Post graduation is a transitory phase for students where we need to push their Intellect from Academics to Research: An Exclusive Interview of Dr. Aijaz
Dr. Aijaz Ahmad (from Watergam, Baramulla) is presently working as an Assistant Professor in Department of Chemistry at University of Kashmir. He completed his Bachelors and Masters degree from University of Kashmir (UoK) Srinagar and holds Ph.D from Indian Institute of Bombay (IIT-B), India. Mr. Aijaz Ahmad is a promising academician from Baramulla.
Dr, Aijaz in an exclusive interview with Shafat Maqbool, Research Scholar, talks about his experience, academic achievements, and research in the field of chemistry.
- Please tell us briefly about your family background, the educational heritage, and your basic schooling.
I come from a mediocre family and the memories of the hardships our parents went through to provide quality education to me and my siblings, had been strong motivation to work hard. Lack of healthy educational legacy and timely counseling had been yet another disadvantage and I don’t remember any one, even in an extended family, with significant educational credentials. I did my schooling from Paradise Public School Watergam when, in early 1990’s, the situation was very vicious and distracting. One time our school building was occupied by armed forces and we had to conduct classes in an open orchard under walnut trees. Another time our school was closed altogether for one complete year. Like every other child who has brought up in that era, I have many unpleasant memories as one time I brought in trouble for whole of my family, as the patrolling armed forces manhandled us, for keeping the lights on beyond 10 pm. In totality, early times were difficult and distracting.
Like every other child who has brought up in that era, I have many unpleasant memories as one time I brought in trouble for whole of my family, as the patrolling armed forces manhandled us, for keeping the lights on beyond 10 pm. In totality, early times were difficult and distracting.
- Tell us about your higher education, awards, and proficiencies. Please do inform us as how have you contributed to science.
I did my masters in chemistry from the University of Kashmir and qualified Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) and later on went to pursue my doctorate at Department of Chemistry, IIT Bombay under the guidance of renowned Inorganic Chemist Prof. Ramaswamy Murugavel. My stay at IIT Bombay was sponsored by University Grants Commission-New Delhi.
There are two ways of contributing to science: a) working towards better understanding of fundamentals of less understood which enrich the literature i.e. fundamental science and b) taking the science to technology through applied materials. Our work was primarily oriented towards understanding the less explored mechanism of formation of zeolitic i.e. zeolite like materials, which have established themselves as versatile applied materials as aluminophosphates and more recently as metal organic frameworks (MOFs). Our contribution is significant in the area as we have successfully isolated various building units like S4R, D4R, and D8R and designed their assembling by varying the condition to form different materials, which were probed for gas storage, magnetic, molecular sensing and other properties. With the knowledge acquired it is possible to design these artificial porous materials to a greater extent with appropriate functionalities as per the demand of utility of the new material.
Currently, our work is focused on modification of drug properties by employing Supramolecular Cocrystal Approach. There are many drugs in a market with very low solubility or bioavailability to be precise, and as a consequence, they cause adverse side-effects to our bodies. And since the drug industry is one of the largest industries across the globe with huge consumption levels these effects can lead to serious health situations at mass level. Besides, there are many efficient drug molecules which do not see the market owing to their very low bioavailability. The conventional approach is to synthesize new drug molecules, which is hectic, demanding and unpredictable process. Our approach is simpler and already established drugs can be taken to next level, where they are more useful. Our two projects are running in the area and we are very hopeful of contributing in the area at the grass-root level, In-sha-Allah.
- You have chosen chemistry as a subject for higher learning, can you please enlighten us about the future prospects of basic sciences like chemistry. What is the scope of applied chemistry?
I had always strongly believed in the fact that science is way ahead for the world. Almighty Allah has created the world in a perfect way with miraculous balance, however, mankind has disturbed the balance and as a consequence, we have more worries and concerns for the times to come. Environment and energy are very serious concerns. Our glaciers are melting down and our energy reservoirs are depleting, more importantly, things don’t seem to be very much under control. We are already paying for water and at some places even for air and most of the international conflicts are basically fight for resources, like petrol. Seeing the rate at which our population is increasing it is essential for mankind to look for extra-territorial resources and habitats. So in totality, we are living in an awkward era where the huge responsibility is to keep the planet alive and science is seen as a savior. All the countries spend a part of their GDP towards research and development (R&D) and the data indicates that it is crucial for the countries to keep on spending in the sector to sustain and come out as vigorous countries. As an example, few decades before India and China were spending equally in R&D sector and now China is spending more than double in the field than India and result are at the fore; China is advancing as brawny country than India. Because of the same reason, Jews (Isreal) with paltry 0.3% of world population is an important and strategist community while as Muslims with startling 23% world population is living miserably across the globe. That brings in the conclusion, nations across the globe need to increase their investment in R&D sector which will lead to huge demand for skilled manpower and hence career opportunities.
