What makes someone a great teacher is not just his/her skill in spreading knowledge but in creating a sustainable environment for this knowledge to thrive and perpetuate in the minds that it resides. Bearing in mind the impact they have on us, this series will delve into the lives and experiences, as well as the 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. Prof. B.S. Murty talks candidly about his journey so far with Taneesha Shekhawat.
Bionote: Prof. B.S. Murty is an Institute Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and Girija & R. Muralidharan Chair Professor at the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering. His fields of interests are high entropy alloys, nanocrystalline materials and nanocomposites, bulk metallic glasses, grain refinement and modification of Al alloys. He was awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, the highest science award in India, for the year 2007 in engineering science category.
When and how did you discover your passion/niche? You have numerous feathers on your cap. What is the driving force behind it?
Since my undergraduate years, I have loved academics. There’s one simple reason for that – you have a freedom in academics which I don’t think you can get in any other profession. Here, I can decide the field that I want to work in, I can keep on changing the field once in a while if I wish to do so. This I don’t think is possible in any other profession. There is always a boss for you, and here is a profession where you are your own boss. So that’s something which really attracted me to academics. It is also because of certain great teachers that I had in my undergraduate days. I should even go back to my schooling and diploma days where I had wonderful teachers. Looking at them and watching them more and more, I felt that teaching is the profession which, possibly, I am cut out for. And that’s how everything started. Ofcourse, passion for research started when I joined IISc Bangalore for my Masters. There I met a great gentlemen by the name Prof. Ranganathan (my PhD supervisor). I would say my passion for research started with my journey with Prof. Ranganathan.
When was the idea of starting the Advanced Materials Research group conceived? How has the growth been since then?
Oh (laughs) . . . to be honest with you, I had joined IIT Kharagpur immediately after my PhD. I was there for twelve years. IIT kharagpur, for some reason, didn’t have a large number of PhD students. The whole of metallurgy department had only 15 PhD students and there were about 25 faculty members. As a result every student was shared by two faculty members, typically. Thus, I could never think of my own big research group there. I was always jointly working with somebody else. Ever since I came here, I realized that I can have my own group. I was given a lot of freedom at the moment when I had joined. I had straightaway come as a professor here and then we looked at what we were working on. We realized we were mostly working on either nanomaterials or bulk metallic glasses and soon within a year of my joining, we started a new area called high entropy alloys. So all these basically fit into what we generally claim as advanced material and many more, but the phrase that represents our area of work is advanced material. In 2004 the group had started and I think we came up with the name in 2005 when I started the group with my own students. It has been fourteen years since then, a wonderful journey.
You’ve lived in a lot of places across India. You grew up in Vijayawada. You completed graduation from Nagpur. You then joined IISc Bangalore. You were in IIT Kharagpur later. And you’ve been in here in Madras since 2004. How has that experience been? Has it, in any way, shaped your personality?
I always tell this to people, you learn something from every person you meet, either how to be or how not to be. That is how every place you go, you learn something about their culture. Apart from Chennai, I was in West Bengal for quite a lot of time. One of my uncles introduced me to the Bengali language and thus while growing up I read lot of Bengali books translated to Telugu. I have always been very fascinated by Bengal for some reason. In Kharagpur, I had a lot of Bengali friends and I always admired their way of looking at life.
Nagpur was, of course, my B Tech days. That was my first degree, the first time away from home learning what is called independence, that’s what I learnt there.
In IISc Bangalore, I learnt what it is like to work for others and I find this very unique. I used to go to an orphanage nearby every weekend to teach the kids English and Math and in the process, I learnt Kannada from those kids. That’s where I learnt that there is something beyond you. Life is all about living for a bigger cause. The place really kindled those interests in me. I learnt what quality research is and what it is to not be satisfied with preliminary results and to probe deeper and deeper until you are happy with what you have done.
Your contributions to the field of mechanical alloying have been widely acclaimed. Could you shed some light on this part of your journey in science?
