Convivial Chemistry 101: Prof. Priyabrata Dash

Convivial Chemistry 101: Prof. Priyabrata Dash

Rohit Biswas Debasis Choudhury | Aug 08, 2016

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In our country, research is not something an aspirant looks up to with entreaty. However, Dr. Priyabrat Dash, a faculty from the Department of Chemistry, NIT Rourkela has a different approach to things and fresh ideas to implement in that regard. Team MM caught up with Dr. Dash to understand the struggles involved in becoming a research prodigy in today's times and the rewards of the same. In this interview, he speaks candidly about his work, his life and his experiences at NITR. 

MM: Tell us something about your adoloscent days. What was it like growing up with two elder sisters and a younger brother? 

PD:  I grew up in a small town in the district of Cuttack, Odisha, namely Athagarh. I completed my schooling there. My father was a High School teacher and my mother was an Upper Primary School teacher. Thus,I never felt a dearth of role models when it came to pursuing higher studies and striving for academic excellence. Perhaps it is because of my background and upbringing, that I have an undying thirst for knowledge. After the completion of my M. Tech, I had joined Ghardha Chemicals, in Maharashtra as a R & D Engineer. However, I wasn’t satisfied with my job and that pushed me to appear for my GRE and TOEFL examinations, which I fortunately qualified with good scores and thereafter moved to Canada.

MM: How would you describe your academic career, so far? 

PD: After completing my schooling in Athagarh, I did my under-graduation from Athagarh College itself. Later I qualified the entrance test and pursued an M. Tech degree in IIT Bombay. There, I met Mr. T. R. Rammohan, who was one of the senior most faculty members there. He has been my biggest inspiration, as well as motivation for taking up a profession in the field of research and academics. Even when I was working at Ghardha Chemicals, he kept calling me up and reminding me that I should continue doing the kind of work I enjoyed - research, rather than giving in to family and peer pressure. He always told me,

“These 5-9 jobs will never be able to satisfy you; the kind of person that you are, you have been crafted to pursue your passion in the field of research and don't let anything get in the way of that.”

He told me to prepare for GRE and TOEFL and put me in touch with some research scholars who were then settled in US. I spoke to some of them, and ultimately I was determined to leave the country - so I worked hard and aced all the examinations. I finally got three acceptance letters from three universities in Canada, USA and Signapore, respectively. Since the first call I recieved was from Canada, I had already started making plans for it. Ultimately, I pursued a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. 

MM: How different was the exposure when you were pursuing your higher studies abroad, from your experiences with academic institutions of our country? 

PD: I joined the University of Saskatchewan, a small province in Canada in August 2005. My supervisor was was not much older to me, so he was more of a friend that anything else. He constantly inspired me to keep trying harder and finish my Ph.D. within the expected time frame of four and a half years.

“Pursuing research in a foriegn country gives you a certain level of freedom and flexibility which is lacking in our country. My work was not time bound and I did not have to come in or leave at any particular time, I was free to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted and that was something I really learned to both enjoy and admire.”

Beamline technology was a facility that was available only in our university, at that time. My supervisor did not believe in any shortcuts in life and so he always pushed me to work hard as well. He kept reminding me that there was no easy way to success, especially because he was also working under a big-shot scientist and had to constantly keep learning. The subject was path-breaking and it really interested me. The fact that my supervisor was so keen and persistent, helped me make up my mind quite easily and continue to work in that area.d.

Coming to the comparison of Indian and American education system, what I found was that their undergraduate program is very strong. What students in India learn during their PhDs is what the students learn there in B.Sc. itself. So, fundamentally they are very strong, added to which they recieve the cushion of good infrastructure and instruments. Only after proper examination, they go on to pursue what they actually want to do and they have well-formed ideas about the same. In their final year, they have a scheme as per which students can visit different universities in Canada to meet and intereact with professors from different fields, in order to decide in which area they would like to work, in the future and the entire trip will be funded by the institute that they belong to.

“So, one needs to understand that we are slowly moving to a knowledge-based economy, and B.Tech isn’t the only degree which would fetch you a job. M.Tech and Ph.D. are also apt qualifications.”

Our undergraduate courses could be improved and made more practical, then it would help bridging the gap when one moves to the Ph.D. level. In India, barring IITs we don’t get many students who want to pursue research. It is a common wrong notion that research is tough as it will take 5-6 years and students tend to think that they will be better off with a B.Tech or an M.Tech degree. The mentality that a Ph.D. degree doesn't come with a sizeable increment in the salary has to change, and fortunately for us a new trend is setting in.

MM: Why did you choose “Nanomaterials” as your research subject?

PD:  Nano means ultra-small; in the early 90s, there was a big breakthrough in this field, when a scientist found that Gold nanomaterials can be manufactured and can be used for their catalytic properties in various areas. This had such a great impact that the last two decades have been called the “Gold Era”. I was using these materials in my Ph.D. So now for my research, I use the gold nanomaterials as coatings on other different materials. This leads to a drastic change in all the physical, chemical, magnetic and electric properties of the these materials. We have quantum size effect and that’s what changes these properties.

MM: Why did you choose Nanomaterials when it was still in its nascent stage and what are the advancements of the same in India?

