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1970s America: An Indian Student’s Journey - 4
|by Dr. Anil Rajvanshi|
Continued from Previous Page
The quality of teaching I encountered at UF in my first quarter was superior to that at IIT Kanpur. With the general atmosphere of scholarship together with my enthusiasm for learning made the graduate studies at UF quite an enjoyable experience. Though I had done my M.Tech from IITK the level of graduate studies and the general atmosphere for doing good research somehow was lacking in this premier institute. Even today the situation has not changed very much.
In fact I repeated quite a number of graduate courses at UF that I had already taken in IITK but still learnt much more.
With the desire for learning becoming stronger I started spending long hours in the UF libraries. Reading journals and books on energy kindled a desire in me to broaden the scope of my work. Thus I started looking at the wider picture of energy and especially how nature used solar energy for different purposes. We were trying to build in our lab a solar tracker so that solar collectors could follow the sun for maximum interception of solar energy. Since sunflower tracks the sun in a rudimentary fashion, its knowledge, I thought might be useful in designing a better solar tracker.
Thus I went to the Botany department and talked with one of the professors and got the necessary literature regarding the turgor pressure, which makes the sunflower follow the sun and other similar pressure related processes in green plants. Reading about this fascinating subject opened a whole new area of research for me and one thing led to another and I became extremely interested in how the trees take up water and transport it to great heights, how evaporation by the leaves takes place, etc. etc.
The most important thing this approach taught me was that nature knows best and through millions of years of evolution it has perfected the design and hence we should follow it.
I also realized that it works at nearly room temperature and the efficiencies of energy conversion are very high. This is so since the energy available is less and in dilute forms and to produce worthwhile output nature has to develop extremely efficient energy transduction processes. This philosophy has guided me in all my design processes.
Similarly in our lab at UF we were trying to develop an infrared sensor for measuring radiation from solar collectors. Again I asked myself how nature senses temperature. I found out that the infrared sensors (IRS) of snakes like rattle snake, pit viper etc. are really fantastic systems with very high precision and they can sense a temperature difference of about 0.010C. This is how they catch their prey based upon the temperature difference between the prey and its surroundings.
On both sunflower tracking and rattle snake receptors I gave seminars in the department sometime in 1976. These were probably some of the first seminars on bio-mimicry in the department and helped me later on to set up the university-wide multidisciplinary seminars. Unfortunately I got sidetracked and did not proceed further on this line of research and even today after 30 years we still do not know very much about plant movements, water transport in them or IRS of snakes and how they can be used to design useful devices. Nevertheless bio-mimicry nowadays is the flavor of the month and very fascinating devices are being designed based on some of the natural systems.
For my Ph.D. work I decided to work on desalination of seawater. I do not remember how I chose this topic but once I had chosen it I again looked towards nature for inspiration.
In nature the seawater desalination takes place by its evaporation from sea surface by solar energy to form clouds which subsequently convert into rain. The process of rain formation is aided by lightening which helps in condensation of rain drops from very cold clouds. Thus I embarked on the study of seawater-air interface, how the solar energy is absorbed by the sea and finally how lightening affects raindrop formation.
In order to understand these phenomena I took courses in electromagnetic field theory in electrical engineering, interfacial phenomena in chemical engineering and used to discuss cloud physics with one Dr. Uman a very famous electrical engineering professor at UF who was also one of the pioneers on lightening research in US and probably in the world.
These courses and discussions gave me some insight into the whole process of rain formation and so I decided to set up a couple of small experiments to duplicate the rain formation. In one experiment I set up a deep basin solar distillation unit with dyes added to water. This duplicated the interchange of solar energy with seawater since majority of solar energy is absorbed within one meter of the sea surface. The dyed water also allowed the solar radiation to be absorbed in a very thin top layer. This helped increase the surface temperature of water and hence the evaporation and resulted in increased output of solar still.
