Dr Arumugam Manthiram is one of the Distinguished Alumnus Awardees of the year 2015. He earned his PhD in Chemistry from IIT Madras in 1981, and currently directs one of the largest and most productive research groups at the University of Texas at Austin.
We ask about Dr Arumugam’s path from Madurai to Austin. How did it happen?
Dr Arumugam explains that his path was not a straight line, and that he had no idea what his future would hold. He tells us that he didn’t plan or worry overmuch about the future; but whatever he did he was passionate about it, and worked hard and sincerely.
“My job is not a routine job. Everyday morning I don’t know what the day will bring.”
We proceed to ask him about his somewhat unusual final destination – teaching. “You get a lot of pleasure teaching”, he tells us. “I have 30 people and a constant turnover. They come, they work with me for 4 years, they graduate and they leave. My job is not a routine job. Everyday morning I don’t know what the day will bring.”
He then talks about the difference between research in a university and a company. There is a lot of difference” , he says. “In a lab we research a lot, develop intellectual property and patent it. In a company we work on a larger scale and in scaling up there are a lot of new problems. You have to make a product, make money and that is very different from intellectual property. When asked how he connects his university research to business, Dr Arumugam firmly states that as a professor his job is not to create business. “ My job is to educate, to prepare the next generation workforce and then to be inventive, creative and to innovate, not to make money.” His love for and pride in his work is evident in his tone.
“It is in the interface between multiple disciplines that innovations happen ; so collaboration is very important leading to new ideas.”
We now speak of interdepartmental research collaborations. He stresses the importance of such collaborations, saying that it is essential not to compartmentalize. “It is in the interface between multiple disciplines that innovations happen ; so collaboration is very important leading to new ideas.”
Speaking of IIT Madras, he tells us that it came as a big change. He talks about the beautiful campus, and the intellectual atmosphere, saying that there had not been much research in the colleges where he did his BSc and MSc. “I was opened up to the world,” he says fondly.
He now tells us the fascinating story of his life. “I was born in a small village, of only forty people. People don’t study there, they farm and work with their parents.” When he had to go to school he had to walk 2 miles each way through a jungle. “ One day when I was going I saw a cobra!” The plan was to finish studying and open some small business. “But then when I was in high school my teacher said if he doesn’t go to college then no one from this community will ever go to college. So he took me to the St John’s. All the admissions were already over, so on the second day he took me and my mother to the principal and I got admission. The school was that I had studied in was Tamil medium so to go into the English medium college was hard. After my MSc no one gave me a job but then I saw an advertisement in the paper – in IITM PhD application was already over but in that year alone they called for applications to the Materials Science Centre later, as it was first year that it was open. So I was lucky. But then my supervisor left to work in Bangalore, so I was stuck without a supervisor.” His hardships continued – “ I applied for a fellowship in America, in Radcliffe and I was chosen. But then one of my professors had recommended his student for that same fellowship so he came to me and said that I should decline, and I did. Maybe I was stupid, but everything worked out for me in the end. I met my wife, got married, had my daughter. Then I was called to work at Oxford and my life changed.”
I had to cycle to university lab [in Oxford], it was November and very cold; I cycled over ice.
Speaking of his life in Oxford, Dr Arumugam tells us “The professor who employed me there is the person who designed the materials for cell phone batteries, without him we would not have any of that. So I went, without my wife, without my kid. I had to cycle to university lab, it was November and very cold; I cycled over ice. I had to learn to take care of myself; there was no landline, only letters.” Ten months later at the offer of the same professor, Dr Arumugam moved to the university of Austin, in the fall of 1986. “Then I got tenure, and now I have everything that I want; a great job, a large research group, all conceivable things. So I think that I went through a lot of trouble from birth till 1985, and at that time I learned a lot of things. People may say I got lucky but it is not just that. You have to make your way, by being sincere and passionate.”
When asked how he realised where his passion lay, Dr Arumugam replies that he tried many things, and that he still does, though the core remains the same. His belief is that this is necessary for success even while working in a company, as there is no field which lasts forever and never changes.
“If you are organized, if you are passionate, that will lead you to success.”
When asked what message he has for the students, he leaves us with these insightful words: “For some, if they are from very affluent families, probably their career can be very well planned. I don’t know what percent of people that is. For people like me, there is no way they can plan what they want to study. But they can do one thing. Whatever they do, they should do it properly. Be honest and sincere; if you are studying then do it honestly. Hard work will pay off. This is the first thing.The second thing is that if you want to be successful then you need to be organized. If you are organized, if you are passionate, that will lead you to success.” Truly a good motto to live by.