Spring term over and it’s blog time!! This is also the time when admissions to Indian colleges happen and this year I know several people who are finishing high school and entering college.

With this as the starting point of the article, I realize that I can talk about so many things vis a vis, is it right to ask a student to choose his/her major even before entering college, why is engineering so much in demand, the gradual migration to finance/CS/IT over the 4-5 years of undergrad education and more. Each of these issues is important enough to demand a separate blog entry. In this post, I want to put down my thoughts on a different issue – the conundrum of taking up basic sciences.

By the time students finish their high school in India, a sizeable number of students realize their interest in and flair for basic sciences. Yet, a high percentage of these students end up in engineering streams and somewhere down the line realize their error in judgment. While some students have an opportunity to amend their mistakes, others don’t. Within the broad category of basic sciences, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics suffer from losing students to engineering due to some common factors, there are also other factors specific to each of these sciences that cause this problem.

One big misconception is that pursuing basic sciences means one would have no other career option other than academia – teaching and research. “I won’t get jobs”—is the biggest fear. While it may be true that a natural path in basic sciences is to do a Ph.D, job opportunities are available in the industry in plenty (at least outside India and a decent number within India as well) for those who finish their PhDs in basic sciences – industrial R&D is preferred career choice for a lot of people in basic sciences. Industrial research is more product driven and with a focused end goal as opposed to research in academia that can be driven largely by scientific curiosity. PhDs allow time to develop a lot of skills such as data analysis, computation, and design of experiments that have a tremendous demand in the job market. Bottomline: There’s always an “applied” component to basic sciences and as long as you have some contribution to make to the growth and development of this “applied” concept (which is pretty much everyone), you’ll find people that are willing to hire you – academia and otherwise.

There’s another bug that affects the disciplines of chemistry and biology. Among the four basic science disciplines, these are considered the “less logical” disciplines. My estimates would be that more than 60% of the students who are “coached” for competitive entrance exams have this belief (Ashamed as I am to admit it, I also belonged in this category of people for a very brief period). This could be due to several reasons – The curriculum of chemistry and biology in high school leads them to this conclusion. After all, biology in 11th and 12th is pretty much medical biology with a lot of rote learning and memorization and chemistry is all about weird reaction mechanisms that have more exceptions than rules. This is a rather unfortunate scenario. There is more, way more to chemistry and biology than these misplaced ideas. Biophysics and soft matter physics, computational biology, genetics, nanobiotechnology, neuroscience, spectroscopy and quantum chemistry, chemistry and growth of materials, nanofabrication and characterization — these are a few of the different fields that are related to biology and chemistry that are as logically driven as any other discipline and sub-field and most students are blissfully unaware of these areas. In fact, open the web page of Nature or Science journals and you’ll see that more than 50% of the articles fall under the broad category of biology and chemistry-based journals are some of the most cited and inter-disciplinary journals. The amount of funding that’s flowing into these areas is huge and that is driven by the fact that we need to make a huge progress in our understanding. Another reason why students have this opinion is because they are constantly told that by their teachers. I can speak for myself here, but I am pretty sure there are others with experience like mine. I have seen physics and math teachers that keep rubbishing chemistry and biology. Just because you are told by your chemistry teacher to memorize the fact that 4n+2 aromatic rings are generally stable, it doesn’t mean that there is no sound reason for it. Your teacher has never stressed in class that there is a quantum mechanical reason as to why a 4n+2 aromatic ring is stable, and you never bothered to delve deep and understand the reason for it. But who do we blame this on? The student or the teacher or the curriculum and the education system? I don’t know the answer and perhaps all the parties are culprits here. But that doesn’t help the cause.

