Back to my Alma Mater

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Dizzy with happiness, sitting astride on the slowly rotating ‘telaghana’ (a log used to extract mustard oil), sipping on fresh sugarcane juice made straight out of the fields, gorging on tangy ripe mangoes plucked from the trees and dunked into water buckets, or watching the weavers spin out threads….. Childhood memories of those laidback & fun-filled summer holidays spent in Athantara village(near Balakathi, Odisha) flood his mind as Dr Ashok Das, Vice Chancellor, Utkal University fondly shares those moments with Coffee Bytes.

How does it feel to come back as the head of your Alma mater?

Coming back to your roots is always a heady feeling and I am very happy that I could contribute to this temple of knowledge in my homeland. Three years ago, when I was 61, I got a call advising me to apply for the vacant post of the Vice-Chancellor, Utkal University. While I was not too keen initially since I felt that the candidate must have already been earmarked, I was coaxed into applying for it, by my well-wishers. Pleasantly surprised on being short listed (smiles) I was looking forward to this opportunity to visit Odisha and pay my obeisance to Lord Jagannath.

Tell us something about your family?

Born into a family with a humble background in Cuttack (26th Jan’1953) I was the second child out of six brothers and sisters and it was a simple life without many desires and complications. My parents gave equal love and affection to all six children and we grew up in a joint family where the initial values of life were instilled deep into us.

Where did you study and how did you reach Bhabha Atomic Research Centre(BARC)?

I went to the local school in Cuttack and completed my matriculation from Ravenshaw Collegiate in 1967, where my scholarships turned out to be a huge help. After my Pre-University at Ravenshaw College we moved to Bhubaneswar due to my father’s transfer. I completed my graduation in Physics honours from BJB College and wanted to pursue my Post-Graduation in Physics. At a time when only a few B.Sc. and M.Sc. students were making it to the BARC officers training institution, a friend coaxed me to apply for it. I filled it up, posted it and forgot about it. That was the turning point in my career! A few weeks after an interview that I was called for, I got a telegram confirming my admission. My father always thought that if I could not be a doctor then I should appear for the administrative services. It did not matter much to me since I was a mugging machine(smiles) who did not find any exam very difficult.

How were your days in BARC?

My time at the training school was very tough but I managed to stay afloat. It became comfortable after the first year and I really enjoyed it, thanks to my determination and focus. I had a very insightful journey working in different grades over four decades, before I headed nuclear science and technology. My wife Rajalakshmi is also a physics student and has done her doctorate in ‘condensed matter’..

How was the journey from BARC to Utkal University?

My final interview was conducted by the Governor and the other two applicants were suited booted and very knowledgeable while I was just a laboratory rat. After the interview I was on my way to the Puri temple when I got a call that I had been appointed as the Vice-Chancellor. Lord Jagannath had reconnected me to my alma mater.

What goals did you set for Utkal University and were you able to realize them?

In my days at BARC, I had worked with many scientific funding agencies but Utkal University was never in the list and I wanted to do something about it. In the last three years I have been able to bring a lot of positive changes with the support of the entire faculty and others in my team. Today Utkal University stands second as the A+Uni-state university with NAAC accreditation and there is a lot of development work that has been planned. The Physics Department is going to be picked up for international exposure in physics and work is on for World Bank assistance projects. It feels good to know that in spite of coming from a completely structured system to an unstructured one, I could do something for my alma mater.

What are your future plans?

While my tenure is for another two and a half months, I plan to stay in Odisha for some more time for some value adding work. There is great potential for development in Odisha and its people. For example, if you pick up 40 children from the slums and work with them for 2 years, train and teach them in quality education, it will enhance their capabilities to score good marks. Utkal University has taken up a project from atomic energy to provide arsenic free clean water.

Any advice for the young generation?

I belong to a transient generation that is still grappling with the rapid changes around it. The younger generation seems to be better equipped to make the most of the paradigm changes in communication, in a post globalisation era. Seeing is believing for today’s generation and they are not willing to follow any advice unless they are convinced about it. They seek role models that are closer to reality rather than idealism.

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