The chemical engineer who has impressed me the most, is Man Mohan Sharma. Sharma did his PhD with Prof P V Danckwerts in Cambridge. On return, he was appointed a full professor at University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) in Mumbai at the young age of 27.
Man Mohan Sharma was my teacher during my undergraduate days in UDCT. He would walk in the classroom and give scholarly lectures without ever referring to any notes. He was an inspiring motivator with legendary memory and captivating teaching.
He inspired me so much that I did something unusual after I got my B Chem Eng degree. I had four PhD fellowship offers from reputed US universities. I broke the convention, rejected all offers and joined Sharma for PhD.
Why is Man Mohan Sharma the chemical engineer that I find most inspiring?
I can list out five reasons.
First, his absolute mastery on frugal innovation. UDCT those days was an impoverished institution with no sophisticated equipment. The allocated yearly research budget per student was just US $150. Undeterred, Man Mohan Sharma said, “Money does not matter. Ideas matter." And he himself showed how.
For instance, he pioneered the chemical method of determining effective interfacial areas in liquid systems at a cost that was a small fraction of the prevailing physical methods. And there were many such breakthroughs of ‘affordable excellence”. He became the first-ever Indian engineering scientist to receive FRS. My own FRS, based on the research done in the resource-starved National Chemical Laboratory, was possible only because I followed the ‘Sharma lesson' of "ideas matter, not the budget".
The second reason is his incredible values – his uncompromising commitment to excellence, principles, honesty, ethics, etc. During my PhD, he refused to put his name on one of my papers, and said, ‘All ideas are yours. I have not contributed.” Ethics was a way of life with all his students. In fact, his is the only CV that I have seen, which carries a list of single-author papers by his students, while doing PhD with him.
The third reason is his amazing prowess of combining excellence with relevance. His research was always such that he solved problems that ‘needed’ to be solved rather than those that ‘can be’ solved. It is all about ideas to impact. No wonder that our IChemE set up the Sharma Medal as a global honour that recognises lifetime sustained achievement in research.
The fourth is that he was a leader with an unusual combination of both microscopic and telescopic vision. His ability to dive in scientific or technical details was incredible. So was his macroscopic long-term vision. It was his strategic direction that guided the course of the incredible growth of Indian chemical and petrochemical industry in early crucial decades. Governments and corporates both sought his guidance with equal zeal.
And the fifth reason is that high positions did not matter to him. He was offered the position of Director General of CSIR, Secretary to Government of India in Department of Science and Technology, chairmanship of University Grants Commission. He refused them all. He chose to remain a quintessential Professor all his life.
I consider myself to be so fortunate that in my life I had Prof Sharma as my guru, guide, friend and philosopher.
This story has been contributed by Past President Ramesh Mashelkar