Talking to C. M. Chandrashekar – Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University

Posted October 13, 2016 1:26 pm by

His education journey in brief
I completed my B.Sc from National College (Jayanagar) Bangalore, India. In 2002, I moved to University of Oxford, UK on Rhodes Scholarship. At Oxford, I worked on experimental Bose-Einstein condensates in Ultra-cold quantum matter group (Prof. C. J. Foot’s group), Clarendon Laboratory. While at Oxford, my interest towards theoretical aspects of quantum information theory and quantum computing lead me to Waterloo, Canada which houses Institute for Quantum Computing and Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. At Waterloo, I worked under the guidelines of Prof. R. Laflamme and completed my Ph.D in the year 2009. Currently I am a faculty member in the theoretical physics unit, Optics & Quantum Information Group, The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.


Tell us about your school days and how did you develop interest in science.
My initial schooling was done in Sree Saraswathi Vidya Mandir followed by Bangalore High School, both situated in Jayanagar, suburbs of Bangalore South. During my school days, along with standard textbook curriculum I was also involved in various extra curricular activities like participation in intra and inter-school quiz and extempore competitions along with hiking, rock climbing and scouting. It was this extra curricular activity that helped me to look beyond standard textbooks and develop interest in science and in nature i.e., the phenomena of physical world. At home I was also exposed to Kannada literature to which I developed special interest and it still continues. I did not have any pressure to focus only on school curriculum and as long as I was engaged in productive activity my parents were okay with it.
It was only in 10th standard when astronomy was introduced in our school curriculum, my interest towards science reached an exciting stage with craving to know more about our solar systems, our galaxy and our universe. Around the same time, visits to Visvesvaraya museum, Nehru planetarium in Bengaluru and ISRO satellite center as an inter school science competition team member exposed me to the wonder of the universe we live in and that further kindled the curiosity in me towards science. Collection of books my father had kept at home and city center libraries close to home were great resource I relied on to supplement my learning. While in pre-university, during summer holidays Nehru planetarium announced a free astronomy course and that connected me to the weekend study circle of handful of students interested in sciences. Like any natural process, career in science became my obvious choice.

What was the influence and impact of teachers on you?
For me “teacher” includes all sources of my learning, my parents, books, and teachers in all institutions I have been in addition to all that I have been surrounded by. I was fortunate to have had great teachers at different stages of my career. Somebody who taught me rock climbing in outskirts of Bangalore to Professors who taught me quantum mechanics are some of the best teachers I have had in my life. Former taught me to never give up the climbing and to find for some small support (pinch holds) in the rock to which I can clinch on and continue climbing to reach the destined height. Latter taught me to take microscopic view of every fundamental particle in nature, which are building blocks of everything around us. One of my teachers in Jawaharlal Nehru planetarium in Bangalore, Prof. Bala Iyer used to say, “The role of teachers are that of sign boards who can give you all possible options and its you who have to make a choice and travel.” For me, those signboards are invaluable along with the required freedom and informed support I got from my parents to make my own choices at every stage of my career.

We know that you have done your B.Sc from National College (Jayanagar) Bangalore, India. Please tell us about your graduation experiences. Any memorable incident you would like to share with us.
Though my formal graduation was from National College, weekend study group in Nehru planetarium significantly supplemented it with advanced topics in physical and mathematics, which were not covered in our university syllabus. Few eminent scientists working in premier institute in Bangalore used volunteer to help us out with regular lectures. In addition to that summer fellowship program at IISc and Raman Research Institute introduced me to research environment during my undergraduate days itself. At college, the environment was very conducive to foster interest in science. As there were only about 2-4 students in each batch of 100 who used to take B.Sc out of interest to pursue science, most of the lecturers in the college were very supportive to them; some of them were more like a friend than a lecturer. In laboratory and after college hours I had many occasions to discuss and debate with them about science and other non-science topics. The relationship with few of my lecturers was so strong that we used to spend hours discussing at their home during holidays. College also gave me enough opportunities to explore other pursuits like theater and organizing various science events. This contributed to strengthen my character and discover my own strengths. National college campus was also a hub of Kannada theatre and I still cherish those memorable theatre days at H.N. Kalakshetra situated in college campus.

