Prominent Indian Blogger, IIT Professor Arunn Narasimhan Talks To Asian Scientist
By Juliana Chan | Editorials
April 26, 2011
We sat down with one of India’s most energetic professors – both in person and in cyberspace, Dr. Arunn Narasimhan of IIT Madras.
AsianScientist (Apr. 26, 2011) – We sat down with one of India’s most energetic professors – both in person and in cyberspace – Dr. Arunn Narasimhan, Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM), located in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
An avid and outspoken science blogger, Arunn writes not one, but two blogs – one in English, nOnoScience.info, and one in Tamil, அ(றி)வியல். He blogs freely on topics that interests him, which range from heat transfer and thermodynamics, to India’s cricket team, and Tamil music.
Today, Asian Scientist Magazine asks Arunn some tough questions on education and healthcare in India, and his thoughts on IIT and its future position in the world.
Arunn, you are one of India’s most prolific science bloggers. What interests you about science blogging?
I like writing. Kept doing it on dead wood for many years. My introvert way of socializing is to invite friends home and startle them with my intellect on ink. It only proved to separate Jehovah and junk. My friends even now maintain their distance. A decade back, the IntraWeb and I trampled on each other and I realized I could still invite the same old friends to ponder on my verbal excess, without having to actually invite them to my home or proximity.
First, I started contributing creative stuff to Zine5 a web magazine under a weekly column titled Dull Ass from Dallas. Eventually I moved out to my blog. That is my primary interest in blogging.
That I could also communicate Science ideas regularly is an afterthought (which perhaps remains that way even today). My blog’s title – at least the currently active one – “nonoscience” is to reflect this aim. Neither Ostentatious Nor Officious Science. Just Science ideas (that I know) communicated as simply as possible by me to anyone interested.
Unfortunately, the acronym title “nonoscience” got misconstrued as a jibe against nAnoscience, the then hot field. I realized the more I try to clarify, the more disbelief I incurred, partly due to the fact that I do come up with such puns and jibes on other instances. I used to get worked up about the blog and its “quality” content and its relative neglect by the World. Nowadays I just write in my leisure, which includes every late night.
Two years back, I have also expanded to write Science in Tamil in another separate blog, which is even more successful than the English one.
How have you seen science and technology change over time in India?
The easy access to information and knowledge has made it possible for the Indian scientist to be aware of state-of-art and latest developments in any field. There is also an increased awareness of indigenous problems and the need to find solutions for them.
This is especially true with biotechnology and health care. Indigenous pharmaceutical companies are thriving because of the indigenous need for cheap medicines for a range of diseases. These pharmaceutical companies have in turn invested in research activities much more now than a few decades back. Traditional practices such as Ayurvedha and Siddha medicine, which used to be a matter of faith, are now being systematically subjected to scientific double blind type research.
India’s space research organization, the ISRO, is also more active than ever. Its many success stories, including the latest PSLV-4 that was launched on April 24th, have been a result of world-class research activities. India’s nuclear program is on-par with those in “first-world” countries and such success has led to greater respect for research in India.
Indian scientists have developed more confidence that they can produce world class research. The number of research publications by Indian scientists in international journals has quadrupled in the past decade.
How does the health care delivery system in India shape the future for biotech start-ups in the country?
Hospitals are transforming into complete health care delivery systems that not only provide treatment, but also have a strong research component. Even specialty hospitals such as Shankar Nethralaya, the famous eye hospital in Chennai (where I reside), have R&D departments. These research divisions of health care centers closely work with academic institutions and such collaboration augers well for biotech start-ups.
There have been many biotech “parks” being setup in various key cities in India, with the goal of bringing together health care systems and biotech companies.
Multi-specialty hospitals like Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Hospital (SRMC), also in Chennai, collaborates with both established biotech companies such as TTK Healthcare and startups such as Agada Health Sciences (AHS). AHS, barely a few years old, now closely works with medical institutions like SRMC, Sri Chitra Tirunaal Institute for Medical Sciences & Technology and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in projects such as development of stent grafts for aneurysm and identification of markers for cardiovascular risk factors.
