Dr. Prabhat Ranjan, Vice-Chancellor, DY Patil University in a candid conversation with Education Post talks about his journey as an educator and an entrepreneur
It is an honour to interview a Vice-Chancellor with stellar achievements in science and before asking anything about the university, it is imperative to know about your journey as a Nuclear Fusion Scientist starting from your research at UC, Berkeley. Could you tell us about your research, innovations, and entrepreneurial forays?
Many of the details of my research journey are provided in my blog site ranjan.in. Here I would briefly summarize them. After my education at Netarhat School, IIT Kharagpur, and Delhi University, I went to the University of California, Berkeley to carry out research in the nuclear fusion area in 1981. My Ph.D. research was based on the modelling and simulation of a nuclear fusion reactor concept. After completing my Ph.D. in 1986 I returned back to India and joined the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP), Kolkata. Nuclear fusion research in India was in a nascent stage at that time.
The First Nuclear Fusion reactor (called Tokamak) in India was set up in 1987 in SINP. With very little experience in the country, I got involved in all aspects of making the Tokamak work including the setting up of computers, modelling, experimental developments to finally get the machine operational to International standards around 1991.
In 1995, I was invited to move to the Institute for Plasma Research, Gandhinagar—the main nuclear fusion research lab in India. Very quickly, I got the ADITYA Tokamak working here that was set up in 1989. I also participated in designing Superconducting Tokamak SST-1. I served as Project leader of ADITYA Tokamak as well as that of SST-1 Operation and Control Group from 1996 to 2002 making major contributions to India’s nuclear fusion program.
From 2002-2013, I served as Professor at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar. Here I worked on India’s moon mission Chandrayaan-2, the disability sector, Brain-Computer Interface, wildlife in addition to nuclear fusion. During 2013-18, I was heading India’s Technology Think Tank, TIFAC. Among many important documents prepared towards national policymaking, we also prepared Technology Vision 2035—which has been responsible for many changes happening in the country over the last few years.
From 2018 onwards I am serving as Founder Vice-Chancellor of DY Patil International University, Akurdi, Pune. In addition to my responsibilities as VC, I am also involved in research work in areas such as Brain-Computer Interface, disabilities sector among others. I am also happy to inform you that I am also chief mentor of the first private nuclear fusion programme started in India, Project Sanlayan, by Albot Tech Pvt Ltd. Currently a team is working in my University under my mentorship.
It is well-documented that Indian minds have contributed immensely to the success of Silicon Valley but as the world is seeing rapid changes in science and technology do you think our own universities are capable of providing cutting edge research facilities to students? It would benefit our readers to know the opportunities as well as the challenges?
I was heading India’s technology think tank from 2013 to 2018 in Delhi. Because of that I was well aware of the technological transitions that were happening in the trend period and its disruptive effects. As the founder Vice Chancellor of the University in 2018, I was very clear from day one that we need to make drastic changes in the educational system to make sure that India keeps up with the pace of change. Accordingly, we went back to the drawing board to create a new Under Graduate Computer Science and Engineering programme with a focus on new emerging technology areas. We launched this in 2019. We were a little bit concerned because of the fact that we are doing something different from what is being done traditionally, whether there will be acceptance by regulatory authorities, whether there will be acceptance by students and their parents. We are a private university and so the funding has to come only from student admissions. I am happy to tell you that AICTE, regulatory authorities for technical education liked the program very much. In fact they sent me a formal appreciation letter. They also actually formed a committee to revamp the Computer Science and Engineering curriculum in the country as well as bring in new emerging technology areas into amalgamated systems and I was a member of that committee. The net effect was that next year, in 2020, six to seven new programmes were launched which were influenced by what we had done. And in parallel the acceptance among students also was good and it has grown every year.
We also started a digital fabrication lab, “Fablab” as part of that. This was also picked up by AICTE. They formed a scheme called Idea Lab scheme and requested me to chair its steering committee. Through that we are changing the digital fabrication technology. We are bringing that into every college in India. Personally, as Chair, I have been monitoring this regularly. In fact, we have already gone through round one where we have picked up 49 colleges. We have trained faculty members and everybody else in several rounds. Second round also we have done.
What has further happened is that the new Education Policy 2020 is very flexible and we are expecting that India should be able to keep up with the pace of change. But we need a lot of hard work because of the fact that a large number of institutions have still traditional and are not willing to change. So I am very hopeful and fortunately whatever I have done has been picked up and I am part of the change that is happening. We hope we will be able to keep up with it.
How has DY Patil University handled the transition from physical classes to remote teaching in the last two years, especially in higher education and research? What are the impediments that you see going forward?
I am a futurist, so from day one I was very focused on the digital future that I could foresee. I was involved, as Head of TIFAC in preparing Technology Vision 2035 for the country. We anticipated what sort of things are going to happen in the coming years. The University, from day one in 2018, even before the pandemic, had started to implement many of these things that we found very useful. One of them was having a learning management system and second was using various digital tools. The third very important thing that I had done which I did not realize that we would use is to take the experiential learning to homes. So we had the concept of “Lab in Bag” that we had implemented. If you look at my blog in 2018 we had it as part of that. And through these, we had already planned it out to lead the digital future.
