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In Conversation With Ashok Misra

Ranjani Saigal

(More information on golden jubilee celebrations at http://gj2008.iitbombay.org/)

Dr. Ashok Misra , Director of IIT Bombay was awarded the Distinguished Alumni  Award from the University of Massachusetts   at Amherst.  As IIT Bombay celebrates its Golden Jubilee in India and the US with a grand celebration in New York on July 18 and 19 , Misra shares his thoughts on IIT education and what IIT Bombay has achieved.

 Prof. Misra obtained his B.Tech. degree in Chemical Engineering from IIT Kanpur in 1968, M.S. in Chemical Engineering from Tufts University in 1969 and Ph.D. in Polymer Science & Engineering from University of Massachusetts in 1974. After working in Monsanto for three years he joined IIT Delhi in 1977 where he served as the Head of the Centre for Polymer Science & Engineering and as Dean, Alumni Affairs & International Programmes.

Prof. Misra is the President of the Indian National Academy of Sciences India (NASI), Fellow of the National Academy of Engineering, Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers, Indian Plastics Institute and the Maharashtra Academy of Sciences. He is a Member of the International Academic Advisory Panel, Government of Singapore; International Advisory Board, College of Engineering, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA and Member, Independent Scientific Advisory Board of the World Bank for the African
Institutes of Science & Technology.

He is the recipient of several honors and awards which includes the S.S. Bhatnagar Memorial Award of the Indian Science Congress; Chemtech CEW Award; National Systems Gold Medal of the Systems Society of India; Tufts Engineering Award; Qimpro Platinum Standard Award (Education); Materials Research Society of India Medal, Prof. Santappa Award of the Society of Polymer Science India and Asian Polymer Association (APA) Distinguished Award. Prof. Misra is on the Board/Council of several national institutions and serves as Member on a number of national committees for research and development programmes. He has co-authored a book, has 6 patents and has over 150 international publications.

How does it feel to get the Distinguished Alumni Award?
I am really humbled by this. The University of Massachusetts has a very large group of outstanding Alumni and it really is an honor to be singled out.

Why did you choose to do your PhD at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA?

After graduating from Tufts University, I joined Monsanto. At Monsanto I took the distance education classes offered by UMASS Amherst.  I was very interested in the research that was being done by Prof Richard Stein who agreed to be my advisor. It was the work and the great facilities at UMass that prompted me to go back to school for a PhD.

You gave up a very lucrative career at Monsanto and returned to India to work at IIT Delhi when India was not a popular destination for NRIs. What motivated you to do this?

I always wanted to go back and serve my own country.  When I got the opportunity to work at the Indian Institute of Technology which is a premiere research and teaching institution in the country, I could not refuse for it allowed me to pursue my interest in research and create an impact on the world of polymer science in India. 

You left the faculty position at IIT Delhi and took the director position at IIT Bombay.  What motivated you to leave a faculty position where you were focusing on research and teaching to becoming an administrator?

I strongly believe that high quality research is critical to creating a fine higher educational institution. As Director one has opportunity to help redefine priorities and it was exciting for me to have the prospect of increasing the focus on research at IIT Bombay which can have great impact on IIT and the world. As a director I still continue to pursue my research interests in the area of polymer science aggressively.

IIT Bombay is celebrating its golden jubilee. Could you highlight some of the accomplishments of the institute?

I am very proud to tell you that IIT Bombay has consistently received high rankings in many surveys and in a recent survey it was ranked as the number one university in Asia.  We had 153 PHDs graduate last year and that is comparable to research institutions like IISC Bangalore.

We have been very successful in establishing meaningful  research collaborations with outstanding universities of the world. We recently signed an academic collaboration agreement with the University of Cambridge which is focused on nanoscience and nanotechnology and its applications to nano-structured materials and nano-structured devices

IIT Bombay has stellar faculty and by providing the right resources and connections we are able to increase the quality and quantity of research that goes on at the institute.  Many of our faculty have been recognized by reputed international research organization.  

We have worked to encourage entrepreneurship with the creation of SINE. It administers a business incubator which provides support for technology based entrepreneurship.  We have over 20 companies and a few have already become very successful. 

Can you tell us a little about the golden jubilee celebrations?

The golden jubilee celebrations were inaugurated on September 5 2007 by the former President Dr. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.  We hope to use the golden jubilees as a time to launch new initiatives, celebrate the success of the past, reflect on the past and plan for the future. We also hope to raise $125 million during the year for various initiatives. Our major initiative is the 10 great ideas to change the world in the next 50 years campaign which we hope will have a lasting impact on the world at large.

What is the “10 great ideas to change the world in the next 50 years”  campaign about?

In keeping with IIT Bombay’s vision of being the Fountainhead of New Ideas and Innovators in Technology and Science we have launched a campaign to invite the extended IITB family which has many thought leaders who will make a major impact on the world to submit ideas that they believe will change the world in next 50 years. In essence, these ideas could be the prime movers for the world in the next 50 years.  Ideas that are chosen will get full support for implementation.

What is your opinion on the proposed increase in the number of IITs in India?

I do not believe it is a good idea. IIT is an institution of higher learning that requires a large research infrastructure to support its kind of education. We may choose to open more undergraduate educational institutions but opening a new IIT should not be undertaken lightly.

What message do you have for our readers?

My best wishes to all and I hope each of you succeeds in your profession to the best of your ability. We are very proud of the success of Indian Americans. We hope you will consider contributing your talents back to India. There is a great deal of excitement in India right now and we hope you can make use of the opportunity.

Thank you for your time

Thank you.

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