In Conversation with Dr Amol Gokhale
IITB folks know him as the dynamic faculty of the Mechanical Engineering Department.
Few would know that he worked as Director of Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) and was involved with the development of light alloys, metal foams and high-temperature materials for aerospace and defence applications.
Only a handful would know that he is an IITB alumnus and was also the Institute Music Secretary of the Students Gymkhana in 1977-78!
From navigating a boat closer to a crocodile in Powai Lake to taking the crucial decision of leaving the Director post in DMRL and joining IITB, Prof. Amol recounts his experiences and how it influenced his decision-making.
What can be better than a Professor who has been in your shoes for once reminiscing his insti days and giving valuable suggestions to his juniors! Read on to know more about our own Super Senior…
How was your campus life in IITB?
It was a struggle in the beginning. I had difficulty grasping the lectures and could not study well in the hostel during initial 2 years. As a result, I got poor grades, though I managed to clear all courses in the first attempt. All these changed from third year onwards. I could understand my core subjects well, and the classes were small giving us good opportunity to interact with faculty. My grades in Metallurgy courses were the best in the class.
In these later years, I could pay better attention to the world beyond academics. I wandered around the campus hills, lakes, became an active member of the boat club, joined swimming sessions at Ghatkopar pool (where we were taken in Campus Bus on Sundays), and participate in hostel level informal games. I regularly borrowed books from Hostel Library and developed liking for authors like PG Wodehouse. I became a member of the music club, sang in IIT Choir during Convocations and other hostel programmes, and finally became Music Secretary of the Students Gymkhana in 1977-78 and got into organizing Mood Indigo ’78 under the overall leadership of Nandan Nilekani who was our GS (Cult).
My initial ‘homesickness’ of 1973-74 was replaced by ‘campus sickness’ which I strongly developed while finally leaving IIT in 1978 for onward journey to the US for higher studies. One felt as if life in IIT could go forever, and there was no need for the real world to exist. This tells everything about my feelings towards the campus life.
What was the most random thing you did in IITB?
If you mean the most ‘wacky’ thing, I didn’t do much of that. Probably my colleagues could answer the question better! Navigating a boat closer to a crocodile in the middle of the Powai Lake during one of the evening boating sessions was the most exciting things, perhaps. This trait of touching the fine line between adventure and mis-adventure continued in my life for many more years.
What motivated you to come back to the institute after working for so many years in DMRL?
During the 2014 SAM event, although the students frankly told me after my lecture that they were not interested in pursuing core areas, they revealed that they found various topics described in my lecture very interesting, and that they were not aware that such exciting work was going on in the country. Later, I read in the newspapers that a sizable number of students of IIT were finding the lectures to be boring. Also, I had realized during my years in DMRL that the Defence R&D would much benefit if talented IITians joined the labs. The only way to motivate them to take up such assignments was to be in IIT permanently and teach/ guide them suitably. I thought that my 30 years of experience of Defence R&D would provide a different perspective to teaching and research, which students might find attractive and my lectures may also complement what was already being taught by fellow faculty members. Another motivation was to utilize the academic setting to look at scientific issues related to materials in Defence to be able to develop deeper understanding of the core issues for better technology development by the labs and firms.
As you mentioned in your previous answer, can you share your experience of attending SAM?
It felt good to have a SAM invitation, since it was the first time I was being reached as an alumnus by IIT. Before that, all interactions were initiated by me. I loved giving the lecture under ‘Core Weekend’ to students of IIT. There was moderate interest. Off course, the purpose of giving the lecture (to attract more students towards core areas) was probably not served, since only two students out of fifty seemed interested in pursuing the core area. However, I like to think that I seeded certain thoughts in their minds, which may take a little more time to germinate and result in right type of actions. A bonus of my participation was going through various students’ projects which were displayed, and then talking to students informally. I could feel the pulse of their aspirations. They appeared much more capable and talented than what I was at their age.
Interestingly, Vivek Govilkar, my class mate of 1978 and a successful former HR head of a banking software solutions company and now an author, attended my lecture during the SAM event and strongly felt that I belonged here in IIT and not anywhere else. His feeling turned out to be prophecy.
A year after the 2014 SAM event, after joining IIT as faculty, I delivered a lecture titled “Materials that Defend” which was received very well by undergrads of all branches. Incidentally, the lecture was arranged at the instance of Umang now a third year EE student who had led me through various technical exhibits during SAM 2014 and had remembered me since then.
How well are you in touch with your fellow IITians?
I have been interacting substantially with the faculty of IIT for the last two decades. I have guided scientists towards their PhDs who registered in IITB. But I must admit, I did not interact much with alumni or recent batches of students. The exception was 2003 silver jubilee reunion. There was recent follow-up in 2013 when we had H7 get together in the hostel for two days.
As my luck would have it, my class mate from MEMS 1978 batch Mr Manohar Parrikar became the Defence Minister of the country when I was the Director of the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory. I met him several times during that period and continue to do so. The recently held IITBAA Global Business Forum event in Goa brought him, me and many other alumni closer.
Any other memory/experience you wish to share?
Professor Tendolkar emphasized the importance of maintaining good health while pursuing studies and career. In other words, staying longer at the wicket was more important than playing few dazzling shots. The advise has proved extremely useful.
Professor TR Ram Mohan could connect well with students and maintained extremely friendly relations with them. As a result, he was and continues to be, a hugely popular faculty across the branches. This relationship turned out to be a big investment for him in his later years.
Any message for the core enthusiastic students of Metallurgy Department?
As I mentioned, I recently delivered a lecture titled “Materials that Defend” to undergrads of all branches. This time, the response was much better although the lecture time slot was from 8:45 to 11 pm, and the projection system was worse than in VMCC. I was surprised that students from other branches showed up and took much interest in the topics described. Is it that students of other branches possess greater levels of self-confidence, that they are able to appreciate work done in other subjects? It’s time Metallurgy students felt proud of themselves having chosen Metallurgy as their core area and develop liking for the topic.
Remember, metallurgy is an inclusive branch which combines tenets of chemistry, physics, electronics, mining, mineralogy on one hand and mechanical, chemical and other engineering subjects on the other. It forms a strong bridge between pure sciences and pure engineering disciplines. Use this unique position to establish excellent communication between professionals of various disciplines in teams, and enrich your own life in the process.
Finally, various past and present Directors of IITs such as Prof M Chakraborty of IIT Bhubaneswar, Prof MK Surappa of IIT Ropar and Prof I Manna of IIT Kanpur are metallurgists. Few former secretaries like Prof P Rama Rao (Department of Science and Technology), Dr VS Arunachalam (Department of Defence R&D / DRDO), Dr S Banerjee (Department of Atomic Energy) are metallurgists. These leaders have made immense contributions to national growth. There is much to learn from their experiences.
What advice would you give to the final year students going for their placements?
Listen to your inner voice rather than fall for peer and parental pressures while selecting placements or higher studies. If you like core areas, please pursue the same. Keep long term prospects and personal interests in view. If the chosen career is based on your own judgment, you will strive to make it successful. Apart from this, it is important to note that the country needs all disciplines, not just IT or banking.
"One felt as if life in IIT could go forever, and there was no need for the real world to exist. This tells everything about my feelings towards the campus life."