Professor M.M. Sharma is a Retired Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai. He is an iconic figure in the Indian chemical engineering fraternity, and is the recipient of the Padma Vibhushan (India's second highest civilian honour). He is also a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Royal Society, being the first Indian engineer to achieve this feat. In this interview, he shares his passion for scientific research over money, his humble beginnings and his love for teaching.
"As a consultant to the chemical process industry since the past 50 years, I know how to make money. However, the true joy for me comes out of the idea which has worked, rather than the cheque I receive."
Why should people study science? How do we encourage children to choose to study and practise science and do you think bringing them in contact with science in a playful way might help?
Science is an exciting adventure which is essential for human development and the quality of life. It is also a cultural activity which develops critical and analytical thinking. Making scientific advances relatable to children by giving examples from our daily lives would help them appreciate its charm. A good example to give is a cellular phone. Nowadays mobile devices are taken for granted, but the development of each component has come about owing to the progress of high science. Such innovations have bestowed huge benefits to society, especially in the developing world.
It is also important to impress upon the younger generation that many diseases, which are unheard of today, owing to medication and vaccines, were once a scourge. Smallpox, polio and other such debilitating diseases no longer exist because of breakthroughs in biological sciences. Yet, scientists are always challenged to find more cures for increasingly complex diseases. These ongoing scientific challenges not only keep research interesting, but also underline the importance of scientific innovation for the improvement of our daily lives and that of future generations.
What should be done to improve the understanding, excitement and appreciation for scientific research in our society? Should researchers engage with the general public through outreach activities?
Scientific research teaches patience, ownership of failures and allows one to open new frontiers. Conducting ‘blue-sky’ research, where the impact of findings is not necessarily known must be encouraged because it has the potential to revolutionise the world. Technologies such as X-rays, light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (LASER) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) were discovered years ago, without their applications in mind. LASERs are now used to correct vision, cut diamonds and even treat pulmonary tuberculosis. NMR has been so significant that six Nobel prizes have been awarded for research pertaining to it!
With regard to outreach activities, I feel researchers do need to engage with the public. I personally give thematic talks on science to schoolchildren, often on chemistry, to impress upon them that chemistry is in everything, and everywhere.
What prompted you to pursue research? Have you personally managed to convince students to stay in research?
When I graduated with my Chemical Engineering degree in 1958, the market was flush with job offers and getting a job in industry was a matter of pride for young engineers. I didn’t appear for a single interview because I really wanted to do research as I found it very exciting, was full of curiosity, and committed to it. Even though people questioned my decision, I chose to pursue what I found interesting and have never regretted my choice.
We, at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) in Mumbai, India, have had many students who were not economically well-off but wanted to pursue research. They were wavering between doing a PhD and taking up industry jobs, for monetary reasons. I was able to convince them to stay for a doctorate and helped them find means to supplement their fellowships to make it financially worthwhile. True researchers should have missionary zeal for science. Research is all consuming, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year.
What were you working on and how did it impact humanity and society?
During my academic career, I always tried to work on problems which had industrial applications with commercially demonstrable results.
Our group at ICT started by measuring interfacial areas in liquid-liquid reactions. We were the first to do so using a chemical method, and triggered editorials in some journals within six months of publication.
A wide array of reactions in the chemical industry are bi-phasic and mass transfer controlled. Everyday products such as polymers (e.g. in plastics, clothes), petrochemicals, detergents (e.g. washing powder) and metals are produced with the help of these reactions. Our research has enhanced the understanding of these phenomena and made the production process in industry more efficient.
We then moved onto equipment-oriented research, specifically mixing equipment. Whilst many thought it was an old, hackneyed area of study, we still persevered. Together with my collaborator, Professor J.B. Joshi, we developed many novel types of mixing systems, such as the gas-inducing impeller design which has drastically improved the way gas-liquid reactions are carried out. Seeing our impellers in operation always fascinates young undergraduates. In addition, we have also developed cationic ion-exchange resins based processes at a commercial scale to mitigate pollution problems posed by homogeneous acidic reactants when released into waste water streams.
While designing research projects, the identification and impact of a problem is of paramount importance. However, one must always keep in mind the ability of a researcher to solve it within a given time frame; otherwise a scientific challenge stays a problem forever.
Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?
I was completely self-motivated and left my hometown of Jodhpur, a city in north-west India, at the age of 17 to come to Mumbai to study chemical engineering at ICT. It was a subject which was relatively unknown at the time. We only had civil engineering at Jodhpur, which I could have pursued easily. However, my fascination for mathematics and chemistry led me to study chemical engineering.
Even after I graduated, it was my own motivation which prompted me to continue into research, without regard for the money. In fact, when I was a fresh professor and a bachelor, I lived as a paying guest, which is unheard of today!
