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Simplest Solution Is the Most Functional: Prof. Sanket Goel

I have been a staunch believer that the simplest solution is the most elegant and functional solution.

Education Post22 January 2023 05:05

As affable as he is friendly, one of the finest academics in the country, Prof. Sanket Goel, the university-wide Dean of the Sponsored Research and Consultancy Division (SRCD) at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani, talks to Education Post’s Rohit Wadhwaney about the progression of Indian education and his university’s “one-year-off” policy for students and faculty to build their own start-ups. But he starts off with a disclaimer: “These are my personal views and not of my organization.”

Recently, there was news about BITS Pilani allowing a year off to students and faculty to build their own start-ups. Has this policy been implemented?

We are delighted to see a lot of attention to this policy. This policy is at the proposal stage and yet to be implemented. We’ll share more on this accordingly.

Please take us through your journey as an academician.

In 2011, I moved back to India after my completing my Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Canada, and stints as a career researcher with Stanford University and Singapore’s A*STAR. At Stanford, I worked on a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded project on developing a portable DNA sequencer. I continued a similar project with A*STAR on receiving the A*STAR young investigatorship grant. During my three years’ tenure, I developed a Genome Sequencing and Engineering lab and taught at the National University of Singapore as an adjunct faculty.

In India, I worked with the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (UPES) in Dehradun as the Head of the R&D Department and an Associate Professor, which gave me a flavor of the R&D landscape in India including industrial funding. I was able to develop a small microfluidics and nanotech lab to develop miniaturized fuel cells and fuel adulteration devices.

My journey with BITS Pilani started in 2015 when I joined with the Electrical and Electronics Engineering (EEE) Department at the Hyderabad campus. The journey initially started with a small 300 square feet lab and a PhD student. Over the years, people have joined, associations have been made and collaborations have been nurtured to realize the current MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems), Microfluidics and Nanoelectronics (MMNE) Lab in a 2500 square feet area. Today, I feel proud to share that Team MMNE has postdocs and 22 PhD scholars and with an extensive focus on interdisciplinary sensor and energy harvesting technologies. Except extensive publications, conference presentations and patenting, 17 PhD scholars have graduated from our team and a company has already been spun-off where we are working towards developing industry-standard commercialize-able devices. As a teacher, the experiences have been more than fulfilling. Considering the contemporary age, with the enormous digital knowledge available, linking the research with teaching is extreme fun. Nothing more fulfilling than interacting with young minds on a daily basis. Overall, I am extremely happy that I could contribute on all three major pillars of academia – teaching, research and administration, which have become a quintessential part of my existence. But there is still a long way to go…

What is the Sponsored Research and Consultancy Department at BITS about? As the Dean of this department across all campuses – Pilani, Hyderabad, Goa, and Dubai – tell us about this wing, its achievements, challenges.

Evidently, for about the last six decades, BITS Pilani has made a tremendous mark as a teaching Institute whereby our alumni have created a huge mark in diversified areas including creating enterprises. Continuing with this trend, for the last 10 years or so, BITS Pilani is flourishing to augment its research competitiveness by securing external research funding from both public and private agencies. The Sponsored Research and Consultancy Division (SRCD) at BITS Pilani works to facilitate various externally and internally funded research and consultancy activities across all our campuses. As the Dean (SRCD), I am entrusted to promote synergy, in terms of research and innovation, between all stakeholders in the framework at BITS Pilani with an aim to establish ourselves as one the leading research institute in Asia and the world. Except huge internal investments, the sponsored research at BITS Pilani is supported by public funding agencies, industries, alumni and philanthropic organizations. To give a perspective, in the last financial year, BITS Pilani has cumulatively raised approximately Rs. 62 crore for sponsored research by various sources.

Further, presently, more than 350 externally funded projects are being implemented in various campuses of BITS Pilani. As the only non-government Institute, BITS Pilani is also implementing an inter-campus multidisciplinary project worth Rs. 125 crore in the Bio-CPS (Cyber Physical System) domain. The prime responsibility of SRCD includes pre-award and post-award management of the grants. Specifically, it encompasses making faculty members abreast about the funding opportunities, encourage and working with them to submit project proposal applications to several funding agencies, project management, and various activities related to post grants’ receival. Such activities include accounting of funds, appointment of project personnel, maintain the records of purchases and other utilization of the funds received, annual accounting of the total grants received, utilized, carry forward balance, unspent balance and amount to be settled post completion of the project. Further, the travel support/conference participation, registration and other research-related activities of project staff are also taken care by the SRCD.

Challenges, yes, they do exist like any other work environment. It is challenging to maintain the records and facilitate the smooth operation when multiple sets of guidelines have to be followed owing to various sources of funds. However, with experience and incorporating various digital frameworks, that can be resolved. All of this is often worked upon with ease owing to the dedicated team members in SRCD as well as a well-rooted zeal within all stakeholders to work collaboratively.

