Everything minus information: the hallmark of experience
Dr. Prasanna is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at PSG Tech. He has had the unique opportunity of spending considerable time on multiple occasions on sabbatical in the US, first as a UGC - Sir C V Raman Research Fellow at the University of Idaho in 2016, and then as a DST - BASE Fellow at the Oklahoma State University in 2019. In this interview, he discusses with us his experiences from far and wide, as we attempt to pick his mind about the nuances of education and research.
Q. You’ve had the unique opportunity of spending not one, but two stints abroad and also to visit many other countries and institutions in your capacities as an educator and a researcher. Can you compare and contrast between what you’ve seen around the world and here in India in terms of experiences?
The first time I went abroad was way back in 2010 to Cancun, Mexico, to attend a conference of the Materials’ Research Society (MRS). At the time, I certainly wasn’t as sure of its significance, I treated it as another conference to deliver an oral presentation for the sake of my Doctorate studies. It was only about three odd years after the event that I realised that at least one or two Nobel laureates to-be had attended that event. The stalls at the conference also played host to the industry, one among them being the J.A.Woollam Company. This company was an industry leader in ellipsometry (an optical technique used in the study of dielectric properties of thin films). Upon further discussion, they suggested that I send samples of my work on thin films of Aluminium Oxide, which I was working on at the time. Of course, I didn’t consider this too seriously but after getting back home, I promptly received an email from them about the same and upon doing so, I received results and data that I published alongside my eventual thesis. That, is among the major differences. In India, we plan these big events and conferences, but not completely well enough. We’re often found wanting at some level, and this may be due to several reasons, financial etc. It also gave me great insights on what a professional meetup of like-minded people would look like and enabled me to subsequently conduct conferences – two at the international and one at the national level, here at PSG Tech.
Q. Given your description of their professionalism, why does there seem to be a contrast in our system with regard to scientific research and associated events?
No, I wouldn’t say that there is any stark contrast between us and them. In all truth, MRS, for instance, can mobilize the funds they need to host such scientific events because they’re quite an old organization and they’re also backed by the industry, who make their presence felt at all their events. They’re not exactly generous either; your participation fee is only to attend the conference and its associated events and nothing more. Even so, I wouldn’t say that there is any of that stark contrast between us and them, simply because we don’t compare with them in terms of the sheer amount of resources. In fact, if I may say so, they can learn a thing or two from us in terms of accessibility and hospitality. Naturally, they’re also capable of some great scientific work. I think we can also do just as well if we, for instance, had a specific scientific society that was well established and capable. But again, many of these well-established societies have Indian researchers at the helm and therefore, it wouldn’t be fair to say that we aren’t performing as such; we’re doing fine, just in a different location.
Q. You’ve obviously spent a fair amount of time as a researcher in the USA, formerly as BASE Fellow at the Oklahoma State University and another as Raman Research Fellow at the University of Idaho before that. Could you tell us your view on the differences that you’ve been able to notice in the way that education is imparted, given that you’ve also taught here at PSG Tech for so long?
There are positives and negatives. To start with, I would say that there is a significant amount of creativity that takes root because the system is flexible. Students’ can attend, say two hours of classes and spend the rest of their day in a lab if they wanted to. This kind of flexibility is unavailable in our system, not even at the IIT’s and so, there’s obviously some room for creative thinking there. I also think that it depends on several other factors that come together. The economy of the country, the familial structure, the kind of population etc. Students there are mostly on their own after they turn 16, so they’re forced to work hard for themselves. And there’s no specialized skilled populous in specific, so as students, they also pick up these other useful skills for themselves. And the kind of country that it is, investing heavily on activities like research, scholars get paid well for the work they do. In comparison, take the example of Australia, a country with around a tenth of the US population. It is a country that’s nearly on par with the likes of the US on a lot of economic scales, and yet, there is a massive difference in their research quotient compared to the US as such, because they can as well buy a finished product from them. On a holistic level, my understanding therefore, is that there are a lot of external driving factors to the way education is imparted. And not to mention, the trademark of their quality has been around for quite a while, the Ivy League, for instance. They’re also directly linked with industries and their projects. Once again, the point on the nature of their economy comes into play. Of course, we’ve also got the likes of IISc, and some of the older IIT’s to name in that regard, but we’re yet to build that sort of a tradition.
