An Interview with Prof. Indira Ghosh, Dean,
School of Information Technology
by Bhoomika Meiling for JNU News
First of all, on
behalf of the JNU community, we
welcome you to the JNU family.
Prof. Ghosh: Thank you. I've
been welcomed literally by
everyone I meet in JNU. It has
not ceased even when I'm about
to complete a year in SIT. It is
nice to be welcomed by JNU
Bhoomika: How are you
Prof. Ghosh: I joined in April, 2008 and found myself in a highly
active and very wonderful place. The campus is absolutely beautiful.
But I wish JNU was located somewhere else. Over the last few years
Delhi has become more hot and humid (and of course green too). I am
not used to such weather. My condition that I must get a house in the
campus as soon as I join was duly fulfilled which has reduced my
worries a lot. The administration has tried its best to make me feel
comfortable here. Some of my research scholars from Pune
University have also cracked the entrance and moved to JNU. As far
as students are concerned, they are of almost the same intellectual
level as my students in Pune. But so far I have noticed a big difference
between my students here and in Pune. There the students were
more academically oriented and their prime motive was a good
placement in terms of job. They celebrate the smallest of
achievements with great fervor in Pune University. It is not so here.
Students seem to demand for everything here except good teaching
which should be their first and foremost right. The academic
orientation is somewhat lacking among them because of various
reasons. Nevertheless they are a bright lot.
Bhoomika: What do you think are the best aspect of JNU?
Prof. Ghosh: Faculty gets adequate funds to start their careers
here. Authorities are wiser. They are very adjusting and I think they
always encourage the faculty to give their best to the university by
providing a good starting infrastructure. Also the academic flexibility
I see here is absolutely wonderful. The idea of inter-disciplinarity
makes JNU unique. Recently I saw it in the Science Fest. The
academic friendship between the faculty members here is amazingly
strong. They have an inborn curiosity about each others' research
work. In fact I am already looking forward to my collaboration with
other schools of interest.
Bhoomika: Tell us something about your life before coming to JNU.
Prof. Ghosh: I did my M.Sc in Physics from Calcutta University and
then Ph.D from IISc, Bangalore in Molecular Biophysics. After that I
proceeded for further research to University of Huston as a Fulbright
Scholar, later to Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. On coming
back, I joined the CSIR pool in Saha Institute, Calcutta, and then
joined as Scientist at IICB, A CSIR institute in Jadavpur to fecilitate
the computational interface between Chemists and Biologists. In
1990 I had to make a decision of joining industry at Bangalore due to
my family commitment and this was a turning point in my career life. I
joined a private pharmaceutical company called Astrazeneca which
was dedicated to making anti-malaria and anti-TB drugs. I took that
shift from academics to corporate sector as a challenge and stayed
on for thirteen years which has provided me an opportunity of
learning team management, focused research and timeline delivery.
The most crucial lesson I learnt was "what not to do". This successful
inning has not only enriched my CV with papers, patents and
copyrights but has also given me a chance of working with the
international pharmaceutical scientists and gaining the knowledge
about "Tricks of Drug designing".
I had always aspired to contribute meaningfully to society. By the
time my daughter finished her MBBS, I had come to the realization
that after a point, private sector values you entirely because of your
acquired management skills rather than your craving for research.
Around that time, in 2001, I got a very lucrative and much sought after
offer from Germany. However, things were changing too fast after
9/11 in the U.S. and I finally dropped the idea of going to Germany. By
2000, genome research had come up in India in a big way. I could feel
a strong impulse to go back to academics after a 13-year-long tryst
with the private sector. In 2003, I resigned from my lucrative and high
status job to join Pune University. Fortunately I had many publications
which made my return to academics easier. It was a big shock for a lot
of my friends that I was leaving such a high profile job for what they
saw as peanuts. They could not appreciate and will never understand
my love for research and teaching, which has increased spirally since
last five years.
In Pune the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology had just
started. I joined as professor in that institute. The institute permitted
me to train students in all the areas. I taught many subjects at the
same time. I even taught in their Management School! Students were
thrilled in my classes. I also guided some M.Phil dissertations. The
orientation of the students towards private industry changed once I
started teaching there. They used to look upon such endeavors with a
high degree of cynicism. For them industry was not intellectual
enough. But now they had a teacher who talked science in the
language of management. My realization is that industry and academics are not two opposite ends but complementary to each
other- a balanced society need both of them.