The second experiment I set up was in chemical engineering lab where I started looking at the role of surfactants in increasing the evaporation rate. I conjectured that the biological life at the sea surface maybe acting like surfactant and thus helping in increasing the evaporation rate. This conjecture is still being tested by various researchers including Craig Venter of the human genome fame. Later on I found out that Seawater Conversion Laboratory at University of California, Berkeley had done a fair amount of work on the role of surfactants in increasing the evaporation of seawater. That was one of the reasons to visit the lab in Berkeley in summer of 1976. So I felt I was on the right track.
The third experiment I set up was in the electrical engineering lab regarding the use of high DC voltage (~ 20-25 KV) for increasing the evaporation of water. The idea was to flip flop the surface water molecules by using high voltage and frequency so as to break their bonds and hence to increase the evaporation. Besides this also helped me to set up lightening discharges in a small solar still. We did see some increased evaporation of water when continuous lightening discharge took place in the still. Later on I discovered that Japanese had done some pioneering work in early 1970s on the use of electrical fields for enhancing water evaporation but since their papers were written in Japanese and appeared in Japanese journals it was not easy to find out what they had done.
I could set up these experiments in 1976 in all these labs because I had taken courses in these departments and the concerned professors were very helpful and appreciative of my efforts.
Hence for about 3-4 months I used to shuttle between these labs on daily basis. I would start experiments in one lab in the morning and would end up finishing another experiment in another lab very late at night. The thrill I felt in doing these experiments and thinking about them was almost like a yogic meditation and got a first hand experience of what inventors must have felt like while working on cutting edge research. This feverish intellectual activity allowed my brain to flower like it had never done before. It increased heightened awareness of almost everything and allowed me to look at any problem very deeply. In between the experiments I would sit and write long essays on how the problems of India could be solved by the use of solar energy. In fact I collated and condensed these writings later on and they were published in 1978 as a half page editorial article in Indian Express.
Dr. Farber, being an inventor himself appreciated my efforts and would come and watch these experiments with great curiosity in the lab. However some of my other committee members were not very appreciative. One of them told me that they need a Ph.D. from me and not a Nobel Prize! He almost gave me an ultimatum to choose one of the experiments for my Ph.D. He was actually helping me since he wanted me to finish my Ph.D. in short time and was afraid that with very innovative research in electric fields and surfactants it may take a very long time to do so. Since I was not very sure of the surfactant or the high voltage field projects, I chose the first project on the effect of dyes on solar distillation for my Ph.D.
Besides my Ph.D. topic I also did a lot of reading and researched the general field of water desalination and production.
Some of these researches also gave me a lot of publicity. There was a young lady at UF Darcy Meeker who was an Associated Press (AP) reporter besides being a part of UF publicity and information center. She somehow got a liking for what I was doing in energy. She therefore wrote about half a dozen stories on my work which were not only published in the local papers but also in national papers like Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, and Tampa Tribune etc. Often the AP stories were picked up by Indian press and appeared on the front pages of Times of India and Indian Express. My parents would send me the newspaper clippings whenever they appeared. Quite a number of people informed me later on that I was probably the only Indian student in US to get so much publicity in Indian press in 1970s. Many people that I met in India in early 1980s remembered those stories.
The Indian press was very appreciative of the fact that an Indian student was trying to develop technologies which might help solve India’s Energy Crisis! Some of these stories nevertheless were quite embarrassing because they were based only on my ideas and not on any hardware development. That is where I realized that America is a land of ideas where any good idea is immediately picked up by the press. And I was not lacking in ideas!
For example one day I saw a TV program on Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) channel on the beetle which collects dew on its backside in Namibian desert and uses that water to survive in the harsh atmosphere of the desert. Since I was working on the problem of water I immediately thought that dew should be an excellent source of fresh water production in desert areas. So I set up a full-scale experiment in our lab on dew collection and the factors affecting it and wrote a paper which was published in the journal Desalination on large-scale dew collection using the data from this experiment. I am very proud of this work because today after about 27 years, dew collection is becoming an important topic of research for fresh water production and my paper is quoted extensively by the researchers working in this area.
This work also gave me good publicity and I was interviewed on the local TV channel in Gainesville in addition to the news being published in International papers. Similarly there were other stories written on my various technical papers that I published. Even when I was leaving UF to come to India, Darcy Meeker wrote a major story on how I was taking powerful ideas back home!
