Dr. Prakash Keshaviah graduated with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1967. After his graduation, he went on to do a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, a Ph.D in Biomedical Engineering and a second Masters in Physiology. In Part 2 of his article, he describes his experiences and lessons learnt from his life after IIT Madras.
My first job with L&T, Bombay
Our batch, the fourth batch of IIT Madras, graduated in 1967 after five arduous but fun-filled years of study. Many of my batch mates were in the process of leaving for graduate studies in the U.S. Though I had great GRE scores, my family finances did not permit me the luxury of contemplating studies abroad.
In those days, companies did not recruit through campus interviews. However, in 1967, Larsen and Toubro, Bombay came to the campus and conducted a written test and afternoon interviews of successful candidates. After the final screening in Bombay, some of us, from all over India, were selected to enter a 3 year Apprentice Engineer Program that entailed our being trained in various departments before appointment as Covenanted Officers of L&T. Having landed this attractive job during a time of industrial depression, my father vetoed my joining an MBA program though I had been accepted at both IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta.
My first L&T posting was in the Dairy Fabrication workshop where I was made the charge man of a skilled group of fabricators and welders creating refrigerated milk tankers, bottling machines and other dairy equipment. The workmen, knowing that I was a greenhorn, tried to exploit my ignorance by having me solve imaginary problems. Fortunately, knowledge of trigonometry came to my rescue and I was able to win their respect by showing them shortcuts in marking and cutting sheet metal layouts for various devices. After dairy fabrication, I was transferred to the machine workshop and then to Process Planning in my 14 months at L&T.
Life in the concrete jungle that is Bombay was a drag. I missed the company of my hostel mates and my heart longed for the green and serene IIT campus. Eating out alone was no fun. Every 2 weeks, I had to alternate between the morning and evening shift. Visiting relatives in Mumbai, movies and hanging out with a few IIT batch mates from Mumbai was the only social respite in an otherwise lonely existence. One saving grace was my initiation into Transcendental Meditation and a personal interview with Maharshi Mahesh Yogi who had just returned from England after his well-publicized acceptance of the Beatles as his students.
I was also getting bored of the industrial workplace and felt in my heart that I was more suited to academic teaching and research. Lady Luck played a role and a chance visit to an IIT friend’s room put me in possession of 2 application forms, one for the University of Minnesota and the other for the University of Oklahoma. I was accepted at both, and in the fall of 1968, I departed for Minnesota, having saved some of my L&T earnings for the required airfare. I chose Minnesota because of my interest in Solar Energy, having read some of the solar research publications from this university.
Graduate Studies at the University of Minnesota
My first experience of flying was the journey from Bangalore to Minnesota via Delhi, Frankfurt, London and New York. I left India with $8 in my pocket and landed in Minneapolis with less than $6 and no confirmed lodging for the night. A couple next to me on the New York – Minneapolis flight could not believe that I would leave my country for the first time and travel 10,000 miles with little money and no plans for my night’s stay.
Fortunately for me, I had not one but two welcoming groups at Minneapolis. A lady volunteer sent by the International Student Office of the University as well as an IIT batch mate, Vinay Khanna, who had come a year earlier, were at the airport to receive me. I stayed in Vinay’s apartment for a few days. An uncle in New York sent me a cheque for my first quarter’s tuition and first month’s expenses. After enrolling at the Graduate School and paying my tuition fees, and my share of the first and last month’s rent, and damage deposit, there was no money left for books, warm clothes, groceries, etc.
Man proposes, God disposes! I had come to Minnesota to do my Master’s in Solar Energy but my advisor discouraged me from pursuing this field, as no research funds were available. He counseled me to find a different field of study. I visited several of the other departments in Mechanical Engineering. Prof. Perry Blackshear of the Bioengineering Department had NIH funds to develop a left ventricular support system. He offered me a half-time research assistantship. My immediate task was to help one of the Ph.D. candidates of the department, Dick Forstrom, complete some experimental work for his thesis. Dick was an enthusiastic mentor and he soon had me cranking out data on red cell destruction due to fluid stresses. The field was new and unique and I was not deterred by the daily chore of washing up the dirty glassware of the day into the late evening hours. I continued my research in the Bioengineering laboratory and accumulated a fair amount of useful data in related experiments.