There are probably ways to overcome this. The first would be to stop rubbishing other disciplines and instead focus on letting people know what they might end up doing after graduating with a major. Talk about the possibilities and scope that every discipline has. What is currently happening in the field might not be the case 5-10 years down the line. Take for instance the CMOS technology. We are currently at the 7 nm node and maybe at the 4/5 nm node in the next couple of years. But what after that? In all likelihood, we might be moving towards different architectures, newer materials for the interconnects, advanced packaging techniques and possibly even different platforms like photonics and spintronics. None of the undergraduate courses that we currently take in EE stress on any of this. In fact, most people that do these sorts of things today come from a materials science, physics background. So, if someone is deciding that they want to do EE (thinking about the awesome Silicon industries) by looking at course curriculum that consists of DC motors and BJTs, then clearly there’s a gap that needs to be bridged.

Second, students should be made to realize that every individual has a flair for a certain area/subject. Peer pressure and statements from people we look up to (like teachers) may force a certain student good at chemistry to take up Electrical engineering or computer science just because someone told them chemistry is “not logical” or “you won’t get jobs”.

Steve Woznick’s statement “Success means having a job in India. There is no creativity” may have caused an uproar among Indians. But there’s a great deal of truth in it. To a student from financially weaker sections of society, getting a job may be of foremost importance. However, today there are several students who do not carry the financial burdens of their families and for them, the Apple CEO’s statements are applicable.

I really hope that as we all graduate and see and understand how science and technology around us are progressing at a rapid pace, we will make an effort to communicate and help people in making decisions. I do believe that despite the problems in the curriculum and the education system, we might be able to help students entering college take better decisions.

 

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This is the second post in a series of three about our trip to Memphis. The trip to Memphis was organised by the International Office at Northwestern University in coordination with Serve 901 – an organization that aims to provide students with an opportunity to engage and serve the community during spring/summer/winter breaks. In addition to community service, panel discussions, there is also plenty of opportunities to explore the wonderful city of Memphis. Robert Gordon said about Memphis, ” Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does”. In the course of one week that we spent in the city, I learnt how true this statement is.

Towards the end of my last post, I talked about the various facets of injustice and how they have impacted the lives of people. A majority of the population in Memphis are African-Americans. Hence there has been a history of racial discrimination and segregation in the city that continues to be present even today. Consider this, the Confederates (comprising of white supremacists who wanted to expand slavery and slave trade) lost against the union in 1865. Yet, after more than a century after the event, statues of Confederate leaders continued to be present in public places. This is something that can be unsettling for anyone and even more so for the African-American community subjected to the cruelty of slave trade. A recent movement ‘TakeEmDown901″ was launched by the activist Tami Sawyer to ensure the removal of these statues. Thinking back to India, I knew what had been done to the statues of British rulers in India. A lot of these statues (especially in Delhi) were taken down in the post-colonial era.What I didn’t know until just now was that they were left to rot/covered with sand and mud. Now, I am not quite sure if they were intentionally left to rot or it was just because public works in India are never carried out to completion and generally left half-done. Either way, one could symbolically look at the rotting of these statues as a way of disregarding or shaming the colonial rulers for what they did.

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With Tami Sawyer at Teach For America -Memphis

We had an opportunity to interact with Tami Sawyer who is also involved with Teach for America (TFA). She pointed out problems that exist in the education sector. Public schools in Memphis, even though are not racially segregating in their policy, have become nearly exclusive for either the white people or for people of colour. There is very little racial diversity in the schools. And we saw this happening in all the three school that we visited while in Memphis. This is, in fact, a problem that is present in several American cities and is by and large a consequence of the segregation in residential areas of African – Americans and the white Americans. The African Americans live in the inner areas of Memphis around downtown Memphis whereas the white people live in the outer periphery and the suburbs of the city. This segregation automatically has led to little to almost no diversity in schools. I think lack of socio-economic diversity is a problem in Indian cities too. The schools in Indian cities that we go to are mostly private schools and the tuition fee determines the socio-economic status of the students’ families. It bothers me now, that while growing up, I never got a chance to interact (on an everyday basis) with kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to private schools.

Another fact that a lot of activists and volunteers in education are concerned about is that most African-American kids are taught by teachers who are white. This can impact the way a child thinks and lead to a deep-rooted belief that African-Americans are not as capable as the white Americans. Special programs that impart training to teachers on culturally relevant pedagogy are being conducted in by TFA-Memphis. Looking back at the situation in India, while we have agricultural universities and training centres for farmers in rural India, education about other rural vocations such as pottery, fishing etc also needs emphasis. I feel we lack a system where a child of a farmer/fisherman/potter is made to feel comfortable and culturally relevant to the society.

