An Ingenious Metallurgist: The Story Of Dr. R.K. Paramguru
The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.
-Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr Raja Kishore Paramguru is such a leader who inspires and drives everybody to achieve their goals and has numerous research papers and publications to his name. He is an alumnus of 1970 batch NIT Rourkela (erstwhile REC Rourkela), Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.Sc Engg.) in Metallurgical Engineering (Now known as Metallurgical and Materials Engineering). He has worked for CSIR-Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology, Bhubaneswar (CSIR-IMMT) for more than 35 years and is part of path-breaking research in his field. Owing to his magnanimous contribution to the research and academic society and with a commendable professional career he pursued, this time he has been selected to be conferred with the prestigious ‘Distinguished Alumnus Award’ in the 18th Annual Convocation of NIT Rourkela.
Team Monday Morning got a chance to catch up with Dr RK Paramguru to garner valuable insights on his life and career. Excerpts:
LIFE AT NIT ROURKELA
Monday Morning (MM): Tell us something about your days before joining NIT Rourkela (erstwhile REC). How did NIT Rourkela happen to you?
Dr R.K. Paramguru (RKP): My schooling was at Buxi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar High School, Khurda where, like any other school, one probable advice of the teachers for a future career at those times is that- ‘If you are good at mathematics – go for Engineering’. The next destination for me was Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, the then Madhusudan Law College where a part of Utkal University Office was still operative. I just walked down there and collected a cyclostyled list of engineering colleges in India. I picked up four colleges from the list, made applications, and NIT Rourkela (erstwhile REC) happened to me probably because the selection letter for admission reached me first.
MM: Was Metallurgical and Materials Engineering always your preferred domain to pursue?
RKP: Initially, I chose Metallurgical Engineering (Materials entered into the fold much later), not based on aptitude, instead because a brilliant senior of my school took this subject. Of course, after two years at RECR, already having some grasp of mastery, I still settled down with this subject. This subject was attracting students then.
MM: Share with us your fondest experiences at NIT Rourkela that you cherish forever. How has NIT Rourkela contributed to your accomplishments and has groomed you both personally and professionally?
RKP: In hindsight, NIT Rourkela happened to be the natural grooming ground for developing my personality traits and professional career. In the beginning, though the newly constructed classrooms and the laboratories at REC Rourkela were neat and well equipped, those appeared a shade below par compared to those at Ravenshaw College, where I came from.
However, the proximity of the teachers to the students at RECR (a distant dream for the first-year students at Ravenshaw College), their in-depth teaching filled with keenness, love and affection towards the students soon took over. Added to that, all possible avenues starting with the weekend film shows at the audiovisual club to various games, cultural activities provided a hectic absorbing life and living for five years.
After more than 50 years of further build-up, whatever identity, personal or professional, stamped on me today, have been founded at the then RECR – I cherish them with pride and privilege.
If I could impress the professors of the Metallurgical Engineering Department at IIT Kharagpur (IITKGP) during my higher studies, then it is under the knowledge I gathered from my teachers at RECR. If I could succeed in my research career at Regional Research Laboratory, Bhubaneswar (RRLB); could pursue my research under the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Bonn, Germany; could get a place in the list of the world’s top two percent scientists in the field of Mining and Metallurgy listed by a Stanford University-led team; then it is because of the good innovative outlook inherited from RECR.
I would also like to share a couple of little experiences. I entered here (RECR) during July 1965 and belonged to the sixth batch in general and the third batch of Metallurgical Engineers of RECR. Ours was the last batch when ragging was permissible and the advantages of ragging were so beautifully and boastfully described by one and all speakers on the occasion of the welcome ceremony that it needs to be treasured. Thanks to our first batches of students, they have built such an impact in the township with good dealings and behaviour; our journey to the restaurants, cloth shops, cinema halls at Rourkela Township was an authentic charm with prestigious welcome and greetings.
LIFE AFTER NIT ROURKELA
MM: How essential was your M.Tech and PhD degree from IIT Kharagpur in shaping your career? How much does a higher degree, such as MS/MBA/M.Tech impact a student’s growth, considering there are so many options to chalk out?
