Of Metal and Mettle: Dr. Birendra Jena
Deepak Marandi | Feb 18, 2019
On the sidelines of Aurum 2019, Team MM had a chance to catch up with Dr. Birendra Jena, an esteemed alumnus from the early batches of the Metallurgical and Materials Sciences Engineering department who went on to pursue Research and Development in various metallurgical insustries in US, and is most acclaimed for his efforts in establishing NITROAA, the premier body for alumni of this institute settled in America. In a candid tete-a-tete he shares with us anecdotes from his early life, resettling abroad and most importantly, his experiences with and vision for NITROAA. Below is a unabridged segment of the conversation.
Tales from home, REC and beyond
Monday Morning: How was your life before REC?
Birendra Jena: I had a decent childhood in my time, I grew up in a village. I did my schooling in Cuttack. I attended GM College for my intermediate, and then I got admitted here, in REC.
MM: How would you describe your time in REC?
BJ: That time, it was five years. Those five years were the most memorable five years of my life. My friends and I, we were a bunch of teenagers living the new, adult life, and the experience was great. We were learning a new thing, and the environment was quite conducive, quite excellent. We had a good time.
MM: Was the decision of choosing Metallurgy a voluntary one?
BJ: Well, it was voluntary. I joined here in 1960 when there was great unemployment going on. I wanted to become a civil engineer, that’s what everybody wanted to become back then. But people were having a tough time finding jobs. At that time, Metallurgy and Chemical Engineering were the new departments and the Rourkela Steel Plant had recently come up. I didn’t have much idea about metallurgy but I was told it was related to metals and we could get jobs, so I joined Metallurgy.
MM: After your B.Tech., you also did your Masters and Ph.D. in Metallurgy. What fascinated you to pursue higher studies?
BJ: It was mostly whimsical. After five years I was too tired to do anything else, so among our friends, we just decided to go for masters. It was only weeks before the application window closed that I applied for all the 4 IITs which had Metallurgy and IISc because I had heard good things about it. It so happened that I got called into all the IITs, Madras, Bombay, Kanpur and Kharagpur. But I went for the interview at IISc, and I got selected. In IISc, they had an excellent Metallurgy department, and they were mostly research oriented. Before IISc, I didn’t have any idea about research. But I started taking an interest in research after joining IISc. I did my Masters in Metal Matrix Composites; it was a new topic then. After completing my Masters, I didn’t pursue a PhD due to family reasons. I started working in research in CSIR Research Lab, Bhubaneswar. When I got a chance to do my PhD, I applied to IISc, and IIT Kharagpur. My thought was to go to Kharagpur because it was closer. But then I got a chance to study in Canada, so I chose to go to Canada.
MM: How was your life in Canada?
BJ: It was good, of course. It was quite different, in the sense that Montreal mainly, was quite cold, and I arrived there in winter, which was unpleasant. Other than that, it was great. It’s a lovely city, and the school was great.
MM: Tell us about your transition to the US and your life there.
BJ: What happened was that Canada was a small country in terms of jobs in metallurgy. That’s what I felt. So I found that if I go to US, I would have a much better chance, so immediately after my Ph.D., I tried to go to the US, but my visa got denied. After I got my immigration and citizenship approved, I moved to the US. The US was quite different professionally. You get more scope, more freedom over what you want to do.
MM: What were the cultural differences between India and the US as you experienced there?
BJ: It’s quite a bit of cultural difference. You are more traditional here, but they’re the most westernised there. But In some cases though, I find they are similar Like in India, you’re on your own there. If you lost your job or are in financial trouble, unless your family would come to help you, you’re on your own. Other than that, the USA is a more capitalised society, but Canada is more socialistic. They have a free market economy but in a very controlled manner.
On the inception of the Overseas Alumni orgnisation, NITROAA
MM: How did you come across NITROAA?
BJ: I’m actually the founder of NITROAA. What really happened was that after I moved to the United States, a few of us decided to mobilize the alumni to do something for our college, it was REC at that time. A few of us collected money to buy library books, and some of them purchased Peterson’s Guide to Higher Studies. It’s a guide which could give you the names of universities and departments available and all that. Then one of us donated the books to the library.
There were several instances where we raised money. You have Prof. B. Behera’s bust somewhere in the main building. NIT Rourkela Alumni Association had ordered that bust for Rs 1 lakh and gave an advance of Rs 4,000. But they didn’t have the money to collect that bust. We came to know about it through Prof. Patel. So what we did was we raised some money among us, I think about $1800 and sent it here.
