Higher Education, India

#8. Kalam | India’s search for scientific self-sufficiency

Technology, unlike science, is a group activity. It is not based on individual intelligence, but on the interacting intelligence of many….If someone asks me about my personal achievements in Indian rocketry, I would pin it down to having created an environment in which teams of young people could put their heart and soul into their missions.

APJ Abdul Kalam, Ex-president of India

The bell couldn’t have tolled for the visionary scholar in any better setting. The Ex-President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam bit the dust in a ripe age of 84 while addressing a crowd of students at Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. The death of glory the workaholic deserved.

Today, the youth of a nation having the highest illiterate population in the world is mourning the death of a curly-haired scientist who spent his life working with ballistic missiles and satellite launching. Puzzling, isn’t it?

The entire world observed with cynicism when India walked into the path of her 1st democratic elections in 1951 ; they smirked that democratic elections were not suited to a caste-ridden, multi-religious, illiterate and backward society and the only effective political solution is a benevolent dictatorship. We survived the test with flying colours and despite our own share of problems as a developing nation, external and internal threats, the democratic roots penetrated further and today we hold our ground strongly in a political ring of fire- a chain of chaotic, volatile nations.

When India went on to launch her ambitious moon mission ‘Chandrayan’ in 2008 and later announced the Mars Orbiter mission (MOM) in 2013 she was similarly ridiculed on spending billions of money on space voyage and not using it to alleviate poverty; these kind of statements were passed by nations who spend taxpayer money to fund search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Nonetheless, we reached Mars orbit as only the 4th in the world to do so after US, Soviet Russia and European space agency at a pittance of $73 million, a cost equivalent to less than a single bus ride for each of India’s population of 1.2 billion! This was a feat of unique innovation in terms of design. It was established that as a nation we were self-sufficient to leverage our human resource and home-grown technologies to fulfil our scientific aspirations.

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These ambitious interplanetary missions stood on years of the country’s toil put to space research and development of projectile technology which started with the technological vision of Jawharlal Nehru, India’s 1st prime minister and physicist Vikram Sarabhai, who was entrusted with giving wings to his dreams. Kalam received the mentorship of Sarabhai for starters and later played a pivotal role along with his colleagues.

APJ Abdul Kalam was truly the ‘poster boy’ of India’s indigenous technology. He was the project director of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, served as the chief executive of Integrated Guided Missiles Development Program (IGMDP) and played a strategic role in orchestration of Pokhran-II, India’s 2nd phase of nuclear tests. However, it would be a historical blunder to remember him just as the ‘missile man’. His profound experience as a rocket scientist and as a scientific co-ordinator working in close collaboration with polity made him realize the importance of self-reliance in critical technologies which if properly leveraged can be lead to food, economic and national security. In his years as the President and in the following years, he made us dream of seeing India as a ‘knowledge superpower’. He inspired us to use our creative potential to forge our own destiny. He gave courage and belief to the youth of the nation who either felt ashamed about their present or looked for glory in its past heritage. We rallied behind his vision 2020, an inspiration for the future ahead.

It’s our misfortune that among our policy makers people like him are a rare exception, not a rule.

Take me to the magic of the moment on a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away in the wind of change

-The Scorpions, Wind of Change

Higher Education, Life at IIT, Student Life

#2. Ticky tacky | Doodle jump : Being a science undergrad in IITs

And the people in the houses all went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same

There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

– Pete Seeger, Little Boxes

I was sitting on an evening train with a friend of mine, returning from Kharagpur (KGP) to Kolkata. It was already growing dark outside and with each successive mechanical drag, the outsides were fast trailing behind us. As my friend focused her attention on playing an arcade game where the avatar has to hop on the suspended platforms to keep itself alive, I started wondering about the platform I left behind myself. This particular visit to KGP was aimed at collecting the provisional degree from the institute as it wasn’t possible for me to attend the convocation. With this , all ties with the institute had been severed technically. Chances are bleak that I might revisit the place which I used to call home for the past five years.

