An interview with Prof. Sanjay Puri,
Chairperson, Special Centre for Nano Sciences
Wafa: When did your association with JNU begin?
Sanjay Puri: I finished my PhD in 1987 from the University of Illinois, USA. Shortly thereafter, I joined the School of Physical Sciences (SPS) in JNU. At that time it was a nascent department, and we now have almost 25 years of growth. In the initial stages, SPS specialized in the kind of physics that I do, which is basically Non-equilibrium Statistical Physics. It was an ideal opportunity for me to come back to India and have a tenured job, and I've been here ever since. Of course, I still travel frequently.
Lakshmi: Tell us a little bit about the new nano-science Centre that you are working on beginning.
Sanjay Puri: In the middle of 2010, I was appointed as the Chairperson of the Special Centre of Nano Sciences (SCNS). As you would know from reading various articles and news reports, there's been a huge amount of interest in making and using machines, materials, medicines, etc. at microscopic length- and time-scales. There's been great research interest in harnessing activity at the nano-scale for scientific and technological benefits. The SCNS will bring together people from Physics, Chemistry, Life Sciences, etc. with distinct science interests but with a common theme, i.e., they would like to work at the nano-scale. There are many different and exciting things happening all over the world in this area and one hopes that we can have a similar world-class centre in JNU. We have started looking for faculty and we've been able to identify a few potential candidates. The most important part of any department or centre is the faculty. Once the recruitment process starts going, hopefully we'll be able to get a few excellent faculty in SCNS. The people come first and after that it's infrastructural facilities and instruments and so on.
Wafa: How far along is the Centre in terms of operation and what can we see in the near future?
Sanjay Puri: The Centre is already operational. We have appointed a visiting professor recently, a very talented person. I also have 10-15 very attractive applications from people with diverse scientific backgrounds. I hope the new Vice-Chancellor will hold selections for our centre on an urgent basis, so that we have people in place by the end of 2011. The advertisements have not gone out yet -- from the time of advertisements going out to people joining SCNS, we are looking at a minimum of 6-8 months. In parallel, we are trying to bring in adjunct faculty from other JNU schools and centres, because this is a strongly interdisciplinary kind of area.
Lakshmi: What are your immediate goals?
Sanjay Puri: I think my immediate goal would be to have four or five very good faculty members in place. It would be nice to have a senior individual, but usually it is hard to get people to move at a senior level. With 4-5 faculty members in place, we can have a pre-Ph.D. teaching programme and a Ph.D. in Nano Sciences. On a longer time-scale, once 8-10 faculty members are in place, then we could think of going for a Masters' degree. In the initial stages, I would like the colleagues who come to focus on building up research activities and programs.
Wafa: Are there a lot of similar centres in India?
Sanjay Puri: There are a few. The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore has one, and there are a few other top places that have started nano-science programmes. We've been a little late getting into the act but we're into it now. I hope that, with JNU being such an attractive place, we'll be able to get good faculty and support.
Lakshmi: On a somewhat unrelated note, what can you say about your experience in JNU in the time you've spent here?
Sanjay Puri: I feel it's been an excellent experience. I've been very happy being in JNU and my 20 odd years have been highly productive and fruitful. In this period, 10 Ph.D. students have finished their theses under my guidance. I know some people grumble about JNU, and the fact is that it's fashionable to grumble! But I am always optimistic. The JNU blend of teaching, intense research and total academic freedom has factored very nicely into my professional activities, so for me it's been a very positive experience.
Wafa: Any particular memory that you have that stands out?
Sanjay Puri: My absolutely favourite memory is of walking on campus. I love taking long walks on campus, just exploring it. The JNU campus is really very beautiful. When I first came here 20 years ago it was much wilder. Now there are many more buildings, but then “development” does have to take place, I suppose! But there are still many beautiful spots on campus that I like exploring.
I think the other aspect which has been really nice is that JNU life is very vibrant. It's a pleasure to have such distinguished colleagues in humanities, languages, literature, etc., apart from those in science. At a science institute, I think I would have lost out by not interacting with extremely bright people from various disciplines. For me, being at JNU has been very pleasant.
Lakshmi: And to wrap up, what message do you have to the JNU community?
Sanjay Puri: We're primarily a research institution; and have mainly Masters' and Ph.D. programmes. What I would like to say to the students is that, regardless of what discipline or stream of research you've gone into, treat it as fun. In my own research career, I have been “working” very hard for the last twenty-five or thirty years now. But it doesn't seem like work at all because I enjoy it so much! So just treat your research as fun, enjoy it thoroughly, and other things will flow naturally. Don't get too tense about when your thesis is going to finish, or when a publication is going to come out, etc. All that will happen in due course when you approach your work with the right attitude.