I joined IISc as a Masters student and the first lecture I heard of Prof. Ranganathan on a subject called alloy design, was phenomenal. I always call it as love at first sight. The moment I heard of him, I decided that if I do a PhD, I will do it under him. I had heard from my seniors that unless you’re a topper of your class, he will never take you. So, I tried my best to get an S grade in his class. He is a person who never gives you a topic on his own, so when I told him that I wanted to do my Masters’ project with him, he asked me what exactly did I want to work on. I hadn’t expected a question like that so I told him that I would think over it and then come back to him. He gave me a week to think and then I was in the library all the time searching for what is new that is happening.There I came across a paper where somebody had tried to take a crystal and destabilize it to convert it into an amorphous state. You should know that materials are generally in two forms, crystalline or amorphous, so can we actually convert crystals into an amorphous state is what that paper talks about. This excited me. Then I went and told Prof. Ranganathan about it and he agreed. When we started I was probably the first to do mechanical alloying in India. Now when I look at it there are at least 20-25 groups working on it. It is a very exciting synthesis route, but there is one lacuna that there can be contamination of material, if you don’t control your process parameters. One good thing about Prof. Ranganathan is that, he gives a lot of freedom to you and that is what I have been striving for my whole life. Now it has been 25 years since then. We have been producing new materials, and at least 25 PhD students under me have gone through mechanical alloying. That’s a fabulous journey.
You were also the pioneer of the National Facility for Atom Probe Tomography, here at IITM. How has that helped the institute in furthering research since then? How involved are you in the day-to-day working of the facility?
First thing I should say, it was 1999 and I was working with a gentleman by the name Hono in Japan in an institute called National Research Institute on Metals (NRIM), they call it. He is a pioneer in atom probes. I was there in his group for 2 years, doing nothing but microscopy everyday. Atom probe, for your information, is an ultimate tool among microscopes where you can actually see how atoms are distributed in 3D inside a material. No other microscope is of that nature. After I came back in 2001, I was always looking for opportunities to see if we can have such a facility here. I tried to convince some of the big shots in metallurgy. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) Director Srikumar Banerjee and Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) Director Dipankar Banerjee, both of them got convinced and agreed to buy their own machines. But in 2003, there came a new technology – LEAP or Local Electrode Atom Probe, which was an American invention, but DMRL and BARC, both being government strategic institutes could not buy from the US. When I came here, I was still dreaming about it. In 2012, I conducted a workshop on atom probe and there we agreed to bring LEAP to India. We then made a proposal in 2015 and finally in 2017 were able to set up this facility here at IITM by way of an Inter-Institute Consortium which is comprised of 7 IITs from across India. This is the first remotely operable LEAP in the world. My role right now, is to ensure that the facility runs properly and for that you need funds and this is done through the MoU with the 7 partner institutes. The only thing that is required now is for people to do exciting research and publish exciting research. That, of course, is not in my hands. I hope people will use it for the same.
You have recently been selected for the “JC Bose National Fellowship”. Congratulations on that. How does one stay grounded even after receiving so many awards and honours? Does it increase the pressure to keep working like that? Does it increase the expectations of others? How do you deal with it?
My feeling is that what is important in life is to enjoy what you do, everything else is a byproduct. I always tell my students that you should choose a profession where you don’t wait for the weekend to come, that you like it so much that you don’t notice how the time passes. And if you keep doing good work, somewhere somebody recognises it. Particularly, people like us who are experimentalists, need a lot of funding for the projects so as to sustain your students. This is why I got interested in JC Bose fellowship. They provide you funds for five long years and that would help me support my research projects. I felt that this is a wonderful opportunity. To answer your question in a nutshell, all these awards are just a small pat your back encouraging you to keep up the good work. I feel the more you learn, the more humble you should be. Humility is something that nature teaches us. As they say, the more a tree bears fruits, the more it bends.
What have been the greatest breakthroughs in your field?
Quite a few, actually. First and foremost, was during my PhD, that we were able to demonstrate, for the first time, that you can predict, when a crystal breaks down and becomes amorphous. That was something which gave me a lot of satisfaction, and led to many more people starting research in that field. I always believed in this that an indicator of a good researcher is that people follow you by taking cue from where you left and start moving in that direction. This is something which is very important. The second breakthrough was during my stay in Japan where we were able to demonstrate that an unwanted element such as oxygen in a material can really play a significant role in changing the nature of the whole alloy. We were able to demonstrate this through atom probe and that was the first time people were shown the importance of oxygen in bulk-metallic glasses and a lot many people after that, started working in that field. The third major breakthrough is in the field of high entropy alloys, where we were the first to show that you can make nano high entropy alloys and show that it is really exciting that the material can produce wonderful properties. Though I am very serious about doing a lot of fundamental research, I am always concerned about the fact that I am an engineer. Whatever we do should be of use somewhere else as well. For example, after 12 years of research at IIT Kharagpur, we were able to make what are called grain refiners for aluminum alloys, and that’s another major breakthrough, I would say, because till then India had been importing these refiners. We were the first to actually demonstrate that we can actually develop the technology. Now so many companies are making these refiners, and using them and that is a very satisfying thing. So like that, quite a number of happy incidents, bits and pieces, here and there. Life is all about that.