In 2002, you moved to University of Oxford, UK on Rhodes scholarship. Please tell us about how did you obtain this scholarship? What is the criteria if one wants to obtain it?
After B.Sc I wanted to apply for graduate program abroad and first step for that was to explore all possible scholarships that I was eligible for.Rhodes Scholarship was one of the many I had listed to apply for. As it was the one with the earliest deadline I applied for it only to begin the process of preparing. When I prepared my application with statement of purpose and all relevant documents I was not even hoping to get short-listed for the first round. Only when I cleared the south region interview and was selected for the final round of interview in Delhi I realized how too many uncorrelated things I have done over years out of my own interest got together to get me to the final stage of the interview. I fulfilled the academic excellence, one of the main criteria set for the scholarship and continuous involvement and achievement in various other activities like theatre, Scouting (president award), rock climbing and mountaineering fulfilled the leadership qualities and other criteria.
I did not prepare explicitly for the scholarship; I just presented what I am and how I involved myself in various activities without compromising on my academic performance. At both, the regional and national level interview, I was posed with various questions from spectrum of subjects (science, philosophy, literature) I claimed to be familiar with in my statement of purpose. I answered to the best of my knowledge and experience.The year I was elected as Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Manmohan Singh was the chairman of the selection committee.

Tell us about your experiences at University of Oxford. What difference did you find in Indian Universities and that of Oxford?
Colleges and various departments in Oxford are spread across the city giving Oxford city a feel of big campus with everything a city can have within. Academic environment everywhere around was very simulating. The discussion with fellow scholars (both, students and professors) from different field of interest ranging from Economics to Anthropology, Literature to Religion in college dining halls and social events quickly trained me to stop only reading from other people’s thoughts and start more of my own. The scholarly life in Oxford was more of thoughtful and less of following textbook lessons someone else left behind. This has continuously help me in finding my own path learning from the ones taken by others.
Everyone getting into Oxford has to choose some college to be affiliated with and I had chosen New College. Usually students with 3 years B.Sc and B.A degree are admitted to second B.A program (two year course work) at Oxford that with time gets converted to M.A. My initial admission was also for second B.A in Physics. At New College I was assigned a mentor, Prof. Robin Stinchcombe, an eminent condensed matter physicist. Accidentally, one of the summer project I had done in India was on the topic he was expert in “Spin Glasses”. After spending over an hour discussing with him about my background and all that I have studied, he suggested that I was already ready to begin research work. To ensure that I was prepared to start up on research project and avoid repeating courses on topics I am already familiar with,I was allowed to take few exams directly in the first term of my stay. It was hard time but in a given time I managed to revise and clear the given, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, electrodynamics, statistical mechanics papers. Prof. Stinchcombe was convinced that I could directly start with research program and takecourse work related to research topic of my interest. His recommendation was send to Physics departmentand it was honored. I started my research in Bose-Einstein Condensate laboratory. The way each student was accessed and closely monitored by academic mentors came as a big surprise to me.
The experience of being, meeting and learning from prominent personalities with illustrious lives from across world was a lasting benefit of being in Oxford. Meeting Nelson Mandela at Rhodes House, discussions with Mr. Girish Karnad on Ghodra riots while he was a director of Nehru center in London and time spend in research group with long time visitors like Nobel laureate William D Phillip are some of the many cherishing moments from Oxford. It will be incomplete to if I don’t mention about 100+ libraries in Oxford and the treasure in it.
Most of the Indian Universities are completely disconnected with the colleges where undergraduate courses are taught.This disconnection is denying the scholarly experience of the university to the students. When I was a student at National College I did not meet any Professor from Bangalore University (to which our college was affiliated to) who was involved in research. At Oxford, undergraduates are trained by researchers giving required exposure to students to connect their learning to direction of research problems. The emphasis is on the conceptual understanding and not on how many formulas one can remember. Some Institutes in India now, that is, IISERs are trying to bridge these gaps for students interested in science disciplines but for India population this is only a very small step.
In addition to this, undergraduate colleges are largely emphasizing on rote learning and bounded to prescribed textbooks, sometimes even the exam questions are from the large set of questions widely available in prescribed/referred books. Our medical colleges, engineering colleges/institutes, science colleges/institutes, social sciences are all separate without any connection. At Oxford and most other big universities in the world they are all together benefiting from one another.

