Omkar Bhatavdekar, alumni of Institute of Chemical Technology – Mumbai, is currently pursuing PhD at Johns Hopkins University in the United States of America. In this exclusive interview with acadman.in he has talked about his early life, life at IICT, education system of India and the USA, among several other things.
Please tell us about your family background and your educational journey.
I’m from Pune. My father is a software engineer and my mother runs an NGO for children of the red light area. My schooling has been in Pune itself. After that, I did chemical engineering from Institute of Chemical Technology – Mumbai. Education was pretty much interactive, during my school days. I participated in a lot of competitions and the school motivated us to do so. We had a holistic approach towards education rather than merely academic and it felt like a second home.
What motivated you to pursue chemical engineering?
Well, initially I wanted to pursue engineering in physics because I was more interested in Physics. But just before my 10th standard exam, I suffered from a disease which, due to some problem in protein metabolism, leads to lack of breathing. After my recovery my interest shifted towards how drugs and medicines work so this is what diverted my attention to chemistry and later on, that same passion transferred to taking chemistry in my graduation. It was a slow transition from physics to chemistry, then from Chemistry to Chemistry plus Biology.
Please tell us about your college life.
It was fantastic. I don’t have words for it, starting from the curriculum to professors to co-curricular activities and extra-curricular activities, the guidance from professors was awesome and I participated in almost every college event. I was on the organising committee for most of the events. I volunteered for a lot of social causes. I consider myself very lucky to have been taught by professor Ashwin Patwardhan. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. My friends also played a very important role. I believe that if you don’t have good peers you won’t go anywhere. So the kind of peers that I had and the kind of people that I was competing against motivated me work very hard.
Please tell us about your field of research and its scope.
I am a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. I am currently staying at Baltimore and have started with my research here about a month or so. I’ll be mostly working on drug delivery and biomaterials.
It has tremendous scope right now, it is the field that’s booming. If someone wants to get into the Medical side of Chemical Engineering, this is the field to go for.
Even in India, many Pharma Companies are very much involved in the development of this field. Worldwide it is one of the most funded and most explored fields right now because we are battling some diseases that seem to be here forever and there is no substantial cure for them.
Also, the basic engineering understanding always gives you an advantage over the others; that’s why more and more engineers should try out this venue and I believe that it’s time for us to convert the science part of it into technology in furtherance of development of products which would help millions of people.
How would you compare the Indian Education System with that in the USA?
In terms of education quality, I would say that there is a difference per se. But the biggest difference that I see is the kind of people that you meet there. They are of different nationality and different communities and you get to learn a lot from them.
In India, at max., the diversity you will have is a person from Assam or from down south, but here you interact with a lot of people who bring in different kind of knowledge- your professor is from Spain, you are from India, your neighbor is from New Zealand, someone from Africa, so you get to learn a lot from these people.
Another point is that in the USA everything is very systematic. You can register for a lot of classes or you can drop some classes. It’s all open-ended. You don’t have to be very strict about the curriculum.
Yes, when you are in a classroom, you need to be focused but other than that, you have few subjects and more time to explore the subjects. So rather than studying eight subjects, you study only four subjects in extreme depth.
Also, there is a lot of interdisciplinary approaches that they adopt while teaching.
One of the alleged problems of the Indian education system is that it is very theoretical. Do you see this similar approach in the US as well?
No, we do not see this trend in the US. It’s very different and one of the reasons that this kind of system is prevalent in India because there the class size is humongous. So it’s difficult for the professors to handle that many people through an objective way of teaching.
Hence, they stick to the books. You cannot give hands-on experience to a class of 60-70 people at the same time. So if you can reduce the class size there is still a possibility.
In the USA, the average class size does not go beyond 40, that is why it becomes easier to give hands-on experience to the students and application-oriented question papers during the exams.
Also, another major problem in India is that people come from a different social background and due to lack of standardized education, not everyone is educated in the field equally and it becomes very difficult to start on a common note. To make people pass the exams, teachers prepare question papers which are very theoretical so that even a below-standard student would pass the exam.
Also, in India passing the exam is a criteria for knowledge. So we tend to focus upon mugging up and not understanding what the subject is all about and since the question paper as well as what we are taught is strictly theoretical, we do not feel the need to understand the subject. All we need is learn what we have been taught.
Furthermore, in India, the focus is on teaching many subjects instead of teaching one or two subjects in detail. So in the end, we have around 8 or 9 subjects which we have to complete in one semester. So technically mugging up seems to be the only solution. It is the easy way out.
Is attendance a concern in the US as well, like India?
Attendance is not a concern per se. It depends, from professor to Professor, but usually, they do not care for the attendance. Here, the lecture is such that if you do not attend it, the next time you are in the class you don’t understand anything. Also, here the professors are so good that the students naturally gravitate towards them and attend their classes.
So, even without any compulsion of attendance the students regularly attend the classes because it’s very rare that a lecture becomes boring or incomprehensible. Even in India, in fact, in many cases, the professors who do not care about attendance are usually the good ones. I personally believe that attendance is a very trivial thing and I don’t understand why someone should be forced to attend the class.
What are your future plans?
As of now, my plan is to go for a postdoc in the US only or as the opportunity comes and let alone, I want to go for a field in of academics. I would like to teach here for sometimes and then come back to India.
Would you like to compare the social conditions prevalent in USA and India?
Well in terms of social conditions I would say that the disparity between the rich and the poor is quite evident in India. It’s not so much in the US. However, in terms of development, I would say that we are catching up and I believe that in a few years, Mumbai would leave behind many of the cities of US in terms of infrastructural. In fact, Mumbai is a bigger, better and brighter city than where I am living right now.
However, one thing that I found interesting here is that people follow the law. They have respect for the law. Their streets are clean. Everyone drives according to the traffic rules and there is far less hooliganism in the US when compared to India. Nonetheless, India is now rising and I can definitely say that in the next ten years the mega-cities in India would beat a lot of cities of US in terms of development
What would be your message to the students of Engineering?
I would say that concentrate on your Academics, that’s the most important factor. There is no substitute for grades, at least not in the Indian education system. But at the same time, do not miss out on everyday experience that defines who you are, for example, if you can volunteer for some cause, do that. If you can organize some event for your college, do that. If you can participate and win something, do that.
Also, it is important that you interact with a lot of people as it gives you a different perspective. I believe that if you want to shape your personality, these are the four years that you are going to get. The four years will actually make or break you.