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In Conversation with Dr. Subra Suresh

October 9, 2018

Dr. Subra Suresh is the president of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He has served as the Director of the US government’s National Science Foundation, Dean of the School of Engineering at MIT and President of Carnegie Mellon University. He was invited as Chief Guest at the Convocation ‘18, where Watch Out had the honour of interviewing him. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

While you majored in Mechanical Engineering as an undergraduate, you went ahead to specialize in Material Sciences and Metallurgy. Could you highlight some of the barriers in multidisciplinary higher education system in India? What could be done to remove these?

The barriers between Mechanical Engineering and Metallurgy are very small. I did not have a degree in material sciences, but my work naturally went in that direction. Eventually, I was made the head of the material science department at MIT for 6 years.

However, transitioning between any two other disciplines might not be as easy. I also tried going towards bioengineering, and that was more difficult. The coursework in my time was great in all respects, except that they didn’t have any biology, which made getting into it a little harder.

On the contrary, if you consider thermodynamic machines and cycles, we are looking at liquid-vapor systems, while in material sciences we usually look at solid-liquid systems. The basic underlying thermodynamic principles are the same, so it’s not that difficult to move around.

These problems exist in the United States too. If you are a mechanical engineering student, it is somewhat difficult to move to Material Sciences, either at the undergraduate ot the masters’ level.

While it might be tougher for the undergraduates in the US colleges to change their disciplines, don’t the students get 1-2 semesters to decide their major?

This does not happen in all universities. At MIT, the first year is common for everybody. So, you can decide between engineering or neuroscience or business after your first year. But there are still a lot of universities in the US wherein you get into engineering like mechanical engineering, like at the IITs, and there is a provision to switch your major like I did, from Electrical to Mechanical.

Recently we did an article on professor evaluation forms (the mechanic by which students assess the professors after every semester through a feedback form). We saw that a lot of professors were getting negative responses from the students, and yet, no action was taken, which was (naturally) a great cause of frustration among students. We tried to identify the issues leading to this, and we saw that there were mainly two primary issues: firstly that a lot of professors prefer research over teaching and secondly that often they are forced to teach courses that are not a part of their own field of research. How do universities in Singapore deal with this issue?

There’s been a shift, at least in the US system and also in NTU, Singapore that I have been emphasizing. In a top research university, you cannot have a divide between teaching and research. Teaching and research have to go hand in hand. So, in some of the top universities in the US, some of the most accomplished researchers also teach freshmen. I think it takes a lot of commitment and passion.

Perhaps in some of the US universities 40 years back, it was that if you were a great researcher but had no interest in teaching, you could go about it without any problem. But today teaching has become one of the criteria, even though it might not be the only criterion, and the institute should emphasise that. At NTU, one thing that I have done as a president is offered the deans lecture opportunities. I am also teaching a masters’ level program voluntarily. I think one of the appealing things about being at a university is the interaction with the young minds and that’s the exciting part.

You have played an important role in increasing the representation of minorities and women in education in the US. What suggestions would you give to the institutes in India, considering the ongoing debate regarding affirmative action to increase female representation in IITs?

I don’t know about the Indian Government’s rules, but I can only speak from the US perspective. The motivation behind this is the following. In most of the countries women occupy 50% of the population and hence 50% of the talent pool. The proportion of women in the population might be less for some countries because of the government policies, but mostly they occupy roughly half the population. In the US about 70% of the top ranking students in high school are girls, and both in public and private schools, and they also do well in mathematics and science and so forth. If they are not represented in engineering, then we are losing out on the top talent. Areas like computer science, mechanical engineering are in need of representation of women. In areas like computer science, 18% of the first year students across the country are girls. Women play such an important role in the 21st century, and we cannot have such a small representation. So we did some experiments at MIT, and I think the key things are, at least from our perspective, that we try not to do it through quotas, but instead through something more sustainable in the long term. You need role models; you need professors for women who are good role models for students. Secondly, you have to do extra work to attract talent. When we admit students, they get offers from many different universities. I would offer to make personally call and talk to students whom the departments felt would be a good fit for the university, and it worked. It worked for both genders, but it worked better for women. So, I think there are things we can do, scholarships are one way, and role models and mentoring are very important too.

In the media, we often hear about how there’s a lot of aspects in which IITs have yet to catch up with foreign institutes, given that IITs are not really well placed in terms of the rankings- let’s say things like the research culture and flexibility of the curriculum. But, from your own experience at IIT Madras, do you think that there’s some ‘USP’ of IITs that differentiates it from foreign universities?