We are constantly getting to know in news that Indian Universities are way beyond in International University Rankings! What is the reason for this and how can we improve the quality of Indian higher education?
To answer your question, one should look at the methodology adopted to rank the universities. Academic reputation, student to faculty ratio, citation per faculty, international student/faculty ratio and employer reputation are some of the indicators used to rank universities. Ratio in most of the Indian universities/colleges will be very high, some even close to 3-digit figure. Only some institutes that is, IISc and some of the IITs have ratio around 8. For comparison, at Oxford student to faculty ratio is less than 5. Research activities in most of our universities except few national Institute/university are almost insignificant and this would mean low rating in both, citations per faculty and academic reputation.
Indicators such as academic reputation are used as higher weightage in ranking universities. Institutions with undergraduate program like IISc, IISERs and IITs can focus on making it to top ranking by working on academic reputations. On other parameters they are fairly okay. This would require some measures like focusing on research in thrust areas and hiring faculties who have got themselves established in their respective area of research and supporting the existing faculties with sufficient research grants to tackle frontier problems and get themselves established in their respective research community. Performance related incentives, encouragement and support should be more effectively implemented along with accountability of under performance.

Tell us your views about the education system of India? What can be done to improve it?
Personally, I am not too worried about Indian universities/Institutes making it to top ranking in the world. We have more bigger concern, quality of education in the country. Rote learning, closure of many public schools in rural areas, industrialization of education with private institutes and private tutorials mushrooming are a big threat in making quality education expensive and inaccessible to larger populations of the country with time. Unfortunately, most of the students topping medical, engineering, civil, management and other national entrance exams are boosting of the tutorials they have been trained at. This is also an indicator of failing education system. That is, both, the schools and universities are failing to prepare their students to meet the required standards on their own.Parallel training at both school/college and tutorial are draining out on students costing on long-term performance. This is even costing the free and creative thinking. Most of the times I meet engineers who have studied some topic and work in different industry (software, banking). It’s a big loss of trained resource that is affecting overall quality in every sector of Indian industry. I often meet campus recruiters from companies who mostly say that even at the best institutes in country they hardly find students who are directly employable. They mainly look for candidates who they think are trainable. All these have to be fixed and it can happen by taking measures from bottom. That is, first we should strengthen our primary education system, government has to play a role in ensuring teachers are trained to deliver the best for the students and this should be extended to higher education.
Our education system should move more towards inclusive education and steps have to be taken to kill the tutorial culture. This will give space and time for student to learn, observe and effectively use their learning for practical use.
Education and public health are the most important sector that can lead the country in the development path. A significant increase in percentage of GDP on both these sectors will have a positive impact and yield long-term gain to nation.

How was education at your times and how is it now? Do you think there is a need of change in Indian education system?
No significant change has happened to education system from when I was in college to now. We have some new institutes in place like IISERs that is an encouraging move for students to take up science as career option. And we also have Right To Education bill which promises free and compulsory education to every child. Both these are good moves.I don’t think we need to make any change to the existing system. We only need to bring in measure to ensure quality in teaching, learning and research along with making it widely accessible.Attempts to suppress the role of tutorial sector in IIT-JEE by revising the exam pattern were made few years back but that was not successful as envisioned. We should still continue to explore other options to ensure it happens.

Coming to the science research, how do you feel science research in India is heading as compared to other developed nations?
With the amount of money we are spending on science research, that is research and development in general and the red tap culture involved in getting grants and making relevant progress in research, India is doing reasonably well compared to other developing nations. Compared to developed nation we still need to catch up. Research funding is high and participation of private sector in funding research is very common in developed nation compared to India. Private sector in India are playing very small role in contributing for research funding and this should change. Research will not always yield positive results but it will have long-term benefits. However, in some areas of research say for example, in material sciences we are in par with many developed nations but in some area we are far behind them.

How do you see the quality of science and technology education in schools and colleges today?
As a part of “Meet the Scientist Program” organized by Karnataka Rajya Vignana Parishat, I met 100s of students in 14 different districts of Karnataka. During the interaction, one striking thing I came across was the disconnection. Science they study in their textbook is only for studying and reproducing in exams. Many of them fail to connect what they study with what they see in daily life. With this, they will find science very hard to understand and will dropout. Some of them will still work hard and clear exams and end up becoming teachers themselves continuing the disconnected learning.
This is not only in rural areas, some of the engineers and science graduates I meet still continue to practice blind beliefs (what they call belief/culture). Even though many of them are working for MNCs, supporting their technological growth I still see it as a failure of our science education in inculcating scientific spirit in our daily life. This says that we still have a long way to go in making science, which is basis for our existence and root of technology as way of life.

For more info visit:
Contact info:
Optics & Quantum Information Group
The Institute of Mathematical Sciences
(Autonomous Inst. under DAE, Govt. of India)
IV Cross Road, CIT Campus, Taramani
Chennai – 600113, India