Something that really shook me while we were visiting an elementary school was the following incident. On the day we were visiting, the school had a scheduled emergency drill. This drill was not a fire drill or a general evacuation and safety drill. This was a drill that taught students and teachers to respond in case a person with a gun was either in the school or in the vicinity. Recent incidences of gun violence in the US has prompted the school to begin this practice. I cannot imagine what impact this might have on a 5-6-year-old kid. A few members of our group even noticed some kids who were visibly stressed out and anxious throughout the drill. It is deeply unsettling that we live in times where there is clearly no place, not even schools where kids can feel safe. And this is true not just in the US but so many countries around the world – Syria, for instance, where young kids are deprived of education, happiness and safety that they are entitled to.

The thing with Memphis is, despite all these problems, people have embraced the city. A lot of people from different parts of Tennessee and even from other places in the US have moved to Memphis to make a difference to this city. Every single Memphian we met and interacted with was proud to be in the city to make it a better place. An example of that is the revival of the Crosstown Concourse building with a vision for focus on healthcare, education and arts. Several non-profit organisations such as Serve901, TFA, now use this space for their activities. Clean Memphis is another organization that works with the vision that a cleaner city helps reduce crimes and promotes a sense of pride in the community. They organize clean-up drives and beautification in popular places such as the Civil Rights Museum in addition to cleaning up community parks and school grounds.

I am only quoting here some of my experiences in Memphis, however, every moment that I spent in volunteering activities taught me something. Through the end of my stay, I realised that justice, socio-economic status, education are all intertwined and need to be tackled individually as well as collectively in order to make a difference. This is true not just in Memphis or in the US but everywhere in the world. Let’s take the example of Dharavi in Mumbai, India. There are a huge number of non-profit organisations that work for the well-being and upliftment of the people there and yet there is a long way to go before we can make a visible impact. Nonetheless, we hear very often about great success stories and start-ups that come up from Dharavi.

Many of us, including me, are ambitious about what we want to do with our careers and lives and may perhaps not be able to dedicate ourselves full-time to volunteering activities. However, in the one week that I spent in Memphis, I realised that by devoting a small portion of my time to volunteering and community service, I can definitely make a difference. The saying, “Little drops of water make a mighty ocean” never made more sense to me than it does now.

Something else that Memphis is very proud of is the amazing music that has originated from this city. Memphis is the birthplace of three very popular genres of music – blues, rock and roll, and soul music. B.B King, W.C Handy, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding all started out in Memphis. Needless to say, Memphians love good music and I’ll talk more about music and it’s importance in the culture of Memphis in my next post. Also watch out for a snippet on Mike Minnis, an urban farmer who left us all amazed not only at his farming practices but also with his general philosophy on life!

PS: On the suggestion of our group leaders from Northwestern International Office, while we were in Memphis, we watched a documentary called 13th that talks about justice, race and incarceration in the US. It also talks about the role of big corporations in the prison-industrial complexes in the US and their motivation for profit that has caused over-incarceration in order to keep prisons full all the time. I would recommend anybody interested in these themes to watch it!

PPS: In case you are wondering about 901, it’s the area code for Memphis! I actually found that out only midway through our week-long stay there 😛

MLK 50

Posted: April 5, 2018 in Civil Rights, IOinMemphis2018, MLK 50, Travel

Lorraine Motel, MLK 50

Today, 4th April 2018 marks 50 years since Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Lorraine Motel has now been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum and tracks the history of African-Americans from the 1800s when they were brought into the US as slaves, through the period of reconstruction, racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and culminates in Room 306 where Dr King was assassinated in 1968.

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to visit Memphis about a week ago and spend close to 5  hours in the museum. I plan on writing a series of 2-3 posts covering various aspects of the trip; the visit to the museum was a revelatory experience in itself,  I have therefore devoted an entire post to it.