Enrolling in IIT KGP under an Integrated Masters in Science program wasn’t a compulsion for me. I wanted to pursue an undergrad degree in basic science for a very long time. However, being a citizen of a nation obsessed with IITs and IIMs, and hitherto an outsider to the IIT system, I was fooled. I was tricked into believing that by joining IIT, I would be able to receive the best academic training and share my domain with a cluster of like-minded students which would facilitate me in realizing my aspirations. I was incorrect in my assumptions. But today as I sit back and ponder on last half of my decade, I can’t say I regret my decision.

In an extremely competitive job-market like that of India,  where there is a morsel of white-collar jobs across a limited platter of sectors, choice of higher education is guided primarily by opportunity than passion. Students try to select, or as in most cases compelled by societal pressure to opt for courses which have decent job prospects. Although, this statement is a tad too ambiguous because a major chunk of these jobs require skill sets irrelevant to the actual specialization of the student. People cultivate and hone these skills as they come to determine their orientation or often guided by prospective financial dividends.

As I landed in the lush green campus of KGP which stood as an embodiment of independent India’s vision of self-sufficiency in training their own work force and of being a technological super power, I found myself beside a group of extremely determined students who were conscious of their toil in cracking the draconian admission test and now were on a mission to secure their professional leverage.

IIT KGP in macro
IIT KGP in macro

The freshman and sophomore year in IIT shredded my initial motivation to take up research as a career. In general, IITs have a policy of recruiting professors primarily as research faculty, with no due emphasis on the art of teaching. Since an outstanding research career has no correlation with the craft, sensitivity and creativity that teaching involves, good teachers are an exception, not a norm in the campus. Students are not willing to learn either and are happy to leave with a decent grade after last-night-mugging, further disengaging the professors. The system winds in a vicious catch-22 cycle.

Students here are extremely dispassionate and goal-oriented. And as I say this, I’m not being judgmental but sensible. During their duration of stay, people engage in various extra-academic activities ranging from recreational ones like sports, music, dancing, dramatics, quizzing to more professional activities like social entrepreneurship, business plan writing, hardware modelling etc. While the natural human tenacity of finding oneself in a social association remains a significant interest, strengthening the profile of the corresponding individual is always the primary motivator.

As I metioned before, classes were disastrous! Not only that, research as a career orientation instantly raised eyebrows and invited curious glances, and alienated you from the herd. Albeit inadvertent, it was an ongoing practice of silent shaming and almost coerced you to toe the line. I was utterly confused and I decided to experiment with every possible option before zeroing on a career path.

In the next few years, I tried at hand at almost everything. I worked with startups, volunteered with NGOs, took up courses in finance, joined student business forums, tried my hand at coding and became part of a team involved in social entrepreneurship. While the experiences were enriching, it helped me to eventually realize that these were not my cup of tea. On the other side of the spectrum, my inclination to academic research grew stronger with every scientific project I pursued. However, here too I took a significant detour as I shifted my inclination to Biomedical doodle-jump-3.8-1_506x900sciences from my actual major of Chemistry. To me, Biology was an academic epitome of ‘Despicable Me’  in high school. 🙂  But surprisingly, exposure to the interdisciplinary aspects of the subject changed the way I used to conceive it and I ended up developing my profile along that line. Today, as I am sitting back in my home waiting to join a doctoral program, I can’t say for sure that I am liberated of my uncertainties and concerns about my future. But I have a strong conviction about one thing. That it is an informed choice.

Our journey in IIT was not a standard assembly line where we were shoved in to churn mass-produced graduates. It deprived us of a strong classroom teaching. The peer pressure bogged us down, the divergent interests baffled us. But all these ‘difficulties’ had a potential to use them to our advantage. It gave us the necessary exposure and left the rest on our own.

In the end, we weren’t much different from the game of doodle jump my friend was playing to kill her boredom. My entire five years was a giant platform game; hopping on the right platforms and to steer clear of the obstacles was the only way to advance and stay alive!

Photo credits:

IIT KGP in macro – Ashay Gangwar