RKP: Degrees from IITKGP have given a particular direction to my career. After I graduated from RECR, I was quite confused with my interests – my inner call was for higher studies. In contrast, the parental (family) need was for an immediate job. While collecting the certificates at the end of the five-year course, I almost decided to pursue a steel plant career, which was a great career choice at that time. However, the manner in which my admission interview with IITKGP turned out, I was overtaken and changed my plans to join for higher education there – I always considered it a stroke of destiny.
Yes, a higher degree such as MS/MBA/M.Tech does impact a student’s growth. In reality, graduation is just the beginning of a career, not the end of it; therefore, specialising in specific domain fields and continuous up-dating is necessary. Of course, the choice of the domain field depends on the student’s aptitude and interest as well as the societal/national market demand/trend.
MM: Tell us about your experience at IIT Kharagpur while you were pursuing your M.Tech and PhD.
RKP: As indicated above, I was well received in the admission interview itself, and was offered a seat for M.Tech, with enough indications for a subsequent PhD seat which formally came well before the completion of my M.Tech. When the classes started, my happiness grew many folds as I found out that what my teachers taught me at RECR was a handful to earn such a good impression from the professors. I continued to build upon what I learned at RECR with deep literature work through prolonged library studies, refining my research inquiries, building up research questions, formulating projects, experimenting, analysing data and drawing inferences, finally writing papers and communicating with stalwarts in the field. After all, the legendary figure on the subject, Prof. S. C. Sircar, was my guide!
What was most important to me happened just one year after I started my PhD work; I was selected as a scientist at RRLB. My professor allowed me to join the job; thanks to the flexibility in regulation, I could continue my research work at RRLB and submit my thesis in time to get my PhD. The innovative outlook inherited from RECR took deeper roots at IITKGP to blossom into fully grown output at RRLB.
MM: What according to you, is the future of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering? What are the areas of improvement needed in this field so that it will remain a relevant course in the future days?
RKP: To answer this question, let me put one parameter, that is, the annual global production of crude steel, at a few points on the time scale and draw a parallel to the subject. When I passed out of RECR in 1970, the subject was just Metallurgical Engineering, and the world produced around 600 million tons of crude steel. In the year 2000, when Materials Engineering has invariably suffixed to the original Metallurgical Engineering, in some instances replaced it, the world produced 800 million tons of crude steel. No doubt those materials, specifically composites, have gained a lot of ground by then, increasing in leaps and bound as time goes on. Still, during the year 2020, the world has produced 1800 million tons of crude steel.
My point is metals and materials are needed and will be needed by humankind and the production will go on. The background is the development in processing through mathematical modelling, computer application, artificial intelligence etc. Those developments will be relevant not only to sustain the subject but also to support sustainability.
MM: You have worked for more than 35 years as a scientist in CSIR- IMMT. Enlighten us about your professional journey that has been so wonderful.
RKP: Yes, I have worked for a long time, specifically almost 38 years, such that I am to mention two names of the same institution I have worked in, RRLB changed to CSIR-Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology, Bhubaneswar (CSIR-IMMT) during 2007. I joined RRLB on 6th September 1973, and it was in its 9th year of inception. The then Director Prof. P.K.Jena was an eminent metallurgist who built the Institution from scratch and ensured that it was recognised at the International level.
Obviously, I was grounded to be a founder researcher in many relevant projects. The first one was ‘hydrometallurgy of complex sulphides’, which blossomed, with a big team of colleagues' contributions, into a unique pilot plant at RRLB. Similar is the case with my next project on ‘characterisation and extraction of metal values from polymetallic nodules (PMN)’ presented by me at NIO, Goa, which subsequently prospered to end in a successful pilot-plant at Udaipur, the lead player of the campaign team was RRLB. The technology is in line to treat PMN when it comes to such a stage and India is one of the very few countries to possess this capability. Projects continued on ‘lateritic nickel’, ‘tungsten’, ‘titanium’ etc., to end with a similar tone of initiation of the ‘Green Steel’ project. Ministry of Steel, Government of India, was looking for proposals to develop innovative, futuristic steelmaking processes. ‘Green-Steel with Hydrogen Plasma’ was formulated for this purpose, approved and completed producing sponge iron using low-temperature hydrogen plasma as reductant and molten iron using thermal plasma. The processes have been patented internationally.