On entering the museum, the first thing one would notice is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and the wall beside the stIMG_20180330_125719.jpgatue that has the famous quote by Gandhi, ” Be the change you want to see in the world”. It is widely known that Mahatma Gandhi’s methods of non-violence deeply influenced Dr King and led him to use similar ideas during the Civil Rights Movement.  Dr King embarked on a trip to India in 1959 after the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956), considered as the first large-scale non-violent demonstrations against racial segregation. He said, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation”, in his address for All India Radio on his last evening in India.

The museum begins with slave trade that transported millions of Africans to the US under the most inhuman conditions. Here is a photo that shows an advertisement for a slave and brings out (arguably) the worst way to treat a fellow human being. At this point, I was reminded of my visit to the cellular jail in Port Blair where Indians were deported as forced labours in inhuman conditions, often starved and deprived of most basic needs by the Britishers. Throughout the time I spent at the museum, I would be reminded of several incidents from the Nationalist movements for freedom in India.

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Musings in a new city

Posted: September 7, 2017 in India, Travel, USA

It’s just been a month since I arrived in the US, Chicago to be more specific. Having lived and studied in different cities in India, I thought that it was going to be fairly easy getting used to a new place, but my experiences in the past one month have made me realise how wrong I was.

Everything is different here, right from shopping for groceries to using the public transport, some easier than it was back in India and some difficult. For instance, grocery shopping here is a big pain, for the simple reason that there are at the very least a dozen choices for a single product, so much so that even deciding on the kind of milk that you want to buy is a challenge! There are at least 5  brands, each with 4 different percentages of fat content and then choosing between organic or regular milk! Phew, that’s a lot to decide upon. And, you cannot buy milk in quantities less than 0.5 gallons (that’s ~ 1.9 litres) :O . Perhaps these choices exist in the Indian market too and I just remained blissfully ignorant!

Despite being confused and surrounded by everything new, I still felt a certain degree of comfort in a new place as a result of having met some wonderful people who made life easier. For instance, I met an elderly couple during an outing organised for international students to the Botanical gardens. They were there as participating guests and volunteers for the same event. They took the effort to strike a conversation with me and I learned that they loved travelling to India! They have already been to India (southern India, in particular) twice and are planning another trip later this year. During the short conversation, I was invited to their house for a High Tea. Subsequently, when I went to their home on a weekend, I found that they remembered that I was a vegetarian and went to the extent of ensuring that all the food that they prepared was vegetarian. Without realising it, I spent 3 hours in their company talking about Indian and US politics, spirituality, British films and theatre, novels and so much more.

During the past month, I also met students from various countries across the world – China, Korea, Indonesia, France, Gambia, our very own Pakistan and Bangladesh and many more. Apart from meeting people from such diverse backgrounds and exchanging cultural ideas, talking to them about some of the daily issues was a much-needed reassurance that many others were facing the same challenges, confusion and the excitement that I was.

I realised that for all the inadequacies that we Indians perceive in our country, it is impossible for us to live in a new country without the thought of India coming up in our heads every now and then. This was evident in the tiny packets of happiness associated with day to day activities such as talking in Hindi to a fellow Indian, going to the Indian grocery shop and buying a jar of Bournvita or even getting together in a small group to cook Indian food and play Antakshari!

One month here, in Chicago, went by quicker than I imagined and all this time, I wasn’t even doing anything closely related to academics! I can only imagine how time is going to fly once classes start and my research gets underway. I hope to keep the blog updated regularly with new experiences, travel diaries and much more.

 

Cheers

 

PS : Yes, the photo of the Chicago river that you see was clicked by me!  😉

 

Once in four years, the Olympics provide the dream platform for every athlete to compete and take pride in winning a medal for their country. Yet, Olympics has been much more than just winning. Accompanying every olympian is a story, a story of sheer grit, determination and a passion for the sport. Inspirational stories continue to be etched in history  with every passing Olympics. Not every story has a “medal winning” end to it and it need not, because every athlete competing in the Olympics does so with the aim to give their best and that is what makes this event a cut above every other sporting extravaganza.