Diabetes is a disease that health care providers are particularly concerned about since India is the diabetic capital of the world. Many diabetics centers have now sprouted, and these centers act as multi-specialty units with treatment and research complementing each other. Sometimes, the research component spins off as a separate start up biotech company.
The active exchange of expertise and information among health care delivery systems, academic institutions and biotech companies has led to many success stories here. Foreign funding and intellectual backing is also a strong reason for their success. Some examples of success stories include Shantha Biotech, developer of India’s first indigenous Hepatitis B vaccine and Catalyz Life Technologies, with their stem cell research.
More biotech companies are also participating in humane endeavors such as spreading awareness of cadaveric organ donation. This obviously requires close participation between many wings of society including hospitals, hospices, NGOs and academic institutions.
IIT is recognized worldwide for its excellent education. More students get rejected from IIT than from famous universities in the United States. Does the IIT system provide students from all backgrounds with an equal opportunity to succeed?
Well, more students get rejected from IIT because more students apply there from within India (we crossed the 1.2 billion mark by 2011 census).
Fees in the IITs are heavily government subsidized (same is the case with other government run institutions like the National Institute of Technologies). However, the preparatory years for entering into an IIT by clearing the JEE does demand substantial investment from the parents, as almost all of the entrants seem to undergo paid coaching sessions for years to clear JEE.
So, the single important change in this direction is to make JEE non-coaching-center viable (which includes abolishing it entirely as one of the solutions).
Will the IIT expand dramatically to fill the need of highly accomplished applicants or do you see other universities filling this role?
Since I am associated with one of the IITs, I would begin with a disclaimer that what I offer here are only my opinions laced with expectations. These are not to be (mis)construed as endorsed by the IITs.
I think there is demand – filling the need of accomplished applicants – to start even 100 more IITs in the country. However, given the excellence an institution of such caliber demands and the associated public expectation it commands even during an establishment phase, I don’t think the IIT model is easily scalable to meet that demand.
Before an alternate scalable model of excellence can be laid out, as a short term venture with near term benefits, I could see other universities step in to meet the need, provided a regional model of IIT-universities tie-ups could be envisioned to uphold education quality.
One way I could think of is to expand the intake from a common entrance test (modified JEE, if be) to admit say 100,000 undergraduate (UG) students per year into the “IIT system”, but each regional IIT can collaborate (I don’t want to use oversee or supervise) with local universities, NITs of excellent UG education stature to distribute the intake of students.
The curriculum can be common across the country, if necessary, and the UG degree can be conferred by the regional IIT. A transition phase for this model should allow exchange of IIT and local universities/NITs faculty across institutes to homogenize and maximize UG educational quality.
When can we expect to see the American students applying to IIT as their top choice school?
In the context of UG education, which is where IITs are thought to have made their mark (although I wouldn’t totally agree), a top American student would apply to IIT as her top choice school when upon graduating from IITs, she could land an appropriate job back in America (in India, she will certainly get one). For this to happen, I don’t think one should look only into the UG educational quality offered by IITs, which is already good (ask around the American faculty about their graduate students). The inhibition of the American job market to “foreign UG education” or “no US degree, no job in US” should be addressed properly.
On the other hand, in the context of graduate research education – doing MS or PhD in IITs – American students would apply to the IITs only when indigenous research programs unique to meet Indian and Asian societal needs are envisioned in the IITs. Because, if the IITs are to do the same (or follow up) research that the US scientists and academics do, why should an American student come this far to learn it. Only when IITs offer something that is unique – not available in the USA – there is a necessity and curiosity for the American student to seek and contribute. There is awareness among the IITs about this. Hope to see such a change during my academic career as well.
To read more from Arunn at nOnoscience.info:
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.