When suddenly the pandemic happened and the lockdown happened, of course, nobody was prepared to the extent that it hit us. It was exactly two years ago on March 13, 2020 that we received a request – a circular – from the state govt. to shut down the educational institutions. And then quickly, very quickly, we had the countrywide lockdown announced by the Prime Minister. And this, of course, caught all of us unawares because while we had a system, we did not expect that suddenly there will be no movement and people were in their house. So within the University we were prepared but in everybody’s house we were not prepared, in the sense that we could not ensure that everybody had an internet, everybody had a camera, and everybody had an earphone. We had a scheme of laptops. So a large number of faculty members had that. But I remember one case where the laptop of a faculty member was giving some problem but he was not in a position to repair it. I personally tried to buy many things but even to give it out to somebody was difficult because travel was not allowed. So it was difficult period. We also saw that in the early stages, in March-April when the pandemic started, at that time the attendance of students was very poor. It was not only the university but the students also needed to have access. Many of them went back to their villages and they did not have access. So early March and April it was very difficult and towards May 3rd week and so on when we started to open and the situation improved, there was tremendous pressure on students. Buying an earphone, buying a webcam was difficult as millions of people were trying to do the same thing. Finally I think it was, towards August that we started teaching on-line courses from the campus. We got people to come to campus and take the classes from the campus so that we could provide better facilities. Then we also saw that attendance and everything started improving. In fact, I remember the very first day in August when we started the new system we had almost 95% attendance. So while we have the technology but ensuring that everything keeps running smoothly is not always easy, it could be due to glitches in internet, due to glitches in power.
Power still can stop but the internet glitch nobody can stop. We also introduced a concept of borrowing a 3D printer and taking it home. Just like from a library you borrow books, you can borrow a 3D printer and take it home. So we are trying to make sure that experiential learning can happen in the home. And we found this was useful because if they could borrow things while they could not come to the university and borrow and take it home, carrying out certain tasks would not have been impossible, So I would say that 50% we were prepared and 50% not prepared because of the suddenness of the lockdown that happened.
Can you elaborate on the Brain-Computer Interface and how it is helping people with disabilities? Your research in this area could help millions and millions of people live meaningful lives and it would be great to know what led you to it and where are we currently with the BCI?
It was sometime in 2007 when during a project, I was contacted by people who wanted to work with me on a project. I was in Gandhinagar at that time. We wanted students to focus on a project which would have societal impact. So they picked up the areas of Assistive Technology to help people with disability and through them actually I got involved in the disability sector. And we had a young girl from Chennai, Bhavna, who had cerebral palsy. She could not speak, she could not move her legs, and she did not have proper finger control. She still passed class X. So that item was flashed in newspapers that a girl in such condition passed class X. My students on vacation in Hyderabad noticed that news. They went to meet her in Chennai to see how she operates things. After their vacation they came back and told me about her. So one of the things she wanted was to be able to watch a TV. So the students told me that she watches TV but does not have a proper way to control the TV. She can either do a volume control or a channel control; somebody made a device for her. I said okay let’s do one thing. As a next step, we make something that will control both volume and channel. Most of the time what we do with the remote control is change the channel or change the volume. So these are the two adjustments. We tried to do whatever she could do; she had a slight movement in the writs. So we said we will pick up that movement and use that; the hand goes up the TV channel goes up, the hand goes down the TV channel turns down, you turn it left volume goes down and you turn it right volume goes up.
So we started developing a system. We also got government fund to develop more devices like this. Slowly my involvement started being more and more. As we found we could change the life of people by such devices, I started spending more and more time. Sometime in 2010, I was at an event in Patna and a journalist wrongly reported what we had done. We had done a device based on gestures. He mentioned that it was based on thoughts. When I looked at the news item I was little bit worried that the person had reported wrongly. But then I took it positively and thought let me see if I could do something where I could use thoughts. That’s how my first thought came into this.
And in parallel and as part of my research, I am also working on various things using the Brain-Computer Interface to improve learning process, to improve certain other disabilities such as ADSD and so on. Now I am deeply involved with Brain-Computer Interface. We believe that it is going to be extremely useful for the country.
Could you tell us about your current stint with the DY Patil University? What is the differentiating factor for students and researchers at the University and what is your vision for the institute?
As I mentioned, I am the Founder and Vice-Chancellor of this University. The University has just completed four years. It started in March 2018 and I joined after a few weeks on 25th April 2018. The very first statement that was given on that day, we had a Press Conference after I joined, I talked about digital future and as Head of India’s Technology Think Tank I had seen what kind of changes were happening and I wanted to ensure that the University was ready for that. It needs time and effort.
As I mentioned earlier University was focused on two things. One was that they were going to be research-oriented and the second was they were going to focus on digital future. We did not want to do the traditional courses. So we created curriculum, computer science and engineering, as I said earlier which led to changes countrywide. We have fabrication labs which also led to changes countrywide.
Our focus is on research – research led teaching, so our faculty quality has to be high. We are following international practices of team teaching. Personally, I have had experience of education starting from a one room Municipal school to Gurukul style school to IIT to Delhi University, to University of California, Berkley. I have also worked in research labs, national labs across India. I have worked in government and I have worked in private universities. So I have put all that vast experience into designing the system for this university. It has been very hard work. As we know earlier on we were hit by the pandemic as we were growing up. Fortunately, we have come out very strong today. We have become the trendsetters for the country. We are working on commercialization of nuclear fusion, something that has not been done anywhere in the world. So it has been just lucky I would say that out of this dark situation that we had, suddenly a strong light is coming out. I use Sanskrit here, “Tamso Ma Jyotirgamaya”; Certainly, we have come out of the dark and gone to strong light. We believe that the light is going to lead the country in the future and that’s what the University is going to do.