irony and philosophy

that the day before my mid-term exam, all I could think of was sleeping, and I did sleep. Studies kept getting postponed 😦

and the after the exam is over, I hardly feel like sleeping 🙂

(Obviously, statistical thermodynamics is too boring. To not sleep when studying it is a disgrace to the subject)

…but on a philosophical level, this brings me to my views on Research/ UG ChemEng curriculum etc etc:

The pinch of salt with my views is that, I have never worked in my life. Another pinch of salt, is that my view of ‘research’ is pretty much that which has been born and matured in India.

So, a few weeks ago, we had this onerous task of deciding our thesis advisers. A PhD is a life-time’s work, given that you will rarely change the field you will be working on after a PhD. To make this decision, we ( meaning the Fall2007 CBE grad students) had to attend talks by the faculty about their research and general work being done in their group. We had to follow this up with one on one meetings with faculty we are interested in and read papers after papers and narrow in on the faculty/area we wanted to work with/in.

This method to select, is just slightly better than the one at IIT-B, but still fails (at least IMO).
What I felt missing, in both the places where some judgment on the application of the research.

Chemical (& Biological) Engineering, is presently a very confused field. There seems to be hardly any connect between what we read during our undergraduate and what is being taught in graduate courses. Most obvious amongst those is that for 4 years we are taught more than 50 courses, and the first course that we are advised to take in Graduate school is an Mathematics course, as it lays the foundation for most of the analysis in the papers.

Well, at this point, I even question the stuff being taught in traditional Chemical Engineering, a.k.a. the undergraduate curriculum. I have definitely not seen any demand for knowledge of these fields in India ( I will be happy to eat my words if I find things are different in America) in both the places where you think mastery over the concepts will be important. The Process industries mainly want ‘managers’, but mainly people who are technology-scared, those who will do something because the user’s manual says to do so. The industrial research component is mostly missing in India, but from what I have heard about the Research divisions of GE/Shell etc in India, research in traditional chemical engineering fields do not rank among top priorities. That leaves, academic research institutes, which frankly, boils down to the IITs. Research in traditional chemical engineering in IIT is non existent.

In America, so far, I have not interacted with the companies, but traditional chemical engineering research here, is not there at all.

I am not too sure about the development of research interests in students who do UG outside India, but for Indian UG-Chemical engineers, applying for MS/PhD is mainly because
a.) Some subject really interests him
b.) America calling
c.) Both of the above

Now, if I just consider the narrow (unfortunately narrow) subset of students in the a.) category: All they have before plunging into a decision to pursue research are
1.) Faculty meeting and websites
2.) A quick read over some published papers in the field.

Grad school, by itself admits that UG ChemEng does not prepare you to understand the papers. Faculty meeting can only take you so far, because you do not have any idea about what the work is like.

So, what do you base the decision for selecting your work on?

You join Grad school and you are bombarded with courses and faculty research interest that you have hardly heard of before. I sit through classes on Statistical Thermodynamics, I listen to professors talking about simulating the DNA in a fluid flowing in a micro-conduit, or about predicting catalyst behavior using quantum chemistry, or about designing a bio-polymer that may do something, and all I see is a big dis-connect.

Some questions that I want to ask before taking up a work will be among these
What does these research accomplish. Are there successes in these fields. If so, what are they?
How will the world use my work? Will it be useful? Perhaps the most glaring dis-connect that I see is that if these fields like biological re-engineering of genes, simulation of DNA particles in a box and other such things, quantum chemistry are driving the research in Chemical Engineering, why am I not, introduced to them(at least as epilogues) in the UG course work.

I took the decision to work in Systems on a whim. Prior to joining IIT, I wanted to work in Thermodynamics, as I found it the most interesting. A semester of Statistical Mechanics, made me think otherwise, and I took the project that involved building on concepts introduced to me in my most favourite 1st sem course at IIT-B.

But is everyone so lucky to enjoy the field they chose to (Can we trust our genes on this?)
And from a bigger perspective, I would like to know the scope, the effectiveness, the impact of research in most fields ( atleast in CBE). The present system, just does not give that insight.


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