a top-down system, where the teacher says here’s the problem and here’s the solution, the teacher doesn’t say: here’s the problem but I can only point out the possible ways to think of solutions which of course you will have to figure out yourself. Students expect teachers should know the solutions to all the problems and teach them the short-cuts! That kind of education is soon forgotten and helps only in cracking entrance examinations. 

 

 We are losing the common sense approach to solving scientific problems. There’s too much emphasis on speed, grades, marks and these have distracted us from the original purpose and benefits of acquiring a well-rounded education. As an engineer, I would be expected to solve maybe one minor problem a day, maybe one even in a month, not ten or hundred problems in 3 hours! Students are cramming up theories and short-cuts without fully grasping their underlying meaning and potential; oftentimes even teachers don’t know what they are teaching! We all are part of this system, so it is not a criticism, you understand, but a pointer.

Q. Not many engineering students opt for a career in research, why?
A.
There’s a social and an educational aspect to this. Firstly, there’s no carrot for creativity in this country. Why should students go the extra length when they will be judged and marked on what is already written in textbooks? Students are not rewarded for creativity or original thought. Students are not encouraged to do research, nor are they exposed to the creativity and joys of research. When students ask me how much time it will take to finish a PhD, the moment I say between three to six years, they disappear!

The societal aspect of the same issue comes from the pressure for conformity. Do not question your elders is what we are told, talk in a certain way, behave in a certain way. Ours is a reverential system which doesn’t encourage freedom of thought, in fact there’s little freedom of thought. There seem to be many other undesirable freedoms of many sorts, but not in the domain of new thinking. It is alright to overtake from the left or jump the traffic signal but it is disrespectful to question your elders even in a scientific exchange or to question the conclusions presented in your textbooks in examinations. Another societal aspect is the lack of respect for teachers and scientists, simply because they make less money! Our approach to education has changed…

Q. So, how do we view education?
A.
Now, the bottom-line of education is about getting a job; education is all about the money. This approach to education is crass and commercial. So, the idea of education itself has become distorted in more ways than one. For one, performing students are choosing a very small number of subjects to study in college based solely on their “marketability”, which leads to a narrowly focused and thus a distorted society that is not well-rounded in its pursuits, opportunities and progress. Many parents ask me about the “job-scene” after doing Chemical engineering; they are not much concerned about the scope of the subject vis-à-vis strengths of their child. It’s no use citing statistics on number of jobs in this field versus number of jobs in another.

Parents must understand that there’s only one right job for their child. An individual needs only one job. One cannot make decisions based on the number of jobs, the pay package, etc. For one, life is not a controlled scientific experiment where one can go back in time, which can be repeated and the most optimal outcome is thus chosen! 

 

Q. What is causing this?
A.
When we studied in school, we learnt what was taught in class, and during vacation we went to our uncles and aunts and did some interesting things and learnt to be social-beings. Now, it’s very different. Education means cracking the next exam! The education system and our society, parents and teachers included, have conspired to create this. Unfortunately, there’s no solution to it, just as for corruption, there’s no mass solution. The change has to be at the individual level. Like charity, dealing with corruption and education will also have to begin at home.

Q. But teachers can also bring about a change in the way students think…
A.
Education is primarily the student’s business, not the teacher’s alone; in fact education is too important to be left to teachers! Sure the teacher can inspire students. However, a student needs to be pro-active in seeking education, not just information. Students come with the expectation that they have cracked an exam, paid the fees, now it is the institute’s responsibility to educate them. Even in that, parents do not want to pay high college fees but are quite willing to pay ten times more for coaching!

Teaching job adverts never say we want good people, they say we want people on this pay scale and these minimum qualifications. In the US, there’s no fixed salary; teachers get different salaries depending on their qualifications and ‘market value’.

Q. Talk about your research work…
A.
I specialise in surface science. What defines an object is the surface. Surfaces become important when the size of the object becomes smaller. One of the new paradigms of manufacturing in nanotechnology, say making something a thousand times smaller than the thickness of a hair, is by self-assembly, where molecules come together on their own to make a tiny object. Now, a cousin of self-assembly is self-organisation, where you can reorganize the shape of a simple object to a more complex and useful one, it’s like morphing. Understanding and controlling of self-organization is what my team and I are doing. We are using this approach in making more efficient batteries called micro-batteries, assembling nano-lens arrays for better imaging, synthesizing nano-materials for more efficient filtration and remediation of environment, fabricating nano-capsules for targeted drug  delivery and nanosensors for detecting a host of chemicals. Some of our research derives inspiration from the fabulous technology of nature, like adhesion and locomotion in lizards, frogs and insects.

Q. And sketching...
A.
I am fascinated with the form rather than the content, so I like to play around with structures, spaces and their balance in my sketches. But all my sketches are unplanned, with a dreamlike quality.

Q. Your advice to our readers...
A.
Tread any ‘path with a heart’ and you cannot go wrong even when things don’t seem to go right! Don’t focus narrowly only on ‘profits’, but gladly welcome losses when warranted.
 

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