My Ph.D. work also gave me some publicity. I was very proud of this research where sophisticated mathematical modeling was used to validate the experimental results. Quite a number of industries later on used this simple technology of using dyes to enhance water evaporation by solar energy. I published a fairly long paper on it in the journal Solar Energy and it is quoted extensively by the solar distillation researchers.
In those times there were only mainframe computers in UF and other universities since the desk top computing had not yet arrived. Besides we used FORTRAN language for our computer programs. The program for my mathematical model was quite huge and took 10-15 minutes to run it. Thus I used to run it only after midnight since the computer charges were least during this time. After each run I would debug the program and again feed it into the computer. Feeding the program in those days was done through punched cards and since my program was quite big I had to carry it in a big box. Feeding and debugging was quite time consuming and so quite a number of days I had to stay whole night in the computer center. In contrast the life of a graduate student nowadays is so easy since he or she has an access to high speed desktop computers!
During my graduate studies I also discovered an interesting ability in myself to go very deep into a subject - almost to the molecular level. This ability, which lasted for 5-6 months, was almost like a curse because any time I thought of an engineering problem, my mind would immediately go to the molecular level and that is not very good for engineering design. Nevertheless this ability gave me wonderful ideas on solar energy utilization for electricity generation. I wrote them up in my diary and am delighted to know that only recently have some of these devices been made since new non linear optical materials have become available.
This ability made me very vain, gave me a false pride and an ego that I was a great inventor. So I would go to the library to do some more research in areas I had chosen and invariably found out that somebody else had already thought about the same idea. This obviously deflated the ego but also gave me a satisfaction that I was on the right path. Thus whenever somebody comes to me or makes a claim that he or she has done breakthrough research I always tell them to look carefully at the old literature since the chances of somebody else having thought about it long time back are very high. There is basically nothing new under the sun!
I also did a fair amount of travel during my graduate studies. For example I was invited by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) to attend their annual meeting in Denver in 1977 and to participate as a panelist in a session on relevance of US education for foreign students. They had invited about 20 foreign graduate students from all over US to debate and evaluate the effectiveness of US graduate program for such students. I was the only one selected from UF. It was a prestigious competition and 20 of us from all the major universities in US were given $200 each to travel to Denver. Besides our stay was arranged with local host families and we were given a complimentary registration for the conference.
Our foreign student session was acrimonious and reminded me of UN debates with practically everybody blaming the US university system for not teaching material relevant to the foreign student’s country problems. Mine was the only voice telling them that we came to US on our own accord and so why should the US universities change their course of instruction to suit only foreign students.
“We should be intelligent and bold enough to take knowledge from this education which will be useful in our own countries. We have to make that choice and not the US universities”, I said. However my voice was drowned out by the very aggressive tone of a couple of leftist type students who found fault in everything American. Incidentally I found out later on that majority of the students who participated in this session and criticized American education settled down in US after their studies. I was probably the only one who went back!
There were two interesting incidents that took place during this conference. The first one was about a senior Indian scientist. He was invited by AAAS to present a paper on wind energy in one the sessions and was offered air fare from India plus waiver of registration fees. In those days (1977) because of very strict foreign exchange regime in India he got only $ 15-20 at the Delhi airport which was used up very rapidly in US. So he had no money to even have a meal since his money from AAAS was supposed to come after the conference was over. I sensed his predicament and fed him a couple of meals during the conference for which he was eternally grateful. In fact later on he retired as the head of a National Lab in Bangalore and always remembered my generosity.
The other incident took place in E.F. Schumacher’s session. In those days E. F. Schumacher was a very famous economist from UK who achieved his fame because of his book called “Small is Beautiful”. In this book Schumacher proposed the thesis of using Gandhian philosophy for development of small energy self-sufficient communities and systems as opposed to the existing large systems developed historically. The energy crisis of 1973 suddenly made Schumacher’s thesis very popular. He was slated to give a lecture on his thesis in this session.