Q. Having said so, what have you incorporated into your methods as an educator?
I’ve incorporated a fair bit into my methods since my return to PSG Tech after my first stint abroad in 2016. Let’s say I’m explaining to a class about the extraction of Aluminum. Pre-2016, I might have simply explained the mining and laboratory processes alone, but Post-2016, I wouldn’t stop there. I would talk a little about the industry surrounding aluminum, the market characteristics and value of associated companies, competitive advantage etc. We might also talk a little about alternatives. This isn’t a set formula but just an example. The idea is to provide as much of a holistic picture of what they’re studying. What I also have done consistently since my return in my classes, is to talk a little about employability, opportunities and how certain concepts that they’re studying are useful in that regard. My focus is thus, on the deliverables because students are not necessarily going to understand the equations and theory that we feed them. I also try to innovate with virtual implements, to provide a better understanding of the concept rather than simply derive an equation from start to finish. So, there’s also a focus on motivating students that way. I also try to provide some suggestions to students in terms of higher education and so on, having spent time overseas.
Q. How do you think you can motivate students to a research-oriented career, not just to end up as an academician but also in the industry?
You can start by giving them a feeling of importance. You give them the confidence that they can be a master at something provided they cross a threshold. And I also constantly learn as I communicate with a large cross-section of people from across the spectrum, right from faculty members to others in the scientific community like my own nephew who is in a position to contribute to the European Energy Commission on the climate accords. This is something that I’ve been doing for almost the last 10 odd years. I try to share these inputs with my students as well, and also provide them the context and the contact associated with it. If you tell a student that he or she is to study a course to clear an examination, then that’s where you fail as a faculty member because that is not the right kind of motivation, you have to go beyond that. You have to impress upon them how path-breaking a subject could end up being. You also have to tell them to be flexible. I’m sure you’ve heard of Nikith Rajendran, who is an alumnus of the Mechanical Engineering programme but has since taken to activities like entrepreneurship, investment banking and so on. I know someone who passed out with a degree in Software Engineering and is now a wellness coach for large corporates. Clearly, you need to imbibe in students’ minds that their education is merely a foundation for something greater, and that this foundation needs to be firm. This, is my goal.
Q. Within our constructs and constraints, what is a student’s path to creativity?
It is incorrect to immediately look at flexibility at this stage as a student, because the degrees of freedom may be limited. But you can still do wonders. It takes the right guidance and a spark to ignite the flame. You just have to tap that which is not yet fully explored and there’s a lot of that. Take cricket for example. Today, almost every team has a so-called performance analyst, who with his knowledge of data analysis and some knowledge of the sport, works wonders for his team. There are no restrictions on where you can apply your ideas. Overall, I think it’s simply a matter of perception.
Q. I’ve known you to be a fan of the entertainment industry, having heard from you about several TV shows. What are your thoughts on digressing through such forms of media and otherwise through social media as a whole?
Let me give you the example of “The Queen’s Gambit”, which was famously on Barack Obama’s list of favorites from the year 2020. The show inspired me to learn more about chess than ever before. That said, there are quite a few options out there and obviously, I don’t recommend everything, but a select few. A TV series has the potential to teach you about, say, a foreign culture quite easily. That aside, I believe that it is important to stay connected in today’s world, whatever the means are, be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. There are umpteen ways to be spoilt even by means of an old transistor radio, so it’s only important to use what’s available for the right purposes. For instance, given how tech-savvy students are these days, they could take up the idea of creating a social media handle for one of our labs and publicize some of the work we do online. This could do wonders for our work as well as prove to be a useful application of staying connected. That’s how I see the situation.
Q. Do you have any closing remarks on students and their thought processes with respect to their aspirations?
Almost a decade ago, I attended another of MRS’ meetings in Singapore. At that event, a minister who hosted us remarked that they sought to make every citizen hold a doctorate. It is obviously aspirational, but then the thought wasn’t wrong to have. No matter where a student pursues his or her higher education, be it here at PSG Tech, or elsewhere, it is important to strive for excellence. I obviously don’t mean that which is in your dictionary, but something that I personally understood only after I paid a visit to several schools of learning across the world. In cricketing terms, if you were to take a five-for or score a hundred at The Lords’ and see your name etched on the honors board for eternity, then that’s excellence from a cricketer’s perspective. Strive for your name to be etched on the honors board of whatever you seek to do. That will motivate you further. If every student reading the transcript of this interview understands that there is a bright career waiting ahead for them, then that’d make me happy. As a closing remark, I’d also like to say that it is important to punch above your weight, as the Indian team did against the Aussies at the Gabba sometime ago. It isn’t impossible to do so, and should be done in a world as competitive as we live in today. Work hard, and the results will await.