Besides scientific research, setting up of Chapters and Regional Centers of professional bodies such as Indian Institute of Metals (IIM), Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers (IIChE), and Indian Institute of Mineral Engineers (IIME) etc.; conducting conferences, seminars, symposia and workshops were an integral part of the research activities. Side by side, the campus life was to be built up with club with sports, games both indoors and outdoors; art, dance and music school with dance-dramas; departmental canteen etc.
MM: You have researched many topics during your time as a scientist and have brought out many eminent research papers and projects. What inspires you to work so hard and work on varied research projects?
My specialisation is Extractive Metallurgy which consists of Pyrometallurgy, Hydrometallurgy, and Electrometallurgy; those may also be placed under ferrous or non-ferrous metallurgy. Usually, people stick to one of them. But I couldn’t resist my interest to be involved in all of them and a look at the list of my publications will showcase that.
On publication, I share an incident that I can never forget. During my early days at RRLB, once I got a chance to talk to the famous scientist C. V. Sundaram (who subsequently became director IGCAR), who, after inquiring in detail about my PhD work being conducted at IITKGP, to my pleasant surprise, told me – ‘You are doing excellent work. You and your professor will like to publish them in international journals. Please tell your professor that I will be happy if you publish one of your electrode kinetics papers in our Transactions of The Indian Institute of Metals journal’. He was the editor of that journal at that time. I told my professor, he agreed; we published one in Trans IIM. I continued to do so, got connected to the following editors, and got the Binani gold medal for one of my papers published. I used to ask myself – is this event a self-inspiration for CVS or me? Where does Trans-IIM stand – a Springer publication continuing with its 74th Volume!
In the overall context of inspiration, I must share that I have derived it from Jagannath Cult – I don’t mean the religious form of it, rather the philosophical base of it. Lord Jagannath idol at Puri, Odisha, is not complete; they believe it has a specific meaning that anything on life and living is not complete. The responsibility of humankind is to complete, or in other words, to fully develop it. It is also prescribed how to do it – through ‘Chareibeti’ – a Sanskrit term meaning ‘just keep moving (doing)’. It is supposed to be a continuous process, some relate it to Darwin’s evolution theory, but I relate it to innovation eternally related to research. Thus my inspiration has always been ‘Chareibeti’.
MM: You have worked as a consultant with India's Central Government and various state governments and reputed organisations. Tell us about your experience working as a consultant.
RKP: I must say that the consultancy expected from a scientist like me (institution like RRLB) differs a bit from the consultancy of a professional consultant who, in most cases, deals with available processes/types of equipment and provides technical knowledge to his client.
However, our clients look for some innovation – I would put it through examples. A client needs to produce pig iron of specific composition (Carbon and Silicon); his consultant provides the design and operation principles of a mini blast furnace which should give that composition, another company makes it. It erects it at the site of the client. However, the product is of the target with higher carbon content, and this problem is to be fixed. The then director of RRLB straightaway put the point to me since he was somewhat sure that I would fix it because we just published some outstanding papers concerning iron/steel making/smelting reduction. Yes, the problem could be solved and it was shown in a laboratory experiment.
However, the client, who happened to be a metallurgist having long 25 years of working experience in integrated steel plants, knowing pretty well about the thermodynamics of reducing conditions in blast furnace and the oxidising conditions during steelmaking, wants a theoretical explanation of the solution. It was the most pleasant, though a bit long, discussion I had with him while explaining all the titbits of that solution's theoretical basis, rather innovation. He got it and, therefore, successfully put it into operation. I have enjoyed many such discussions, mainly during the presentation of project proposals.
MM: It is often said that Scientists and Researchers are great Teachers. Kindly tell us about your experience as a Professor teaching the budding minds of the nation.
RKP: I must say that I am a firm believer in this statement, though I admit that this dream of mine was only partly fulfilled towards the end of my career. During my student days, I was longing to be a teacher and was preparing accordingly. I said earlier that this subject (Metallurgical Engineering) was attracting students at the time of my admission; the truth was that this department, faculty-wise, in all the institutions were so saturated that I didn’t find a faculty position to apply. I settled down at RRLB and used to take some pleasure in participating in academic activities, helping and guiding PhD students, taking responsibility for human resource development, including the CPYLS (CSIR Program on Youth for Leadership in Science) program etc. However, a real opportunity came when CSIR launched AcSIR (Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research), where higher education like M.Tech and PhD courses can be taken up. Our Director was a leading member of the initiative centrally led by the Director-General, who always used to say scientists and researchers are great teachers. I became the coordinator from the IMMT side; AcSIR became a reality by Act of Parliament and finally, I got an opportunity to formulate the course and teach the students. Of course, this was continued in my subsequent post-retirement positions at NIT Rourkela, KIIT Deemed to be University and elsewhere. No doubt, even if overdue, it was a great pleasure for me.
