Know your Prof: Dr R.B. Sunoj

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How’s life, as a professor at IITB?

Life’s been good! I’ve been welcomed by the students with much trust. I’ve only taken CH105, the freshman Chemistry course till now. I’ve done that again and again for so many years now, but still – for the duration of the course, that is my only commitment. I don’t do anything else. I can make that commitment because my portion is only 6 weeks long, but still, during this time, I feel I’ve been able to connect to the students. The time I’ve spent here, I’ve seen students come up to me and open up about very personal things. Issues relating to gender would come to me, some breakup cases would come to me asking, “Sir, this is the situation, what to do?”.

The time I’ve spent here, I’ve seen students come up to me and open up about very personal things. Issues relating to gender would come to me, some breakup cases would come to me asking, “Sir, this is the situation, what to do?”.

Usually, I tell them, “Look, these are decisions that you must take and I will help you take a decision, but I will not give you an advice on this matter because this is a highly, highly personal thing”. But people do come. The reason I feel good about, not good about them going through this misery, but good about the fact that they come to me; that there is no barrier. Once you establish a good rapport with RBS (that is my short description), they do come to me. It’s not just one student coming multiple times, many new faces just show up in my office saying, “Sir I have a problem”. It could be a financial problem, it could be a family problem, it is something about branch change – “Should I? Should I not?”, academic consulting and sometimes it is about intern – “I am not getting an intern”, peer pressure, how do I overcome that – all types of issues. So there is some kind of personalisation which I succeeded in convincing students that “Look, if you come to me, I’ll make you feel better”. I’m not a counsellor, I’m not trained to do counselling, but I have gone on to handle cases which would have otherwise perhaps resulted in depression, psychological issues and I have referred lots of students to counsellors and psychiatrists also because I don’t want to claim that I can solve everything, I’m not qualified to do so. What I try to do is that I console them. There are a lot of these aggrieved students who come, I console them and direct them to the proper channel. One difference is that I try to do a follow-up on that. I just don’t give some advice and send them off; I ping them, I ask them how it is going, send them an email, ask them how things are. Is it better? How are you doing these days? And then after 3-4 weeks, I assume that things are alright, then again I ping saying, “Are you okay now?”, just to make sure that things are all in the right place. So, I think word gets spread, seniors tell the juniors, “If you have a problem, go and talk to sir”, and I have come across people whom I have not taught but they have come to my office, and usually my policy is whoever wishes me, I wish them back. I won’t wish good morning, but just say a hello. So, the faculty-students connect, I think, is a very important aspect, a very important dimension to the campus life. I think we should try and break the ice and be a bit more friendly with students. A lot of faculty members have this fear that if you become too friendly, students will climb on your shoulders and start beating their drums. Some of them feel that you should keep them at a distance. Yeah, upto an extent, keep them at a distance. But I am not of that type, I don’t have any safe distance or close distance. It depends on how a person interacts with me, I reciprocate in the same fashion.

So, things have been working wonderfully well in that respect. To summarise, lots of people come to me for different ways of consulting on different matters. I think I was successful as a teacher because in class, you can read the faces – they are understanding what I’m saying, they are following and they stick to the rules which I set. No sleeping in my lecture, which has been generally followed. I even challenged them that unless you have a unique skill of sleeping with your eyes open, you can’t sleep in my class. That has worked wonderfully. After class, typically a few days before the exams, I will have 4-5 chat boxes simultaneously open. I finish one and say, “Hold on, I’m answering another more complicated question”, and then I answer their question. So, this was a great experience using Facebook, using in-person contacts. People come as a team and they may not have place to sit. I used to tell them not more than six at a time in my office because it’s small. So, people come as a batch of six. Then I go to their mess, I sit at the dining table and a huge battalion of people comes. These last two years, it has been the 15-16 mess. So, all this has made me have a good connection with students, and I deliberately spend time trying to understand their need, their problems, and I was sensitive towards that, and it worked. Somehow I could feel that they respect me, which I don’t demand, but respect is something that you cannot demand it – it comes only naturally. People say that the generation has changed – they are arrogant, they are disrespectful towards seniors and all kinds of things. I don’t believe this, I never demanded respect but I enjoy significant respect from the student community which I’m happy for, and I think that is my life as a professor. I would like to continue to do quality teaching and I think so far it has been successful.

What vision do you have for IITs as an institution?

I thought about it a lot. The vision is to make IIT close to that of MIT, Caltech, Harvard, and it is very much doable provided that we Indians develop self-respect.

The vision is to make IIT close to that of MIT, Caltech, Harvard, and it is very much doable provided that we Indians develop self-respect.

