“How spending time in a toy store solves my research problem” – Candid with Subbu

Editor’s comment: We truly thank Subbu for sharing his candid journey with us. Also, in case folks don’t know Prof. Subramaniam, he always insist on addressing him as Subbu directly in a hope to break the ice. We certainly respect his choice and have chosen to do away with any titles. Not to undermine him or anything. We truly respect him & shall continue to learn from his down to earth nature.

Question: How do you decide your research problems ? What is the inspiration behind them ? 

Subbu: I happened to read this book titled ” Journey into Light” (authored by G. Venkataraman) during my Masters at IIT Madras. This is a biography of Sir C. V. Raman and describes the struggles he went through as a person and scientist. One sentence in the book, where Sir C. V. Raman talks about identifying research problems, has made a lasting impression on me. He says “just walk on the streets to find problems that science can answer and solve”. This has greatly influenced my way of thinking. Firstly, it conveys a deep sense of observing things around me. Secondly, it also tells me to take up challenges which are relevant to the society I live in – most of my scientific challenges are born out of these two principles.

Question: How do you decide which research problem is worth spending time on and which one is too intractable?

Subbu: For translation into research, scientific problems have to go through the process of distilling, where you constantly keep on thinking and reworking it in your mind and that usually takes about a week or ten days for me. I usually tell my coworkers that a scientific problem should be like cancer – it has to eat, pain and destroy you from within. Unless that happens, the passion for answering that problem will not arise. Once that starts to happen for me, I try to talk to my co-workers and try to pass on that passion. If they find the same kind of passion and similar thought-process on the topic I advocate, then we go ahead and take up that problem. I have to reach a certain level of passion before I decide to pursue the research problem

Current research group

Question: Tell us something that not many people know about you.

Subbu: The best place I like to go to for shopping is the Hamleys Toy store in R-City mall. I can go and spend hours and hours in the same place. I sometimes spent the entire day in a similar store in Japan called ToysRus. I believe that playing with toys triggers my imagination (not verified though!!!) It has got toys for all ages, from easy ones for a month old kid to very sophisticated puzzles for the rest. So, I try to go and look at everything, try to play and have a hands-on experience on all the toys because there is something totally crazy about going to such a place and playing with toys meant for kids. It is actually crazy when I think about it,that a grown up guy like me,with a beard and all, playing with a remote car and enjoying kids’ games. But doing this helps me find answers to questions I have related to my research, therefore it helps me refresh my mind and think straight. I think the best scientists are born out of asking questions and children are the best at asking questions. Somehow this innate quality dies out as we grow older so I try to maintain the kiddish curiosity by spending time with my favourite companions – toys 🙂  

Question: What do you think is going to be the next big thing in your field? How exactly do you plan to be part of it ?

Subbu: Although all research problems which I am currently working on are close to my heart, however, one thing which I am constantly thinking about these days is this concept of wearable electronics. Can we realise a computer in the form of a truly flexible t-shirt? You need to take a lot of input from a lot of experts in various domains but yes this surely excites me a lot. 

To give you a gist of the future, we currently have succeeded in making special hand gloves using which you can gesture to a mobile phone or computer and can make it work  without even touching it . Unfortunately I couldn’t find it yet in India but this richness of science is what keeps my passion alive everyday. 

Question: Which teachers influenced you the most in your life choices?

Subbu: This is an endless list but if I were to think of teachers who influenced me I’ll probably start by thinking about my school english teacher Ms. Laxmi Narayanan. Sadly she is no more but every now and then i do remember her. As a child, I used to get sick often and she was extremely supportive of me.  The intensity of her care & love  was absolutely overwhelming.I cannot forget her kindness.

Another teacher who left a great impact on me was Ms. Umaiyal, she taught us simple hands on experiments some of which I still fancy. The experiment of candle extinguishing inside a glass jar and water rising – one of the simplest experiments with the most-profound implications. 

During my undergrad, Prof. D.P Sankaran, Prof. S. Govindarajan, Prof. Santanam and Prof. K. S Nagaraja from Loyola College had the biggest influence on me. These are some of the best teachers I have come across and I admire their outlook towards teaching. I learnt both the subject and the approach to teaching from them. 