I graduated a long time ago. IITs today are very different from the IITs back then. At that time, there were only a small number of students, and we pretty much got to know most of them. Besides, our course was for 5 years, so that’s one extra year we had of living together in the hostels. All of them are the top students from the country, and you develop an amazing bond with them. There’s nothing like the bond you develop essentially throughout the 5 years of growing together. At that time, there was not a lot of research being done at the IITs compared to today. The research culture wasn’t developed. We did a lot of projects but they weren’t research projects. And there weren’t a lot of startups like we have today. There was no internet either, it was a completely different world.

One of the reasons why IITs are not amongst the top ranked universities globally is that most of them are mostly based on research metrics. IITs are best known for attracting top students to get a degree who then they go on to do whatever they want. But, I feel it’s going to take time. It requires research support from the government. It requires young faculty members. It’s going to take some time to catch up with the world rankings (and there is a lot to catch up on). It is based on research, how many papers you publish, who reads them, how many patents you make, etc. It depends on the faculty, so if the faculty doesn’t travel abroad nobody is going to know about them. Another matrix is internationalisation of the campus, how many foreign students are there at the campus, how many foreign faculty is there on the campus. In NTU, for example, we have 1500 faculty, of which 70% are non Singaporeans. We have 10,000 postgraduate students, two- thirds of them are non singaporeans. So it’s mostly foreign talent. So we have 55 Germans doing full time PhD at NTU. Germany has a lot of good universities so I think that’s another factor. The IITs are making an effort but it’s going to take some time and that has nothing to do with the quality of the institution.

Most of the young professors have done their doctorates and post- doctorates abroad and have been largely successful. In your opinion, should students look to complete their higher education in India itself, or should they look towards foreign universities?

I think it is very healthy if students do their PhDs elsewhere. Even if they are of Indian-origin and want to come back here for patriotic reasons or family reasons, India has to make it attractive for them by giving them competitive offers, because if they are really good, they will get better offers elsewhere.

Is there any way in which we can promote collaborations between the industry and the researchers, at least in India?

In NTU, on campus there is this concept of corporate labs. We have companies like Rolls-Royce, BMW, Alibaba which come on campus to do research with us. Students get to work with them. Something like that can be implemented in India as well. If not in a town like Roorkee, it can be done in the bigger cities. In NTU, we have 23000 students across the 4 years, and we send 80% of them abroad for a semester, to get foreign exposure. We also want foreign students to come. As we speak, there are 250 students from Sweden on our campus and almost an equal number of students from NTU are in Sweden.

The National Science Foundation which you were heading in the US, has no comparable analogue in India. However, there are a plethora of research funds funded by different ministries/institutes. Which model do you think is better?

The US model is pretty remarkable. It all started after the second world war. There isn’t a single agency. There are many agencies. So there’s the National Institutes of Health, whose mission is to address diseases. So half of the research is done internally and its organised by disease classes, like National Institute of Cancer, National Institute of Mental Health etc. Then you have NASA for air and space, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), the US Geological Survey and so on.

But what was missing in all of this is the inherent curiosity in research. These were all applications of science. It was argued in the 1950’s that the economy depends on fundamental research and that basic research is best done at universities, where you have the luxury of thinking long-term. Not only are you training young minds for the future, you’re tapping into their enthusiasm to create new ideas. These universities would work closely with the industry and the government, and that it was the government’s responsibility to fund them. This is what created the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s mission is to fund the best people on the best ideas. Leave them alone, so they can develop their ideas. Since 1950, 240 American Nobel Prize winners have had some portion of their Nobel Prize winning work funded by the NSF. That’s the return. We don’t ask them whats the commercial value of their research.

On a closing note, you’ve mentored a lot of students over the years. Is there any advice you would like to give to the students of IITR, more specifically to the students who’re getting convocated?

When there is so much societal pressure, people look at getting a degree from an IIT, or any university as a piece of paper which helps you get a job, hopefully a very high paying job. If that’s the reason all of us are striving for a university education, I think we’re missing the point. It is something much grander than this. It’s not just about going to classes and getting a diploma, it’s much more than this. And now you guys have many more opportunities than I did through technology. You have access to so much more information, from anywhere in the world. Besides, the IIT brand carries a lot of weight, and not just in India. I would advise you to make the most of that.