What are the future trajectories, with scope for expansion of this subject?
Particularly, right now, I am obsessed, if I can use that word, with high entropy alloys. There are so many questions in high entropy alloys that I have in my mind, which I would like to answer. That’s why I have at least 12 PhD students, each of them working only on high entropy alloys trying to understand some aspect or the other. There are so many unanswered questions in this field and that is something I think for the next 20-30 years, even if I work everyday, I don’t think I will be able to find answers to them. That way, I have a lot of work in store for me. I think that’s something that’s going to be my future work.
You have been teaching since the initial years of your career and have simultaneously been very actively involved in research. How different are the two for you? How has it helped you grow as a scientist?
I always felt that these two are very strongly connected. One thing is that if you’re not a good researcher, it’s very difficult to become a good teacher. Teaching is not just taking a book and reading out something from it. Teaching is more of trying, as one of my teachers had once said, not to cover the syllabus but to uncover a part of it, so that you discover the rest of it. He made a very very profound statement. I will never forget it. So to ensure that, to make a student excited about research, you need to be, first of all, in touch with the latest things that are happening so that you bring the latest things to an undergraduate student, tell him that there is so much there, that sky’s the limit, that there is so much to explore. This, only a good researcher can really do, otherwise you just get stuck with books and that would always be really boring.
For example, when I was taking a course for the first year, I was very clear in my mind that I should be able to tell these students how exciting material science is, that they should be proud to be studying material science rather than changing the branch. I would say, I was reasonably successful in that. That’s only because of the research that we’ve been doing. In my curriculum in that course, one of the things that I used to do was to tell the students to choose 50 successful people in material science and then talk about them in class for 15 mins, it was mandatory for all to attend that session, so that everyone listens to everyone else and at the end of it, they had to submit a report on that. That kind of a thing really gives a student an inspiration. For example if you are learning tabla, you look up to great tabla players and keep on thinking about them and think that you should at least try to reach somewhere to close to that. This is true for any field. That is possible only if you’re constantly a researcher. For some reason I love teaching. Teaching gives me so much of energy that I can use for my research. When you are teaching, particularly IIT boys, they throw questions for which you may not have any answers, that makes you read more papers, more books, that gives you a need to go deeper into the subject and that helps you in doing your research. I think that both teaching and research, feed into each other.
You received the Lifetime Achievement Award of IIT Madras in 2016. How has this journey been here at IITM? What role has IIT Madras played in directing your way in science? What contribution does your stay here have on your life as a scientist?
Though my initial steps in research had started in IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras is the place where I actually grew up, I became an adult here actually. All thanks to that man who brought me here, Prof. Prasad Rao. In December 2002, he had sent me mail saying that they are looking for a good physical metallurgist at IIT Madras. He gave such a free hand to me. For the first time, I had a feeling that here is a place where I can actually grow, without the need to tag along with anybody else, and that is the first and foremost help that I got from IIT Madras. The moment I came I had a lab of my own, I had my own group of students, and then the rest of the things started falling into place. Collaborations started coming in, so many people from overseas also came. I am grateful to all of them. I am also grateful to my students. I had very passionate students. My research, that I had started in IIT Kharagpur, got nurtured here and I got tremendous amount of support from the institute in furthering that interests in research. IIT Madras is a wonderful place and in the last 14 years I have seen growth here in the field of research.
Who, in your personal life, has been a source of inspiration? Why?
If it’s someone from my personal life no way connected to my profession, it should be my wife. I am called a visiting professor at home, because I think I hardly spend 2-3 hours at home at night. It has always been like that. We got married 30 years ago. When I was a PhD student, she stayed with me for 3 years in the IISc campus. So, she saw me as a researcher, what it means to be a researcher. In those days also, I always came home after 12 in the night more than often. So the kind of patience that she has, the two kids that grew up in our family, in our life, it was all because of her, in spite of her difficulty. She has physical difficulty from her childhood, since she was 3 years old. She has polio in both her legs. She cannot stand up. For 45 years, it has been like that. But in spite of that, she never made me feel that she has a lot of load at home. Everything that was required at home, she knew how to manage. I rarely ever went for shopping with her. She herself could not go, but she ensured that everything was there in place. Amazing lady she is. And that’s another thing I admire about her when I talk about her positive attitude. In spite of her difficulty, she was always very positive. She never looked at her lack of something. So, that is something that has always been another source of learning. I think I have learnt a lot from her.
What is that one life lesson, that you think has shaped you as a person? Could you please share some of your experiences that you think would be a learning source for us (the students)?