In addition to it, what I used to do was have get-togethers for the alumni there. It was difficult, for we didn’t know who was where. One way of knowing was through the Odisha Society of America. It’s a society of Odias living in the States and Canada. They used to have annual conventions. There I used to ask people who were from REC about what we can do for the Institute. It was 2002 then. It continued for some time. But we could reach only fifty-percent of the people because fifty-percent of the students of REC was from other states. So around 2008, I located some non-Odias in Toronto, Canada, and had a meeting with them. In 2009, we did that in New Jersey. And this time, half of the attendees were from outside Odisha. That way we gathered many people. Then we thought of having an organisation. Dr. Sandip Dasverma helped me in this. He was quite active in locating people, and we tried to organise them.
Then in 2013, we decided to have an NIT Rourkela alumni body from the US. The decision was made in Chicago, during the Odisha Society Convention. Then we tried to reach as many people we could. In September 2014, we decided to have NIT Rourkela alumni convention in Charlotte, South Carolina. The attendance was low, but we had to work for six months to organise that. At the same time, we started the bylaws for the NIT Rourkela Overseas Alumni Association. So we formally started in Charlotte in 2014. Mr Sandip Dasverma was the first and founding President, and I was the Vice President. We had a board of 11 people and then we also had a Treasurer and a Secretary.
The next effort was in Atlanta, Georgia. Same way, it was a local effort. The next year the convention was in Long Beach, California, where Mr. Deba Mahapatra is from. So he organized that. Each year the numbers increase.
So we have annual conventions at different parts of the country. It’s a two-day convention. The first day, everybody introduces themselves, and then we have a brainstorming session about how we can help NIT Rourkela. We also have a keynote address. We invite someone from outside the engineering community to give a talk. Once we called a Security Officer from AT&T Telecommunications, and once we called a Swamiji from the Ramakrishna Mission to give a different perspective of life. On the next day, it’s usually a picnic. But last time, we had the convention in San Francisco, so somebody had the idea to book a cruise. So we did that. We went on a cruise and had lunch there. It took us around the San Francisco Bay area.
MM: What are the schemes you have under NITROAA?
BJ: What we try to do is help students attend any international conferences they get selected too. 2 years ago, two students went to San Francisco, and we raised money for the air ticket. Past 2 or 3 years, the SAE world conference is going on, and students are attending it. We cant provide the travel expenses all the time, but we provide the living, as we arrange them with the alumnus who can take care of them. Last year, a student from the chemical department, Rahul Mohanty, wanted to attend a conference in Pittsburgh. I located an alumnus, and he stayed with him and then attended the conference.
That's not all. We estimate at least 2000 alumni in the US. We have to tell them because not many people know the organisation exists. It’s word of mouth. Currently, we have over 500 lifetime members. We also have student members about 100, who are graduates studying in the US. We try to organise them, help them get jobs, and help them in other ways.
We try to do things, for example, there’s a Prof. Ajay Mohanty endowment which was created last year. They appoint a professor and a research student under him, and they get Rs 50,000 per month for the student’s stipend and research purposes. We have this for three years, after which we may decide if to continue for the next three years or not.
Another thing we did was we found out some students, whose financial background was not well, so we raised money for that. We have sent the first installment of around Rs 8 Lakh, and then Rs 40,000 in another. On the basis of this, we awarded two scholarships to two students whose names I don’t remember.
We also help the members in any way we can. One person, 2003 alumni, suddenly had a medical emergency during his vacation. Our alumni ran to the place and provided any help we could. We raised money to support for his treatment. Another time, we helped another person, 1989 alumni, who unfortunately passed away due to some health issue. We paid for his funeral. His family, along with a young son of 10, lived in Canada, and we supported them.
Other than that, we don’t have schemes per se. Actually, we want to improve by taking inputs from the students. Here, we’re setting a kind of a database here, so that students can contact us and collect information about which university to choose and what kind of help they would get.
MM: What do you think is the role of an alumnus for the development of the institute?
BJ: Yes, they do have a significant role. I very strongly feel that the alumni should pay back to the alma mater whichever way possible. Money is significant. People think that since it’s a government institute, they have a lot of money. But they can’t spend it whichever way they like. There are certain areas the alumni can help, and we are trying to help in any way possible.
MM: What are the plans for NITROAA?
BJ: What we’re planning to do is build a corpus fund, so that we can help people easily. Now, even if someone needs a small amount of money, we have to raise it from our alumni. We also want to enhance research activities in NIT Rourkela. For example, we’re looking at a case in the Computer Science department, where a faculty wants to set up his laboratory. We’re seeing if we can help him.
MM: What would your message be to the MM readers?
One thing I would like to say is that be prepared for change. You always face challenges. You cannot be rigid. There are always changes, and challenges. If you have planned for something it may not happen, so be prepared for that.
Engineering is something which teaches you problem-solving. No matter whatever branch you are in, what they will train you to do is to solve problems. That helps you in facing challenges in life. So having gone through several of that, I can say that the training I got in REC Rourkela helped me face some of the important challenges in life.
Visit nitroaa.org to get glimpses of some of the notable initiatives and events in the past years by NITROAA and learn more about the growing network as it prepares to organise its annual convention at Boston later this year.