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Never a question of final frontiers

Never a question of final frontiers

Debameeta Bhattacharya |

Apart from being the joint author of a popular text on process design and economics with Professor Gael Ulrich and publishing more than 50 peer reviewed research articles, PT (Vasu) Vasudevan is interim provost and vice-president for academic affairs and teaches chemical engineering at the University of New Hampshire. Prior to this, he served as senior vice-provost for academic affairs and was associate dean in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, and department chair of Chemical Engineering.

Dr Vasudevan attained a BSc in chemical engineering from Chennai, an Msc in chemical engineering from the State University of New York, Buffalo, and a PhD in chemical engineering from Clarkson University. At the University of New Hampshire, he has won a number of awards that include the Tau Beta Pi Outstanding Teacher Award, the CEPS Teaching Excellence Award, the Jean Brierley Teaching Excellence Award, the Graduate Mentor Award and the American Society for Engineering Education New England Section Outstanding Teaching Award.

Vasudevan&’s expertise is in the area of biocatalysis and hydrodesulfurisation catalysts and his current research is on biofuels. Excerpts from an interview:

What are the courses, programmes and scholarships your university offers Indian students? And which courses would you recommend? 

Professor Jordan Budd, dean of the University of New Hampshire Law School, and I are visiting a number of places in India to promote and make the university attractive for Indian students to attend, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to Intellectual Property Law (ranked in the US top 10), we offer a slew of career-oriented degree programmes in business, engineering, health sciences, life sciences and the liberal arts. More than 100 majors are taught by an internationally recognised faculty. The university has a strong undergraduate research focus along with an Honours programme and there is also a wide range of internship opportunities, study abroad options and national exchange experiences.

The university offers a number of scholarships for deserving students and Indians are eligible for many of these. We would like to attract more students from India and, yes, we also realise that a number of students are unable to attend US universities due to inadequate preparation. We recently started a Pre-Master&’s Programme through Navitas. It&’s a two-semester programme designed for students who have completed a Bachelor&’s degree but need additional academic support to gain entry to the University of New Hampshire&’s graduate degree programmes in engineering. Initially, we expect electrical engineering and computer science will be the most popular subject areas for Indian students.

The initial focus of the PMP is on these two programmes that are well connected to the university&’s InterOperability Laboratory, which tests networking and data communications products. This laboratory was established in 1988 with the dual mission of providing a neutral environment to foster multi-vendor interoperability and conformance to data communications networking standards while educating students for future employment in the industry. 

We also have a new MSc in analytics, which, as your readers may know, is a very attractive degree programme. Other new programmes include ocean engineering, bioengineering and an Msc in public policy. We will also offer a new minor in brewing science next year.

What is the USP of your university in terms of faculty? 

Ours is a public research university in the USA. The main campus is in Durham, New Hampshire, in the seacoast region of the state. The university combines the look and feel of a classic New England liberal arts college with the breadth and opportunity of a major research institution. Ranked among the top 100 universities in the USA, we have abundant extracurricular opportunities for students and, with more than 15,000 students, we are the largest university in the state. It is one of only nine land, sea and space grant institutions in the nation and boasts a world-class faculty. Inquiry-based learning is at the centre of what counts as quality, and we capitalise on what we do well, which are the scholarly interactions between students and faculty. The creation of knowledge learning occurs in research universities like ours and both undergraduate and graduate students are a big part of this effort.

Given that a decade has passed since you got your MSc and PhD from the USA, how has the education scenario changed over these years?

It&’s been much longer than that — more than two decades! The USA still boasts of the world&’s best higher education system. The decentralised nature of American higher education gives universities the flexibility needed to excel. The country has no central ministry of education that can dictate curricula, hence students have a variety of options and can design their own major.