I would say, I am a very very spiritual person, and I look at myself as a divine in expression. I think everyone of us is a divine in expression. There is a purpose in us being here and if you believe in god, if you think about it, why should so and so create us? I always believed that he didn’t know how to express himself and so we are his expressions, and if we are his expressions then, in principle, we should behave like the way the divine would. If we look at a tree outside, the tree is unbiased, and it tries to do its best in whatever it does and whether you go below the tree or I go below the tree, it will provide shade. The kind of beauty that you see in nature, tells you that one of the characteristics of nature is excellence, and that is something that you should reflect in everything that you do. I bring in excellence in whatever I try to do, not just to please anybody else but to please the divine in me. If I don’t do it, I am doing injustice to that which is inside me, which is trying to express itself through me. So, we are all supposed to be that expression. If we simply think of that heart which is beating continuously for around 60-70 yrs, it is just a pump, imagine such a pump that has been created. I don’t think any mechanical engineer has been able to make a pump like that. That is a lesson for us. So if I have to do my work, I should do my work with that kind of an interest in everything that I do.When I bring my whole heart in everything that I choose to do, I am trying to bring in excellence and from then on the journey will automatically be enjoyable. I feel the rest of the things are simply byproducts. When you do something, you have to remember at every moment that you are here with a purpose to be able to show what is the best in you. I always say this if you’re a barber, you should be the best barber, if you’re a teacher, you should be the best teacher and if you’re a researcher, you should be the best researcher. There is no scope for you to be second anywhere else. You should try to be the best in whatever you do without comparing yourselves with anybody else. I always believed comparison kills you, either you feel you are superior to someone or you feel you are inferior to someone. Try to excel in whatever you do in the best possible way as per your own capabilities. Each one has his own capabilities, within those capabilities bring the best, then automatically you will be happy. The satisfaction of doing something with your whole heart, at the end of the day, makes you a good citizen in whatever field you choose to be. I think that’s what, if anything, I can say.
What should a student considering research in your field, bear in mind, before opting for it?
If he is trying to join me (laughs), he should first be warned that if your heart’s not in research, don’t join Dr. B.S Murty. I am very clear about it. Teaching and research, should not be done by mediocres, particularly, teaching. If you don’t like teaching, any other field is okay. Teaching and medicine – these are two fields where on one side, you are giving life to people, on the other side you are giving life in a different way to people. Your whole future is dependent on your teachers. So, if a teacher is not interested in teaching, he should never join teaching. Similarly, if a researcher, simply wants to repeat what somebody else has done, he will never get a PhD. He should feel a sense of pride that what he is doing, possibly, nobody in this world is doing. That feeling that I am unique, that I am trying to solve a unique problem, is something which is very important for every researcher and it is very important for a researcher to keep this in mind all the time while he is doing research. If you feel that research is also a 9-5 job, you are simply mistaken. I always say, research and wife are highly demanding (laughter). Research is heavily demanding and it needs your whole heart in it. I always say this, a good researcher should have three qualities – first, you should be able to talk about the research that you are doing over a cup of tea rather than a cricket match or the ongoing politics; second, you should be able to go to bed thinking of the problem that you are working on, many a time, you get solutions in the dreams; third, you should be able to catch hold of a twelfth standard kid and make him excited about what you are doing. If you cannot do that, you are not a good researcher, you should not be in that field. It’s very important to feel that excitement of doing something new. If you can think that going to the lab is just one of the things that you are doing in a day, then you should not be in research.
Are there any pitfalls that aspiring researchers need to avoid/anticipate?
The pitfall, I would say, is being satisfied very easily. Quite a number of students, feel the urge to publish their results as soon as they arrive at it. It will never give you a recognition which you would have possibly got by going a little deeper, by taking a little longer time trying to bring out certain fundamental aspects in those results. So quite a number of Indians are stuck in this. Partially, our system has to be blamed because when somebody applies for a position, what you look for is the number of papers that the candidate has, so as a result people jump into these numbers very quickly. People need to learn not to be satisfied until they crack the problem in a more fundamental manner, so that it stands for a longer time. And it needs a lot of patience. If you want to have a long-standing satisfaction, what one needs to keep in mind, as we say in Hindi, kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai.
What have been your key takeaways from your journey so far?
Be sincere in whatever you do. Put your heart in whatever you do and never be satisfied. That is what has helped me. I feel that in the long-run what stands for you as a person is your aspiration to be perfect in whatever you do and this is something which has been kind of a running thread throughout my life. That is something which I would say is a major take away from my life.