The Odyssey, A Look Into A Journey: Dr. R. Nagarajan

Teachers are known to influence young minds and shape characters. Bearing in mind the impact they have on us, this series will delve into the lives and experiences, as well as academic expertise of the professors of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Here, they open up about their specific contribution to their chosen subject and the personal growth they have witnessed over the years. In this interview, Rasika Joshi is in conversation with Dr. R. Nagarajan.

Bionote: Dr. R. Nagarajan, an alumnus of the Chemical Engineering department of IIT Madras, recently completed his tenure as the first ever Dean of International and Alumni Affairs (I&AR). He is responsible for instituting a plethora of international partnership programmes and for majorly shaping the vision and work of the I&AR Office. He discusses his prolific association with the industry and academia, mainly in the fields of nanotechnology, combustion mechanics and more.

Could you shed a light, on your almost, lifelong association with IIT Madras?

I did my B Tech in Chemical Engineering here and graduated in 1981. I then went to Yale University to do my PhD, also in chemical engineering. In 1986 I did eight months of postdoctoral work at Yale and then I joined the US Department of Energy for more postdoctoral work. I worked with West Virginia University from 1986 to 1988. In 1988 I joined IBM Corporation in San Jose and worked there till 2003, post which I moved back to India. After that, I did one semester at Anna University, to see if I liked the academic profession. In 2004, I finally joined IIT Madras as a faculty member in the department of Chemical Engineering.

What similarities and differences – academic or otherwise, have you noticed between IIT Madras and other institutions abroad?

I’ve not really worked in any other institution academically but I think the biggest difference that I see is that, there is a “get funding or perish” situation in the US. An average faculty member spends 60 to 70 percent of his time writing proposals for funding, mainly because they don’t get PhD students as easily like we do. Our government is incredibly generous in terms of funding all PhD and MS students that we take. So there’s much less pressure on the faculty to get funding just so they can support these students. They can devote more time on raising funds for the right purpose – which is identifying key areas of cutting edge research and approach the right industry or governmental agency to support it in terms of equipment, facilities and such. So I think that this partnership between the Indian government, which takes care care of your need for students, and the industry and other agencies that provide funding is great, and it’s not happening anywhere else.

How would you qualify and explain your role as an alumnus of this institute?

To be perfectly frank, for the first 23 years after I graduated, I was completely out of the loop – I was not even involved in any of the local alumni chapters. So one of the first things I did when I came here and took over the office, was to ensure that the amount of communication with the alumni was increased. Today we post on a daily basis, to keep people updated about what’s happening not only in the institute but also in the alumni community. We try to make it a two way communication. We invite them to let us know what they’re doing.We have the Leadership Lecture Series where every Friday, we invite an alumnus who’s a leader in their field to talk to the students and hold key interactions with them. I think it must be a two way street, where the institute has to make an effort to reach out to her alumni, and the alumni, on their part, have to be receptive. Eventually most alumni come back into the fold, as they go through various stages of their lives. 25 years is the time that seems to be a sweet spot where people start re-engaging with the institute, like in my case. This is why the silver reunion events are so successful.

What was the founding idea behind the creation of the I&AR Office? Since it was established just around 6-7 years ago, it is one of the youngest departments on campus. Why is it such a recent establishment?

In 2012, we had an office of Alumni Affairs which I was handling, and there was an office of International Relations that Professor Krishnan Balasubramaniam was in charge of. When he vacated the post, the office of International Relation became an orphan of sorts. I had a discussion with the Director and we converged in the thought that you simply cannot do one without the other. Talking about international relations, let’s say you’re trying to set up a research collaboration with a university, your nucleation point is almost always your alumni who are faculty there. Particularly in the US, all the strong partnerships that we have with universities there, for example Purdue University where we have 17 of our alumni as faculty, have happened because they are keen to work with us.

Also, a fairly significant fraction of our alumni live abroad. So you really can’t have alumni relation without international relations. The fact that they are so globally dispersed means that whether we want to have relations with universities or industries abroad, or want our incubation ecosystem connected with the world, we really have to reach out with our alumni to make that happen. So the line between international and alumni relations was becoming increasingly blurred.

Even from a financial viewpoint, these partnerships take quite a bit of money. So it made sense to take funds from the alumni office and use that for promoting our international efforts. It was a happy marriage and it’s worked out really well for us.

What are the plans outlined for the future for the Office? How do you see the administration’s and alumni community’s response to the same?

We have established a Strategic Plan 2020, which we are marching on with. As part of the Institute of Eminence proposal, we have developed a 15 year roadmap. This Office will play a key role in making sure that we meet the goals of the current Strategic Plan and that we meet all the deliverables of the 15 year roadmap we’ve developed for the Institute of Eminence proposal. All the activities that we defined under our proposal are very valid and we want to execute them, wherever it involves alumni or internationalization, this Office will have to play a major role. The good thing that’s happened over the past decade is that the office itself has become institutionalized. When we started, in 2009, Alumni Affairs had three people and International Relations had two people, and today we are a very robust and dynamic office. For the most part we are capable of executing well on our own.

I think, administratively the focus of the Office will shift from being more operational to strategic in nature.

What have been your observations regarding involvement of younger alumni to these initiatives, relative to the alumni of the earlier batches?

What I have noticed is that particularly in the past few years, there is a very significant presence of younger alumni in chapter meet in India as well as abroad. We are seeing a tremendous influx of alumni who’ve graduated in last 15 years or so. That didn’t used to be the case earlier; these meets were dominated by the senior alumni who mostly came back for the nostalgia. These kids also want to enjoy the nostalgia, but at the same time, they also want to network, both among themselves and with the institute. They bring a very different energy to the table, since their future is out in front of them. They are very motivated and vibrant. They’ve set up a huge social network and a very active media presence.

