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‘We want students to learn skills that will be useful for rest of their lives’

Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), Pune, has been ranked 20th among the top 100 Young Universities globally as per the Nature Index, rankings that were released recently. Prof Jayant Udgaonkar, director, IISER, Pune, tells The Indian Express what makes IISERs fare better in both education and research.

Written by Anjali Marar | Pune |
Updated: October 28, 2019 12:34:23 pm
‘We want students to learn skills that will be useful for rest of their lives’ Prof Jayant Udgaonkare

IISER, Pune, was established in 2006 and within such short span of time, it has managed to bag top rankings. How do you see the rankings given by Nature Index?

The ranking is a reflection of the hard work and dedication of all our faculty and students, as well as of our support staff. However, we have to work much harder to improve and move further up in the rankings. We look at rankings not to see how far we have come, but how far we have to go.

What were some of the main challenges that the institute faced during the initial years?

When the IISERs were started, there was scepticism in the scientific community about whether they would succeed. The IISERs were set up with the goal of integrating undergraduate teaching and education with state-of-the-art research, of nurturing both curiosity and creativity in an intellectually vibrant atmosphere of research. This was a new and untested idea in the country. Perhaps, the biggest challenge all IISERs faced was in recruiting the best talent, both students and faculty, as the institutes were new entities. The construction of the main campus was a mammoth task and until then, all teaching and research related activities had to be managed through transit campuses.

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The Nature Index rankings of 2019 also feature IISERs of Mohali, Kolkata, Bhopal and Thiruvananthapuram. What do you think has put IISERs ahead of other universities, both in India and elsewhere?

The IISERs placed great emphasis on the quality of the faculty that were hired. The faculty too were guided and advised by distinguished scientists. IISER, Pune did well, partly because it adopted the statutes for faculty appointments like that at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. So, at the beginning, assistant professors were appointed on contractual basis, in what was essentially a tenure tracking system. This led to faculty members performing much better than they themselves believed they were capable of. We have created multiple Centres of Excellence (CoE) that have promoted interdisciplinary sciences and have partnered with a large number of national and international organisations of high repute. This ensured that our students and faculty continued to challenge themselves and grow into world-class researchers. To support the faculty and all of their scientific endeavours, we have also put in place a structured and modern management team.

Though conventionally IISERs focus on branches of sciences, humanities has now become a part of the syllabi at IISER, Pune. How do you see this blend of subjects offered to students?

We see training in the humanities as an important component of a holistic education. We want our students to graduate from IISERs as confident young adults, capable of working on any problem or in any career they may choose to work in. We exist to educate our students and want them to learn skills that will be useful to them for the rest of their lives, not just for an immediate job. Learning science can be a highly focused activity and can often leave students with little time or space to pursue other subjects or ideas. However, in today’s fast changing and interdisciplinary world, a single-minded focus on one subject alone is not sufficient. Studying the subjects that come under the purview of the humanities provides students with a greater breadth of understanding of the world around them, teaches them analytical skills, trains them to link together ideas that may otherwise seem disconnected. Thus, it provides them with the means to communicate their ideas convincingly. It also helps students engage more meaningfully within their culture as well as with society at large.

Can you enlist some of the latest initiatives undertaken recently at IISER, Pune?

We have just completed a major overhaul of our undergraduate programme and their curriculum. Besides, we are setting up a Centre of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, for which, we have initiated search for faculty members. From next year, students will be able to opt for courses in data science. The institute was also shortlisted for setting up an incubation centre on campus, under the Atal Innovation Mission of the NITI Aayog. We are ready to set up this centre, wherein start-ups from both the students and the faculty will be incubated alongside providing all necessary infrastructure and other kinds of support. We are actively trying to engage with industry, especially for collaborative research.

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