Professor Narayanan Kurur


“The terror of making mistakes is the biggest hurdle that we, as Indians must cross if we wish to do some state of the art research”

On the contrasting education systems in India and abroad, after having done graduate studies from CalTech:

That’s a historical thing – CalTech, and I’m sure things must have changed over the last thirty years.

In terms of facilities, I’m sure there is a significant amount of difference, not only in terms of what is available but also in terms of what is the cutting edge. In fact, I believe that more than availabilities, the significant difference lies in the access to these things.

On the academic forefront and in terms of exposure, I recall what my graduate student advisor (A fine Chinese American gentleman) once mentioned. When you set out to do a research that is state of the art, like we did at CalTech, you should be willing to accept that you will err at least a one out of two times. What he said after that was something we must contemplate. “You, like me, have been raised in an Asian culture where making a mistake is a disaster.” The terror of making mistakes is the biggest hurdle that we, as Indians must cross if we wish to do some state of the art research.

On the role CalTech has played in modelling his personality:

More than going to CalTech, I believe it was about going to country with a different culture and moreover experiencing a different lifestyle altogether that played the crucial role in building my character. So, the way I think is not only influenced by CalTech but also by living in a society whose culture is very different from that of India. Witnessing how people think and do things differently from us was an eye opener.

Fields of Research and Collaboration with students:

Well, I am trained as a physical chemist and what I do for research is a technique called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy.

What I tell laymen about NMR Spectroscopy is that, it is that underlying thing of magnetic resonance imaging that he would probably encounter when he has to get an image.

Some say NMR is nothing but spectroscopy where you do not see light. According to Niels Bohr, molecules act like spies and when you put radio waves into these molecules, they, in turn, also emit radio waves which allows us to draw the structure and understand the dynamics of molecules. The reason why I find it exciting is that NMR is one of those techniques where one can, in equal measure, combine experiments and theory. Every experiment in NMR can be explained by a simple theory and every simple theory in NMR can be confirmed by a small experiment.

As far as collaboration with students is concerned, that’s a tough question to answer, as I haven’t collaborated with many students in the past.

When I started my PhD, I was I handed a problem and was told, “Here is a problem. Work on it, and if you ever find yourself stuck somewhere, come back to us.” And I follow the same approach. Hence if people are unable to do it themselves, they struggle with it. That is essentially why I believe, people must be motivated to work for themselves and be interested in whatever they do.

Take on the ever increasing preference for non-core and MBA:

On this particular thing, I’d say, people must do whatever suits them. But generally, I feel that people have forgotten why they came to IIT. IIT is a college, and you come to a college for education. But what I observe is that today, most students come here to only get a job and, in that sense, do not get an education. But otherwise, I feel it is perfectly fine and a matter of personal choice if someone wishes to opt for a non-core job.

On pursuing a post-graduation (MTech or MS) or a PhD:

There is no one size that fits all! If you ask me to evaluate, a lot of people, who actually go for post- graduation, do not really belong there.

Well, there is another way of looking at it: Why wouldn’t you want to go for a post-graduation? As long as you are a student, somebody else is responsible for your life. And why wouldn’t you want to extend that period of dependence of your life? In that way, you won’t have to deal with responsibilities which, you anyways will have to, sometime later in your life.

I would certainly recommend, but not for everyone.

Views on choosing teaching as a profession:

I can’t say anything but a YES, because I myself quit a corporate job to come here and teach. People don’t appreciate the freedom that we have in the teaching career, in terms of being able to think aloud about anything we want to. I am surprised that most people do not consider teaching as an option, probably because teachers are not well paid in India.

The most exciting thing associated with teaching are the clients we deal with. As a teacher, you deal with customers who do not age, students. Unlike other professions where your clients age with time, in teaching you always deal with the youth and that keeps you and your thoughts younger.

A friend of mine once spotted you at SAC circle on a morning jog at 4am in the morning. What is your take on fitness and what other hobbies do you possess?

First of all, I have to correct you. It’s a run, not a jog. I have been doing this for almost 30 years now and I simply enjoy doing it. What I would like to advice people is that, you must start your fitness before the doctor advices you to do so. The best part of this 4 am run in this wonderful campus is that, at 4 am I have all the time to myself. There is nobody, except the dogs who give me company and I do get bitten once in a while too.

~Interviewed by Aditi Mahajan

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