“Impossible is a word in the dictionary of those who do not try hard enough” – Candid with Professor Datta

Editor’s note: We thank Professor Datta for sharing with us his learnings and the truly memorable journey over the years . He is presently the head of the Department and is among the most amiable professors and is fondly remembered among the Alumni too.

How has your experience been in keeping up with an array of responsibilities at such an age? How do you manage so many responsibilities?

I joined the institute in April 2002, and before I knew it, I was appointed Associate Warden, Hostel 6, in Feb 2003, thanks to Prof. Nand Kishore. In 2006, I was appointed warden of H12 and on 5th Jan 2009, I took charge of HCU (hostel coordinating unit) as chief warden as it used to be called.

It was quite a challenging time as the number of students in the institute was supposed to expand from 5600 to 1.5 times the number.

Nevertheless, it was indeed an exciting experience. I remained there for seven years even though I intended to step down every year since 2011. In 2013, “Chief Warden” was re-designated as A.Dean SA. My stint with hostels finally came to an end in 2015. I became the head of SAIF in 2016, and now as you all know, the Head of Chemistry Department for the past two years.

All this has been rather exciting and enriching, but has eaten into the time I could have given to my lab. There had been times when I couldn’t go to the lab at all for many days, and it had been crazy. But I’m grateful that I had and have self-motivated students in my lab who have kept the lab active and going. Gradually, I learnt to be better at time management, even though there are miles to go.

Prof. M. A. El Sayed visit to our lab

 We have noticed that you’ve been associated with student bodies closely over the years. How has your experience been there?

I was also a member of PG affairs from 2007/ 08 for three years. The thing is I am a student at heart, and we once had  Prof. Lippard, who was postdoc advisor of C.P. Rao who said something that left an impression on me. He said, “a professor is a professional student”. So the good thing about handling students is that you remain young at heart or pretend to be :D.

 How do you always maintain that very energetic smile? I think it is unique & anyone who sees it is filled with happiness instantly 🙂

I guess my face is like that (laughs). I have seen photos where I haven’t smiled, and I look scary. I guess sometimes it’s okay but not always desirable. I like smiling 🙂

You are extremely popular among students & Alumni as well. Any interesting stories you can tell us?

There are countless stories. First time I ever taught the first-year course was CH101. Student feedback was so bad that I felt despondent naturally. Then I got over the initial shock and read the feedback over and over again, and slowly, I realized that I had to do many things differently. The whiplash of course feedback in those two years helped me identify my drawbacks and work on them. Of course, feedback is never completely objective and one has to take it with a pinch of salt, but it is extremely helpful if taken seriously.

Another one was I was teaching molecular spectroscopy and there was this student who was working with one of the well-known quantum chemists in the country at that time. I was going to discuss semi-classical treatment of the interaction of radiation with matter. He was not happy. He told me,  “You know, Sir,  what you’re saying is…..it is…..it is……………. rubbish ”. I was amused and asked, “Rubbish? Why do you think so?” Then he said, “why aren’t you dealing with photons as waves?”. I said see where I am going and then tell me after 7-8 classes. After that, he admitted it wasn’t rubbish even though he said I could have gone into higher topics. But he gave me a nice story to tell everyone from here to eternity.

Another thing is, I never took attendance, as I felt if someone wanted to attend my class, then they should. If not, why should I even care? But once I taught a summer course in which I was very strict about attendance, as otherwise such courses often degenerate into a formality. I even wrote an email to the students saying, “If you are absent even for one class, you get an FR. If you reach the class after I do, then you are absent and so, get an FR. If you are inattentive in a class even for a moment, then you get an FR.” Some smart guy came to my office and asked, “are you serious?” I replied, “Try me”. He dropped out, as did some others. The course was conducted with full attendance every day.

On Teachers’ day that year, I got an email from students from another department, who had attended this course. He thanked me, saying in his first year in IITB, he got distracted and got into the habit of not attending classes. He said that the forced attendance in summer course shook him out of his slumber and that even in the next semester, he did not miss a single class.

Indian team for International Chemistry Olympiad, 2016, Tbilisi, Georgia.

Several students write many years after graduation, at important junctures of their lives, reminiscing classes or incidents that I might have forgotten. These are what keeps us going. These are the best perks of teaching and makes us feel good.

 You did your PhD in the late 90s in India itself, could you draw a comparison now and then with regards to scientific progress in the country?

Even when I did my PhD, India was a serious player in the field of research. And now I think there is much more activity. In those days, a few good people were scattered across the country. Now people, facilities and good publications have gone up all across the country. Science has become more widespread. India has to address more fundamental problems that originate in India. We have been good at solving problems, but we have to do science that reaches a global scale. That’s when we have reached the peak. Funding and facilities are still an issue, and we can even do better in terms of budget and facilities.  

With colleagues at coffee lounge

 In a batch, there is a lot of disparity among students in terms of their learning and grasping skills, how do you bridge the gap?

