An Adroit Academician: Prof. Soumya Gangopadhyaya
Hailing from a "conventional and conservative Bengali family", as he puts it, Prof. Soumya Gangopadhyaya from the Department of Mechanical Engineering has come a long way from where he began. Besides having a keen interest in research and teaching, he is also a strong proponent of new ideas. In this interview, he talks about his life, his assorted experiences inland as well as abroad and what a student actually needs to grow up as a person.
MM: Tell us about your childhood, schooling and education.
SG: I did my schooling in the Headquarters of the Rama Krishna Missionary School, Kolkata mainly because my family members were disciples of, and dedicated to this missionary. Following which I decided to pursue my graduation in Production Engineering in Maharashtra and then M.Tech and Ph.D. at IIT Kharagpur. As soon as I completed studying in IIT Kharagpur, I started working as an assistant professor in the Mechanical Department at NITR.
MM: Why did you choose Mechanical Engineering, especially Production, as your course of study?
SG: I had always wanted to pursue engineering in one of the basic branches like mechanical or electrical because the other branches were not very developed back then. Also, as far as manufacturing is concerned, I had this curiosity to know how things build up around us and what the different processes are to manufacture various materials. I couldn't really get answers to many of those questions in my childhood, and therefore, wanted to pursue a branch of engineering that could answer my queries. After I took up mechanical, I learned that besides manufacturing this branch has a lot of scope outside.
"One of the major factors that the growth of a country depends on is their enhancement in manufacture sector. If we become self-reliant in the manufacturing sector, I think our country would develop rapidly. Also, I think that India is going in the right direction with the Make in India concept."
MM: You chose a career in teaching and research, rather than choosing the conventional industry line. Any special reason behind that?
SG: From my childhood itself, I had the wish to become a teacher. I did not know that I would become a teacher in an engineering college, though. I used to be impressed by how teachers are respected everywhere. Their philosophy in life and just everything about them had inspired me to develop a goal to become a teacher. After I completed engineering, I received job opportunities from several manufacturing industries, but rejected them and opted for higher studies because I felt in myself the need to expand my knowledge. During M.Tech, I was exposed to the basics of research and I realized that this particular line was probably the only opportunity that would help make both my dreams of teaching and research come true.
"As a teacher, you get to enjoy the ultimate freedom and there's nobody to direct you to do this or that."
But, in industry, things are just sacrosanct. It's like there are principles and rules present at every other stage. You can apply your innovation, but only to achieve the goal set by the industry. Therefore, I did not prefer going for a job in the industrial sector.
MM: Having already completed B.Tech as well as M. Tech, did Ph.D. provide you with a new dimension? What was it like at IIT Kharagpur?
SG: My outlook towards teaching and research grew more vigorous during my Ph.D. program. I realized that the basic concepts of teaching and learning were entirely different from those that I had experienced during my B.Tech and M.Tech life. I understood that the process of teaching and learning has no boundaries and I witnessed the flexibility of the teachers at IIT to impart immense knowledge over a larger domain. Apart from the topics associated with the books referred, the teachers at Kharagpur were given the freedom to extend the boundary of knowledge by taking keen interest to teach the topics which were beyond the scope of the book.
Besides this, the students were always welcomed to express their doubts and think out of the box. There was no time bound activities related to research there. The laboratories were accessible during any time of the day that comforts the research-conducting students and there was scope for the B.Tech students to meet their senior students who were involved with research for clarification of their doubts. The non-existence of time restriction for laboratories is really a useful method adapted by IITKGP and I am personally very impressed with this system. Recently, I visited IIT Gandhinagar and witnessed similar flexibility regarding the academics.
MM: Could you tell us more as to what exact flexibility that you found in their (IIT Gandhinagar) system?
SG: See, many students may have inclinations towards subjects other than their conventional subjects that can be fulfilled by the Open Elective program being adapted in most of the national institutes. What I am saying is that the implementation is much better in IITs than other institutes. In IIT Gandhinagar students study a maximum of 5-6 core branch subjects through their entire course and the rest are either open or professional electives. In IIT Hyderabad, there has been a concept of fractal academics where credit points are accounted for, in a different way and some subjects of interest are adopted under professional electives with less number of credits.
I sense that the major result expected out of this method is motivating and encouraging students to learn and gain knowledge about various subjects both under their discipline as well as beyond it.
"If we overburden the students with an excess number of subjects related to their branch, there is a chance of disinterest being created in the students and they may not excel in those subjects. I feel that students may become more interested in academics if we prepare a reasonable curriculum and give the students a sense of freedom to learn any subject according to their interest."