Universities can innovate rapidly and come up with new pedagogical methods. Diversity of course offerings is a big strength in the US education system. Last but not least, international students provide a different kind of diversity and contribute greatly to the education system. Rapid changes in technology have certainly had an impact on the system in recent years, but technology cannot be a substitute for the direct interaction of human minds. Content delivery is not the issue since students everywhere are adept at finding information on the ubiquitous Internet. What is critical is engaged and active learning. Well-designed technology-enhanced active learning can improve gains significantly. This is especially true for the younger generation of students who are so wired to the Internet. 

Tell us something about your current research on biofuels. 

The focus of my research is on producing biofuels from non-edible sources using novel catalysts. I am collaborating with Professor Minocha, who is a plant biologist at the UNH. We have genetically engineered plants to constitutively express a lipase for biodiesel production from spent oils or from non-edible sources. The primary aim is to reduce the cost of the enzyme in the transesterification of these oils. In a separate but distinct phase of the project, my laboratory is converting the biodiesel produced to green diesel using novel heterogenous catalysts. 

What are the lab facilities and research opportunities provided by the university? 

“Research” encompasses exploration in all academic endeavours — from science and math to the humanities and arts. The UNH has state-of-the-art teaching and research laboratories. In fact, many of our undergraduate students start participating in research as freshmen. Our undergraduate research conference, held every spring, is perhaps the largest in the country and provides a wonderful opportunity for students to disseminate their research findings. The UNH is a world leader in space-science research, sustainability, marine sciences, coastal and ocean mapping, engineering, natural resources and more. One only has to go to our website to get a glimpse of the wonderful world-class research activities in which both undergraduate and graduate students participate.

What about endeavours in space research?

The UNH has a very successful history in space research, including a long and productive partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. We have and currently are committed to designing and building scientific instruments Nasa space physics, apart from providing data analysis for more than 60 years. Our scientists and engineers have designed and built instruments for over 30 satellite missions, over 50 sounding rocket flights, and we’ve been involved significantly on another 15 spacecraft missions during that time period. Currently, we provide scientific leadership for more than half of Nasa&’s active heliophysics missions, including the flagship Van Allen Probes and Magnetospheric Multiscale missions, as well the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter planetary mission, complementary to the Indian Space Research Organisation&’s Chandrayaan-1 mission. In addition to these strengths and history in spaceflight hardware, the UNH also possesses comparable excellence in modelling and theory, making it an institution rich with scientific discovery and full of opportunity for training the next generation of space scientists and engineers.

Are freshers given an orientation programme before flying to the USA, and what is the atmosphere like at the campus — as in culture, environment, community clubs and extracurricular activities/events? 

Our orientation programme for international students is held before classes start in the fall in Durham. This programme is very exhaustive and is organised by the Centre for International Education and Global Engagement. The UNH has abundant extracurricular opportunities, including more than 200 student organisations, ranging from the outing club to political action to career and professional groups. Indian students at the UNH have been wonderful ambassadors and have shared their culture with students from other countries. They love New Hampshire, its beauty and its safe campus. We have a great location on the east coast of the USA, nestled, as it is, in a small town minutes away from the New Hampshire seacoast and an hour&’s drive from Boston, Portland, or the White Mountains. The UNH was recently voted the most beautiful campus in the USA during winter. 

Do you provide students with placements/ campus recruitments? 

Yes, and we are strengthening this even further by creating a Centre for Career and Professional Success. According to a survey conducted by Gallup last year, UNH graduates are more likely than their peers from other US colleges to have full-time employment, engage in their work and thrive in all five elements (purpose, social, financial, community and physical) of well-being. In fact, according to Dan Sinnot, senior consultant with Gallup, “UNH grads are much more likely to be engaged in their jobs than graduates from large public universities. And they are even more engaged than graduates from the Top 50 universities in the US.”

Any plans to tie up with Indian universities in the near future? 

We have many existing partnerships with Indian universities in the areas of plant biology, earth sciences, engineering, nursing and so on. And we are constantly looking to expand our partnerships. One of the main purposes of this visit is to broaden our tie-up with Indian universities in the area of intellectual property, for which we are ranked in the US top 10, and dean Jordan Budd and I have visited a number of universities in Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.