You’ve founded Cleome Innovations, which works toward the commercialization of futuristic sensors and harvesters. How was this idea to launch a company conceived?

Team MMNE has been developing miniaturized sensors and energy harvesters for almost seven years now. An important realization in this duration was the fact that although we were developing and reporting new technologies, there was a huge gap in translating these technologies into deployable market products. To address this, Dr. Satish Dubey and I founded Cleome Innovations in April 2021 to work in tandem with MMNE Lab towards commercialization of under-development futuristic biomedical sensors, smart sensors and miniaturized energy harvesters. Since inception, we are constantly working towards identifying multiple use cases and commercialization opportunities.

As is with most start-ups, the primary challenge has been obtaining funding. Although we have not raised any investor funding, we have recently been awarded a grant from BIRAC, DBT for development of an Ultra-Portable PCR Diagnostic System.

What’s your opinion of the direction in which Indian education, particularly the field of research, is headed? Are things changing, for better or worse?

Yes, things are definitely changing and is evident with the direction we are progressing in. The whole framework of R&D, which was earlier limited to some domain-specific industries and large-scale laboratories is now being implemented at a wider scale at academic settings as well. This approach fosters the young minds to look for solutions at their own level. Gone are those days when just a set of questions, and defined syllabus was part of education. I often see my kids giving out simple logical solutions to problems that I often thought as unsolvable. I see them questioning – why things can’t be done in some other way. Even at the graduate level we meet students who come up with research problems as well as solutions. We see young graduates preferring a career in RD – both academic and industrial. Another avenue is the interest of students to develop translational solutions, which has led to students taking up the entrepreneurial route as well.

You’ve spent a good part of your career doing research and teaching abroad. What difference do you see in the way universities abroad approach education as opposed to India?

Well, in my opinion it varies from university to university, not exactly from country to country. However, project-based learning and knowledge building is something I have observed during my tenure abroad which was earlier not much explored in India. However, in the recent past, experiential learning is becoming a part of teaching pedagogy in India as well. BITS Pilani is playing a vital role towards this change by equipping students with options in form of minor programs, dual degrees, project type courses, etc. More recently, BITS Pilani is also implementing a framework focusing on entrepreneurship.

Clearly, the landscape of Indian education is changing, slowly but surely. Things are getting more and more progressive. Your take on the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and its impact on Indian education going forward? 

Undoubtedly, the NEP 2020 is a progressive approach to improve the education system in our country. The choices being offered and the number of options for a given program, the process of joining courses, the choices to pursue courses and at a location of choice are some features, which will definitely benefit the students in terms of learning outcomes.

The NEP 2020 may greatly impact the quality of education and make it as par with the leading global standards. The establishment of new monitoring bodies could meaningfully enhance the overall academic quality. The NEP 2020 also emphasises on augmenting research, which was earlier inadequately prioritized by most of the institutions. Hence, even research-led innovation could actually give a good boost to the entire R&D landscape from our country leading to significantly enhance our intellectual capital. The stress from the NEP 2020 to give more autonomy to academic institutions could enable establishment of more scholarly world-class universities. Improvement in multilingual learning, gross enrolment ratio, especially in the rural and economically underprivileged regions, and gender balance would also be encouraged leading to overall improvement of our brainpower which in term boost our economy.

Shouldn’t these changes have been implemented long back? For example, the provisions that exist now weren’t there when you were studying. What’s the difference you see in the ways of our education from the time you were studying and now?

There is a substantial difference from the time when I went through my graduate studies, around two decades ago, and successive education in the contemporary period. Probably for us education remained confined to prescribed syllabus, subjects and evaluation. However, the scenario is completely different in the present era. Ranging from digitalization, to smart classes to project and internship-based learning, to real time field exposures, industry exposures to innovation driven R&D, all these sectors are being touched upon right from the school level. Digital learning through videos and educational platforms has also improved the concept of self-learning. This has made the concepts and subjects much more interesting for the students. The ability to study at their own pace also aids students to spend additional time in developing hands-on skills and interests, enabling a holistic development.

Any last words for our readers who might be aspiring for a career in the field of R&D?

I am excited to see that in the current ecosystem of our country, R&D has a plethora of opportunities. There are numerous problems affecting and impacting the society on a regular basis that needs to be addressed making R&D a perpetual process. I have been a staunch believer that the simplest solution is the most elegant and functional solution. Thus, while the problem itself might be very complex, I would suggest aspiring researchers to always take a step back, look at the bigger picture and then attempt to find a functional and a simple solution to become an innovator. Adding to the current innovation and start-up landscape, tremendous opportunities available for researchers to even become an entrepreneur. So multi-dimensional opportunities are available for aspiring researchers to tap. It is a real enjoyment to see your device is in someone’s shelf or bedside providing a solution and bring smiles.

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