MM: Can you please give a small token of advice to the budding researchers of our country?
RKP: Remember the Sanskrit word ‘Chareibeti’ (Readers should read about the significance of the word in previous answers), have a dream and keep pursuing.
Contributions As an Alumni
MM: When was the last time you visited NIT Rourkela? What are the significant changes that you observed since the time you graduated?
RKP: My last visit to my alma mater was during 25th-27th January 2020 for the Golden Jubilee Celebration of our 1970 batch. Before that, I had to visit RECR/NITR a few times during the 70s and 80s; many times after the admission of my daughter Kamrakali into mechanical engineering during 1998, homecoming during 2000, 2010 as visiting professor during 2011.
As far as changes are concerned after my graduation, barring a bit of a downtrend by the 1990s, the institution has grown in leaps and bounds so much that RECR is transformed to NITR, student strength and number of departments have increased many folds, the campus has grown. Yet, I feel, probably the space we availed and enjoyed during our time is more remarkable than that is available to the present students. Of course, no doubt that the current generation of students is ‘baap se beta jyada’.
MM: How has been your experience in NIT Rourkela Alumni Association so far?
RKP: The identity as a student in this institution lasted just five years, but the identity of a RENGOLEAN and then a member of NITRAA is an excellent feeling and lasts till the end of life.
I was associated with it as much as possible, starting from the constitution-making, net-working of my batch mates (1970) – with the efforts of a core group, 171/217 could be registered, attended the meets conducted during 2000, 2010, contributed to the funds raising effort during 2010 (contribution of 1970 batch was +10%), also contributed for the TWO chair professor endowment. Also participated in initiation and running of NITRAB and NITRA1970.
In the Golden Jubilee Celebration of 1970 batch during January 2020, an endowment was created for an annual gold medal for the best girl all-rounder and Bakul plantations were made on the campus. To help the needy students, NITRAA batches and groups or members are contributing funds for NITR to grant scholarships of INR 40000/- per student per semester. During the last semester, 16 such scholarships have been given, out of which one is contributed by me. Hopefully, I will continue to do so in the coming years.
MM: How important are alumni relations to an Institute like ours? Comment on the current scenario and how, according to you, alumni outreach can be expanded to a great extent?
RKP: In the present days, alumni's contribution towards the growth of the alma mater comes in significant ways – just a Google search for MIT will give the picture. In India, IITKGP is also a sound example, with numbers of specialised centres and many more coming from the alumni. NITRAA can expand to contribute in a big way to the growth of NITR. Networking, which is a straightforward affair nowadays, should help here. A few initiatives, such as scholarships for students and the creation of endowments for chair professors, are positive signs. Let us expect some quantum jumps in the future.
MM: You have been recognised as the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award of NIT Rourkela. You will be receiving the award from the Honourable President of India at the 2021 Annual Convocation. What are your thoughts on receiving this award?
RKP: During five years of study, my alma mater taught me lessons on how to build my ‘person’ and ‘profession’, and in the previous lines, I gave a glimpse of how did I utilise these lessons for the benefit of society and humankind during the last fifty years. I have got some recognition at various stages; even just before a month of the announcement of this award, a Stanford University-led team conducted a survey and announced the list of the world’s top two per cent scientists where I found a place in the field of Mining and Metallurgy.
However, I would rather dedicate my world’s top two percent position as well as all other recognitions to NITR and place this Distinguished Alumnus Award from my alma mater to the closest of my heart, because I can hear, through this award, my mother is whispering into my ears – ‘well-done son’.
MM: What piece of advice would you like to give to the present students here at NIT Rourkela?
RKP: I will repeat that simple Sanskrit word - ‘Chareibeti’ (Readers should read about the significance of the word in previous answers) . Come on, my young friends, have a dream and keep pursuing.
Team Monday Morning thanks Dr RK Paramguru or replying to our questions with such grace and honour. We congratulate him again for being the recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award of NIT Rourkela and hope that his story proves to be an inspiring read for our readers.