(We) try to do what we are good at right here in campus. A lot of our wonderful students think that unless they do a PhD from Harvard/Caltech, no one is going to count them as able researchers. I would like to imagine a situation where 5% of our top students stay back, do research in our campus. Give me 15 years’ time, this place will soon become a Caltech. In 15 years I guarantee that if 5% of students stay back, that will make a huge difference. That’s my vision and I’m skeptical whether that vision will ever be fulfilled, but it’s a doable thing.

There was this case in which in IIT Kharagpur, some CS students stayed back for PhD, and that became great news. So, you are of the vision that that should be the norm?

5% should be default in every department not only CS. For every department they should retain 10% (meritorious, academically oriented) students to contribute to the research. Right now students’ contribution to IITs’ reputation is in terms of their placement, in terms of what grad school they make it into, not in terms of the research contributions (undergraduate students). Of course, post graduate students contribute, but they come through a different stream; they don’t come through JEE. I want the JEE students to stay back (5% of them).

I would like to imagine a situation where 5% of our top students stay back, do research in our campus. Give me 15 years’ time, this place will soon become a Caltech.

Lots of people are coming back to india and taking up jobs here. I would say don’t take jobs, it’s too early to take jobs. You’ll have a mid-life crisis soon enough. This is the right time to study and study more seriously. In B.Tech, unfortunately the seriousness of study and competition is not up to the mark. A lot of fundamental changes are required in that front. But higher studies, once you come out of B.Tech, you’re more mature. I see this transition from first year to last year. When they are dressed up for convocation, they look so mature and so great. Some of those guys should stay back (5%), that should make a difference. Give me 15 years with them, they would make a significant difference to the research that is going on. Already, we have quite a lot of research. What happens is a lot of faculty members are well-trained, and they come from perhaps the best places, best labs in the world, and when they come here, one of the struggles they go through is not being able to find good people to work with who can execute their ideas. They have ideas, they can give it to you, but only if you can take it, it becomes an idea; it becomes a mutually constructive idea. But if the person whom you give the idea cannot even assimilate the idea, then the idea is gone. The faculty member does not have time to sit and work on it. He has lots of work to do. So, I think 5% of the B.Tech students should stay back.

The whole IIT system has undergone a lot of changes. Earlier, JEE used to be subjective, and now it’s objective. What do you think the impact it has had on IITs?

This is a widely debated topic among faculty members. We have discuss faculty online email forum where lot of people put their views. Many are of the opinion that after the descriptive answering was removed, the quality of the students has degraded. They have their own evidence and arguments to support their claim, but I don’t think so. I think I taught both batches, of descriptive and the objective type JEE batches. I did not find much of a difference. There is a difference which is natural. Nothing is going to stay permanently forever. I strongly believe in Thermodynamics, which says that a system would evolve. You can’t expect students from 20 years ago to behave the same way as students now. So, it’s a natural change that has taken place, it’s not got anything to do with subjective or objective. But if you ask me what would be a better method, now that we have only 1.5 lakh students giving the JEE advanced, I think we should go back to the descriptive format.

If you ask me what would be a better method, now that we have only 1.5 lakh students giving the JEE advanced, I think we should go back to the descriptive format.

You have so many constraints when you sit and make a question if you are forced to make only an objective type question. I think the sheer intelligence and the testing of raw talent is very hard. (At the) end of the day, we make questions which would have all these components. But if it were to go in the descriptive form, it would be fantastic. Not to test the language skills, but the descriptive (format) is always superior to the objective.

How do you feel the life of a student now is different from your life as a student?

I think the technology is the main difference, (the technology) that you guys have access to! (You have) every type of information at your fingertips and the domain of entertainment which is very important to this age group has taken newer dimensions because of all (these) things like DC++. Just apply the right filters and you get what you want. There is self-discovery and there is also a repulsion that happens after a few weeks into it. You think, “It’s boring. I think I should be more responsible.” There is a lot of self-discovery and internal growth that is happening during this phase of coming to college. This was not the case in our times. I remember going to library to take 4 pages photocopy and that became a precious asset. (I used to) go back and read it many times, but these days you get everything online.

The timescale, too, has changed. I was just watching the movie, Interstellar, about relativistic effects. Similar to that, somehow 1 minute, 20 years ago, is not 1 minute today. The activities done in 1 minute, 20 years ago – let’s say was ‘x’. Today it is 4x or 5x. In a given minute, so many activities are done. You will be writing a response in Gmail, music is playing in the background, something else is going on, you are chatting with a friend on Facebook.