Thus he was a star attraction at the AAAS annual meeting in Denver and his session was a standing room crowd only. Because of Schumacher’s popularity the organizers of the session had kept him as the last speaker on the program. The speaker before him was from the US Academy of Science and just before he ended his speech he told the audience that he had brought around 40 copies of the book on Energy for Rural development that his office has published and put them on the table for the participants to take. He also informed the audience that this book is freely available from his office and would be sent to whosoever requested it. Despite that there was a mad rush to take the book and for the last book two gentlemen in 3 piece suit fought over it and tore the book in half! I saw no difference between the citizens of super-rich society and beggars fighting for some food on the road in a very poor society. Freebies elicit the same response from all human beings!
It was a 5 day conference and everyday I would call Nandini since she was staying alone in our apartment in Gainesville. One day when I called her she told me that somebody tried to open the door in our apartment at 5 a.m. in the morning. She was half asleep but kept on wondering why I would come so early in the morning from Denver. In any case she called the campus police but by the time they came the intruder had run away. In those times there was a lot of crime in Gainesville. In fact it had started being called the rape city of US.
In 1978 I was invited by the International Solar Energy Society (ISES) to their International Conference in New Delhi. Our lab had sent 4 papers for presentation and since Dr. Farber was unable to attend, I went to Delhi to present them.
This was also a great opportunity for me to go back to India after almost 3 years and so I jumped at the opportunity when it came in the form of an invitation by the Indian section of ISES. My uncle Dr. Atma Ram had became India’s science and technology minister in 1977 in the ministry of Shri. Morarji Desai. ISES was holding the meeting in New Delhi after a lapse of 24 years (the last ISES conference had been held in Delhi in 1954) and Dr. Atma Ram was the patron of the conference. He had been following my career path at UF with great interest and since I was a student of Dr. Farber I was sent an invitation and a promise of partial air fare to attend the conference.
In late 1976 Dr. Farber had gone to India as the head of a high-powered US delegation in Solar Energy. He had met the Energy Minister Mr. K. C. Pant and other senior Government of India (GOI) energy officials. He also met my father who took him to meet Dr. Atma Ram who was leading a retired life at that time and Shri. Sunder Lal the senior Member of Parliament of Congress Party. I was told later on by my father that Dr. Farber praised me a lot to Dr. Atma Ram and thus when he became the science minister he suggested to ISES that I should be invited if Dr. Farber was not coming to the conference.
I found the conference quite dull with not too many new inventions and the focus more on rudimentary and simple solar devices which could be made easily by rural population. Since it was taking place in Delhi hence the participation of US and European scientists was somehow minimal. I presented our four papers and must have made some impression because later on when I came back to India quite a number of solar energy researchers who were in those sessions remembered me.
This visit to India also gave me an opportunity to meet my in-laws for the first time. They took me to Phaltan from Mumbai (then Bombay) and showed me their set up. I hardly paid any attention to it since I was least concerned about it and was the last thing on my horizon. How wrong I was since this is the place I finally chose to settle down in! If I had an iota of intelligence I would have paid more attention to what my father-in-law was trying to tell me!
This was a whirlwind tour of India where I stayed for 15 days only. However when I returned back to New York on the Air India flight, I felt a sense of happiness at coming back to US as if I was coming home ! I was a little embarrassed by this feeling of mine since I always prided myself about the fact that I wanted to go back to India but felt this new feeling for the first time. It could either be because of the stark contrast that I found between the conditions in India and US, or the general gloomy feeling that I felt in the Indian intelligentsia that I met in Delhi despite the fact that the general elections had thrown out Mrs. Gandhi the dictator, or it could be because I had my wife in US to whom I wanted to go back to as early as possible. Nonetheless this feeling of happiness of going back to US was very strong.
Still when I reached Gainesville I was bubbling with enthusiasm regarding what was possible for India. I do not remember now but Nandini later on told me that I talked non-stop for almost two days about the Indian trip and the excitement I felt.
Just after my return to Gainesville one of the top energy officials of the Government of India (GOI) came to see our solar lab and to meet Dr. Farber. I had met him in Delhi during the ISES conference. I had made reservations for him to stay for two days in the Reitz Union guesthouse at $ 15 per night. However he wanted to save the money and insisted on staying with us.