When it comes to research, my idol is Prof T. Pradeep .He has been my guide, my philosopher, my friend. He is truly an inspiration. His achievements are too many and as a student, I feel the pressure to be called his student. 

Friends and Professors at Loyola’s College Science Exhibition (L to R : Prof. V. Srinivasan, Prof. A. Dayalan and Prof. D. P. Sankaran)

Question: What got you interested in Chemistry in the first place

Subbu: To be frank I didn’t have the best Chemistry teachers back in my high school so I was never satisfied. I ended up reading a lot more than I was meant to. My personal favorite was the book ”The Fontana History of Chemistry:by William Brock. “Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra was one book which helped me understand the universality of various branches of sciences. It helped me dissolve the boundaries of science – and created an ever-lasting impression on me. One other quote by Rene Descartes “Cogito, ergo sum” summarises my attitude towards life and science.

Question: What have been your most memorable days at IIT which have left an impact on you?

Subbu: I truly enjoy each day here but if I were to think of an event which truly left an impact on me, it would be ‘The Royal society of chemistry Salters camp’ which was organised a couple of years back. The purpose of this camp was to bring 8th and 9th standard students from rural towns to stay in IIT for a couple of days. We had interaction sessions, popular science talk, and even used the UG lab to show some magic in chemistry . During the last day we showed a movie . I was  coordinating this activity, thanks to the Head who gave me this opportunity. interacting with kids made me realise how far we have moved from reality. The students stayed at H15/16 hostel and I was expecting some complaints about the room being cramped, food not being good or something like that. I was shocked, surprised and emotional when one of the kid (Mr. Akshay from Govt School Raigad) came to me and said “there are 6 members in our family and our entire house is smaller than the rooms allotted to us. Can you please keep us for few more days?” This thought keeps haunting me. Another instance when Ms. Priyanka gave me a lovely card on the day of her convocation. I have been blessed with wonderful coworkers – I am humbled by their affection.  These are instances which remain with you and help you realise where you are and what sort of privilege you have. We ought to understand our responsibility towards society so that we can work for their betterment.

Marvelled at the enthusiasm of the kids in Salter’s Camp at IITB

Questions : What were your key learnings from your Ph.D. ?

Subbu: During my Ph.D. I got an understanding of what research is, how a problem should be approached, the passion to do things yourself. The science of building instruments, the confidence to take them apart and reconfigure them, customize parts for instruments – all these were inculcated into me during my PhD. 

My guide and I explored technical hardware alleys in Chennai back in those days. He showed me the types of steel, which one to use for which purpose etc – things like these that you would not be able to find in a textbook or classroom. I certainly make a conscious effort to get my hands as dirty as possible. It certainly helps me in learning. PhD is a program which involves learning and appreciation of that learning by both guide and the student. My guide would simply not take a no for an answer.  I must accept I’ve myself not been able to implement this in my own research lab.

Question: Tell us about your experience in Japan during postdoc?

Subbu: I had a tough time initially transitioning into their work culture . Although my lab group was quite international. I am extremely grateful that I got some of the best friends there. 

One thing that I like about Japan is that the people there are extremely professional . Even when we used to go to karaoke nights on fridays, they didn’t really inquire much about family friends. Some japanese friends became more than my work-friends to more like  family-friends. 

I also recall the tsunami back in 2011 . I was there with my wife. I had to send her back to India but that was actually when I saw the real Japanese spirit. The community spirit, helping one another to overcome the crisis, to move ahead and rebuild as a society – important learnings for me. Japanese people are extremely helpful. They go out of their way to help you and make you feel at ease.

Punting in Cambridge with my postdoc colleagues

Question: What were your key learnings from the post doctoral period?

Subbu: You get independent and you define your own problem. You have all the liberty . Certainly there would be hurdles and unforeseen problems but there is ample opportunity to learn. During my final post doc I got to interact with a lot of engineers which eventually made me think from a technologist’s perspective . Now when I frame a fundamental question I have broad insights how to convert an idea into a technological product. I’m most certainly not the best in this task but i do have an overview

Question: What was the motivation to  return to India ?

Subbu: I was very particular from the beginning, I remember even during my interview for the post doc, I said I would want to return  to India after I feel I have sufficiently brought value addition to the lab. I believe that we should leave a place at least slightly better than how you found it. I am very attached to my parents and grandparents. I always wanted to be with my family.

