Dr. S. Pushpavanam (BT/CH/1984) is a Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Madras. He was the Head of the Chemical Engineering Department at IIT-M from 2009 to 2012. In this interview, he talks about his student days at IIT-M, his life as a grad student in the U.S., and as a professor at IIT Kanpur and IIT Madras.

What are some of the fond memories and experiences of your student days at IIT Madras?

Extra-curricular activities

–      I used to be quite active with the Photography Club of IIT Madras in my student days. We used to have a dark room on the top floor of HSB, (above the CLT, roughly where we have the lift now!), where we used to develop the films to get black-and-white photograph prints.

–      I used to stay in Jamuna hostel, and used to be quite active in sports. I used to play five-a-side hockey at the hostel level, and also learnt to play tennis and swimming, which was pretty useful later on. I had more time in the fifth year of my B.Tech, during which I used to teach yoga to some of the other students.

–      There were always many interesting stories of plans and strategies to ensure that we won in Schroeter (which we won once). For instance, we once lost to Godavari in a table tennis match, only to ensure that Narmada was eliminated!

Academics and student life

–      There was a big absolute-vs-relative grading debate in 1979. We used to have only the absolute form of grading in those days, but our first year batch was the first one on which they decided to experiment with relative grading.

–      We used to have a quiz every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; this was done to ensure that we keep studying continuously.

–      There was a lot more emphasis on the Workshop sessions in those days; they used to extend upto almost four semesters. We all have memories of filing blocks and other stuff. However, the credits for the Workshop courses have been reduced now.

–      There was also no coaching-class culture in India back then; Brilliant Tutorials and Agarwal Classes were the only big names. Since JEE used to be subjective, most of the candidates used to come through genuine talent. Some of the students nowadays are not very committed to studying engineering now; and because there are no MCQs in life!

–      The class strength used to be a lot smaller – only about 30 students then, compared to about a 100 now. So the faculty-student interaction was naturally higher. Hence the teaching was also better and more effective; they used to have a different style, they used to give us more projects, experiments, etc. Also, the students were also more well-behaved – there was less of bunking, and hardly any students slept in class. Probably because there was never any pressure on anyone to get into IIT. Everyone used to have breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, and there were also hardly any distractions.

–      Talking of distractions, in fact, we had a black-and-white versus colour TV debate in our hostel sometime in our second our third year. In those days DD1 was the only TV channel available; I remember the Chitrahaar show on Sundays being very popular. People also used to read a lot of magazines, there were no computers.

–      The weekly movies at OAT were hugely popular and a very big event. OAT also used to host a few sports events.

Describe your days as a graduate student in the USA.

–      There were not many jobs available in those days – opportunities in India were not many, and most companies didn’t offer jobs to student who they felt were likely to go abroad for higher studies. And in my batch, 29 out of 30 students went abroad soon after IIT. The 30th guy went to the USA a year later.

My days in the USA

–      The University of Florida had a relatively small Chemical Engineering department; there were only about 30-40 Ph.D students.

–      It took me a while to get used to the cultural shock in the first six months. The academics were relatively easy, though. I starting playing sports such as American football. I used to play basketball in the spring semester and football in the fall semester on Saturday mornings. I published papers, worked hard to graduate on time. Indians used to generally be perceived as very hardworking in the US. Overall, it was a really fun experience, and a great chance to absorb a lot of positive aspects of their culture.

How I made the choice to study abroad

–      Some of my classmates had businesses, so I used to wonder if they somehow had an easy way out. I never really did much of planning, but I always had an interest in mathematics and theoretical work. Also in academics, you can decide your own pace of work; a freedom which is not always available in the industry.

–      I also had a bit of an entrepreneurial desire, but never really had the guts to actually try it out. I was happy with financial stability and hence wasn’t too daring. I never knew if I’d fit in the industry.

How would you comparing your teaching experiences at IIT Madras and at IIT Kanpur?

–      There is virtually no difference between IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur. The academic freedom is the same, the same training of faculty, and the same kind of students. The food, the hostels are all similar.

–      I used to feel Madras was a little conservative in nature, but it definitely isn’t nowadays. Information about everything is available, everywhere. We have our very own kind of competition.

What do you love the most about chemical engineering? What advice would you like to give the current students of the department?

–      Chemical engineering is one of the most broad-based and interdisciplinary fields. You could work in virtually any industry (like Professor Nagarajan who worked at IBM making semiconductors), whether it is programming, biology, or even economics; a flexibility which is not easily available in other disciplines.

–      My advice would be to enjoy your courses. Find a broad area that catches your interest. Do not get into the mob mentality, and try out many new things now.

How was your experience as the HoD of the Chemical Engineering department?

–      I absolutely loved being the HoD of the department. I don’t know if the others did (laughs). It was a fairly easy job, but of course, there were also a few challenges.

–      We added the AspenPlus and MATLAB simulation lab course about two to three years back. We made a few changes in the post-graduate curriculum also. We also worked on clearing out a lot of junk and old equipment from the department to create some more space, something which I feel I could have done better.

–      We also worked hard on emphasising research, but were somewhat poor in marketing ourselves. We want students to shift their focus towards completing their Masters, and also their Ph.D here.

–      The saddest moment of my tenure came during the sudden suicide of a first-year M.Tech student in 2012, due to personal reasons.

What do you see in the future for IIT Madras, and for Chemical Engineering as a field? Any advice for students in general? 

IIT Madras

–      IIT Madras has really great prospects for the future. We have been hiring the right faculty, who are also, most importantly, good human beings, who need to interact and work with other professors and the students well.

–      We are indeed lucky to have a good bunch of self-motivated students, and we give them the freedom that they need.

Chemical Engineering

–      The field has always had a very good future. I would tell students that a craze for certain departments is not needed; the purpose of a B.Tech is simply to give you confidence to work in your careers later. For example, I once met a parent who had studied Aerospace Engineering, and is now working at a waste-water treatment plant. It teaches you how to tackle a particular problem and analyse the given situation. No need to spend a lot of time unnecessarily worrying about future scope, there is plenty of it.

Advice

–      Students should enjoy their stay here, make sure they excel in academics; they should be sensitive to the environment and not just themselves.

–      Also, for those who are sitting for placements, please ensure that you stay in your job for about two years at least. This is the message that I gave to students a few years back at the farewell function at the OAT. People quitting their jobs within a few months does not reflect well upon the institute. It is not just about your technical ability but also your character.

–      Students must realise that once you leave the campus, you are the flag bearer of the institute and have a responsibility towards the institute.

–      And finally, enjoy the present, don’t think or worry too much about the future, and enjoy chemical engineering!