How has the Office  supplemented the prospects for work or research for the current students body, if at all?

On our side, we take the responsibility of keeping students informed about various exchange programs, internships, and for MS and PhD scholars, we try to make sure that we set up joint PhD programs. We now have 19 joints PhD programs with different universities. There are close to 60 students right now who are participating in these dual programs. We try to give the students a very international experience. It is then up to them to choose. For example, we have a program called PURE (Purdue Undergraduate Research Experience) with Purdue University – we send 15 of our students research interns every summer. On the alumni side, we try that students get to interact with them as much as possible. We have sessions for students to get the initial face-to-face experience with them. The number of students who take advantage of these opportunities is not as large as we’d like it to be, but we try to provide them all options.

We fund every conceivable student activity – travel, awards, stipend- from the alumni corpus to support students. By the time the students graduate, they are well networked with alumni, they are aware of various walks of lives that they could choose.

Now that you have returned to the academic section, what are your plans as a faculty member? Are there any courses in particular that students can look forward to?

I’d like to teach some very basic Chemical Engineering courses for first year students, because to me, that’s the best way to reconnect with the subject. I’m looking forward to teaching some freshman subjects and some electives in my research areas. I also want to take some time off since it’s been a very intense decade (laughs). I look forward to taking a sabbatical next year to relax and recharge my batteries.

What suggestions would you put forth for the present and future I&AR teams? Do you think their focus should lie in a particular direction?

I would say continue the good work, but at the same time, you always have to be in the spirit of continuous improvement. Don’t rest on your laurels. You should be constantly looking for opportunities to scale up everything. What you’re doing well today can be done better tomorrow. If anything, I think they should focus on where they’re succeeding and try to build those areas into larger programs. If something is not working, at some point, you also have to be willing to cut out the weaker links and focus on your strengths. For the current secretariat, the two most important “customers” are the students and the alumni. They have to be receptive to both and balance priorities.

Were there any epiphanic moments that had a deep, personal impact on you, during your interactions with alumni members?

The one good thing about the job is that it’s given me the opportunity to interact with many alumni whom I wouldn’t have got to meet otherwise. They come from all ages and walks of life and geographical regions, and I would say that it’s been a pleasure for the most part to work with them. On the whole, I was very fortunate to work with such a great group of people, such high achievers who have climbed into positions of great importance. It’s a good chance for one to develop one’s own visions and ambitions by spending time with these people.

The first batch of alumni to graduate from IIT Madras, that is, the 1964 batch, are special to me. These are people who have always made it a point to show up for all major events on campus and I truly admire that. They have the motivation to come and participate in these events, and I have had many great interactions with them.

Who has been inspirational to you in your personal life? What lessons did you draw from them?

One person that I should talk about here is Professor M.S. Ananth, who was the former Director. When I was a student here, he had taken a few courses for me. Even back then, he was a rising superstar- everyone wanted to take his courses, do their projects with him. I was a little moonstruck by him (laughs).

When I was trying to decide whether to return to India and join IIT Madras, he was one of the first people that I talked to. I think he was one of the main reasons that I decided to take this up.

He’s extremely friendly to everyone, and the way he has of getting things done is very unique. I’ve tried to learn as much as I could. He’s always said , “never say no to anything”. If it’s a good idea, it’ll survive on its own, and if not it’ll die out naturally. As far as possible, try not to say no. I try to follow that principle and in my years here, I have tried to have a never say never attitude. I think that’s why the office has established a reputation of being the go-to place for everything, we turn anyone back. That’s something I really learnt from Professor Ananth.

Would you like to give a message to the students?

They don’t need messages as much as massages to relieve the stress (laughs). It’s a cliche but it is true that your undergraduate years are the best in your life and you have to learn to enjoy them. At the same time, you must not lose sight of your academic achievements and requirements. You must work out the balance. Make sure that there are enough hours in the day to enjoy other pursuits that you may have. For example, as a student, I was mainly into writing, so I used to participate in creative writing competitions and such.

You should identify two things – what are you good at, and what are you interested in. Unfortunately for many people, these aren’t the same thing. Life is a series of compromises, but you must try to make an effort to see how closely you can bring those two together. If you cannot, then make your pick as early as possible and don’t regret the decision.

How can we contribute as alumni members?

Students are always looking for role models. The people that they see on campus right now are the other students, faculty and family members. But they cannot give them the real world perspective that alumni can – which is the one thing that they desperately seek. Students are always concerned about what lies ahead. So we’d like if alumni can come and talk to them about what lies out there, both the good and the bad stuff. We always encourage entrepreneurs to come and talk about ideas that failed. Alumni have to share what didn’t work for them and how the current students can avoid the same pitfalls.

So I would like regular open interactions with the students. They can also give directions to the institute itself, mainly working with the faculty and administration.

What would you consider as the “legacy” of IIT Madras?

Where we have made our mark is what I would call “technology for social good”. There is a disproportionate number of our faculty who have been able to have an impact at a national level in areas that are of great importance to the society- such as water, energy, housing, healthcare. All IITs are doing this work, but the differentiator is that, in each of these cases we have been able to go and implement these ideas in the field . For instance, Dr. Mohanashankar, Dr. Devdas Menon are some people who’ve not just developed ideas and left them in the lab. With the Institute’s support, they have been able to influence a very large number of people. To me that’s something that is very unique and where we leave our mark- applying technology for social impact.

 

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