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How about both? or Having (half) the cake and eating it too!

I remember hearing a story from Thenali Raman’s life. He was the wise man in the Court of Krishnna Deveraya. During his youth, he prays to Shakthi for long, Shakthi appears in front of him! She has two glasses in her two hands. She tells Thenali: “If you want more knowledge, take this one and if you want more money, take the other one”. Before Shakthi could wink, Thenali Raman grabs both and drinks them. Why do you have to choose? I have consciously tried not to choose between two things I love and have managed to have them both, may be less of each!

I went back to USA with my wife, within two weeks after our arranged marriage. When we got married, I had four years of cooking experience. Living in an apartment as a Ph. D. student, and not liking bread and cereal for breakfast, I used to cook most of the meals. My wife had three years working experience, as she started her work after her BTech and was staying home. When we were in USA, we did share the house hold duties. She liked cooking and I used to help in cutting vegetables and washing dishes. I ensured that the kitchen sink is clean when we went to bed every single day! Cockroaches used to be a serious problem. One day, she asked me: We are having Dosas for dinner, shall I make coconut or tomato chutney? I had the standard reply: Why not both? Some of my friends could not believe I would say this to a recently married wife šŸ™‚

After coming to USA, my wife started doing MS in Computer Science. I was in the last year of Ph.D. When I completed, she still had close to a year. From August 1991-April 1992, I stayed back as a postdoc in the same group. My advisor was going on a sabbatical and he was also asking me to stay back and take care of the group, projects, etc… It turned out to be ideal, though it is generally not a good idea to continue as a postdoc in the same group. I got a postdoctoral offer from University of Illinois and we both moved to Urbana-Champaign. My wife could have applied for a job in Silicon Valley. She came with me to Urbana and worked for Wolfram Research Inc.

We were both certain about returning to India. We had our first daughter born in February 1994 and I had an offer from IIT Kanpur in June 1994. My wife resigned her job and we returned to Kanpur in November 1994. We decided to have another kid and thought it may be better to have one long break rather than two short breaks. We were blessed with our second daughter in 1996. Though we were both from big families, we could not have any one staying with us and help those days. I used to teach 13 hours a week and stay home most of the other time. I delayed submitting my first project to DST till 1996. One of the member in the committe asked me: Why did not you submit it last year? I told him, I had some personal reasons. I moved to IISc in May 1997 and the project was sanctioned only by the end of 1998 and funds released almost a year later. It is difficult to believe! I started my job in November 1994 and I got DST funds to build the microwave spectrometer in November 1999. Of course, I had students and they need to have their degree.

I started a very successful collaboration with Aerospace Engineering Department at IISc and my first student did his Ph. D. work in Aerospace Engineering in a field that was new to me and of course to him. Now this brings me to the major choice for young academics. To do independent work or to collaborate? The answer is: Why not both? One needs to develop an identity for oneself and also explore avenues for collaboration which can lead to synergistic output. It is possible. We built a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer at IPC and single pulse shock tube facilities at the Aerospace Engineering. Both involved time and unbelievable efforts. My promotion to Associate Professor position happened nearly 9 years after becoming an Assistant Professor. IISc usually has a six year period for evaluation, unlike IITs, which could give promotion to faculty members in 3-4 years. Of course, my 5 semesters at IIT Kanpur were not considered. I had no issue, as I needed that time to establish unique laboratories.

Having worked in IIT Kanpur for 5 semesters and taught several courses, I started teaching regularly in IISc. Another question for young academics: Teaching or Research! My answer is the same. Why not both? As Zare wrote in an Editorial in Current Science, anyone with a Ph. D., can become a good teacher with some effort (1). I had reviewed books for Current Science (2,3), I had served as Snack Parlor Secretary in our Faculty Club and I was the Amenities Committee Chairman. One can do teaching, research, and some administrative work as a young faculty member. All of these, without ignoring the family. I remember one incident very well. My wife had to go to Chennai with both our daughters. I could not take a break and go with them. I did not want to send them alone either. We went in Lal Bagh express which left Bangalore in the afternoon and reached Chennai in the night. My father in law came to take them home. I went to the other platform and took the night train back to Bangalore the next morning.

Another major question that young academics face is, basic or applied research. Should we do experiment or theory? The answer is the same. It is better to work on problems that interest you. We have done both basic and applied research in our group. We have done both experiments and computation. The current definition of hydrogen bond approved by the IUPAC is based on our initiative (4). We could put the most important noun and verb in Chemistry, carbon and bond, together like no one would have imagined (5). We could also show that a simple chromium coating could reduce drag for a rocket/missile (6). This work received unexpected coverage in both science magazines and newspapers, in India, Pakistan and the USA.

We have been told from the beginning: You can’t have the cake and eat it too! You have to give up something to get something. What we need to realize is that we can have some cake and eat it too. We should learn to make the choices with which we can live happily. If I had submitted the project to DST as soon as I returned, I may have been promoted earlier. If my wife had gone to silicon valley after her MS, her career could have progressed differently. After taking a 5 year break, she started her career and did very well in career as well. It would not come as a surprise to anyone that anytime she worked, her salary package was always significantly better than mine.

At every point in our life, we could have chosen to put family or career ahead of the other one. We consciously decided to find a balance. Never make one more important than other. Whether it is career or family, teaching or research, basic or applied research, coconut or tomato chutney, you can find a way to have them both! As everyone is different, the choices we made may not be the most appropriate for others. However, everyone can find a balance with which they can live happily. We win some and miss some, staying together is a blessing. May everyone who has read this for, and also others who may not read this, find the right balance in having the best, a career and a family can offer.

References:

  1. https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/102/01/0009.pdf.
  2. https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Downloads/article_id_078_02_0202_0203_0.pdf
  3. https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Downloads/article_id_079_09_1392_1393_0.pdf
  4. E. Arunan, G. R. Desiraju, R. A. Klein, J. Sadlej, S. Scheiner, I. Alkorta, D. C. Clary, R. H. Crabtree, J. J. Dannenberg, P. Hobza, H. G. Kjaergaard, A. C. Legon, B. Mennucci and D. J. Nesbitt. Pure Appl. Chem. 83, 1619 (2011).
  5. Devendra Mani and E. Arunan Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 15, 14377-14383 (2013).
  6. V. Kulkarni, G. M. Hegde, G. Jagadeesh, E. Arunan and K. P. J. Reddy. Phys. Fluid, 20, 081703 (2008).
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