The first year in Minnesota also was a year of savoring a newfound freedom – dating, partying and the use of alcohol and other substances. I saved money to buy a music system and vinyl LPs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Chicago and other rock groups. I also started to listen to blues, jazz and Indian and Western classical music. I also took part in demonstrations and peace marches protesting the war in Vietnam. It was a heady time to be a student on a U.S. campus. However, there was disillusionment as well. The young students demonstrating for love and world peace had unhappy family relationships with their own parents and siblings. The novelty of dating and partying began to fade and I grew tired of the superficiality of the small talk and game playing. I realized that my cultural roots were a very important part of my personality and I took a hiatus from dating and partying. After my initial interest in experiencing altered states of consciousness, I went back to practicing meditation to reach these states in a safer, more controlled manner.
My changing perspective was also influenced by my meeting an accomplished yogi from the Himalayas, H.H. Swami Rama, who had come to the U.S. to establish a bridge between Science and Spirituality. He allowed himself to be tested under controlled laboratory conditions at the Menninger Foundation in Kansas, exhibiting exquisite control of his heart, blood flow, temperature and brain waves. Swami Rama was a charismatic, enlightened teacher with a tremendous capacity for selfless love. After meeting him several times over a period of a year in unexpected places and contexts, I became his student and he began to guide me in yoga and meditation.
I completed my Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 4 quarters and started applying for a job during the practical training period allowed on a student visa. As luck would have it, because of an industrial recession, jobs were hard to find. Dr. Blackshear encouraged me to embark upon a Ph.D. in Bioengineering. At that time, patients receiving artificial heart valve implants were becoming anemic and Dr. Blackshear advised me to set up fluid mechanical regimes to study red cell fragility in flowing blood. I studied the relationship between fluid shear stresses and the destruction of red cells of various mammalian species, computer modeling being used to characterize the flow field. The work was progressing well. Dr. Blackshear was a tremendous mentor and encouraged me to send an abstract of my research to an International Bioengineering Conference in Australia, agreeing to pay my expenses if the paper were accepted. In those days, it was rare for a graduate student to have such opportunities.
My paper was accepted and I left for Melbourne via Delhi, in order to meet a young lady with whom I had been conducting a few months of correspondence. Her father allowed me to go out with her, and by evening’s end we had decided to get married. The marriage took place a few weeks later after which I left for Melbourne. Presenting at an International Conference was baptism by fire. The paper was well received. I returned with my new bride to Minnesota to complete my Ph.D.
Life as a married man on a half-time assistantship was very difficult financially. My wife, being on a dependent visa, could not take up a job. Even going out for a pizza became a major financial decision. My poor wife had to get used to the severe Minnesota winter stuck in a small studio apartment. The only shopping she could do was grocery shopping! Soon after, I passed the dreaded Ph.D. Prelim. Exam. About a year later, having completed my experimental work, I decided to leave the University of Minnesota to take up a job at the Regional Kidney Disease Program of the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. I planned to write my thesis on my own time. My wife had suffered long enough as the wife of an impoverished student. I wanted to give her at least a modicum of comfort that she richly deserved.
An Academic Career in Dialysis Research
My joining the Regional Kidney Disease Program was also a gift of Providence. My advisor Dr. Blackshear, happened to be sitting beside Dr. Fred Shapiro, a kidney specialist at the County Hospital, on a flight from Washington D.C. to Minneapolis. When Dr. Shapiro mentioned the need for a researcher with an analytical, engineering background to join their dialysis team, Dr. Blackshear volunteered my name. A few days later I interviewed with the hospital and was offered the job. My days of penury were over and we were able to move to a slightly larger apartment and contemplate starting a family. There was a race between the arrival of our son Mayank and my Ph.D. thesis. Against all odds, the thesis won by a whisker! A year later, we moved into our own home in a western suburb of Minneapolis. A couple of years later, the arrival of our daughter Aparna, brightened our home.
