Heading in to the unknown

This week I had the opportunity to speak to students of Class IX at the Rasbihari International School in Nashik, thanks to an invitation from Mrs. Suchitra Sarda. I was pleasantly surprised to see a class of 80 students sitting quietly ready to listen to what I had to say. There were a few giggles during the time I was talking but nothing like the mischievous Class IX that I remember myself in! I had been given the freedom to choose what I wanted to talk about and here’s what I had to say:

Last October, I entered the fourth year of my PhD studies. At this point, I became the senior most student in our lab. A student who just started her PhD at that time asked me an interesting question – What would you have done differently had your PhD started now?

It’s a question which first took me by surprise but after a little bit of thought I realized that given the knowledge I have today I would have done so many things differently. And if that was really possible, I am very sure that I would have made fewer mistakes, developed better skills, and contributed more to my field.

When I got this excellent opportunity to speak to you and was so graciously given the freedom to choose what I wanted to talk about, I thought hard.

I wanted to talk about something that would benefit you but at the same time not bore you. You are about to enter a defining period in your life. Some of you may be unaware of what is that you want to do, whereas some of you may be unsure whether what you have decided to do later is really the right thing.

In that spirit, today I am going to tell you some stories. I hope that in these stories you will find some connection with your own lives today. There are lessons to learn from the stories themselves but also, looking back, there are things I would have done differently to make these stories better.

The first story is about friends. We all know that friends play an important role in our lives. Their importance, I feel, only increases as you get older.

Even today, whenever I need someone to talk to help me through my problems, I speak to my best friend from high school. She is someone who has known me for more than half of my life. And despite being fortunate to have a friend like her, I feel that I did not do enough to keep up with my friends from high school.

As is the tradition for those aspiring to become engineers, which is what I had decided to become after leaving school, I focused all my energies to prepare for engineering entrance exams.

The years immediately after school are the years when you are still very close to your school friends. It is also a critical period to keep those friendships alive. I did not give enough attention to this as the preparation for the exams kept me busy.

Ever since I realized this mistake, to make up for it, I’ve been the guy who organizes reunions for school friends. Yet, I feel that had I done more in the 11th and 12th, things would have been better with my high school friends.

Here’s the lesson – had I been in your place today I would have done more than I did to keep up with my high school friends. You may realise soon enough that there is nothing like revisiting old school memories. Many times you will feel you want to relive these years and the closest you can get to that is through your school friends.

The second story is about the importance of being a good communicator. All through the years since I left Nasik for higher studies, I found that it was those who could communicate best that progressed the fastest, made the best connections, formed the best first impressions… Eventually those were the people who stood out and did amazing things.

When I say communication I mean not just the ability to use a particular language flawlessly but also be able to deliver the message effectively to your audience. To be able to speak in a manner that is easily understood by your audience, to be able to write by using as few words and to be able do all this with clarity.

Two examples come to my mind whenever I think about good communication.

The first is from my initial days at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai where I did my chemical engineering. When new students come to the institute, the seniors take the initiative of interacting with them. In these ‘interactions’ we were asked to do a plethora of things. Many of them involved being able to talk impromptu or being able to give lengthy answers to difficult questions.

I remember well that those new students who were able to stand up to these challenges which required you to think on your feet and express yourself clearly were those who made good impressions on the seniors. The impression mattered because being connected to seniors who had so much more knowledge than us, the new students, could help us tremendously.

In my case, it was these seniors who shaped my thinking about my career. I had started engineering studies hoping to later get an MBA and earn lots of money. My seniors showed me the possibilities in the world of science and research. They made me realise that I would enjoy it more to be a scientist who seeks answers to difficult questions than someone who seeks money.

The second example is from my initial days at Oxford University in the UK. I started there as a naive 21-year old who did not know much beyond chemistry and chemical engineering having spent four years surrounded by chemical engineers in the Institute of Chemical Technology. As is uncommon in India, at Oxford, people studied every imaginable subject under the sun. The only thing I had in common with most other students there was that I knew English and I was curious.

Much of what I did in the first few days there was to ask probing questions to students and learn as much as I could from them. There were students who studied Mongolian paintings, China Towns in Australia and the works of Borges, a French writer – things I had absolutely no clue about.

My job in these interactions was to keep the conversation going so that I could learn more. The way I did that was by trying my best to explain my PhD project in interesting ways.

Little did I know that this exercise in making my subject sound interesting would eventually lead me to start writing about chemistry for a lay audience. An ability which allowed me to meet 60 Nobel Prize winners at the world’s biggest meeting of its kind, it helped me to get an opportunity to work at the oldest and most respected scholarly society for chemistry in the world, and it also led to build connections all over the globe, much beyond what was already on offer at Oxford University.

Here’s the lesson – If I were to go back to 9th standard today, I would pay a lot more attention to developing better skills of communication. I would take all the languages that were taught to me more seriously.

But being a good communicator is a lot more about the thought process than the words. It is something we are not taught in school but something we learn eventually. If I were in school today, I would have participated in events such as elocution competitions, debates, and essay competitions. Something I did not do in school at all but I realise that when we expose ourselves to situations where we are forced to communicate, we not only develop our language skills but also refine our thinking.

The last story is about thinking hard about the big decision in life.