MM: What are your views about the lab facilities at NITR? Are they up to the mark?
SG: Comparing NITR with itself before ten years and now, there has been a lot of improvisation in technology, laboratory facilities, infrastructure and quality of education, but still there is lot of scope and need for improvisation. For example, in manufacturing section of the mechanical department, basic facilities for conventional projects are available, for example, the Lathe machine, drilling machine and milling machine. But considering non-conventional processes like electro discharge machinery, electrochemical machinery and the like, NITR is not at par in providing them when compared to IITs.
"Practical knowledge plays a very crucial role because students need to correlate their theoretical knowledge with their practical experience to grow and develop. I've personally observed students not being able to visualise concepts in the class, but when demonstrated in the laboratory they found it easy to understand."
MM: You also worked at the University of Leoben for over a year. What was your nature of work there? What were the differences that you observed in the work culture between there and India?
SG: At the University of Leoben, my work included the development of thin film/physical vapour deposition test coating for cutting tool application. There is a lot of difference in the way of interaction between the academia and the industry in India and University of Leoben. If we consider the universities or institutes in India on a general basis, the interaction is quite low. Moreover, the projects over there are funded by the industries themselves through the researchers. The entire team irrespective of their seniority runs through the entire research by visiting the industry. During my visit to Leoben, I got the opportunity to visit a number of industries and witness various processes that I have not been able to visualize. The industries come forward to the academics, which I feel is absent here. Also, unlike India, none of the working community goes to work on weekends. They reserve it for refreshing themselves and for having fun. I think that is also a reason why they progress and grow.
MM: Apart from your obvious interest in research and academics, what are some other things that you like doing?
SG: I like to travel a lot. I like to visit new places and meet people of various customs and traditions. Whenever I have a free crack in my schedule, I make it a point to travel somewhere new. I have had this habit since my childhood and my parents were supportive of it. So, even though, my stay in Europe was only for a year, I visited a number of important places in Europe.
MM: So, do you have a bucket list of places that you want to visit in India?
SG: Yes, definitely. If given a chance, I would love to travel to each and every corner. However, India being such a vast country, fulfilling my dream of visiting all the important tourist places may not be possible but I am rigid and try it out in small doses in the best way possible.
MM: Do you find any stark difference between your life as a student with that of the current generation?
SG: Students now are very dynamic. Besides academics, they take part in various other activities at their own will. Club culture is something that was absent during our student life and it helps the students in improvising their skills. I am the faculty advisor of SAE club and have been witnessing the hard work of students very closely. Also, the present generation students are very innovative and are being educated in a more creative and skillful environment.
MM: Besides being a professor, have you had any other administrative responsibilities at NITR?
SG: Yes, as I said already, I am the Faculty Advisor of SAE. I also am involved in the main part of the Central Library as a departmental representative, an integral part of the committee for the Grand Book Fair and a member of the Central Timetable committee. I manage allotments of slots and rooms for various classes. Also, as you know, accreditation is a highly essential honour for any institute in order to get authentication for the various courses. I was the coordinator of managing the accreditation-related works for the Mechanical Department (B.Tech) in 2013-2014 and it was quite a challenging task that I, as far as I am concerned, have accomplished it successfully.
MM: How has NITR changed you as a person? Do you find it hard to manage your professional and personal life?
SG: After I got into this profession, life has become very hectic. I have been assigned many responsibilities that actually helped me to evolve as a more organized person. You can witness many professors working at late hours (beyond their normal working hours) to fulfill their responsibilities. It is because NITR is decorated with such hardworking and dedicated people that it is pacing towards further heights of success. Coming to my personal life, even though it is hectic, it is easily manageable.
MM: Do you happen to have any role models or people who have influenced your life and your beliefs?
SG: Actually, I have two, neither are they teachers nor engineers,
Mr.Subash Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda -They taught me the fact that the most thing in anyone’s life is their faith in themselves. “Believe in yourself and you are sure to succeed”, is the ultimate principle that they followed and that is the most inspiring statement in my life. They also happen to be very proficient teachers of faith and conventional motivators. That is why; I consider them as my ultimate source of inspiration.
MM: Any word of advice that you would like to give to the students?
" I advise students to concentrate more on personality development in these four years, rather than academic excellence because the latter occurs because of the former. The focus should not be only on becoming a good engineer because that is a byproduct anyway. Chase your dream. Never let go. These four years are an ample time for your personality development over a larger domain. Do anything according to your interest but do it innovative. Do not restrain yourself to any particular genre of work. Give your best and make your wish come true."