Interview by Bhawna Rawat

Dr. Bishnu P. Pal is currently working as the Dean Academics at Mahindra École Centrale, Hyderabad. He holds a Bachelor’s & a Master’s degree in Physics from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and a doctorate degree from IIT, Delhi – all as National Science Talent Search Scholar of NCERT, Delhi. He has worked as Professor (1990 to 2014), Head of Physics Department (2007-2011) and Head of Computer Services Centre (2002-2005) at IIT Delhi . He has served as a Visiting Professor/Foreign Scholar at foreign educational and research institutions that include University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, City University of Hong Kong, Norwegian University of Science and Technology Trondheim, University of Strathclyde Glasgow, Heriot Watt University Edinburgh, CNRS Laboratory LPMC (University of Nice France), Fraunhofer Institute fur Physikalische Messtechnik (Freiburg, Germany) and National Institute of Standards and Technology at Boulder Colorado (USA).

Dr. Pal has been deeply involved in Guided Wave Optics and Photonics education since its nascent days in the early 1980s. He played a key role in establishing the highly successful interdisciplinary M.Tech. and research program on optoelectronics and optical communication and a Laboratory on fibre optics at IIT Delhi. He has edited several books published by Elsevier/Academic Press, John Wiley, Intech, New Age, and Viva publishers. He has extensively contributed to sponsored research and industrial consultancy, especially several international collaborative research projects that involved France, UK, USA, and Russia.

Dr. Pal has been honoured with many awards and recognition at national and international levels including Esther Hoffman Beller Medal 2016 of OSA The Optical Society (USA) for outstanding contributions to optical science and engineering education, Prof A. Selvarajan IEEE award for outstanding contributions to Photonics education and research, Homi Bhabha National Award of UGC (2006) for contributions to Applied Sciences, Shri Om Prakash Bhasin biennial National Award 2013 for distinguished achievements in the area of Electronics and Information Technology, and Khosla National Research Award 2014 of IIT Roorkee for lifetime research contributions.

Ensuring outstanding teaching and learning practice across the institution

The learning process begins with teachers and mentors. We ensure that our faculty selection process is such that we recruit only the best available talent. Our faculty selection process is very close to what is happening in the best technology schools across the globe: We only hire PhDs from top institutes with preferably around 3 years of post-doctoral experience or industry experience. And we prefer those who are expected to remain actively involved in research even with their regular day-to-day teaching work.

The idea is to expose the students to not just the brightest but also the most contemporary. The academic background ensures that the students get mentored/taught by the best and therefore get the best education. Research focus helps in ensuring that the faculty is connected to the latest developments that are happening globally in their specialization areas and can share the most updated knowledge and wisdom with the students. This also gives the students the opportunity to assist/participate in research as they study, opening unbelievable avenues for innovation – they can also learn by “doing”.

Strategies to help learners who are underachieving in the classes

Like most global schools, our focus is on tutorials. Tutorials are more interactive than a lecture, with fewer people and personalized attention is a norm in this. A tutorial helps a student, a bright one or an underachiever, to learn by example and is possibly the best platform for honing the problem-solving skill.

It is mandatory to have at least one tutorial per week with a large number of subjects. Earlier it was two tutorials a week, but unfortunately, to satisfy the required minimum core course credits, it was turning out to be too hectic, so we reduced it to one. Our tutorials, as I said, are not just mandatory, but also help provide students with one-on-one mentoring, where the students can discuss the issues with the mentor, and come up with solutions.

This has been the most satisfactory strategy in our experience and our students learn from tutorials a lot, as well as clear their doubts on any subject. Sometimes students are individually called to work out a solution to a tutorial problem on the green board, if necessary with help by the tutor. In our opinion, it also helps developing communication skill as well as their ability to face an audience. Personal attention is a norm here, rather than an exception.

Prof. Bishnu Pal on what he values the most

In a student, I value “attention” to the task at hand, the most and sincerity to learn. With the multiple distractions that a student is exposed to, I believe that the students who do exceptionally well in academia and even later in their workplaces are those who are really “focused” in classes and tutorials so that it becomes a habit.

The biggest issue with the youngsters today is the easy availability of information on the Internet and it is often believed that the Internet can teach you everything. What the Internet does not teach one is concentration to the task at hand and this is the bane of all teachers.

The student will only learn if he/she pays attention. Just sitting through a lecture does not help perhaps for satisfying minimum percentage attendance requirements. It is the understanding that matters. And understanding comes with class focus. In fact, those who pay attention in class are usually those who do not have to study much afterward except perhaps a review at the end of the week and earn the best grades.

Take on the students of Mahindra Ecole Centrale

Our students are some of the best in the country. Our admission criterion is that we only consider students who have cleared JEE Mains or have SAT score over 1800. Since these are the students who are already academically inclined and hardworking, our faculty works at honing their engineering skills and provide the skill-sets needed for them to excel in their chosen fields. We mentor them to unleash their potential and a large number of them have been consistently making us proud.

Whether it is national or global forums, our MEC students have been offering stiff competition and winning laurels for the institute. Considering that we are a very young institute, as our first batch of Engineers graduated out this year only, this is an admirable feather in our cap.

Our students have also been accepted in global engineering schools like Virginia Tech, Columbia, Cornell, Maryland Universities, the US and Gruppe Ecole Centrale Schools in France, etc. for their Masters.  My guess is over 30% of our just graduated students already have secured / likely to secure admissions to the best global schools for their higher studies. Another 35-40% of the students have been recruited by the MNCs, some of them recruiting possibly only from us in India, and most others have received placements from leading Indian organizations. This says a lot about our students and MEC.