Chemistry as a subject is central to various scientific disciplines and is seen as very potential discipline to address the environmental and energy crisis, besides many other things. However, having said that, at the top research is more inter-disciplinary and many areas need to come together to approach and address a specific problem. Hence, it is very important to see it as science where people with different skills, all important, come together to keep the earth, a life sustain place.
Applied chemistry has huge scope in all the walks of life. We need better rocket fuels, lighter but stronger materials in aerospace industry, better drugs, pure air and water, faster trains, better agricultural production, you name anything chemistry is one way or other way working for it. The complete deliberation on it is beyond the scope and space here, but it is working and progressing. To make as case for it: since fossil fuels are going to exhaust in next few decades, have you ever given it a thought what will happen to the world next, rather we are already seeing the impact in terms of Gulf wars and global vulnerability. It is a must that we search for alternative fuel and water is being considered as potential future fuel; if broken into hydrogen and oxygen. People are working in this direction and promising results are coming.
- You have your Masters Degree from the University of Kashmir, and you have joined the same department as a faculty member, how has the department changed during this time. What progress changes have impressed you?
That is difficult to answer. Starting on a positive note our department is one of the best performing departments in the university and people involved are working hard. Some of the pass-out students are working in many good institutes across the country. I myself am product of the Department and have traveled from one end to other through an IIT. However, being honest, we have not progressed well with time. There are many things which should have improved over time. It is believed, even by higher authorities in the institute, that ours is an academic department and teaching is the primary objective, however, I personally believe post graduation is a transitory phase for a student where we need to push his intellect and drive from academics to research. In that, it is very important that we do well in research, and consider it crucial for sustenance and better reputation of the department. Collaborations with national institutes need to be increased. The faculty strength needs to be increased and new people, which can bring along new ideas and energy to the department need to be recruited. Funding avenues need to be worked upon at individual levels as well as departmental levels in order to bring in equipment and enhance infrastructure.
Coming to academics we need to make students more participating than merely keeping them at the reception end. They should be made to work on their individual minor research projects. Our students, in general, are not doing well in national or international competitive exams. More importantly, we need to reach out to the students to college and school level to make them choose chemistry as their subject instead of coming to the department accidentally. So, no, I didn’t find any significant change or landmark achieved.
- You have your doctoral Degree from IIT Mumbai, Can you talk about how easy is it for Kashmiri students to find space in leading Indian institutes. What is the performance of Kashmiri researchers?
Reaching an IIT is one of the best accomplishments and IIT has definitely turned me into an improvised version of myself. Being Kashmiri student, a serious problem with most of us is we are not aware about the national and international avenues and opportunities. After qualification of JRF, I applied for IIT Bombay and I remember there were 435 applicants appearing for filling of 32 Ph. D. vacancies, therefore we had to go through a written test and then interview. But Alhamdulillah I made it through both of them. However, the bigger competition was at home between my heart and mind and between choosing whether to move out of Kashmir or not. I remember that was really a tough decision to make and thanks to some of my friends and teachers who helped me to move out.
Kashmiri students are very potent and now more and more Kashmiri students are getting into national institutes like IISc, JNCASR, BARC, IITs, and IISERs and so on. Kashmiri students are also doing well globally and I can see it that our students are almost in every reputed institute across the globe. Some of my friends are in NIH, MIT, Princeton, CERN, etc., and more recently one of my friend after completing his education from IIT Bombay and then the USA got appointed as Assistant Professor in IIT Indore. It is more often now we see Kashmiri students in news as they are doing considerable good in their respective fields.
- How differently did IIT look to you with respect to teaching-learning and research? How can our universities take a lesson from IITs of India? What is scope for change for our state universities?
That is a good question to answer. Teaching in IIT is not very different then our universities. However what makes IITs so great and different is the overall campus environment. IITs are almost cut off from the localities and are self-sufficient in all respects; hence unlike our universities influence of localities is least. The student interactions and activities are apolitical and healthy. Credit based system is well implemented. The students have to sustain the pressure of frequent quizzes, seminars, and other exams. Students are made more participatory in teaching through tutorial courses. Infrastructure is of very high quality and students are exposed to world class research laboratories right from their inception which helps them to acquire the scientific temperament. Placements cells make sure most of the students get placed after their degrees; hence students usually don’t have job insecurity worries. There are good residential facilities and all students reside inside campus with premier hostel facilities. You can smell the competitive and healthy work culture in the air inside campus. So in denouement, if not in teaching, the infrastructure facilities, work culture and exposure of students in IITs and our universities are worlds apart thereby making IItians more confident and they end-up in doing better in life. I remember a graduate female student, who got second highest package of the country during the annual campus placements, but she refused it, as she wanted to start an NGO for the benefit of poor and underprivileged children.
