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Exploring Planetary Sciences using Organic Geochemistry to study life outside the Earth

Prof. Suryendu Dutta, Department of Earth Sciences is one of the recipients of this year’s Shanti Swarup Bhatanagar prize. It’s an honor to interview him and present his research work to the alumni community.

First of all our heartfelt congratulations to you !

You are awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prize in Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean and Planetary Sciences for your contribution in the field of Organic geochemistry and molecular palaebiology. Could you please elaborate on your research work in simple terms?

I mostly work on organic molecules which are preserved in sedimentary rocks. These organic molecules are stable under different geological conditions. We investigate those molecules using different modern techniques to understand their source. There are two aspects of my research – basic science and another is applied research. In applied research we mostly investigate these organic molecules from crude oil or coal. We use these compounds for hydrocarbon exploration. For basic research, I use these organic compounds to understand the evolution of early life, evolution of plants, algae and so on.

We would like to know how your student life was, were you one of the toppers in your class, and eventually what inspired you to study geology?

I was among the top three in my high school. At that time, I did not know geology at all. I wanted to be a scientist of course. My father was a high school teacher. He inspired me to study basic sciences. I did not want to become an engineer or a doctor. When I completed my 10+2, I came to know about geology from my brother. He actually guided me to take this subject as a challenge because this subject is so interesting, and has so much applications in today’s world. The world’s economy is dependent on hydrocarbon, coal, fossil fuels. I came to know from my brother who is a mathematician, that if I pursue this career, I may get a good job too. I did my B. Sc. and M. Sc. from Jadavpur university in Kolkata and I did my M. Tech. from IIT Bombay.

Your research work has been published in high impact journals and has been widely covered in media reports. You have been bestowed with many other prestigious awards like National Geoscience award 2017, Swarna Jayanti Fellowship Award, 2017 and NASI Scopus Young Scientist Award 2014. How important do you think is recognition of scientific work and to whom do you attribute your success?

When you receive any award it always motivates you.  We have excellent students and infrastructure at IIT Bombay. I am fortunate that all my Ph. D. students are extremely motivated. So I attribute these successes to my group – my Ph.D. students, Post-docs. It’s not that I did everything. I believe all the work done by my Ph.D.  students and Post-docs has been recognized.

Any turning point in your life or in your research journey that you would like to share which motivated you to devote your life to the field of research in organic geochemistry?

In 2006, I completed my Ph.D. from RWTH Aachen University, Germany, followed by one year of Post doc. I joined IIT Bombay in June 2007. At that stage, I realized I wanted to learn something more. I went to MIT in 2010 for a year and I worked with Prof. Roger Summons who is considered ‘guru of organic geochemistry’. Working in his lab and interacting with his Ph. D. students became a turning point for me. My stay at MIT motivated me a lot and it was a great experience for me.

What are the new developments in your research field, geology?

Organic geochemistry as a subject is being offered only in IIT Bombay. Organic geochemistry is very useful for hydraocarbon exploration. At present, a lot of work is going on in isoptopes geochemistry. This is another area, where we can see a lot of research output.

Is there some dream project you have worked on or hope to work on in the future?

My dream is to work on organic molecules or relics of organic remains reported from Mars. My post-doc advisor is working on this area at MIT as NASA Rover landed successfully on Mars. So my dream is to work on exploration of planetary sciences using organic geochemistry to understand the presence of life outside earth.

You are a leading scientist in India and have been a visiting scientist to various foreign universities. You have done your Ph.D. from RWTH Aachen University, Germany. What difference do you find in the research scenario in our country and other countries particularly in your field?

If you compare infrastructure, IIT Bombay is one of the best universities in the world in the field of Earth Sciences. It’s very easy to do research now due to availability of all sophisticated equipment and facilities. We need to be more organized, professional and motivated.

You have been also awarded with Prof. S. P. Sukhatme Excellence in Teaching Award, 2017. Definitely students like you as a teacher. What is your best experience as a professor?

The best part of academic life is the interaction with the students. I don’t prefer using powerpoint for my lectures. I always like traditional method of teaching using blackboard and chalk. Also, I would not bring any book, notes, etc. to the class.  I was very happy when I was selected for this award.

What are the various career opportunities for a student who would like to do research in your field?

It’s huge. This subject is very useful for hydrocarbon, coal bed methane exploration, shale gas and shale oil exploration. I am involved in several projects funded by oil companies. My students get hands-on experience in petroleum geochemistry during their stay at IIT Bombay, which boosts their career opportunities manifold.

 What are the qualities you expect in a student who would like to pursue a Ph. D. under you?

During my Ph. D. in Germany, my advisor would never interact with me on a daily basis.   Similarly, I would expect our students to be more independent. If they become independent, there is a chance that their Ph.D. projects will be much more novel.