After I finished my 12th standard and only days before I was about to leave for Mumbai to start studying chemical engineering, I had a moment of panic. I knew engineering was going to be a lot of work. It was going to take four long years and because my dream was to become a businessman, just like my dad, I did not quite understand the relevance of studying science.

Chemical engineering seemed like a good idea to me because I liked maths and chemistry. I had given little thought to how that will help me achieve my dreams.

I asked my dad that evening, “Why am I studying engineering if I only want to become businessman later?”

The answer I got from him is the reason why I entered college more confidently than I ever would have. He said, “An engineering degree at an institute of such repute will open doors for you that you never knew existed. Being amongst intelligent people will give you a perspective to life that will help you flourish later. Studying difficult subjects and excelling at them will allow you to gain skills that you can apply to any difficult task that you may be faced with in the future.”

My Dad could not have been any more correct in the response that he gave. By the time I finished my engineering degree, my dream to go and get an MBA and earn lots of money had changed to becoming a scientist who spent many hours in the lab in pursuit of difficult answers, not in the pursuit of money. It was all the things he mentioned – the opportunities, the people and the difficult but fulfilling work – that played a role in helping make such an important decision in my life.

Here’s the lesson – I would have asked the question ‘Why?’ a lot more when I took any big decision in my life. I would have asked that question to as many people as I could till I found a satisfying answer. This habit of asking ‘Why?’ has been a very useful tool for me. And yet, I feel I did not ask that question enough number times for the big decisions in life.

If you take nothing else from these stories today, just remember that friends are many more times valuable than you think, being able to communicate well is a necessity to succeed and asking difficult questions at the time of taking big decisions in life will help you tremendously.

Thank you for listening and wish you success in your your future endeavours.

What high schools did for us and what we can do for them

There is much that our high school education gives us. Our time in the school leaves indelible marks on our lives. It makes an impact on our future whether we appreciate it or not. The contribution that my school has made towards who I am is substantial. 

My school entrance (credit: Fravashi Academy)

High school is where the first impressions of our future professions are made. Whether we chose to be a scientist, an engineer, a doctor, an artist, a designer, a businessman or something else, the seeds get sown at this tender age of our lives. This is the age when our brains get ‘shaped’. Although it wasn’t obvious when I was there in Fravashi Academy that I will go on to do a PhD, I can connect the dots today.

It is the place where we make long-lasting friendships. These connections that are made with a pure heart and naive minds are amongst the best ones we will make in our lives. Of course holding onto them is easier today than it was when my Dad went to high school. But even if you haven’t stayed in touch for so many years, these are the people you can connect to almost instantaneously. My Dad’s high school reunion that happened last year stands as a testament to this fact. He met his high school friends after almost 35 years and boy, did have a good time.

Over the years since I graduated from Fravashi in 2002, we school friends have met many times. The number of people varies every time but there are many who come everytime. We remind ourselves of what fun things we did and what mischiefs we were up to. The tone of the conversations have changed only a little over the years but the content has remained same (with only more things getting added to the list ever year of course).

This year when I went back home, I visited my school. Unlike all the times when I visited the school after 2002, this time I had an aim to accomplish. I wanted to understand in what way could I give back to my school.

The school has grown since we left and new curricula have been introduced. Classes have gotten smaller in size and the uniforms are different. And yet there are so many things that are still the same. Two of those things are the ambitions of those at Fravashi and curiosity amongst them.

I had an opportunity to speak to the kids in an impromptu discussion. I told them the short story of what I did after I left Fravashi and what is it that I exactly do in my PhD. But more importantly I spoke about the importance of books and why science is such a fascinating subject to study. I was amazed by some of the questions I got asked after the discussion. And those discussions made it possible for me to understand what students think and on some more reflection, I knew what I could do to contribute to the school.

After discussions with the teachers in school, we decided to do hold an essay competition centred on a topic in science and technology.  The aim of the competition was to get the students to think about science and technology and to communicate those ideas to a wider audience.

In the first week of February, with the help of Kaumudi teacher and Neena teacher, the essay competition was held. The topic for the classes of 7th, 8th and 9th was ‘How will science and technology affect the future development of the society?’

It was a pleasure to read all the essays and it was fascinating to see what the students dreamt about as the future of our society. I think that there were lots of budding science fiction writers amongst the entries that I received. And as always, choosing a winner was a hard decision to  make.

The winners are being given popular science books with a hope that once they finish the book they will share it with their peers. This should spark some conversations and some new ideas amongst the young guns. The winners are listed as follows and their essays can be read by clicking on their name.

7th standard

  1. Pranjali Kulkarni
  2. Preksha Mandlecha

8th standard

  1. Mitali Suryawanshi
  2. Rupandey Parekh

9th standard

  1. Tanmayi Gidh
  2. Rucha Amale

The list of the books being given (in no particular order) are as follows:

  1. The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon
  2. Can you feel the force? by Richard Hammond
  3. What Einstein told his cook by Robert Wolke
  4. What Einstein told his barber by Robert Wolke
  5. Really short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson
  6. Why don’t Penguins feet freeze? by the New Scientist

I am hoping to hold this essay competition annually. And I also know I am going to run out of suggestions for the books that I will give as prizes so if there are any books that you would like to suggest please do by leaving a comment below.

This is what I think I can contribute to the school at the moment. I am hoping that whenever I go home, I will get a chance to speak to the students at the school and spark a few more interesting conversations. But I also think that if I start this early then I can surely build a habit of giving back to the places that have made me who I am.