The talk of Rio 2016 has been the Olympic refugee team. A team comprising of refugees from war-torn countries who have overcome all odds and have sent across a message of hope to all of us. Stories of people like Yusa Mardini will continue to be retold umpteen number of times to stress that even amidst all the violence and bloodshed, there is a ray of hope that better days are ahead.

Among so many athletes, there are some of our very own, who have fought valiantly and made it to the Olympic stage. Dipa Karmarkar has definitely been the talk of the Indian contingent this time. Her path to the Olympic gymnastic’s vault finals has been a bumpy one. Stories of how she had to practice without proper equipment have been shared and reshared on the internet in the past one month. We can debate endlessly on where the fault lies, with the society, the system etc but at the end of the day, there can be no doubt that it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to all of this and simultaneously stay clear of these thoughts so as to not allow them to hamper one’s performance. Perhaps, she is capable of doing better if she has the best of training, facilities, and encouragement, yet, there can be no doubt that she gave her best performance under the given circumstances. Many have in fact have performed way more admirably than was expected of them. For instance, it was a proud moment for an Indian sports enthusiast to see the way Lalita Babar ran in her 3000 m steeplechase heats. Despite falling down in the initial stages of the run, she finished in the fourth spot. That’s not all, she beat her personal best and the national record by a margin of 9 seconds. To have achieved this at the biggest sporting platform deserves all possible laurels. To me, her finish in the finals is an almost inconsequential thing, for she already stands as a role model for countless Indians to make it a habit to give our best every single time.

Derek Redmond, Lawrence Lemieux, Luz Long are examples of sportsmen who stood up for ideas of courage, sacrifice, and sportsmanship. Their stories are engraved in the history of Olympics and so are those of other not-so-well-known athletes. These sportsmen/women remind us that pursuing our passion implies that it is a new struggle every day, that being the best need not be the only way to be successful. Their stories highlight the message that success is probably measured better in terms of the attitude and the zeal to strive for excellence rather than talent and a thirst to be the best. The likes of Owens, Comaneci, Phelps, Bolt will be an inspiration to all, but so will many others for whom every moment of their Olympic dream required just as much hard work and determination as the podium finishers.

When I was in class 7-10, apart from liking Science and Maths, which I am pursuing today, I loved Social Studies and English classes too. On the other hand, a large chunk of the student population seemed to think that these were a mere waste of time for those who were going to pursue only Science and Maths in the future. Their point seemed understandable at that time, given the amount of memorizing involved in Social Studies and the general difficulty with mastery in English, that was being enforced as the first language as opposed to regional languages/Hindi. Now, after almost 8 years since I passed class 10, I have come to realize the importance of having these subjects.

A recent chat with a friend brought memories of the wonderful times during History classes. There would be open questions thrown at us at the beginning of every chapter, one that encouraged us to transport ourselves back to the past and contemplate. These sort of things really helped when studying-  the subject no longer required to be memorised, rather it was about putting down all that I felt and experienced, having mentally gone back in time. Setting exams aside, I realize that these classes played a more important role. They paved the way for us to develop opinions and defend them, gave the confidence to put together our thoughts in a way that others could understand and appreciate it, it was the first step in moulding us into independent thinkers.

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I wrote this post for the bi-monthly magazine of our college- The Daily Bitsian. Even though the context of the article is set amidst a BITSian environment, do give it a read.

The Daily Bitsian

For a long time now, technical has come to be associated with Robotics, Coding competitions, ATV competitions and the like. Amidst all the technical talk, somewhere hidden, lies an altogether different world called Research. The difference between building  a robot, quadcopters, competitive coding etc and formulating and solving a research problem is evident right from the learning phase. Tools and tutorials required for the former are readily available on the internet whereas the latter involves literature survey and reading and comprehending research papers . The first step in itself sounds daunting to most and suffices to turn people away.  If it is so scary, how is it that some people have managed to get going? This is where the mentor steps in. The mentor plays  a  crucial role in guiding a student along his/her research path and making the experience enjoyable and fruitful.

This article is all about…

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