Do we bridge that gap? I’m not very sure we do. With the size of the classes we have, it is hard to solve this problem completely. But I am open to people and make sure I give them the option to contact me after class or even ask questions immediately to help themselves with the questions they have. Some students do come back and ask, but not all. We try our best to bridge the gap. We succeed to some extent, but not completely.

The faculty we have in our department are very approachable and friendly. I would suggest that students shouldn’t be hesitant to approach them and ask them any doubts you have.

Do you think a student teaches you something someway or the other as well?

This is an easy one. Yes!. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. But basically, they always help me or I learn to improve my teaching from them. Their perspectives help me learn. There was this instance when a student and I didn’t know something about NMR chemistry, so he and I learnt how to solve and understand that problem together. He kept coming into my room, solved the problem, on my board and we learnt together.

There are many more instances where I always learn something from the student, and my PhD students are a significant source of learning for me. As PhD involves learning something new and solving that problem, I end up learning something from them throughout their PhD. All my PhD students have taught me something or the other.

Prof Manoj Mishra, an ex-colleague, had this saying “you get a PhD when you teach me something new”. Many of my PhD students have taught me a lot, and that’s how our group has evolved.

Guess who!

A question that most of the PhD students and people aiming for a career in academia have is How does one transition from a student to a professor?

I’ll go back to my example, my ambition in school was to teach in school, then my teachers changed my mind to at least teach at a college level, and then I decided on that. I had an excellent PhD and a good Postdoc experience which led me to be here. But preparing to be a teacher or researcher is to do whatever you do in the best possible manner, and a lot of homework from oneself goes into being a good teacher or a person with knowledge in that particular subject. But in the end, add your flair after assimilating the best of the world from the people you look up to and deliver it in a way that nobody else can do it, the way you do.

Something that fascinates me is that you remember so many people and names. Is there any secret behind it?

(Casually laughs).. Although I’m growing old, I still try to remember all the names of the students I have had and taught. I remember the people I taught in my younger days, but as I grow old, I forget some from the recent times that I teach. But fortunately, ASC provides a database with names and photos, and I use that to remember and make a habit of asking one person each class a question and that way I remember them and well also from conversations I have with students who come and talk to me day in and day out.

Informal gathering of P. Chem. Faculty, a few years ago

Let’s address the elephant in the room… What’s the secret behind your weight loss during the lockdown?

Well, everyone has wanted to know how I have lost all this weight. Lockdown has been one of the worst phases of our lives this year, and it hasn’t been all nice and joyful as we are all social beings and staying confined to inside spaces is not what we want.

But for me, I wanted to turn that around and use the lemons that life threw at me and make lemonade with it. I haven’t been paying attention to my health in the last 24 years, and well this was a good time to do so. It gave me the opportunity and I made a plan to concentrate and lose weight. This lockdown also gave us time to clear up and finish pending work that we all have. This is the time that we can introspect and think and do things that we want to do or have been wanting to do. 

Back to my weight loss, I have been thinking about it for the past 2-3 years. After many unsuccessful attempts over the years, I finally was able to do it after reading up on various diets and how I can implement it on my own at home – from all these keto diets and so on. So with all these variations in the way I consume nutrition, I achieved what I could.

The more important lesson I learnt is if you are determined to do something in the time given and if you try hard enough nothing is impossible.

Impossible = I am possible 🙂

Has quarantine led you to take up any new hobby or skills?

I have been teaching this NPTEL course. I decided to learn and brush up on my quantum chemistry, and the only way to learn is to teach, and that’s how I have been spending time.

Apart from this, I have been thinking up and writing new projects and having various meetings to brush up on our knowledge. All this has kept me occupied.

Well apart from all this, I learnt to cook. I mean, I did know how to, and I have always been an enthusiastic cook but this period has boosted my cooking skills, and I can do a lot more now. At the behest of my elder son, I watched Breaking Bad, El Camino and You’d better call Saul. Now I have new anecdotes and references from pop culture that I can use in class 🙂

What are your favourite places to travel to?

We love to travel as a family, and we try to go somewhere far and even somewhere near as well if possible. Last year we went to Istanbul, Turkey. It was a lovely country that we explored.

Himachal Pradesh & Coorg were few such places that were mesmerising. We usually plan a lot before going somewhere and we typically end up having fabulous vacations. A few years ago, our family and Prof. Naresh Patwari’s visited Mauritius. It was a fantastic tour.

This summer we were supposed to go to Gangtok and Darjeeling, but alas, the plans were cancelled.

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

A few years ago a lot of people didn’t know that I used to love acting, but now they do know that I loved acting and was a shylock many times in our drama as the merchant of Venice. And well cooking, now people know I love cooking as well. Although I feel people hardly know my fascination for dubbed action movie clips. Mahesh Babu, Suriya, and Allu Arjun are among my favourites.

With one of my mentors, Prof. P. K. Gupta

What a journey it has been over these years, looking forward to more such memories!

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