Multitasking has become the need of the hour. Is it a positive or is it a negative? I feel like when I try to do multitasking, there is a progress in all parallel activities I am doing, like I am responding to an email, I am reading some academic matter, I am chatting with a friend, listening to music. In our times I don’t think such things were even imaginable. Take gaming – I have played only games where a hen will drop an egg and you have to move the basket left or right to catch it. Now, the challenges in games are more complex. Multitasking – if you are not good at it, you will crash within the first few seconds. So, I think multitasking is a major change from then to now. Now people are very good at multitasking. I will not comment whether it is good or bad. I think it’s like a change which I was referring to earlier, it is inevitable. People are very good at multitasking or they have not realised the value of staying focused with a single objective at a single time. I don’t know which is good or bad . I’m trying to do multitasking right now. (I am) not very good at it, but I think the students are really good at it. That’s one big difference technology has made.

Then the cultural mixing and the infusion of western culture partly in the Indian mindset. Our place is such that if there is a red signal, if no one is watching, we just go past it. Lots of such things are happening which I’m not happy about. The honesty level among students and even sometimes among faculty; the value system is getting slowly degraded. The value system, human virtues – if you are incredibly honest, I don’t think it is taken as a positive attribute. But if you are a smart ass and you can like act as if you are very honest, such people are regarded highly. (Talking about IIT community) I’m like a big zero when it comes to living outside IIT. I have no idea of the complex mindset of the society and I seem to understand the IIT community better. I’m talking about the value system degradation among the IIT community. “It’s not that big a crime to copy an assignment or do some cheating in an exam”. I’m not very happy about this thinking.

“It’s not that big a crime to copy an assignment or do some cheating in an exam”. I’m not very happy about this thinking.

I’m more of a perfectionist and I will not tolerate this academic dishonesty because people will pay a big price when they go abroad and continue the same behaviour. They will be thrown out of universities if they practice plagiarism. I’m very sensitive towards these kinds of wrong-doings. They are terribly wrong. This is where I’ll seriously use the word ‘wrong’. I think some awareness should spread, there should be some incentive for a person being honest and promoting honesty. We need a campus-wide drive on promoting the value system – human values, care. It’s not that it’s absent. I saw it a few years ago and as recent as the Nepal earthquake. The kind of efforts students have put in is incredible. Massive collection of clothes, blankets, medicine, money, and they literally went there and distributed all that. That can happen only if you have that sensitivity and social responsibility. Students are good, they rise up to the occasion, but generally there is this lack of faith on both sides. Faculty think that these are all the spoilt generation of kids, but I don’t think so. You have not tried to understand them, and hence you have this opinion.

If you were to give one piece of advice to a student entering IITB to make the best of his stay, what would that be?

Realise that it’s your life. It’s not in comparison with your next door neighbour, not the guy who is sitting next to you.

Realise that it’s your life. It’s not in comparison with your next door neighbour, not the guy who is sitting next to you.

Realise that it’s your life, and live it as best as you can. (It) doesn’t matter if 10 other guys are not studying, you study. If you like to engage in sports, engage in sports. It doesn’t matter if 15 other people are not in sports. “Other people don’t draw nice pictures, and I have that talent. But I won’t do it as it’s not in fashion to draw pictures”. Go and draw pictures, follow your mind. Try to have a personal philosophy of your own, be yourself. Don’t follow the trend. I think that has spoilt our campus in multiple ways. The trend of what is fashionable. Not to study for the exam till the previous evening, and get an AB or BB, and then, “Oh! He’s such a great guy. He never studies and gets a great score.” I think it’s their life. The major difference is between what is your life your philosophy versus what is fashionable. This fashionable thing is not doing much to the campus. Party on Friday, don’t come to class on time, don’t attend lectures even if it has some value addition. Lot of these negative fashionable things are there in campus. Peer pressure – unless you go for an intern, you are deemed so mediocre, so bad. People have this issue of intern. Many good interns are there right here in the campus. All these are wrong fashionable trends . I think people should be taught to learn and respond in a way which is individualistic. Because if I don’t get an intern, who cares? I can work here. What is your problem? The realisation of what is good for you, and understanding that it’s your life; it’s not your competitor’s or your next door neighbour’s. Unfortunately, what is happening is that everyone wants to do what every other person is doing. Respect yourself.

What is a general working day in your life?

Usually, I come to work at 9:30 and stay here till 1:30. Every working day for me is like a test match. I have a pre-lunch, post-lunch and a post-tea session. So I have 3 sessions in a day. Then I go back home, have lunch, come back by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Then 3-6 is another session. Then I go back, have snacks. Sometimes I play with my students, and then I come back after dinner, that is between 9-11, which is a post-dinner session. Typically I work around 8 hours a day and it is true for all 7 days a week. I don’t believe in this Sunday business because Sunday makes Monday such a terrible day of the week.