I was also inspired by the people and surroundings at the University of Cambridge during my time as a PhD student. My supervisor, Professor P.V. Danckwerts had left me to my own devices and used to jovially say, “Sharma, keep me informed!” every time I bumped into him on the staircase. In those days, I had one high-impact research paper published in my single name, along with a patent for Shell.
Being given due credit for my work was a huge motivator, and I carried this practice forward when I was at ICT. Many of my PhD students have published their research in their own name, without me as a co-author. I believe if the idea was mine I should get credit for the publication, but not if I was just a referee or adviser.
What was your family background? Were your parents into sciences as well?
My father was in the Indian Railways and my mother had no formal education. She, however, had a high level of native intelligence. Nobody in my family had studied beyond high school at the time. I was the first person in the whole family to attend university and that prompted others to follow suit. In my extended family, we now have a doctor, a mechanical engineer, chartered accountant, polymer engineer, PhDs in mathematics, chemistry and masters in Sanskrit, an old Indian language.
Do you think research projects should lead to entrepreneurial ventures? Have you pursued business ambitions and what were your learnings? Many students passing out from ICT (previously University Department of Chemical Technology, UDCT) have become successful entrepreneurs and heads of multi-million dollar companies. What do you think has resulted in this unique success rate?
Research impact should be measured based on publications in prestigious journals. However, in applied sciences, it shouldn’t be confined to publications but should be almost compulsorily linked to industry.
Professor John Davidson at the University of Cambridge carried out excellent fundamental research in fluid mechanics (specifically on fluidisation), which has since revolutionised the oil industry.
At Imperial College London, Professor Andrew Livingston has created a company to commercialise the very good work he has done in membrane separations for pharmaceutical applications.
As a consultant to the chemical industry since the past 50 years, I know how to make money. However, the true joy for me comes out of the idea which has worked rather than the cheque I receive. Though money is quite welcome, research must be measured by standards of research.
People who excel at research and revel in the ambience of academia can make it big in industry, since that is its normal habitat. The alumni of ICT are a great inspiration to budding entrepreneurs. Some of my own PhD’s have been successful businesspeople and they share their stories, trials and tribulations with our current students. One must never get disappointed by failures, since they are often harbingers of future success.
As someone who has dealt with government and policy, what have your experiences been? We have heard that you were offered roles as a scientific adviser to the government, yet did not accept them. Why?
I always wanted to be an academic. My personal philosophy was that teaching came first, with research being its important companion and consulting to take these results into a live pipeline and to the end user.
In the early 1980s, I was being considered for Director-General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) or Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) but that wasn’t my cup of tea and I declined. I wanted to develop people, and take great pride and pleasure in having been successful on that front. My own PhD’s are now supervising other doctoral students who are going on to win research awards. My own success will have been for naught if my collaborators did not do well!
In a country where research funding is tight, how have you managed to produce world-leading and often, world-beating research?
Research funding is no longer tight in India. People must have bright ideas which will attract support. In my days (the 1960’s), the financial situation was terrible and we concentrated on ideas which would make a difference to industry with cost-effective, simple experiments.
Back then, we used to get chemicals as gifts from companies with whom we had good relations and needed permission to buy equipment worth as low as $5. Since the mid 1970’s the situation has improved greatly and I made sure my colleagues got the funds they needed to procure sophisticated equipment.
Do you think in emerging countries students have equal opportunity to get into the best universities, regardless of state, family background and gender? Has the reservation system for marginalised sections of society hampered student quality? Do you have a lot of dropouts?
India’s greatest success is the merit based admissions process. If you have the marks, nobody can stop you, and, if you don’t, no one can help you. I used to get phone calls from people asking if favours could be granted for people who didn’t have the grades. If one doesn’t have marks, nothing can be done.
I have had children of stenographers, tailors and cobblers study under me and they have all excelled. The eminent Professor R.A. Mashelkar was one of my students. His father passed away early and his mother used to work as a domestic help. He has done so well. Talent has made all the difference.
Even within the reserved quota for government colleges, there is almost no difference in merit amongst the general category and the backward classes. There are only a few problems when it comes to the scheduled tribes and nomadic tribes. A few do find it difficult to cope with the academic rigour and we hold remedial classes for them. They eventually overcome it and some of them have even become members of academic staff. You cannot leave out a large chunk of society when it comes to education and everyone should have a chance. We are probably the only institution in India which has endowments in place to support economically backward students. These people need to be mentored, encouraged and corrected and they eventually succeed.
With regards to dropouts, they are very few in number, the most notable being Atul Kasbekar, the eminent photographer. He felt chemical engineering wasn’t for him and dropped out in the first year itself. When our students realise engineering doesn’t captivate their interest anymore they move on to something uncharted or a different profession.
What is your biggest motivator? What keeps you going?
Excitement. When I see something unusual, develop an idea to solve an industrial problem and make wealth out of waste, I feel happy. I don’t need money, but don’t give free advice either!
More information on Professor Sharma and his story can be found here.