Dr. Sudarsanam Suresh Babu is a distinguished alumnus of the PSG College of Technology and now the Governor’s Chair of Advanced Manufacturing and Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA. He also serves within the Energy and Transportation division of the Energy and Environmental Sciences directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, known well for its role in the Manhattan Project from the second World War. He is also on the National Science Board of the USA, which establishes the policies of the National Science Foundation of the United States. The Bridge was fortunate to catch up with him virtually, and here is an excerpt from our conversation with him.
Krishna: You serve on the National Science Board, as an independent body of advisors to both the President and the US Congress on policy matters related to science and engineering. What kind of an impact does your work on the board entail? And how do you incentivize high impact research through policy recommendations in the US?
Suresh: The National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US is responsible for promoting research and education in science and engineering. The board plays a crucial role in overseeing NSF policies and supporting open scientific research. It funds researchers across the US and helps them advance their work. The foundation also helps researchers understand society's needs and enables a feedback loop. While we on the board lack the power to create policies, we use Science and Engineering indicators to evaluate them and provide recommendations to the US Congress and the President. As an advisory body, the impact of our recommendations is not necessarily immediate, but the intangible benefits of being on the National Science Board are evident.
Vishaal: You are also associated with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, known well for its role in the Manhattan Project from the second World War. What is its top research focus in the modern day?
Suresh: ORNL was indeed quite famous even I was in PSG Tech, obviously for its role in the Manhattan Project. Since then, it has moved on to areas such as civilian energy research, which is where my focus is. If you have got electricity today, it is likely that you are receiving it from a nuclear, coal or gas fired power station, run with boilers, turbines and so on. If you traced it backwards, you will find that some materials such as the P91 steel was developed by the ORNL. The lab focuses on the cutting-edge of research in developing new materials, metals, ceramics, semiconductors and so on, be it in the past or today. It is the backbone of many national labs in this country, and we service the current trends related to energy while developing new avenues which will see the light of the day in a decade or two.
Vishaal: You have previously talked about the impact your peers had on you in your time at PSG Tech. How important is it to build these relationships with our peers?
Suresh: Individual excellence can be regarded, but it is more crucial in a team atmosphere. My expertise is in Phase transformations of metals and alloys but collaborations in robotics, computational modeling, sensing, analysis, and emerging technologies like Machine Learning and AI can have a larger impact and that is what I try to do. In the end, these collaborations have an impact larger than the sum of individuals. My mother always said that I am not as important as an individual over the community at large. My undergraduate project required the help of peers and seniors in other departments, such as mechanical engineering, to learn techniques like tap setting. I would even say that there are people in our Neelambur foundry, that are probably more knowledgeable than we may have been as students. Building good relationships with knowledgeable individuals and being humble can help us learn from each other. Overall, individual excellence is not as important as the community at large.
Vishaal: How did your professors influence your entry into the world of academia?
Suresh: Our batchmates came together and wrote a book titled “Trajectories” in which I authored a chapter that also talks about this. Our mentors' impact on our learning journey is highlighted by their high expectations and challenges. I recall a lab session where they received a 'C' grade for not remembering the manganese-to-sulphur ratio in steel. The professor gave me a 'C' but encouraged me to catch up. Our mentors not only provided guidance but also a pathway to improve ourselves. Not knowing is not as important the aptitude to learn. I once recall attending an interview at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), where I did not know the answer to a question they posed. But they did not just let me go. They kept questioning me, driving my thought process in the right direction to arrive at the right answer. They emphasized the importance of getting the basics right to build on them, rather than just memorizing. Our mentors taught us the approach to learning, which is why I can go into detail about these topics.
Vishaal: As leaders-to-be of the future, the current generation of students have a vital role to play. What qualities in your opinion constitute an academic leader?
Suresh: A leader is not the one that simply manages a group of people, but those that inspire others and set the trend. My mentors always told me that “You lead, so that another can replace you one day.” Do not believe in leadership to gain power. Power is a myth. A small businessman who I once worked with never had a PhD but went to great lengths to inspire his little group and work with us. Be that kind of leader who everyone would want to walk alongside and if need be, jump out of the window for you.
And of course, there will be a net to catch them.
Krishna: You have spent time in so many different institutions across the globe - PSG Tech, IIT Madras, Cambridge, University of Tohoku in Japan and now in the US as well.
Can you elaborate on the beauty in learning and working at so many culturally diverse institutions, each with its own values and qualities, and how your days at PSG added value as you grew?
Suresh: I was fortunate to have numerous experiences at PSG Tech, where I learned the importance of learning from others. And I always looked forward to exploring places, even for my master’s degree. As fate would have it, I went to IIT Madras, where I was exposed even smarter minds from across the country and international visitors. A fellow student there inspired me to apply for a fellowship to Cambridge. And this is where I learned that I was allowed to speak my mind and that my opinion counted for as much as anyone else’s. You also learn to respect individual cultures, as I did, working with people that came from as far as Japan, China, Germany, the in-house Englishmen and so on. I realized my place in a diverse group and the beauty of being infinitesimal compared to the diverse group of people. Although most graduates from Cambridge move west, I did not land any such opportunities, and my colleagues suggested Japan, which I had not considered. Upon visiting a country with a rich culture, I was able to immerse myself in it. These things teach you how you are a part of the culture and the fabric. Today, I get bored without the diversity of opinion, thought processes and what not. You can disagree, you can argue but you keep that respect intact. While I may be comfortable with people who share my beliefs, it is crucial to maintain open communication and respect.
In an episode titled "Tapestry" in Star Trek: New Generation, Captain Piccard, an artificial heart-based character, is given the option to change his history to save his life. He corrects numerous mistakes that caused his disease but ultimately lived an ordinary life. And so, he refuses to accept the altered future. In the process of building your careers and lives, it is your mistakes that define you. Your understanding of what you lack at each such juncture and the effort to improve on it is what will enrich you.
Krishna: What are your words of wisdom to those that are sitting on the fence or jump ship into a different field, but wish to pursue research and take up a career in academia?
Suresh: I wish I had a magical answer to your question but everyone is aware of the foundational reasons why not. Engineering is often a starting point for people seeking well-paying jobs and a good lifestyle. However, socio-economic status can influence decision-making in students' minds. I lost my father very early in my life. Until the time he was around, we lived the typical middle-class Indian lifestyle but dropped down the strata almost immediately when he passed on. It is at times like these that one understands that they need to be passionate about something, but also know where they want to see themselves on the stratum of society. For example, people in Materials Science often go to work for corporations with higher pay than researchers, even in government labs. The demand and supply situation also impact this trajectory. Societal policies should incentivize holistic growth, not leaving one person behind for the other. Market forces will continue to dictate terms in the meantime. It is important to avoid setting wealth accumulation as a target. While wealth is important for day-to-day living, it should not be a motivating factor. Many people in your generation have clearer thinking than I did at my age.