Typically I work around 8 hours a day and it is true for all 7 days a week.

Monday is a good day, so I don’t take Sunday off. I work here 7 days a week. I like Sunday the most because I get no phone calls, no meetings, no administrative jobs on Sunday. I can give my entire time to work on Sunday.

When you do find yourself free, what do you like to do?

I like playing cricket. I generally like sports and music. I’m only a listener, I don’t play anything myself. I like string instruments a lot. I also like traditional art forms and try not to miss if I get a chance. I watch these kinds of performances. I also follow news and developments worldwide. Not just politics in Delhi or my home state, but I look at world developments. I like to know things like the places with standard weather patterns in the world. I like the oceans, the mountains. I am an admirer of nature.

Which movie did you watch recently?

I’m still watching Interstellar. I think my favorite is Lincoln.

I’m still watching Interstellar. I think my favorite is Lincoln.

It is becoming my all time favorite for series of reasons – amazing sound effects, the perfection in direction. I have a fairly superb home theatre at home so I don’t go to movie halls for watching movies. Also, whenever someone comes to my home as a guest, I give a demo of my home theatre by showing them the movie Lincoln. Some scenes are so superbly done, and it is my all-time favorite. Right now, Interstellar is partly done, I’m going to watch rest of it.

How about reading as a hobby?

That’s the strangest thing about me. I have not read more than 5 books in my entire life, away from Chemistry, Physics, Maths. When it comes to literature, whatever literature exposure I have is from the capsuled literature, to be studied as part of the curriculum up to B.Sc. Whatever English language has to be read as part of the curriculum, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed. But unfortunately I was so busy with my chemistry, physics, maths, (that) even post-high school, even during Master’s and PhD, I was so busy reading chemistry, chemistry, chemistry all the time. I missed reading all this literature, poetry, drama. If someone asks me do you think you missed something in life, (I’d say) life is long. I have a post-retirement life. Perhaps I’ll start reading at that time. Maybe I’ll become more philosophical then, and more mature to read all this literature. It’s amazing; I have lots of respect for literature, but I myself have not read much.

How would you explain your current research to a 17 year old?

So, that’s like the freshmen chemistry group, which I’m most familiar with. I’ve taught more than 5000 students as of now, so my research is about understanding chemical reactions. If A reacts with B, A does not react with C, how do you explain? It has to do with either the activation barrier being so high or thermodynamic feasibility being so bad that A cannot react with C. If A reacts with B, what are the energetics? What is the activation barrier? The heat of reaction? I calculate that using quantum mechanical principles. My work is more to do with application of the Schrodinger equation to chemical reactions. I also work in an area called asymmetric catalysis where you create one enantiomer in excess of the other. Lot of this enantiomers are very important in pharmaceutical compounds. I try to understand the fundamental process involved in the creation of one enantiomer in excess of other enantiomer using a method known as transition state modelling. My specialisation is quantum mechanical analysis of transition states.

Do you have any experience from your college that was ever close to you?

I think some teachers and attending their classes are all-time great memories. There is no single event I can talk about. As far as my career is concerned, it was always a programmed approach because I knew what was next and I knew what I wanted to be, in a much earlier phase of life. If you believe, I’ll tell you this very plain and simple story that when I was in 7th or 8th, I used to have this habit of taking a nap after lunch if it’s a holiday. So, during those naps, sometimes this dream of travelling in an aircraft and going to foreign lands used to come. I had no idea about aircrafts (7th grader), I hadn’t even seen a flight near my hometown. Travelling abroad, interacting with foreigners, talking about research. My passion for chemistry started in 7th because I did a lot of experiments myself as part of the school lab shifting from the old building to new building. I demonstrated it to the class and I think that was a life-turning event for me, why I became passionate for chemistry and the excitements about chemistry. I have no regrets, I am very proud of being a chemist. I dreamed of my life, how it was going to be, and by God’s grace, it has just worked the way I wanted it. It was more of a programmed event, no uncertain phase. I wanted to be a chemist, I decided to get into structure of atoms and molecules, I decided to learn more about chemical reactions. All these interests developed at a much earlier stage, before I was qualified to do so. For instance, after I completed 10th, I wanted to know more about atoms, atomic structure, electronic structure. So, I pursued that passion, enrolled for BSc where I learned more about Schrodinger equation. Then my passion became to understand the reactivity of a reaction and transition states, so I pursued a PhD in that area. I wanted to be a professor sometime and I just got a job and I am happy. I was one of the youngest faculty to be selected in IITB and still one of the youngest professor in IITB.