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A Strong Focus on Excellence, has remained unchanged over decades at IIT Bombay

Prof. Devang Khakhar is the former Director and a Professor at Department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Bombay. He has been recently conferred with Honorary Doctorate by Monash University, Australia on Oct 24, 2019 in their graduation ceremony. The Honorary Doctorate is the highest award of the University given in recognition of professional contributions. Our hearty congratulations to you!

You are an inspiration to all of us!

1. You have been a profound Director, an amazing Professor and an outstanding Researcher. Which role do you like the most and why?

I see all the roles as being related and part of the role of being an academic. I have enjoyed teaching, doing research and mentoring students throughout my career. Being selected to lead a great Institution like IIT Bombay was a singular privilege for me. While I was Director, in addition to my administrative duties, I continued my research activities, so I never lost touch with academics. The decade at the helm of IIT Bombay was incredible - the growth of the Institute, the new initiatives that flowered, the wonderful interactions with students, staff, faculty and individuals from all walks of society. I am back in the Department now and as excited about teaching and research.

2. You have been awarded Honorary Doctorate by Monash University and many prestigious awards in the past which includes the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize (1997), the Swarnajayanti Fellowship (1998), IIT Bombay's "Excellence in Teaching Award" and "H H Mathur Award for Applied Sciences" among many others. How do you feel about receiving these awards and recognitions and how has it changed your life?

The awards are a recognition of the work by my peers and are a great source of encouragement for me. The Bhatnagar Prize, the top Indian award for a researcher in Science and Engineering, was a great surprise for me and had a big impact. The Honorary Doctorate from Monash University is the highest honour conferred by a university and I am very proud to receive such a high honour from one of the best Universities in the world and a long time partner of IIT Bombay.

3. What inspired you to do research on dynamics of particulate systems, polymerization of rigid molecules and fluid mixing?

The initial introduction to the problems I work on are from interaction with industry. However, I get into depths of the subjects and try to address fundamental issues, driven by curiosity and an urge to understand, via mathematical models, the phenomena we observe.

4. Would you like to elaborate a bit on what your research team is currently working on?  Is there any other research work that you admire and you’d like to explore in the future?

A majority of my students are working on problems related to particulate systems (powders). We are using computational methods analogous to those used in molecular dynamics to get an understanding of the basics of flow properties of powders in different flow geometries. A problem of practical importance we are working on is the study of a jet mill to produce ultra fine powders, which is supported by an industry.

5. You have published more than 150 papers on your research including papers in Nature and Science and have three patents to your credit. Your research journey must be filled with a number of breakthrough moments. Would you like to share one of them?

There have been several new insights that we got and surprising discoveries we made over the years and they were always thrilling for me and the students.

6. Were you uncertain in the beginning or have you always known you wanted to pursue research?

I decided to pursue research as an academic only after I started my postgraduate studies and got an exposure to research.

7. Would you like to share your first encounter with research? Probably your initial research projects as a B. Tech. student at IITD?

I spent a large portion of my final year working on my B. Tech project, which was related to experimental research. My Professor had a huge lab, which I had full access to and the Department had a good workshop, which built my set up. It was very enjoyable. Later a PhD student joined and wrote a joint paper based on my experimental work, which got published.

8. How has your experience been as a member of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India (SAC-PM) and Scientific Advisory Committee of the Cabinet (SAC-C)? What were some of your major highlights there?

It was a very unique experience being with some of the top scientists of the country and discussing new initiatives in science for the country. Many of the proposals were implemented and the Prime Minister met us at his residence every year.

9. A director of IITB for two successive terms, do you have any comments on the culture here and how it has changed over time? How challenging was it to take major decisions throughout your tenure?

The core culture at IIT Bombay, with a strong focus on excellence, has remained unchanged over the three decades I have been here. There has been a continuous improvement on all fronts with greater emphasis on research and development over this time. Several major changes were made during my tenure as Director, however, they all involved wide consultation and there was broad support for the changes made.

10. How has being the director at IITB enhanced you, or influenced your future decisions? Would you like to share some incidents or memory from your tenure?

I saw the Directorship as service to the community and given the complexity and scope of the job I learned a lot. It forced me to be more organised with my time and to be more outgoing. Some of my most memorable meetings over the years were the alumni events that were held to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Institute. So many alumni came and expressed their support for the Institute.

11. Do you have any memories that you may like to share about your time as a student in IIT and at the University of Massachusetts? Anything strikingly different you found between studying here vs abroad?

The two things I remember were the rigour of the courses and the complete freedom with respect to work. 

12. As a professor, what qualities do you expect from a student who is willing to pursue a research? 

The first requirement is motivation to pursue research and the second is an interest and curiosity about the problem being studied.

13. What are the common problems you observe in the students while doing research? Is there any advice you would like to impart to the students who want to take up research, and particularly in your field?

Students sometimes get stuck with a problem and are unable to make progress. My advice is to always work on more than one thing at a time so some results are produced continuously. It is best to have many ideas and try them out to find promising paths forward.

14. What message you would like to give to the students who cannot be on campus currently due the pandemic and are really missing the Institute and being in the classroom?

These are very difficult times and the campus does not feel right without students. The students are losing out on the campus experience but I hope they are making sure that they do not lose out on the education being delivered on-line. I am sure that the lockdown will end soon and all the students will be back on campus. I look forward to that day!

Prof. Khakhar is a Fellow of the Indian National Academy of Engineering, the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences, India. He serves on the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India (SAC-PM), Scientific Advisory Committee of the Cabinet (SAC-C) and is a former member of Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). He serves as the Executive Editor of the journal Advanced Powder Technology.