Tapan-Sengupta-IIT-Professor

The main problem in India is the near-absence of R&D culture among industries. – Tapan Sengupta

Tapan K Sengupta
Professor, High Performance Computing Lab
Dept. Aerospace Engineering, IIT Kanpur
Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh

Q1. Please share your inspirational journey with us?

This question implies a finality of the journey. In analogy to sports, I would view it as a relay race, rather than a grueling marathon. In my journey so far, I have passed on a few batons to my beloved students! Looking back, it can never be a linear progression, but lots of focused attention was paid to reach here.

Early years of nomadic, carefree growing up with company of nature in New Delhi and Barrackpore was nothing to write home about. Serious interest on studies came when I was introduced to physics, chemistry and biology in the ninth standard. It grew further when I started a Physics Honours course (which I did not complete). It was at a Ramakrishna Mission College in the suburb of Kolkata, where I was deeply influenced by Prof. Anil Ranjan Das Gupta. He could explain anything that was in the syllabus, on the spot. What inspired us was his emphasis on mathematical physics as the important tool in solving problems of classical physics. With this beginning, I went to IIT Kharagpur to do a B. Tech. in aeronautical engineering. It was an exercise to secure a future (as informed by the grapevine!), but more importantly, it also gave me an opportunity to learn a discipline which fascinated me since childhood that was spent in various IAF camps in Delhi and Barrackpore, when I would see the noisy machines in awe and admiration from close. I liked the subjects on aeronautics as taught by very impressive teachers and did well in my studies in IIT Kharagpur. Despite stories of IITians flooded with job offers, none of us in our class had even the good fortune to be interviewed once in 1979! Thus after my B. Tech. degree, I joined IISc Bangalore for a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering. The coursework were mostly repetitive for someone with good exposure already at IIT Kharagpur, I felt as if I am wasting my time, barring a very few good courses in space dynamics and doing my thesis on extended Kalman filters. In tune with my early approaches of being self-taught, I took up the challenge of this thesis and learnt it well to introduce the topic on aerodynamic parameter estimation in flight dynamics. This time, an interview followed by a job offer came from an IT software company. Having spent seven years on an interesting subject, it was not difficult for me to take the plunge for a PhD in aerospace engineering instead at Georgia Tech., Atlanta (USA) which I obtained in 1984. I felt that if I continue to do well, then I will surely find a job in aerospace engineering. My graduate school advisor was instrumental in securing a job for me with a leading US aerospace company located in Georgia. He wanted to surprise me and never consulted me beforehand on this, but I deeply disappointed him by saying that I would much prefer going back to India. That launched me back in India, with an offer from DRDO and another from National Aerospace Laboratories in Bangalore. I spent half a day at DRDL Hyderabad with Shri APJ Abdul Kalam (our much beloved ex-president of the republic of India), who was the director of DRDL. It was very nice of him to spend his valuable time to encourage me in joining some of my friends who were already working in DRDL, but I preferred the free-spirited research ambience of NAL, and the library was a distinct attraction. I spent four years in NAL, before going to Univ. of Cambridge, UK from 1988 to 1990 to start research on receptivity, a specialized branch of transition and turbulence. This time I returned for good to secure my present position at IIT Kanpur. I felt that I found my true bearing in the firmament of teaching, research and mentoring students. While I am leaving IIT Kanpur after superannuation, I would like to continue some more time in research and guidance at IIT Dhanbad.  I have been and continue to write books in the areas where I have worked. I am now on my sixth single-author books published over the last two decades. This is a thumbnail sketch of my journey so far.

Q2. What did attract you towards teaching and fundamental research instead of any corporate job?

Like many young persons, I have been propelled by a desire to leave behind something that can stand the test of time. The fact that some school and college teachers have left such indelible marks on my upbringing that I just wanted to follow in their footstep to mentor some good human being. I was not attracted at the prospect of jobs in IT company after my ME degree from IISc, Bangalore, with brighter financial security. After my PhD I spurned an offer from Lockheed Aerospace, which was an easy decision to take in 1984. I could not imagine working for a company whose products could be used against my own country. Also, working on a single project I would have felt suffocated, that is why I did not participate in many offers came my way in defense labs in India also.