My area of research had changed from the artificial heart to the artificial kidney, I was learning a lot about the dialysis field while engaged in some interesting bench research. I decided to increase my knowledge of physiology to aid me in obtaining research grants and earned a Master’s degree in Physiology from the University of Minnesota while continuing my work at the hospital. I shifted to studying how the process of dialysis perturbed normal physiology in an animal model using radio-active tracers and a catheter threaded into the heart. Based on the animal data, a mathematical model was formulated. The model was found to work in humans as well. We were able to significantly enhance dialysis efficiency while decreasing dialysis symptoms like a sudden fall in blood pressure, vomiting and cramps. Papers were published, I was invited as a guest lecturer to international conferences, textbook chapters were written and grants awarded by the NIH and FDA. It was a hectic life both professionally and personally. The children were growing up, doing well scholastically and enhancing their development with the acquisition of skills like swimming, skating, playing the piano and dancing. We moved to a larger home across from a small lake.
Corporate America Beckons
The academic setting had been a great springboard for a research career but I had reached a plateau both financially and in the pursuit of research funds. I had learnt a lot from the clinical milieu but felt the need to challenge myself with a foray into the corporate environment. I was hired as a Director of Advanced Development by a multinational healthcare company, Baxter Healthcare, and was allowed to establish a clinical research laboratory in Minneapolis to develop innovative concepts for advanced products in the field of dialysis. The first few years were extremely productive. I established the laboratory and built an accomplished research team. We successfully filed a number of patents in the fields of hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. My research budget increased significantly. I guided four hardware and disposable product development teams in Minneapolis, Chicago, Tampa and Tokyo. I was promoted to Vice President of Research and Development. I continued to publish papers and present research at international conferences. However, the enjoyment of these accomplishments was muted and these achievements were losing their edge.
A Return to my Roots
Throughout my academic and corporate career, I had continued my spiritual pursuits with the guidance and mentorship of Swami Rama. I had made some progress but had not been able to dedicate enough time and attention to these pursuits in the midst of career and family commitments. I felt the need to devote myself more fully to my spiritual development and felt jaded by the pursuit of a hectic, professional career. Providence again played her hand. I was presented with an opportunity to take early retirement at the age of 53 and return to India after 30 years in the U.S.
My guru, Swami Rama, had set up a charitable hospital and medical college in the foothills of the Garhwal Himalayas. I had visited the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust (HIHT) site several times to keep abreast of the growth of this institution. On a visit in early 1996, Swami Rama advised me to return to India to be a part of his mission. He wanted me to set up a dialysis program at the hospital and assured me that my children were old enough to manage on their own. He gave me 2 years to make the transition. Unfortunately, he passed away a few months later and I was unable to spend time with him upon becoming a resident of the hospital campus.
On my own volition and without consulting my wife, I decided that days of earning a livelihood were over and that I would volunteer my services to the hospital as a token of gratitude to my Guru. I resigned my job at Baxter and sold my home, thereby burning bridges to prevent minor frustrations from tempting me to return. The first year was a little rough; I had to learn to slow down to accommodate to the easy going Garhwali ways of waiting till tomorrow for something that could be done today.
I have been here at HIHT for 16 years now and have never had any regrets about my decision to return to India. I have had an opportunity to confront a variety of challenges in diverse areas. Besides establishing the dialysis and transplant program at the hospital, I have taught Physiology to medical students, trained nurses and technicians in dialysis techniques, consulted for dialysis companies to create indigenous products and executed hi-tech campus projects like campus-wide Wi-Fi, smart classrooms, videoconferencing and solar schemes. I have also been involved with the Rural Development Institute at HIHT with village water and sanitation schemes and with studying the risk factors for kidney disease in rural populations. I am also involved in administration and finance and serve on the Board of Governors of Swami Rama Himalayan University and the Governing Body of HIHT.
I pursue my spiritual development, teach yoga and meditation and help create books, CDs and videos of the teachings of Swami Rama. It has been a very fulfilling life and I am indebted to my Guru’s grace for making this happen. The spiritual path is strewn with stones and thorns but a bright light beckons. I am drawn to it like a moth to flame. May the flame consume the ego separating me from Divinity.