The overseas connect with the Meta-mind: Dr. Sarat Mohapatra

The overseas connect with the Meta-mind: Dr. Sarat Mohapatra

Deepak Marandi | Feb 11, 2019

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As the Metallurgy department celebrated Aurum, the golden jubilee of the first graduating batch, Monday Morning got in touch with Dr Sarat Mohapatra, the President of NITROAA. On a beautiful Saturday evening, he shared his life experiences and thoughts on the recent pursuits of NITROAA and the brains behind some of its most generous initiatives towards NIT Rourkela so far.

Monday Morning (MM): Tell us about your childhood life before REC.

Dr. Sarat Kumar Mohapatra (SKM): I went to school in Cuttack, and my father had to move to Bhubaneswar, so I moved to Bhubaneswar and finished my high school from BM High School, Old Town. After a year of a gap, there was a five-year program, and I got selected for REC.

MM: How did you come to choose Metallurgy?

SKM: I had initially joined Mechanical Engineering in REC. Towards the middle, I heard of a brand new department called Metallurgy, and I got interested. So I changed to Metallurgy. It was easier to change departments at that time.

MM: How were your then five years at REC?

SKM: I guess I could say I was busy, in the sense that in addition to my classes and all that, I was the Cultural Secretary, and also the Department Secretary. So I had a lot of activities. Yet I spent a lot of time in studies as well, and that’s how I was the topper of the Metallurgy Department in my batch. During my time, Prof. Pani was the Department Head, and I worked on projects along with two other students. For that, we had to go to different places and collect ores. As a result, we travelled a lot. We went to Calcutta and the mines of Jamshedpur. I remember whenever the exam used to come, for a month, all the lights would be switched on throughout the night, and we used to drink coffee a lot. With both academic and extra-academic activities on the balance, as far as my REC days are concerned, I don’t complain.

MM: Tell us about your experience as Cultural Secretary and Department Secretary.

SKM: As the Department Secretary, you invite different people, and you facilitate different competitions, like art competitions. Some of my friends were extremely talented. So during the competition, I would ask them to paint, and I had a few judges whom I would invite, and then give out prizes to the best painting, on the condition that I was to keep the paintings. (Smiles). I met some very talented people in REC, and in fact, some of them are here, in Bhubaneswar.

My role as Cultural Secretary was similar. The used to call the Cultural Secretary as the ‘Nach-Pat’ Secretary. Since I was the Cultural Secretary, I had all the instruments in my room. I had the thought that I would play the instruments, but I never got the chance to play the instruments. Some of my friends were talented in music, so whenever they came to my room, they would immediately play the instruments. That’s good enough satisfaction for me that having the instruments in my room, other students can play for me.

Apart from that, the cultural secretary had the role of arranging cultural programs and competitions. We used to invite Bapi; he was a famous actor back in our time, I don’t know whether you’ve heard about him or not. He used to come for a month or something to train us. I don’t know whether other groups have done this or not, but until I was there till ‘70, it was a regular custom. We invited several movie directors as well to come and train us.

So we were pretty good in dramas. Many years we used to get the first position in competitions, not because of my contribution, but because I was there to kind of push people. They were pretty talented people, in music and drama.

MM: Tell us about your higher studies.

SKM: I went to IIT Kanpur for my MTech. from 1970-72. I was not doing metallurgy; it was on Ceramics and glasses. I was working under the Dean who I had contact with, Prof. Subbarao, so I got a little more money than others. I enjoyed it there, but nothing significant happened. The change was not a problem for me. Overall I had a good time, enjoyed the change, and learned something new.

I didn’t come from a wealthy family where somebody would support me, so I supported myself. I supported myself partly in REC. The fees of REC amounted to Rs 165 at that time. I was getting a national scholarship, of Rs. 100, and the rest, Rs. 65 was paid by my father. During my Masters, I didn’t need help as the fees were Rs. 250 per month and I got Rs. 400 per month from the AEC Grant. For the Ph.D. program, I had a few offers, and I chose Prof. Clover at the University of Southern California. He’s a renowned professor. And then I moved to California, USA.

MM: How was your experience settling in California in the 80s?

SKM: After I finished my Ph.D. in ’76, I was looking for a job. In the beginning, I thought of coming back to India. So I wrote to my professor at IIT Kanpur, saying that I would like to come back and teach. He asked me to get some three to four years of experience in an industry before coming. That was the starting point of the change in my thinking. So I started looking for some post-doctoral jobs, and I got a post-doctoral position at Bell Labs. I was there for a year and a half. I was extremely fortunate that I had some good bosses. My boss at Bell Labs helped me quite a bit in getting a lot of other postdoctorate positions. I got an offer in Oxford and many other places. I am very grateful to him. By the time I was ready to leave, he got me a job in a company called Coulter Systems Corporation.

Then I joined a company in Boston, a small company, and I worked on electrical systems. After the Boston job, I elected to move to a different company, a bigger company. I joined three companies after that, and I did a lot of research in different areas. Then I said to myself I had to leave the R&D lab and work in the Division lab. It was an eye-opener for me. Sometimes I would propose different programs, but the division lab didn’t accept. Reason being they were on a tight schedule. So I learned that. I worked for medical imaging for 16 years, during which I did a lot of product development. When you see something you help create go out the door and sell well, it is a great satisfaction.

