Dr. Suresh V. Garimella, alumnus of IIT Madras, is the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Distinguished Professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. Suresh currently serves as Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships for Purdue University.

In this exclusive interview with acadman.in he talked about his early life, experience at IIT Madras, United States among other things.

Please tell us about your childhood, family background and your dreams and aspirations as a kid.

I was born in Bhopal, and was brought up there in my formative years and later moved to Visakhapatnam.  My parents were deeply committed – I would say almost to the exclusion of any other priorities for themselves – to the education of my older brother, sister and I.  I changed schools seven times, ending up at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Malkapuram, for my 9th through 12th grades.  I had excellent teachers in every grade and in every school I attended. This seems to be a blessing as my opinion is that not every student has this experience.

I will note that I did take an entrance exam for Roorkee, and also those for medical schools (AIIMS, JIPMER, and Vellore).  I was fortunate to have been selected in multiple of these schools, on the engineering and medical side and it was by chance that I selected a career in engineering. I was, and continue to remain interested in medicine.

You did your graduation in mechanical engineering from IIT Madras, your M.S. from The Ohio State University and secured a PhD from University of California, Berkeley. Please share your experience at these universities. Could you tell us about the difference in the educational approach and perspective of these institutes?

IIT Madras was a great learning experience for me.  Like most students, it was the first time I had left home, and adjusting to the highly competitive atmosphere there, while also learning life skills, was challenging but ultimately rewarding.  I did well at IIT, and enjoyed most of the courses I took as well as the research and other opportunities I could pursue.

I wish I had been wise enough to benefit more from the opportunities available, as it was only in my final two years that I really participated in some extracurricular activities like tennis, classical music concerts, roller-skating, etc.

I also wish I knew then how to learn more from my classmates’ experiences, and those of others around me.  After all, IIT is as good as it is primarily because of the extremely smart students that are admitted there.

In any case, IIT Madras taught me great skills – both fundamentals of science and engineering, but also problem-solving skills. It is always a special professor here, or a special friend there, who makes the difference to one’s experience and I certainly had my share of these.

Ohio State University and University of California, Berkeley – as with most US higher education institutions – helped me open my mind to so much more than academics.  Unlike today’s students coming to the US from India, the contrast in cultures was greater then and our experiences at home more starkly different from those in the US than they are today.

Ohio State is a huge university, with 65,000 students; but it succeeded in maintaining a small-town atmosphere, and was extremely nurturing and supportive. Berkeley was more hands-off, and in any case, you’d expect to fend for yourself as a PhD student. We were left more to our own devices, and the research group and more broadly, the great group of friends I was able to make, offered the real learning there.

Students who get into B-tech are not always sure which stream to opt for. What would you like say to them?

I don’t think it is so much the stream they opt for as it is what they do once they enter it. Every stream offers great learning opportunities. In my personal opinion, I think that one can get great training and pick up a lot of learning in any stream, as long as one is prepared to put in a lot of hard work.

In the US, it is easier to switch disciplines after your first or second year in the bachelor’s program, but this is less easy in India. Nevertheless, I think the important thing is to make as much use of the opportunities that are available as possible.

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It is a general belief that the education provided in B-tech colleges is theoretical in its approach. How far is it true?

I am afraid I am less familiar with the great majority of colleges offering B Tech degrees in India than I am with an IIT education. The IITs are certainly not the norm, and I realize they educate a tiny fraction of all the engineers produced in India.

I do believe, though, from my exposure to conversations about education in India, that there is a dearth of good educators. There is an almost prohibitive need to scale up educational institutions in India, and while there are many challenges in doing so, I think the greatest is the lack of availability of instructional talent.

There are many reasons for this – the competition for the better-educated engineers from the private sector (or from overseas), the generally lower compensation offered in teaching jobs, the lack of training to be good teachers, the lack of incentives to those who go above and beyond, the sheer scale of the need and the challenges, and so on.

I would assume that the administrative and academic leadership of the many institutions that have sprouted up is not up to the task of supporting creative and high-quality educational programs.

And then there are the barriers posed by government regulations and by the metrics that teachers and colleges are assessed on. We could go on here for a bit. But the upshot of all this is that indeed students receiving engineering degrees often do not have commensurate training and preparation. And I will point out that it would be too convenient and dangerous to think that it is not only practical knowledge that is missing – I believe many of these students aren’t all that well-trained in the theoretical aspects either.

Why do industries have to re-educate a student who has already studied that subject for four years to make his education industry-worthy?

For reasons I mentioned to your question above I would assume that a majority of students leaving engineering programs have much to learn before they can contribute to industry.  Therefore, targeted training programs – the famous program run by Infosys is one example – are essential.

You served as Jefferson Science Fellow at the U.S. Department of State from 2010 to 2011, where you explored pathways to a clean energy future, analyzing cross-cutting issues at the intersection of energy security and climate change. He also served as Senior Fellow of the State Department’s Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), a regional partnership to promote clean energy. How has your experience been working with the programs? What problems did you have to face while working with these institutions?

It was one of the most amazing experiences for me to work at the US State Department.  The variety and richness of opportunities I encountered was unparalleled. Despite my lifelong training and work as an engineer, I had always been interested in policy – in how science and engineering inform policy. This experience gave me an excellent window into what impact scientists and engineers can have on national and policy conversations. At the same time, you also realize the limits of science, and how economic or political issues can often dictate the final decisions.

What is the scope of research for students in the field of clean energy and alternative fuel?

Clean energy is an extremely broad field, needing contributions from all disciplines of engineering, but more broadly, from science, humanities and social science as well. The challenge is not going away in the foreseeable future, and as societies start their journey toward development and affluence, the demand for energy rises.  Fortunately, there has been a lot of research in this area, and realistic solutions are emerging.  It is a great field to be in.

You are the Director of the Cooling Technologies Research Center; you were awarded the 2011 Alexander Schwarzkopf Prize for Technology Innovation, in recognition for the accomplishments of the CTRC. How far has CTRC come today and where do you see it in the next 5 years?

What I find most gratifying about our work in this Center is that we have we have worked with over 45 of the world’s leading companies, and our research has had great impact on a wide variety of practical problems. The students working on these research projects benefit greatly from the exposure to real-world problems and as a result their work is enriched. The model of a pre-competitive group of companies working together with a university group to advance technologies is a very productive one and I would encourage others to consider the model in other fields of work as well.

What would be your parting message to students who want to pursue a career in mechanical engineering?

I believe that my training in this field has set me up for a very interesting and fulfilling career. As long as the undergraduate training focuses on very strong fundamentals, you can learn to tackle any problems in any field. I would recommend that students try to understand the importance of learning – this will help them all through their lives, in whichever field they may branch into.

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