Question: Why did you choose academia over the Industry ?

Subbu: The kind of research activity I was interested in, it didn’t happen much in India. Also, I wanted to be around younger people. I feed and derive my energy from being around young and enthusiastic minds. I structure my classes in such a way that I learn along with them. So, every course for me involves unlearning and re-learning. That excites me. All these factors  made academia a conducive choice for me

Question: What kind of skills does it require to be a part of or lead collaborative research with people having different areas of knowledge and reputation?

Subbu: Research doesn’t progress with ego. It has a lot of negative effects. In collaboration it could jeopardize the entire effort. In academia what I notice often is that a chemist would prefer collaborating with another chemist, a chemical engineer would prefer working with another chemical engineer. In my opinion, the barrier ought to be broken for novel research work which could benefit society in large.

I try to reach out to people with a complementary set of skills so that they bring new elements to the research.

Question: How do you address the disparity of knowledge among students?

Subbu: Certainly there is a disparity in terms of communication, exposure, etc. One thing which I really try to address is to meet my own set threshold. It is not necessary to teach every topic in as much detail. I rather prefer to teach perhaps 80% of what is actual syllabus but in a way the majority of the batch understands it. I consider that with the given fundamental base, the decision to pursue a topic further lies in the hands of the students.

I consciously make an effort to repeat myself during lectures so as to reassure myself that I’m reaching the majority of the batch. Only when I feel everyone is with me, I take the next step ahead. Essentially I try to see people who work with me as co-workers and people who I interact with in the lectures as co-learners. This perspective has helped me to be on an even level with the coworkers and co-learners. I insist that all co-learners and co-workers call me as subbu, in an attempt to break the ice between us. Unfortunately, only very few are ready to do so. 

Another thing which I really try to do is try talking to students outside lectures as much as possible so that someone who might have not cleared his/her doubt because of whatever reason seek clarification after the class.

Question: Where do you feel you find yourself in a fix in terms of teaching?

Subbu: I must accept the one thing which I cannot really address is the requests from students to teach in Hindi. I try to do this a bit after class, but am still limited by my knowledge of the language.

I remember once, some students facing some difficulty in English sought out my help to understand the topic. Since their mother tongue was Telugu, I kindly requested Prof Leela to help me reach out to them. We sat down together and Prof Leela translated my explanation to them. The only reason why this happened is because students themselves were interested to learn and sought out for help. 

The way I see a course is “Faculty with students” & not “Faculty versus students”.

Question: What are your thoughts on maintaining work-life balance ?

Subbu: I’m not good at it at all, ask my wife :D.  I have problems which I literally think of all the time. I am indeed trying to strike a balance here. Also, I don’t really see work in life. Rather I prefer to call it life at work. Slowly and gradually I’m improving

Question: What are your favorite destinations to travel to?

Subbu: I just love to travel to Haridwar and Rishikesh. I adore the serenity there.

During my life in Chennai, I have been part of pilgrimages-cum-treks to Sabarimala. It’s an absolutely wonderful time to get to know yourself. I like to do temple/church hopping in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well. My undergraduate college (Loyola) had one of the best chapels and I loved to spend time there.

I wish to travel to Devprayag & Bhutan as I find the pictures really breathtaking.Having grown up in plains all my life I have a fascination for mountains. 

At peace with myself – in Hrishikesh

Question: What kept you engaged during the lockdown period ? 

Subbu: During the lockdown I undertook a course which I always wanted to pursue right from my PhD days. This was an advanced course related to my research domains and was extremely intriguing and interesting. I also attend a series of webinars on rain water harvesting and in particular what the COVID crisis would mean for potable water availability. 

I worked on writing research papers and grants as well. Attending webinars, giving talks & yes not to forget mentioning, helping my wife at home. I also tried to do a bit of duty as a citizen to help the local society with basic amenities, during the lockdown. 

One thought on ““How spending time in a toy store solves my research problem” – Candid with Subbu

  1. Truly, Very well written. One of the finest blog, I have come across. I got the goose bumps while reading some of the lines such as research problem …cancer…. Your way of teaching the subject seems quite fascinating (# Faculty with students not other way round). Looking forward to be student of yours…

    Like

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