After the end of my industrial career, a friend of mine, who was the Chairman at Creighton University, Omaha, asked me to teach at Creighton University. That’s how I worked on pharmaceutics. It was the dawn of a new era— I worked on medicine and nanotechnology. Then close to a year after, I moved to Minnesota, where I worked on pharmaceutics, but a slightly different domain. I worked on drug delivery systems. I do teach, one course a semester, to pharmacy students.

MM: You also taught Odia to schoolchildren in Minnesota. How did that come to happen?

SKM: I’m socially active as well, I do a lot of stuff. One of the seniors in the Odia community in the USA opened an Odia language program in an institution called School of Indian Language and Culture. Normally the way he operated was: he used to start something, and then say, “Sarat, you take over.” So I taught Odia. At first, there were three students; then we had five students. Two of them were, of course, my kids. We continued that for three years. As the kids got bigger, they lost interest. So I taught social studies then. When my term was ending, my younger daughter showed the interest to teach social studies.

One thing you may not know is that I’m a priest. I’ve done a number of weddings for my friends' kids. I do a lot of Pujas as well at home regularly. I used to do Ganesh Puja and Durga Puja in my house. Slowly the number of people got bigger. Because of that, and also because I’m away now, this time the Saraswati Puja will be done in a temple.

I also helped instil the deity of Lord Jagannath in different temples. It’s a four-day program, more like an intense three-and-a-half day program. So I stay in the temple and do the necessary rituals. I’ve also published a book on the rituals surrounding the installation of Lord Jagannath. I’m writing some other books, which are in different stages of completion.

MM: How was NITROAA founded? Share with us your experiences about the early days of the overseas organization.

SKM: Before that, you would like to know that I was the President of India Association of Minnesota, and I was also the treasurer of the Minnesota Asian Indian Democratic Association. NITROAA comes later actually.

In 2014, I was asked to write the Bylaws for the organisation. I was reluctant at first. But since they were insistent, I agreed. We formed a five-membered group, and I was chairing the bylaws. We completed the bylaws in 3 months. Once we wrote the bylaws, we had to formulate the group. NITROAA was coined by me. Then Dr Birendra Jena asked me to arrange nominations for candidates and elections. I did both. So the first NITROAA organisation was formed. We also had to make it a non-profit organisation. I continued the election for the second term too, the next year.

So NITROAA was formed, and it’s going well. We are the first group to create an endowment program, which went to Prof. Ajay Mohanty of the Electrical Department. We’re going to talk to him tomorrow, and also talk about faculty grants and scholarships. We started the NITROAA scholarship last year, and two students are getting scholarships. But there are other groups, like the 1972 batch, who have raised enough money to continue probably 3 to 4 years’ worth of scholarship. There are also individuals who form the Student Council. One of my batchmates is giving out two scholarships.

MM: What’s your experience as the President of NITROAA?

SKM: It’s busy actually. We make programs, and every program needs money. We don’t have a lot of sponsors. So when I go back, I will start raising money for the faculty grant.

We have an 11 member board, so they have to approve any program. It is a rigorous process, and a lot of discussions happen. Out of the 11 member board, we have an executive committee, which is a four-member board consisting of the President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer. They have individual roles.

We are expanding, but we still have a limited number of people. NITROAA members are close to 550 or so. The membership drive is one of our main activities. But I don’t look after that, I participate in fundraising, and try to set the goals for NITROAA.

We conduct a convention every year, and this years’ will be the 5th convention. The last one was in San Francisco, which was a huge success. The 2019 Convention will be in Boston. Role of NITROAA in a convention is sponsorship. We look for local people who manage the details of the convention. We help them in any way we can.

MM: What are the plans of NITROAA?

SKM: We’re starting a collaborative fundraising effort for another endowment. Our primary objective is to be helpful to NITR in multiple ways. So we communicate and propose plans to the NITR, and if accepted, we start the fundraising effort. My thinking is to try and see for smaller programs which would benefit the students as well as faculties. I plan to start a faculty exchange program and am musing over it. Faculties can come for six months and learn some things here, whatever’s appropriate for them. I’m also thinking about a student travel grant. Since we can’t support them, we can help them help them settle.

There’s a Vision 2025 program which was submitted to NITR. Vision 2025 is a working goal, and we’re doing some of the things which are in direct sync with the Vision 2025. It has ten endowments. It’s going to be hard on us because 2025 is only six years away. But we’ll help any way we can.

There are things always happening in the community, but we’re mostly looking towards the institute's part of it. But we also have to look at the local community. That’s going to be another mission, to help them. Recently one of the persons who had graduated from NITR and working in the USA suddenly died. NITROAA couldn’t immediately help, but a number of its members provided support to the family. So many things will come down the road. I don’t have a crystal ball. I’ve enrolled for two years. Let’s see what happens.

MM: Finally, what would your message be to the MM readers?

SKM: We want to build a community, because the bigger the organisation, the better. Some things happen, and during those times people of the community could help. Like if a person got stuck in winter due to heavy snow, three people would show up and offer help.

As for students, anytime they need help, like when they have completed studies, and want to go somewhere, for a summer job or a permanent job, they can call up people in the area through us. That is the message I will give. We are here to help, let us know where you need help, and we will help.

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