Featured Engineer

Interview with Basabdatta Bhattacharya

Basabdatta Bhattacharya

Interview with Basabdatta Bhattacharya - Electrical Engineer and a Lecturer at University of Lincoln, UK.

Can you give us a little background about yourself?

I was born and raised in the small town of Silchar in Assam, a northeastern province of India. My folks were the landed class in what is now Bangladesh, but settled down in Silchar after the partition of India. Post-partition, ours was a upper-middle class family, where equal education at school and university levels for both boys and girls were a matter of family pride and prestige. However, with regards to employment ability, there was a huge divide. Boys were specifically groomed as bread winners, while girls’ education was more in terms of increasing their marriageability. I consider myself very lucky to be able to obtain my education in the best school available in town, and that in spite several familial and societal hurdles, I was able to fulfill my wish to be trained as a graduate engineer.

My family was not that happy for me to take entrance in the local engineering college (National Institute of Technology), I did not have the permission to leave my home town to avail better opportunities. After completing my engineering studies, my movements were severely constrained. There was no encouragement for finding an employment and this was never a priority nor was a requirement as far as my family is concerned.

I met my husband during my Engineering studies. It was after my marriage that I found the freedom to think about pursuing a career. My husband was later employed by Steel Authority of India Ltd. (SAIL) and was assigned at its Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP). I followed him and joined the Electronics Engineering Department at RSP. I was then based at Rourkela for the next 10 years.

Our son is now 18 years old and will be starting University this autumn. Having a flexible time schedule is a big advantage especially that I am the sole carer for my son, and that is why I made a mid-career switch from the industry to the academe. I resigned from a well-paid and secured job to pursue a Masters in Engineering at Jadavpur University located in Kolkata, India. It was by no means an easy task considering it has been eight years since I completed my bachelors degree and with a 4-year-old to look after. After completing my Masters, I returned to Rourkela, where my husband was based, and joined the local engineering college (National Institute of Technology, Rourkela) as a lecturer and taught at the department of Computer Engineering for the next 2 years. Subsequently, I decided to pursue my PhD, which then brought me to Britain in 2004.

Out of many fields of expertise to choose from, why Engineering?

While I generally loved science, complicated theoretical queries did not fascinate me. I was much more interested in actually applying the theory to make/build/create something interesting. Along such lines, engineering studies suited me the most.

My father was an electrical engineer and has been my inspiration for pursuing engineering studies. I often accompanied him on his official tours out of town and absolutely loved the way in which he conducted and managed his work. What appealed to me the most was that his decisions could actually affect the distribution and availability of electricity in not only our small town but also to the neighboring areas. His efficient planning and management affected peoples way of life and subsequently. He earned a lot of respect and admiration in our small town. This became my main motivation towards engineering studies, making a positive contribution to society through engineering in whatever little way I can.

Is there any project or research you are working with right now?

Currently, my research constitutes the use of computer models to understand the intricate ways of the brain, especially the mechanisms that it uses to generate signals that can be recorded using advanced, and yet affordable, technique of Electroencephalography. A PhD student will be starting his work during autumn of this year and I am in the process of writing up several funding bids.

Do you have any noteworthy engineering experiences?

My noteworthy engineering experiences are mainly in management and pedagogy. During my work at RSP, being in a managerial position, I did not get much opportunity to do hands-on job. But, effective management in a public sector organization, especially in a continuous process steel plant where time literally translates to money, is challenging. Most of the technical staff had several years of experience on the job in the same department where I was only a newly posted Management trainee just 2 years after graduating. My most noteworthy experience was when I led the installation of a Programmable Logic Controller at the Plate Mill of RSP. It was a ‘one-off’ case where I had to work in long shifts and had to keep my team motivated towards working the long hours that this particular assignment was demanded.

When I started teaching at Rourkela, it was a different type of challenge altogether. Being an institute of repute, it generally had high entry requirements. Thus, my pupils were among the best in the country. Being trained from a similar institute, I drew from my student-life experiences to implement strategies for engaging and involving the students during lectures and laboratories. I loved my experiences as a teacher at Rourkela. In fact, it was the love and respect that I received from my students that gave me the confidence to continue my career as a teacher in engineering.

What is the trickiest bug you have fixed?

Bug fixing is a core part of any engineering work, and every bug is tricky! 
The one that comes to mind was when I had an assignment during my stint at RSP. I along with my team had to identify a problem with the video monitoring system for the heavy machinery at the Hot-Strip Mill of RSP. It was especially tricky because every time we were tracing the cooling system and electrical circuitry, we had to climb up and down a “monkey-ladder” which was of the approximate height of a 2-storey building. Additionally, there were hot slabs being brought in nearby and the heat was almost unbearable; it was the peak of summer. This was a ‘tricky’ experience indeed, but we could identify and rectify the problem, much to our satisfaction and joy.

Aside on engineering books, what else do you read?

As part of my research, I have to read a lot of books and articles on neuroscience. Since I am a member of the British Neuroscience Association (BNA), I read a lot of their matters online. I love reading S. Ramachandran’s books and commentaries on his hypotheses and experiences as a neurosurgeon. Other than these, I love reading fictional works in Bengali, a fantastic literary wealth by authors on both sides of the ‘divided’ Bengal.

What are your secrets to survive Engineering?

As a woman in engineering, I have happily survived by being confident and proud of the perspective and skills that I bring to the table. Sadly, some women try hard to blend in by being ‘boyish/manly’ in their ways. From my point of view, a nicely blended environment would be where team members complement one another. Biology has wired women and men differently; women’s thoughts and approaches to problem solving are often unique from their male counterparts. I believe that being confident of our contributions as women will go a long way to foster future women-leaders in engineering.

Do you believe this quote “Engineers like to solve problems. If there are no problems handily available, they will create their own problems.”

I agree with the first sentence; yes, engineers inherently like to solve problems. However, maintenance is also a vital part in all-engineering work. Thus, having no problems is often desirable, as it is a sign of an effective implementation of long-term solution with planned regular maintenance. On the second sentence, no, I wouldn’t agree with that. I wouldn’t create a problem if there wasn’t one existing!

How do you spend your free time?

I hardly have any “free time” as I have a family to look after, which is equivalent to another full time job! I do take out time to relax and rejuvenate. I love gardening, as well as, photography. Music is an essential part of my life, and it helps a lot with my focus and concentration. I walk regularly, which is not only beneficial to health, but also allows time to think and plan ahead. Last but not the least, I absolutely love watching Indian cinema, and whenever there is an interesting release, I try my best to catch it in the theaters.

What direction do you see yourself few years from now?

As an Engineer, my utmost desire is to give back to the society especially to the under-developed and developing countries. Even though I cannot say yet as to how I could possibly do it, but as long as I stay focused and committed, I believe that opportunities will come along the way in order to help me realize this goal.

As a professor, what words of encouragement would you like to give your students?

I always tell my students that motivation and enthusiasm can make a huge difference to the quality of work one can produce. Generally, we tend to be judgmental toward a student’s capabilities based on exam results. This is sad because many bright kids cannot cope with exam preparation techniques but in reality are gifted with creative and bright ideas who just needs a little bit of encouragement. As a teacher, I always try to identify these potential students and encourage them to stay motivated and enthusiastic as they are bound to perform brilliantly once they have found their area of interest.

Is there anything you’d like to say to young people to encourage them to pursue Engineering?

To all those who would want to have a ‘hand’ in shaping a tiny fraction of the society for the better: Engineering gives you the scope and opportunity to actually work and implement things at ‘ground zero’. You cannot but be proud of being an Engineer.

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