PD:  After 1995, there was a boom in the industry. By the time I completed my Ph.D. in 2010, many individuals in India had taken up the subject of nanomaterials. Nanomaterial study isn’t in its nascent stage anymore, but we are still lagging in some specific areas. Some instruments aren’t available at the institute and that is the main problem. Some biological processes are also difficult to properly incorporate into the research process. However, it can be safely said that we are making progress in leaps and bounds. In fact, we are currently among the top 5 countries in terms producing papers in the field of nanomaterials alongside countries like China, USA, etc.

MM: Why did you choose NIT Rourkela?

PD: My few friends who were here had given me good feedback regarding the availability of instruments. The primary requirement for research is access to a good combination of both basic and advanced type of instruments. The feedback I got was good because of the Director at that time, Dr. S.K. Sarangi, who was very helpful in setting up research centres. This was the first thing that motivated me in 2011. Also, this being my home state I was naturally inclined to work here. Even now, I am very happy with the way things are moving here since I have quite a large number of Ph.D. students. 

“If you ask me for my honest opinion, I can tell you that the only way to do justice to the education that one has recieved, one must pursue higher studies and research to better his or grasp of knowledge and understanding of his subjects."

We have also grown as a department, with as many as 21 faculty members, all having diverse backgrounds working towards a common goal of improving the quality of publications from our department. Also, we now have adequate laboratory facilities to encourage modern and advanced research, and for all this we must give due credit to our former Director, Dr. S. K. Sarangi. 

MM: What are some of the qualities that you think are becoming of a hardworking student who wishes to pursue higher studies? 

PD: When I first meet any particular student the first thing I search for in them is curiosity for the subject. Research is certainly not everyone`s cup of tea. When you conduct any experiment, you might not get a positive result for days and sometimes you might not even get results - thus making that particular experment null and void. However, if you truly enjoy what you're doing, then you should not get frustrated. You have to be passionate about your work, so that your spirit is never dampened and you can finally emerge out of the various problems that you face. A good research guide is always helpful when it comes to situations like these. Moreoever, even as a professor I look for motivation in my students and always recall what my supervisor used to say,  

“There is no charm in making a good student better, but there is a charm in making a weak student good “.

MM: What are some of the changes that you would like to see in NITR?

PD: The primary change which I would like to see is a change in the attitude. Faculty members have to understand that competitive research is the need of the hour, since publications in journals of international repute are now becoming extremely important yardsticks of measuring the potential of a researcher. This will not only serve as an inspiration for other professors but also encourage more students to choose research as their career option. However, I can proudly say that I have noticed a positive change among people and the scenario is definitely improving. More and more people are working for publications and this in turn is creating a healthy academic environment which not only motivates the faculty members, but also inspires students to delve deeper into their subjects.  

MM: You have received a number of awards and accolades like being a member of Materials Society and the Canadian Catalyst Travel award. Which among these do you regard as the most notworthy and why?

PD: My most cherished award would be the one that I recieved for being a top student in my high school. Since my school was one of the best schools then, getting a top position there naturally meant that I was one of the rank holders among the other school as well and this was a matter of great pride for me, then. After that, I received a number of awards like University fellowships, an award for Projects from the University of Ottawa, awards for travelling to different conferences etc. Among all these awards, my first award at the school still remains special to me because it was my very first experience of being rewarded for my hard work and that is what has kept me going through all these years. 

MM: After marching this far on the path of success, it is quite natural that you had your share of ups and downs. So how did you manage them? What would be your message to the readers on how to overcome their personal failures in life?

PD: A nice little failure is always the stepping stone to success. Initially, when I wanted to pursue a master’s degree, I didn`t qualify for GATE examination. Naturally, I got frustrated and to such an extent that I was ready to seek admission in any course, anywhere, for my higher studies. However, it is that moment which must be a test of your determination and patience. Then I thought if I was aiming for a M. Tech degree from an IIT, I should not lower my goals but should work hard, instead. With my mind made-up, I strived for the next 6 months and finally cracked the examination. Hence, I would like to tell all my students that failures are sure to happen, but if your aim is clear in front of your eyes and you work hard to achieve it, then nothing can stop you. Never give up and always be courageous enough to keep trying despite the many obstacles that you face, on your way to the top.

MM: In this hectic schedule of yours how do you find time to relax? What are your hobbies and recreational activities?

PD: My hobby is playing badminton. I am an active member of the badminton club of the institute. Also during my college days, I was a part of the cricket team. My father was a sports teacher so I always had an inclination towards sports as a whole. Apart from that, I read a lot of articles on current issues regarding the country from an economic point of view, publications in journals, new research activities, international politics, financial issues, global market status etc. I make sure I devote at least an hour daily to read about them. Also, I like watching debates on the television since they help me broaden my perspective and understand both sides of the same coin.

MM: What would be your message to all the students of NITR reading this?

PD: The first thing that the students have to realise is that they are in an extremely good institute. They have all the facilities at their disposal and now it is up to them to make the best use of this opportunity. The second thing is that they need to realise the importance of planning their career. I always advise my students that by the final year of their undergraduate studies they should have a roadmap ready for their further studies because a lack of planning leads to loss of few years. If it's unplanned there is always a jeopardy and the goals one wishes to achieve might get distorted. So planning is extremely important. And finally, I would tell them to take help of the required faculty members wherever it is required.

“Student should not be shy or fear their professors.”

All the faculty members are friendly and are here to help you design your career in a more articulate manner. So they should fix their plan and then perform accordingly because the stage is now set for them now it only depends on how they perform!

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