There are many people who harp on the importance of doing work that benefits society but very few actually get down to it. The reasons could be that most people like the stability of a steady job and find that this leaves little time for social work. Some others make outstanding and socially relevant contributions even while holding teaching and faculty positions in universities and colleges. Professor R. R. Krishnamurthy is one such person who has managed to integrate social relevance into his work. As the founder principal of University of Madras Constituent College at Nemmeli, he had worked with the coastal community and the students of the college to set up a hazard mapping of the area.
It is not always that this urge to serve finds an expression within your own college. A person might have has to go outside the regular domain to find work that appeals to him or her. Into this category comes Dr S. Krishnaswamy, who served as president of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) for two terms each of two years. TNSF works to promote scientific reasoning and rational thinking among the people of Tamil Nadu.
He had taken up this work apart from the responsibilities of his faculty position in Madurai Kamaraj University, in the School of Biotechnology. Sometimes, a person’s research itself lends an extra dimension and meaning to their work.
Over the years, Dr Elumalai, who is now at the University of Madras as professor of biotechnology, has done pathbreaking research on algae, which is now being used in the river water cleansing project supported by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.
Whether integrated into their regular work or supplementing it, these three professors stand out as role models for teachers aspiring to contribute to the society through means that surpass their work in education.
Dr. R. R. Krishnamurthy: Hazard Map
At present, the head of the department of Applied Geology, University of Madras, he worked in developing a hazard management system at Nemmeli. During a field visit to a small coastal Japanese village, Prof. Krishnamurthy came across the concept of hazard map.
He learnt about a community-based disaster mitigation system there which would help during Tsunamis and similar eventualities. The hazard map would highlight escape routes, vulnerable sites, infrastructure details and so on. “It would even have individual household details such as the number of elderly and differently-abled people in each house,” he says.
There would be a community hall which could function as a temporary shelter in case of emergencies. Lastly, there would be mock drills to train village volunteers. To help the people of Nemmeli, he introduced a disaster management course for the constituent college students showcasing the Japanese experience. Despite having administrative work, as the principal, he himself handled the DM course. It is worth mentioning that many of the students had personally faced the 2004 Tsunami.In recognition of his work, he has been invited to the University of Melbourne to share his experience at an international event on disaster management in October. “Any academician with a strong sense of social responsibility can do this,” he says, adding that the worst part may be the lack of publicity and awareness of such work.
Dr. S. Krishnaswamy: Popularising science
He recently retired as senior professor from the School of Biotechnology, Madurai Kamaraj University. During his tenure, he also contributed to the work of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum.
Dr. Krishnaswamy had been involved in the activities of Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) since his Ph.D. After a stint as a postdoctoral fellow, he got a faculty position at Madurai Kamaraj University, when he took up this voluntary work once again. His work was mainly in science popularisation, giving talks to school children on science, holding quizzes, organising the Children’s Science Congress, working with women’s self-help groups and so on. How did he balance his assigned work with his voluntary work? “I guess you mean about the clashing of official timings and time spent on TNSF activities; most often TNSF activities were in the evenings or weekends. Of course, sometimes it was during the day… usually the university administration did not create obstacles,” he says.
He recalls that the stand the forum took on GM (genetic modification of crops) got noticed at a national level and that their intervention was taken into account by the government. His main motivation comes from the thought that science and society are interlinked. “Unless there is a certain amount of rationality and democracy in society, scientific research will suffer,” he says.
Dr Elumalai: Bio cleansers
He is known for his cutting-edge research on algae; particularly for using algae to clean waste water, while working as a professor at Presidency College, Chennai. He has recently joined the University of Madras as professor of biotechnology. Dr Elumalai started studying algae in 2010, when he was in Presidency College. A self-motivated person, he used funds given by the college to develop his ideas. The major objectives were to study and use the microalgae, Botyrococcus braunii, for domestic water recycling and cleaning.
Dr Elumalai motivated two students to research this and succeeded in helping them get their M.Phil. degrees. Now the Ministry of Science and Technology has awarded a major research project to isolate this algae from the Cooum river and develop it for cleaning and waste-water recycling. During photosynthesis, the algae take in the metals and minerals from waste water. Some algae attract the metals and minerals present in domestic waste water with the help of the enzymes and exopolysaccharides which they produce.
Even though the emphasis is on teaching, in colleges he was able to break the norm of focussing exclusively on teaching and make a mark in research. He feels that funding agencies should be more liberal and help in establishing world class infrastructure, e-libraries, Internet connectivity and so on, so that younger people will be motivated to pursue research even while at college. “If you have the will, you will have the way. You can take care of local problems with a solution of global standard.”