Chennai36 brings you an exclusive interview with M.G. Venkatesh Mannar, Adjunct Professor in the Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry Department, University of Toronto and Visiting Faculty Member in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University.Through his work, he has been able to provide better nutrition to millions of people around the globe. Professor Mannar is a proud recipient of Canada’s ‘highest’ civilian award – the Order of Canada and the Distinguished Alumnus Award (DAA) from IIT Madras. He is a Chemical Engineering graduate from the Class of 1970, IIT Madras.

For twenty years (1994-2014), Professor Mannar served as President of the Ottawa-based Micronutrient Initiative (MI).The Micronutrient Initiative (MI) is an international ‘not for profit agency’ that works towards eliminating vitamin and mineral deficiencies in developing countries. When asked about how he came to work in this field, he says, “After I completed my undergraduate studies at IITM, I proceeded to do my Masters’ in Chemical Engineering at Northwestern University. I worked with a salt manufacturing company in the USA for some time before returning to India. I wanted to use the knowledge I gained to modernise the salt industry in India. While my father already had a salt business, we set up a brand new industry in a different location and it was going well.  At that point of time, representatives from the UN approached me with the goal of providing better nutrition to the people. And what better way to introduce nutrients than in salt – something that everybody consumes without fail? Back then, iodised salt was not widely available. This study of introducing nutrients through salt interested me greatly. We began by introducing iodised salt, before experimenting with other nutrients in salt.”

“Over the next few years, several countries started to recognize the benefits of iodising all table salt.  I travelled to countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America (and including diverse countries such as Bolivia, Sudan and North Korea), with the aim of transferring technologies for processing and iodizing salt to local salt companies , thereby enabling them to produce quality iodised salt independently. As we began experimenting with introducing additional nutrients such as iron through salt, the work became more challenging as it was difficult to isolate individual nutrients and guarantee  their stability when added to salt. Also, we had to ensure that the salt remains white even after adding nutrients.  Early in the 1990s, I made a huge decision – my business had become very time demanding and so, I sold my share and moved to Canada with my family In 1994, the Canadian government established  the ‘Micronutrient Initiative’ and  invited me to be the first Executive Director. They provided the funding, but the organization was basically a shell that needed to be given form and substance. I took it on as a challenge”, he says.

With Canadian support, the organisation has grown and expanded over the past 20 years saving and improving the lives of 500 million people annually in 70 countries. It promotes interventions that have an impact on child survival, child health, growth and development, and women’s and new-born survival and health “The government of Canada entrusted my organization with nearly $50 million a year and I had the opportunity to use my initiative and judgement to determine the best use of that money. I was given tremendous freedom to make decisions and implement plans. The experience was very fulfilling – especially the results we achieved”, he says with a broad smile on his face.

I have set my focus on India because it is home to 40% of the world’s malnourished children and is also my country of origin and what I know best.

Currently, Professor Mannar has turned his focus towards the India. He says, “It has been twenty years since the Micronutrient Initiative started. We have grown a lot, having established offices in 15 different countries with our programme in India being the largest. I have set my focus on India because it is home to 40% of the world’s malnourished children and is also my country of origin and what I know best. People keep talking about development –  how can that happen if our children aren’t provided the proper nutrition? It’s a simple engineering problem: we are not giving the children the essential  inputs (timely nutrition) and we are expecting optimum growth, with the ambition to have them become fully productive adults. This is not tenable and I want to play a role in fixing this.

He goes on to say, “With regard to the iodisation of salt, I had several meetings with leading medical practitioners from various specialities. They presented loads of data about iodine deficiencies in the various states. All this is fine – Their focus was on the problem, but what we really needed was the solution and what needs to be done to make it work at scale. We have to ensure that nutrients stay in the salt or any other food that we are trying to fortify, that it is stable, and then make it available to people at an affordable price Furthermore, they should consume it consistently, and the body should receive the nutrients in the salt. How can we ensure that all these steps are executed? The medical profession often does not envision this in a systematic way, like an engineer does. Their stance is simply that salt should have all these nutrients! It’s not that simple, is it? That’s where we engineers come in, to provide the technological and other inputs to solve social problems. For example, low-cost test kits for diabetes, was something people in villages didn’t have access to earlier. But now, thanks to good technology, they do! That is one simple case where technology has helped address medical issues. We can make things cheaper and more accessible to people by harnessing technology.”

Your English should be top notch. People develop confidence in you when you present reports with proper diction, well-structured, flawless language, with a good flow and coherence.

When asked about his extracurricular activities at IITM, he speaks fondly about his experience as the editor of the campus newsletter and a deluge of other literary activities like debating and quizzing. He advises all the current students at IITM to hone their written and oral communication skills, “Your English should be top notch. People develop confidence in you when you present reports with proper diction, well-structured, flawless language, with a good flow and coherence.”

He fondly reminisces about his days in our campus, “The five years at IITM were among the most impressionable and fantastic years of my life. The part of our life we spend in IITM – late teens to early twenties – is a very critical part of our life. You have to make the most of the opportunities that you are exposed to in IITM. What I miss even now is the interaction I used to have in IITM, where you had a set of high calibre peers – once you leave IITM, you will deal with a much broader cross-section of intelligence and capabilities.

What I miss even now is the interaction I used to have in IITM, where you had a set of high calibre peers – once you leave IITM, you will deal with a much broader cross-section of intelligence and capabilities.

At this juncture, when asked for his advice to the students who apply to foreign universities for masters’ or internships, he says “Your essays should be able to convince the person reading that you are driven by a genuine conviction and clarity regarding what you wish to do and become. They should be succinct and well written – every word you write should sound true and coherent. That’ll be the most convincing pitch. As long as you state your purpose for wanting to study in their institution with sincerity everything should be fine. You might change your mind later on, but your thinking at that point in time should be clearly articulated. I don’t think academic performance is the sole deciding factor; it is also a question of being innovative and strategic in presenting and packaging what you say! You should put a lot of effort into it to make it error free. If somebody presents me an essay with one or two typos, I’ll immediately reject it because in my mind they haven’t even bothered to run a spell check which tells me a bit about their approach to work. Don’t make obvious mistakes. Give the reader very little room to find loopholes in what you write. Furthermore, professors are also impressed by someone who has done some work outside their curriculum – like a research project. That’ll give you an edge. Basically, they know you have a certain threshold calibre when you say you are from IIT but they’ll look for something that makes you stand out. They form their impression of you based on what you write, and hence that should be perfect.

He also advises the students to add a social dimension to their work, “You may not start off with plans to be socially relevant but as one goes on, it would be good if one’s actions contribute to the society in some technological form.”

You may not start off with plans to be socially relevant but as one goes on, it would be good if one’s actions contribute to the society in some technological form.

He goes on to say, “Make the best of these years by expanding in all directions, and not just academics. Needless to say, academics is important as well. Try to be efficient with your time. Combine your activities with sports, become fit. That’ll equip you better to tackle the stress. You should do what drives you, you need not do a million things. At the end of the day enjoy what you are doing and certainly have fun!”