At the same time, I also learnt a lot from my students. I can share two
things that I learnt from my students. First is that those who are good
and smart orators and seemingly very efficient, may not be
productive at all when it comes to real work. The second thing is that
the best leader/ teacher will be the one who can convert bad material
into better material. I had always believed in this but in Pune, where I
was also on an administrative post, it crystallized into concrete steps.
I made it a point that every teacher in the Institute takes under
her/him an equal number of good students, average students and
poor students for mentoring through projects. What is so special
about always taking good students and thus, producing good
research? What do you contribute as a teacher in such a process?
Your prowess as a good teacher is proved only when you are able to
produce good results with a poor student! I faced a lot of criticism for
making this happen, but I stuck to it and we even evolved a
comparatively objective methodology of assigning students to
teachers. The system delivered good results.
As you must have gathered from all this, as a person who believes in
certain principles, I have always worked under a lot of pressure both
from home and organization. But my knowledge of the industry has
always added to my academic experience. People thought that I was
going backwards in my career but it is not so. I saw considerable
success in Pune. I started a course on Clinical Research through
public-private collaboration. The infrastructure & syllabus for this
course was provided by Pune University and the faculty for the course
comprised of people working for private industries. It was very
fruitful and worthwhile to create human resources for the sunlight
industry like clinical and translational research. At the same time it
was very practical too. Earlier, this training was given to clinical
employees when they joined companies. Now companies get
readymade candidates! Presently, six centers are running this course
across India providing more than 1000 professionals - it helped young
people to get jobs. I would be happy if it could be launched in JNU too.
Another project that I did in Pune was the launching of the
Bioinformatics Certificate Exam (BINC) to evaluate students'
knowledge of Bioinformatics. Actually, it was observed that students
were simply enrolling for courses and research in Bioinformatics
without any standard knowledge of the subject. BINC is the standard
exam that evaluates the knowledge of a student aspiring for research
in Bioinformatics. It is something like GATE . I got it started through
online registration with the support of DBT, Govt. of India. Now the
ball is rolling. Initially we had abysmal results. Very few candidates
could qualify it. But now more and more students are qualifying the
exam. Many from JNU also have cracked it this year.
Bhoomika: What are the things that inspire you to swim against the
Prof. Ghosh: Since childhood I have been told repeatedly what I
should not do and it is still continuing, so to survive I learnt to swim
against the trend. My teachers at school, university and research and
my ideals like S. Radhakrishnan and Tagore have inspired me and
made it an enjoyable journey. I love to read their books. I owe a lot to
the Physical Education teacher in my school who taught me to break
my shackles. One of my college teachers taught me the valuable trick
for success- never shy away from that which you do not know, try to
learn it. Of course, Prof. G. N. Ramachandran of IISc Bangalore is
truly my ideal. Thanks to the teachings of all these people, my success
has overgrown my mediocrity. I have always looked for solution to
every problem. I was known as No Problem Woman (NPW) in the
company. I have tried to find the solution whenever a problem sprang
up. I never looked for the person who created the problem as I
thought that it was just a waste of time.
Bhoomika: What are your areas of research?
Prof. Ghosh: I have been intrigued by the subtleness of biology,
very small and critical differences cause large changes in biology.
Most of my research has been around developing methodology to
understand different interactions at the molecular level . My thesis
was the first attempt to understand the stereo-selectivity in enzyme
using theoretical method which later integrated in a technique called
docking. Applying statistical thermodynamics in the understanding of
preferential binding of ligand to receptor was another research field
developed by us. My recent interest has been to deal with diseases
like Malaria, Tuberculosis and diabetes. Currently I am busy in finding
the cause and remedy of these diseases using the enormous
experimental information available like genomics, proteomics and
Bhoomika: What are your hobbies?
Prof. Ghosh: Books and music. I listen to Classical music. I
specially love North Indian vocal, Ghazals, Ravindra Sangeet, Hindi
film music and some English pop too. I don't have much taste for rock
music though I like Bruce Springsteen's-Born In the U.S.A. M.S.
Subbalakshmi is my favourite in South Indian whereas, Amir Khan and
Pt. Bhimsen Joshi in North Indian classical. I love diversity. I love
reading all sorts of books. I enjoy everything .I particularly love
reading drama. Ibsen and Tagore are my favorites. I read extensively
in English, Hindi and Bangla. Books give a direction to one's life. I
recently read a book that my daughter gave me, The Five People You
Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. It was unassumingly great. It talked
about taking responsibility for one's conscious as well as unconscious
Bhoomika: Would you like to give a message to the JNU students?
Prof. Ghosh: Yes, always ask questions and seek for the answers.
Don't accept anything just because it was told to you.