- Plagiarism is a problem in research, as an eminent scientist and gastroenterologist, Dr M S Khuroo once said, “99.9 % research work in Kashmir is duplication….. We are adding nothing new to scientific repository.” How is our new generation attempting to change this scenario?
For me, it is difficult to speak of plagiarism quantitatively but I largely agree we are not adding significant contributions. We have two IIIM campuses, NIT and now IIT is coming up, these institutions are significant when it comes to seeing our state on scientific map of country. When it comes to universities we have considerably good number of universities in the state as well, but the problem with universities is W.R.T. to funding and approach towards research. As I have mentioned we still don’t have research in priority list and there is no significant funding as well, furthermore because of unnecessary red-tapism and inefficiency, it is difficult to get even your own projects implemented in the university. However, there are possibilities like collaboration of universities with IIIM, NIT and IIT and together the situation can definitely improvise. At an individual level we can write more projects and collaborate with other national institutes. Additionally, to cause an impact we need to sensitize the student community and top-notch students need to opt for research by choice.
- What are the career opportunities for Kashmiri students in the field of research in Chemistry? Can you please talk about the funding agencies and financial support our students can avail to settle down in the field?
Well, Kashmiri students are as good as anybody studying in Europe or USA. Technology has so well connected us nowadays and equalized the opportunities. We have various global exams like TOEFL and GRE, in place where every-body has an equal chance and provided you have potential you can get admitted to any of the world class institutes like MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, NASA and so on. There are various schemes in place where various Govt. agencies encourage young talent to avail higher studies in any part of world. Besides we have our own system in place where you can enter any IIT, IISER, CSIR lab or IISc and JNCASR, etc.
There are various national funding agencies and schemes under which students can avail financial support and admissions. The exams like National Talent Search Exam -NTSE and Kishore Vaigyanik Prosthan Yogna-KYPY are conducted at school level and the qualifying students are funded throughout their academic career till Ph. D. At graduate level the students can write Joint Admission Test for M. Sc. –JAM for admissions to various IITs, IISERs and IISc Bangalore, besides NITs. At post graduate level students can avail admission to many of national institutes through GATE as well as junior research fellowship (NET-JRF). After completion of Ph. D there are numerous options one can opt for in both industry and academics. There are various post doctorate schemes, like National Post Doc.-NPDF of DST-SERB, D.S. Kothari Post Doc. -DSKPDF of UGC, Women Scientist Post Doc.-WSPDF of SERB, in addition to the Institute Post Doc. fellowships provided by various IITs and other institutes as well. Amongst there are numerous options to avail post doc. Opportunities in international institutes, like directly writing to scientist of interest, Humbolt PDF, Marie Curie PDF, JSPS PDF for research in Japan, SERB Overseas PDF and many more schemes which anyone which good Ph. D. can avail. The candidates with good scientific details and experience can apply for UGC Faculty Recharge Scheme and Inspire Faculty besides other opportunities in universities and institutes.
- What would you suggest the students aiming a career in chemistry to look forward for? What Centers and Institutions would be preferable for them for a healthy research?
I guess the question is largely answered in previous question itself. However I would like to take this as opportunity to stress on the fact that we need to see applied sciences as serious career option right from the school. There are many opportunities students can avail to excel in the discipline. However, an important part here is that since science is applied subject and students need not to ignore the laboratory component, which unfortunately usually is the case. There are various schemes through which students can go to and work for brief times in the scientific institutes of national importance as Summer Fellows or they can participate in winter schools as well. Our responsibility is that we need to reach out to the students more often in multiple ways and keep in updating them about challenges ahead of the world and how science can be used to address them vis-à-vis current research trends. Students even at the school age should keep themselves aware of the fellowships and opportunities in applied sciences to kill the myth that applied sciences are expired career.
- You have taught in Colleges as well. Can you please talk about the problems faced by students at UG level? How can the college administration and the state lead the ways to solution?
The stage in college is climacteric for students as besides academic transition they also make adolescence metamorphosis and it is very difficult to stick to priorities. More particularly in our part of world colleges are very sensitive places, as more recently, more than half of the times our colleges are locked down. Another serious problem we have here is that top-notch students take admission to colleges but keep themselves off for repeatedly appearing in medical common entrance exams. Our school students can’t see anything beyond their MBBS degree and the transition from school to college is one of the biggest loopholes in our education system. There is lack of faculty in colleges and laboratory part is usually neglected by the students, as a result, we have to repeat the experiments at the university level. Attendance of students is a thing of concern.
However, with the recent recruitment of college teachers by JKPSC, I am very hopeful things will improvise at the ground level. At the same time, I have strong apprehensions that the introduction of credit/choice based education system by UGC at the college level is going to worse than good to our education system.
Thank you, Dr. Aijaz
Dr. Aijaz, thank you so much to the Oracle Opinions Team.