An interview with Prof. B.N. Mallick,
Dean, School of Life Sciences
Mansi: How were you introduced to JNU?
Prof Mallick: I did not study at JNU. My schooling was at one place, college at another and I did my Ph.D. at AIIMS. I was submitting my Ph.D. thesis in Oct 85. Every year I used to go for Durga Puja to my paternal village in West Bengal. The Puja is my family's several centuries old traditional culture, the only one in my village. That year it was being celebrated around mid – October and for first time through my Ph.D. career I was taking a longer leave, but after submitting the thesis. Otherwise before that my annual leave used to be for about a week,-three days journey and 4-5 days stay at home, and that's how I had maintained it over the years. As I was in the final stages of preparing and submitting my thesis, I did not see the advertisement for the faculty-position at JNU. A Ph.D. student from JNU used to visit my next door hostel neighbor at AIIMS. He told me that there was an advertisement which would probably fit my profile completely. They required a candidate with M.Sc. Physiology having experience in Electrophysiology. I thought, I was just submitting my Ph.D. thesis; JNU is a big place - who would take me seriously? - I forgot about it.
As luck would have it, the next week the same well-wisher showed up and took out the employment news from my room and showed me the advertisement again; the deadline for application was over by then. He made an appointment for me with the then Vice-Chancellor Prof. P.N. Srivastava and insisted that I meet him; I did not have any other option but meeting him. When I knocked at his door and got in, Prof Srivastava stood up; shook hands with me to receive me and made me so easy. I cannot forget that scene and the day that the Vice-Chancellor of the JNU gets up from his chair to greet me and asked me to sit; it was a very humbling experience for me. I told him, Sir, I was submitting my Ph.D. thesis and subsequently I was not around, so I missed the deadline even though the profile suits me very well. Without mincing any words he asked for my CV wrote something on it and asked someone to just give me one application form. At AIIMS, I was a senior resident, and I was teaching there. This meant I was an official candidate and I had to apply through official channel; so he asked me to submit the application officially. That's how I applied to JNU, followed by interviews, etc and that's how my journey here started.
Mansi: How would you describe your experience here over the years?
Prof Mallick: Fantastic. There will always be cribbing and many negative stuff going on around you. But, I think, every individual is different. You need to have a drive to work. I would not have been able to do much had I not been in this school, the School of Life Sciences (SLS). There will be problems everywhere, but in SLS the work culture is remarkable within our system. I can tell you a hundred problems at this place, but that would not lead us anywhere; we need to know problems and then overcome them. We get bogged down and get frustrated when we cannot tackle a situation and more so a solvable problem. We can debate what has been, what is and what will be- but SLS is a nice place, one of the most progressive schools anywhere in the country, within the university set up in particular. Academically, people from this school have excelled by earning most coveted positions and laurels in India. For example, Ph.D (SLS-alumni) and faculty members from SLS have been Vice-Chancellors at various recognized universities in the country; they have been members of the planning commission, Prime Minister's Scientific Advisory Committee, Indian Science Congress presidents, Padmashrees, Padmabhushan, members and fellows of various Nationally recognized Science Academies in the country, winners of several coveted academic awards in the country and all these match with publications in International journals, books, etc. In general I think this place is fantastic.
Mansi: What are the changes you see in JNU over the years you have been here?
Prof Mallick: Change is always welcome; stagnancy is never good for any system; however, change should not be for the heck of it. We are a community where discussions and debates are encouraged. But sometimes we indulge in changes for the sake of it, we end up taking things we don't follow ourselves. Sometimes we stretch discussions to the limit where no solution comes out of it and we are left in a limbo.
Mansi: You have been part of research and faculty at California, Harvard and France. How is JNU different from other institutions?
Prof Mallick: Objective analysis and interpretation. We may often be discussing things without any conclusion, although decisions and conclusions could be achieved. In my view we should be more objective and structured in taking decisions in an attempt to achieve academic excellence; discretion may also be there but those must be clearly documented; excellence needs to be nurtured. Also, we have to keep in mind what is practical, what we can achieve in the given framework and circumstances.
Mansi: How has the transition been from being a faculty member to being part of the administration?
Prof Mallick: Deanship is no credit for the person in me. Under our system everybody can be a Dean. I happen to be at one place for a certain period of time that's why I am Dean today. As a Dean one remains the same person, however, there is an added responsibility. It is an important administrative position; but it does not mean that a person who is not the Dean is any less important. The personality and one's maturity does not change suddenly, only the chair changes. Here in SLS as a Dean it is reasonably challenging to handle 300 plus students, 100 plus staff, 30-35 faculty members plus many scientists and other researchers. Many of the members of this SLS have been at various senior positions- one has to handle everything well. It is my duty and it has been a great learning experience so far. I expect that this Deanship is likely to prove to be a great learning experience for me by the end of my tenure, but one is still getting the hang of things; I request cooperation from all concerned.
Mansi: What are some of the goals for the school in the next few years?
Prof Mallick: I can only do something if I get cooperation from my students, faculty and staff. My attempts are and always will be in maintaining and improving the academic including research level of SLS in particular and the University at large.
Mansi: Any memory of JNU you would like to share with us?
Prof Mallick: When I joined in June 1985, in mid-July, late Prof Sipra Mukherjee told me, Biren you have to take a Ph.D. student. I had just finished my Ph.D., people around me and even I myself could barely recognize me as a faculty. I was twice stopped at the gate to show my i-card while exiting the SLS building in the late evening. I used to hang out with everyone, taking sometimes breakfast, lunch and dinner in canteens. So, I was almost shocked when I was asked to take a student and guide him/her to do a Ph.D. However, the reality is I had to take a student; the same student has become a full Professor at UCLA.
Another memory is when I was selected in JNU I had a Post-Doc offer, where I wanted to learn a technique which was available only in a few select labs in the world; including the lab I was to go and was not available in the country. After receiving the appointment letter, which itself took me to surprise, I came to Prof Srivastava for advice and told him that I would like to join the JNU and stay in the country but I wanted to learn the technique so I needed leave. In his usual style, without mincing words he said that people go abroad and usually do not return. However, if I promised him that I would return and would not ask for extending leave from abroad, he would give me leave for one year only but after I had spent one year in JNU after joining so that I was confirmed because that was administrative requirement. I told him that I had no intention of living abroad, would not extend leave and of course I would return. Prof. Srivastava kept his promise, so did I and I am fortunate that my post-doc mentor also allowed me to join his lab after a year.
Another memory I would like to share is that I got married after joining JNU. Then, I had to hunt for some apartment, because I did not get accommodation/wardenship on campus. To my surprise, there was barely money left from my salary to survive (forget about decent living) after paying house rent; I wish I could erase those memories.
Mansi: What is one message you would like to give to JNU students?
Prof Mallick: I am more of a student now, than I was back then. Students here are great. I respect them and I think they are matured enough to know what to do and what not. We are here for them, and we need them more; let us work together and improve (a continuous process) the standard of JNU in general and the SLS in particular.