Professor Mukesh Doble is the current Head of the Biotechnology Department at IIT Madras. He graduated with a B.Tech and M.Tech in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras.

Please share with us few incidents of your stay at IIT Madras and tell us more about how was the institute culture back then. Also, please tell our readers more about your career path and why you chose to come back to institute as a Professor in the Bhupat and Jyoti Mehta School of Biosciences.

In my view, nothing at all has changed, students shall always remain students. Bunking classes and putting proxy for friends is still rampant. We still have the OAT, but the charm is long lost, possibly due to availability of internet inside campus. No student at IIT M keeps himself devoid of ‘masti’, and now I feel it is all coming back to me, as I have swapped places from classroom to department. So, I mention the “The Theory of Karma” quite often.

Hostels were a lot more fun since we didn’t have internet connection and so we enjoyed interactions with colleagues and higher levels of trust and intimacy. Even back then, we had our own techniques and methods to have fun. The birthday boy used to be thrown into the pond after being graced with kicks from his group of close friends. It’s sad to know that they filled the pond up in Ganga. Then, I remember that we messed up with the coin operated phone at Ganga and the CCW incurred a loss of almost 100 Rs in coins till they came to know of our mischief. Also, I cherish the spirit of ‘healthy’ rivalry among hostels, and since my hostel was involved first-hand in it, against our neighbours Jamuna, insti life never lacked in spice.

Diwali celebrations were unforgettable when we used to launch rockets from our hostel to theirs, and vice versa, so were the cheering sessions for Schroeter. Back in my time, we used to rule the roost when it came to sports activities, and other hostels envied us for that. I also vividly remember the mess strike, which took place in around 1971, when the mess workers in hostels stopped working, and the students of our hostel used to come together and cook for the whole hostel. It was never a luxurious dinner, but eating curd-rice which we made with our friends, and then cleaning utensils sort of brought the whole hostel together and worked wonders for imbibing the hostel spirit. I also remember a small hatchment outside the Velachery gate, the place which was still so much like a village back then, where the bunch of students used to go and watch movies after periodicals and during weekends. The tickets were as cheap as 1 re. and the movie used to be screened on a piece of white cloth hanging near by. It was a common hang out place for many students from IIT Madras and hence used to become common sight for many hostel brawls which were carried over from the sports fields. I also remember starting the Bridge Club with 5 of my friends at IIT Madras, and again, that was something exclusive with Ganga hostel. We created ripples in national scenes and many oldies were shocked by playing and losing to rookies like us. We represented the state.

Coming to academics, there was no research taking place in IIT Madras back then, focus was more on academic. There were exceptionally good teachers who were also involved in consulting in industries for technical assistance. We were never very much close to any of the faculty and they always had that awe about them, which commanded our respect. I feel that insti has become more open now, in terms of faculty-student interactions, and this surely, is very healthy for the insti culture. In that way, comparing the institute back then and now shows us stark differences. Our institute is now a very much research oriented place with many new scientists and research scholars being recruited. If you look at the strength, more than half of the population is dedicated to postgraduate research programs in IIT Madras. This gradual change has been brought because it was the need of the hour. With the whole world realizing the importance of fundamental research, and our government not wanting to be left behind with its contemporaries like China, started spending huge chunks of budget for improving the quality and quantity of research taking place. In that way, IITs have shown exceptional levels of adaption, and new recruitment policy, bringing in talented people has been responsible for the paradigm shift in research scenario in this country. IITs, NITs and MHRD now jointly share the aim of producing 10000 PhDs a year.

Regarding my career, there were no IT companies who used to recruit from IITs. So, I joined a Core company, and then pursued my PhD. I was always interested in research which could be applied and commercialized by the companies. But, unfortunately, back then, and even now, companies in India are focusing merely on adapting technology from western world and there was very little fundamental research going on in industries, forcing me to switch to academia. Then, in 2003, BT Department was newly set up and working in a start-up environment was obviously more satisfying than in an already established environment. So, I took up this job in the BT department.

Sir, please let our readers know more about the range of research activities in BT department and the scope for students of this dynamic department.

As you have rightly put in, ours is one of the youngest, most dynamic and fastest growing departments in this institute. We have more than 30 faculty members, 200+ research scholars, and huge amounts of funding from government agencies for carrying out research. This is the only institute which can boast of such a huge building with state of the art equipment, and it has earned itself another building as big as this in a short span of 7 years. I am extremely proud of my highly talented faculty members, who have been producing highly cited research papers.

I would also like to mention the role of the Mehta family in bringing about this wave in biotechnology field. Not only have the facilitated through financial support. Such huge funding also catches the attention of others who have the resources to commit to fundamental research. The department at IIT Madras has been highly interdisciplinary and heterogeneous because of the perfect blend of engineers and hardcore scientists working under it. The range of topics being covered under research purview includes cancer biology, plant biology, computational biology, bioinformatics, bioprocess and biochemistry to name a few. That is the reasons I believe why other IITs envy our model of functioning.

I love Insti because of the environment it provides to everyone, be it students or professors

I love Ganga because it was the most vibrant place in the institute

I love Biotechnology Department because  it promises to hold the key to future