The most important facet of my early/secondary education is that I studied in schools of rural Punjab, as my father was a doctor and had to serve in small towns. This gave me the opportunity to get first-hand experience of Punjab’s rural hinterland. In retrospect, I believe I took up agricultural research later in life because I was brought up in rural Punjab.
Great were those days when I was doing my BSc (Honours) at Panjab University in Chandigarh. The city is nice; I had excellent hostel accommodation and the teachers were reasonably good. I owe my academic success to this university.
What I fondly recollect is the interactive platform it provided to interested students like us. We used to write on a topic and later present it at the Botanical Society. The talk used to start at 6 pm and go on till about 9 pm.
These sessions were very helpful — every institute should have them. It was here that I went through an excellent collection of books on evolutionary biology, which increased my interest in the subject manifold. I would like to advise interested students that they should tackle the subject from the evolutionary perspective.
I did my Master’s from Panjab University, too, and went on to do my PhD from Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey. Though I did good work in MSc, I feel I didn’t learn enough to frame scientific questions and find answers to those. There were, as a result, many missed opportunities while I was doing my research. I learnt that there should be more rigour when we conduct our research.
Besides my own research, I had always been curious about the goings-on in society. How is man surviving in it? What’s happening in the world? My interest in agriculture was an outcome of my desire to help society.
This apart, I am interested in policy — concerning education and agriculture — and management-related issues. I like to listen to music as well. When I was young, it used to be Western pop, and now it is Indian classical.
It’s breeding of crops — particularly mustard and cotton. I started with plant sciences doing some basic work but when I returned to India after 10 years (four years for PhD and six for post-doctoral studies at the University of Nottingham) and joined the Tata Energy Research Institute, I felt that I should work on the problem of applied genetics to develop high-yielding hybrids in mustard, which is one of the largest oilseed crops of India. And after about 14 years of intense research, we have developed hybrids of mustard that are providing 20 to 30 per cent increase in yield to the farmers over the best local and national variety.
Development of the hybrid seed technology in mustard — that was a high point. As for becoming the VC of Delhi University, I wouldn’t call it a high point. There was apprehension about the job — whether I would become a success or not — when I joined.
As director of the South Campus, I had seen some good initiatives brushed aside. But now I feel that we have, in the past few years, done some good to the university.
Working hard and working with all honesty that I can muster is the secret of my success. To some extent, the support my colleagues in my research programme and those who help me run the administration (of DU) have contributed to this success.
Advice to students
Do not seek superficial knowledge. Try to probe deeper and be problem solvers. In general, the students of today should not be concerned with their own problems alone; they should look at societal problems and do something about it. In the process, they would be able to lead fuller lives.
As told to Pranab Ghosh