The most important current debates in Prof. Pal’s field

I am a professor of Physics, but my area of expertise lies in Applied Physics, especially Guided Wave Optics and Photonics. I have been involved in Optoelectronics for a long time and I focus on Optical communication, which is responsible for bettering the “Speed of the internet” in layman’s terms. This is undertaken today through high capacity Wavelength Division Multiplexed (WDM) optical transmission technology that supports the evolution of Terabit broadband technology.

Today, the speed at which the Internet works at best is 40 Gigabit via one/multiple wavelengths (s) but obviously what reaches our homes is way slower due to the so-called last mile connectivity. We are all aware of 3G and 4G in mobile communication. There is the talk of the rolling out of 5G services, which would involve delivery of information at speeds up to 10 Gigabits to our mobile device.

Globally, in optical communication the beta stage of 200 Gigabit delivery is going on, and it is anticipated that 400 Gigabit is to follow soon through WDM combined with Space Division Multiplexing (SDM) and coherent communication technologies. The biggest debate going on today is in terms of how to maximize the transmission bandwidth and overcome the limits of today’s single-mode fiber based systems. It is believed that future SDM-based systems can allow us to have Internet bandwidth measured in Petabits (1 Petabit = 1 Million Gigabits or 1000 Terabits) or a quantum increase in capacity.

Strategies for students to ensure that they excel in the taught subject

Students will only excel if they are exposed to the best quality in lectures, which we ensure by appointing the most learned scholars in the field as the teachers and carry out state-of-the-art research in their specialized field. Our focus is on ensuring that the students participate in research either by interning with the MEC faculty/well-known research groups at IITs and abroad or during their summer vacations with well-known companies. In fact, we recently concluded our first Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS@MEC 2018) in which we were pleasantly surprised by over 60 brilliantly executed research entries from our students on contemporary Engineering issues.

We believe in providing the best quality inputs, exposure to research, and an enabling atmosphere that fosters an interest in learning and delving deeper in the subjects by our students.

The most important text published in the last five years in Prof. Pal’s field

At the undergraduate level, traditionally it is the basics of Electrodynamics, Optics, Classical Mechanics and Thermodynamics, Modern Physics that are taught in Physics to the students in engineering globally.

In this context, the one text that we follow and which has become the Holy Grail for all Undergraduate Engineering students is “Introduction to Electrodynamics” by David J Griffiths. In Optics we follow the latest 6th edition of Ajoy Ghatak’s popular book, in Mechanics the well-known UG text by Kleppner, in Thermodynamics the book by Zemansky and in Modern Physics the text written by Arthur Beiser. These are classic texts in Physics at the UG level.

In my field of expertise, which is more of a research-based segment, some of the most sought-after texts are written either by my graduate studies college mate Govind Agrawal (now at the Institute of Optics at Rochester NY) or by my former Applied Optics and Optoelectronics colleagues at IIT Delhi. While serving at IIT Delhi I had edited (along with few chapters of my own) books like “Guided Wave Optical Components and Devices: Basics, Technology, and Applications” (Academic Press, 2006), “Fundamentals of Fibre Optics in Telecommunication and Sensor Systems” (John Wiley/ New Age Publishers, 1992 and reprinted several times), an e-book “Frontiers in Guided Wave Optics and Optoelectronics” (Intech, 2010), which has witnessed over 225,000 downloads till recently and a co-edited book Fiber Optics Through Experiments (Viva books, 2009).

Prof. Pal’s mission statement

My mission statement would be: “To constantly compete, perform and excel, so that we become a force to reckon with, in our area”.

Establishing a healthy relation with the students

A relationship with students is a very important task, especially for a Dean who is also in-charge of Academics. Like I said earlier, we focus on closely interacting with students over lectures, tutorials and establishing a mentor-mentee relationship.

In addition, I maintain an open-door policy, so that students can come to me with problems that are related to not just work and studies but just about anything else as well at any time.

The growth of students through placement opportunities available at Mahindra Ecole Centrale

Our first batch of students graduated this summer and we are happy that several of them are offered admissions by the best schools in USA and Europe for their postgrad studies and the top of the line industry recruiters for jobs have picked many of them.

We at MEC focus not just on Final placement but also internships and provide opportunities for development since the very first year. Some of our students start to go for internships even after their first year, which is unheard of in the industry and academics. They also participate in our ongoing sponsored research projects, and few of the best have so far undergone internships in some reputed institutions in France, and USA, which helps in their overall development.

The leadership style of leading by example

I firmly believe in leading by example. A student follows what he witnesses or sees, rather than does what he is told to do. If I want students to be focused on a research project/lecture, I need to be able to make it worth their while to do so and be seen as doing more for them to emulate.

Today’s teachers aren’t just those distant beings that lecture and disappear. I believe a teacher is a friend, philosopher and a guide and often a psychologist as well. I want my students to be comfortable and to be able to come to me for a discussion on anything that is important to them – studies and otherwise. And an open door policy works well too.

Suggestions for the current youth and the aspiring students

Just a few things:

  • If you want to do well, you can’t postpone your understanding. You need to understand and ask questions when the subject baffles you and not postpone it.
  • Whatever you do, always give it your best. Do not settle for a poor job.
  • Be passionate and love what you do.
  • Be successful but never be arrogant in your dealings with others even after achieving great success.