Professor Tapan Sengupta

We would support many such activities from the teaching position later, but, it is the pure joy of freedom to pursue any topic, that is the main reason to be teacher doing fundamental research. I also wanted to bring in some fresh ideas in fields of Scientific Computing, Transition and Turbulence for fluid flow, Aerodynamics and Flow Control etc., which could be done in academic environment easily. All these are written down in my books. I am also particularly happy to note that I have co-authored two other books with my ex-students, who are faculty members in other IITs. I could arrange similarly a few others advanced schools and conferences, with their edited proceedings edited by me also forms the repertoire of activities on contemporary advances in some subject fields.

Q3. What kind of hurdles did you face in your journey?

I have also faced few hurdles like anyone else. Mostly, the dedicated focus and steadfastness over ethical issues may have caused some problems, but such experiences yielded overall satisfaction. It is difficult to imagine, but trying to live an honest living in the competitive environment is the main distraction in the present days. It is not too difficult to imagine that distraction comes from sheer mediocrity that one finds oneself surrounded by. These are the cancerous elements of many society, but more so in India. It may sound like hubris, but from what I have seen in academics and in scientific research globally, this can only be an understatement!

Q4. How do you see the Indian Education standard comparing to other countries in terms of Research & Development and Entrepreneurship?

At present, Indian education is not doing well at all levels. This is a complex problem, as we cannot have an island of excellence at only tertiary level, diffusion to other levels takes a very long time and no policy makers have patience for that. In comparison, the US education system evolved from a state where universities catered to the societal need. It has prospered to its present stage, where the culture of excellence is innately bound to economic supremacy via an emphasis on doing leading edge research. Such excellence is present in the coursework in USA, made available in graduate school. There is a level of homogenization at the top which cannot be submerged by effluence of mediocrity. The available basis of infrastructure allows easier entrepreneurship in USA, compared to that in India. In Europe, the emphasis is the onus of students, with coursework being by and large absent or under-emphasized. The main problem in India is the near-absence of R&D culture among industries. Rather, everyone is solely interested in licensed production. This is due to hangover of mercantilism with its undue emphasis on trading cheaper goods from distant shores for internal consumption. It is a cultural aspect of Indian society passed down through centuries. Unfortunately, for somewhat different reasons, R&D labs at national level also are less interested in indigenous capacity building. 

Q5. Which one thing do you want to change in yourself and why?

I would be tempted to say that I should have stayed in the western hemisphere for professional advancement. However, as an incurable optimist, I will not change myself greatly and try again. Maybe, I should be staying away more from mediocre people with unbridled ambition. Trying to even help such people is waste of time. I will continue to emphasize character building, integrity and bring back Indian science and technology to its pre-independence eminence!

Q6. You did your Engineer and Ph.D in Aerospace and Aeronautical stream? Please share some brief about it? Why did you choose this stream and how do you see this stream for future as a career for students?

I have told you that from my childhood I saw those aircrafts from very close quarters that would draw awe and admiration that helped me choose this discipline. Even when I went for IIT Kharagpur counseling in 1974, the prevalent practice was that you went in and there would roomful of fatherly faculty members who would help you decide. I recall a nice gentleman told me to opt for mining engineering, as getting a job would be easier. Later on I found out that he was the head of aeronautical engineering and he was also concerned for the lack of jobs in aeronautical engineering. Then again I was advised to change over to any other engineering department after the second year of B. Tech. program based on my academic performance. But I continued to remain in aeronautical engineering. Even after B. Tech., I could join NITIE for industrial engineering. I instead went for ME in aerospace engineering. Thus, I may have been drawn by what has been said by Epicurus: The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it and for me that is to become an aerospace engineer!

Q7. What is the meaning of success in your terms?

Success is arriving at the highest level of potential that a human mind is able to achieve. To know the cognitive, reflective and affective aspects of knowledge is what one should try to achieve. More briefly: Leave a mark or two with some worthwhile ideas!

Q8. Tell us about one of the moments which changed your perspective towards life?

Kierkegaad has said that Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward. Looking back, I cannot identify any single moment that can be life-defining. Meeting a high school teacher who insisted that one must set one’s goal higher and higher may be one such moment. Also, my sudden development of interest in science subjects at high school was another moment that shaped my life.

Q9. Which one skill do you like most about yourself?

A helpful skill will be to stay with any problem a little longer and try to solve it eventually with patience. I have tried to display calm forbearance and poise in the face of adverse circumstances beyond one’s control in personal life. In teaching and research, I like to empathize with students and help them achieve success which is the reward I derive. I have never been prejudiced with academic records of the students as I believe everyone deserves a second chance.

Please Visit website for finding out about High Performance Computing Laboratory (HPCL): http://spectral.iitk.ac.in

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