Straight from the Academician

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Prof. Utpal Sarkar, currently an Outstanding Scientist and Director, PRL, obtained his Ph.D. degree under the guidance of Prof. A. Raychaudhuri from Calcutta University on Theoretical Particle Physics. Prof. Sarkar has made significant contributions in the field of neutrino physics and astroparticle physics. He has authored about 150 research articles in refereed journals, and has also written a text book Particle and Astroparticle Physics (Taylor and Francis, NY, 2007). Professor Sarkar was awarded the INSA Young Scientist Medal (1988), the Humboldt Fellowship (1993), Associateship (1995) and Senior Associateship (2003) of ASICTP, Trieste, Italy, and Clark Way Harrison Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Washington University, St. Louis (2009).

DDU Connect team got a chance to interview Prof. Utpal Sarkar. Below are the excerpts of
the interview:

Q1. We have more scientific discoveries emerging than engineering discoveries. What is the reason? 

“In India, we still don’t have full time research institutes for engineers. The IIT’s and IISc are the main places where engineers can pursue their own research and they are definitely doing very good. But they do not get facilities like research institutes in basic sciences, where we don’t have much teaching load and funding and other facilities are not comparable. Moreover we need several research institutions for engineers, if we want to be competitive. Currently technological researches are going on in Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Department of Space (DOS) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in the true sense. But these are in project mode, so a whole team is working on achieving a particular goal. If one engineer wants to discover something on his own, even funding will be difficult. I personally feel it is a major drawback. There are more engineering colleges than colleges on basic sciences. So we must provide full time research facilities to many more engineers and let them develop new technology.”

Q2. Will PRL be friendlier to technologists?

It will depend on our management. But it was the vision of Prof. Sarabhai that PRL should develop new technology, which should have societal applications. We need good engineers at senior level who are really keen on doing dedicated research. PRL is open to technological research and has been inducting several young engineers.

Q3. Can you tell our student readers about some of the current projects?

In the field of astrophysics, we have several projects going on. We have a 1.2 meter infra-red telescope at Mount Abu. We have obtained several interesting results from there, particularly from observation of Super Nova. It is one of the few telescopes in Asia which can do that, so whenever there’s a major event observed in any other part of the globe, we are relied upon for observing its progress. So we are playing a major role. Then, we have a solar observatory at Udaipur where a new Multi Application Solar Telescope (MAST) has recently been installed and we have another highly advanced 2.5 meter telescope coming up at Mt Abu. We have developed PARAS at Mt Abu that can look for planets around distant stars. In field of Space Sciences, we are studying solar magnetic field and its interference with the Earth’s magnetic field, which can have severe effects. We are also studying upper, middle & lower atmosphere and climate studies is also one of our important programs. We are also studying Paleoclimates, and we have a strong geosciences division. Planetary science and planetary exploration are emerging as major programs in PRL. That includes studies of planetary atmospheres based on some models. In astro-chemistry we study how chemical elements formed in the early universe by studying chemical reactions under extreme conditions. In theoretical physics, our main emphasis is on studies of elementary particles and how they interact and how these studies are related to the origin and evolution of our universe.

Q4. What are the opportunities that the undergraduate students can have in the field of research?

Some of the institutions offer support for a couple of months during summer to work on some small research projects. In basic sciences, there are three national Academies (highest level scientific bodies),  which are, Indian National Science Academy, (INSA) Delhi; Indian Academy of Sciences, (IAS) Bangalore and National Academy of Sciences, (NASI) Allahabad. They are also open to engineers. They have internship programmes and students can continue with it later on too, if they come up with something good. PRL also inducts engineering students for one semester for pursuing full time projects as part of their curriculum.

Q5. What can we do to encourage more students to pursue their career in the field of research?

Pay them more, give them good opportunities and improve their training. We have no dearth of good  students. I have been to many countries and stayed for long periods. My experience tells me that India has one of the best intellectual talents. Utilizing them is what we need to do.

Q6. What are the possible interactions with technical institutes like DDU?

We are trying to develop interactions. Prof H. S. Mazumdar (Head, R&D Department, DDU) visits PRL regularly and mentoring some of our engineering students. He has the advantage that he was in PRL and he knows us all, so we can communicate easily. We also have MOU with several institutions and try to promote interactions through seminars and workshops. But we can improve on it a lot and can start joint programs, which is not happening at the moment. We need initiatives from both ends.

Q7. How do you think India fares in terms of research when compared to other countries of the world?

There are different types of research and comparison can be made at various stages. At one point, the technology outside is unimaginable but there are cases where we fare better than our counterparts. We cannot compare in absolute terms and I don’t believe that just by comparing few numbers we can say which institution is better than others. But one thing is for sure, our research facilities are not comparable to most developed nations and it is commendable that in spite of that many of our institutions are doing so well. But if we can create better environments and allow more engineers to do research and develop technology, we can definitely do much better.

Q8. On a personal note, any success mantra that you follow?

I never had time to think about that, I think that’s the answer! I just do what needs to be done. I feel if I have responsibility for one hour, I should do what I can do even within that one hour.

Q9. What message would you like to give to our students?

Contribute to humanity and mankind in whatever small way you can. If we all do the same, we can go miles. We can make a big difference to what we are and what we can be.

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