We used to live in a married student apartment with only one bedroom and a combined kitchen and living room. This high ranking GOI official therefore slept for two days on the floor in our living room! It was really pathetic how some of these people behaved for saving few dollars when the GOI was providing all the money for their travel and stay. Later on whenever I met this official in Delhi and alluded to the subject of how he stayed with us he would squirm and feel extremely embarrassed.
From the time I came back from India till I finished my Ph.D. there was a period of almost one year. This was also one of my most productive year. I wrote extensively on a variety of subjects and was quite active in developing various projects though my Ph.D. work took a major portion of my time. During this time I also somehow became interested in gravity and so read a lot on it.
One day sometime in fall of 1978 I was coming back to my office from my apartment after lunch when a thought suddenly came to me that human thought and gravity have similar characteristics. The thought came with tremendous force and for next 3-4 months I immersed myself in this subject. Dr. Farber was alarmed to see this diversion and warned me that I would not be able to finish my Ph.D. if I diverted my energies to this long-term venture. I heeded his advice and finished my Ph.D. by March 1979. Nevertheless this powerful thought of human thought/gravity interaction propelled me to start my quest for spirituality which I had abandoned for almost 13 years. This quest for spirituality has continued even today and has resulted in a book published in 2004. But then that is a different story!
My Ph.D. defense took place in March 1979. I wore a simple shirt and pants. Some of my committee members remarked why I was not dressed up in a formal attire of suit. I told them that they should be more interested in listening to my presentation and not focus on what I wore! My arrogance knew no bounds! I also never went to the graduation ceremony in June 1979 since neither I nor my professor was fond of the pompous ceremony.
I was lucky that Dr. Farber never interfered in my thesis work. I had selected my topic and followed it up till its defense with minimum help either from him or other committee members. I think Dr. Farber also liked my independent nature and in fact was very pleasantly surprised at the amount and quality of work I had done when he read my thesis for the first time. I was therefore glad that I followed my hunch of not going to any other school but sticking with UF.
Dr. Farber was a difficult person to work with. Yet he was a great engineer and innovator and I learnt a lot from him. I have always believed that one should try to take the good things from a person; the negative attributes are his or her own baggage. If we focus on their negative attributes then we also acquire a part of that baggage. It is not easy to follow this philosophy but if done then it results in tremendous knowledge gain.
The four and a half years that I spent in doing my graduate work at UF were some of the happiest years of my life. The tremendous intellectual activity that took place without any responsibilities or worries gave me immense pleasure.
Teaching at UF
Sometime in December 1978 when I was in the final stages of my Ph.D. it was rumored that Dr. Farber was going to get a very big contract from USAID to set up a center to teach alternative energy technologies to scientists and engineers from developing countries. This center was subsequently named Training in Alternative Energy Technologies (TAET).
An USAID team from Washington DC had visited our lab and the department and was shown all the facilities. Besides I was specially invited to meet them and discuss with them about the inter-disciplinary seminars that I had set up. Apparently the team had reservations about giving the center to UF since they felt that Dr. Farber would only stress the solar thermal aspects of alternative energy. Hence they were told that I would be one of the main instructors in the program and since I had set up these seminars, every aspect of renewable energy would be covered. In addition being from India I was supposed to have developing country perspective! These arguments and sales pitch by the University was probably bought by the team and we were informed sometime around June-end of 1979 that we had a very strong possibility of getting the center. This was a $ 2.5 million project for 5 years and in those times was one of the biggest single projects in UF history.
During the Carter Presidency, USAID felt the need for setting up such a center in US which would give hands on training in renewable energies to top energy planners and government officials of developing countries. Apparently quite a few of the top universities like Cornell, Berkeley etc. were in competition to get this center. Hence it was a feather in Dr. Farber’s cap to get it for UF.
So when the project was sanctioned in September 1979, Dr. Farber decided that I should be hired as one of the instructors in this center and hence I was taken on board. In a couple of months two more instructors were hired and hence we had a full team of 4 instructors (including Dr. Farber) and 4 office staff. It was also decided to shift TAET to an off campus facility called TREEO center. TREEO was located almost 10 miles from the main UF campus.
One of the instructors hired was Inky Laketek. Inky had worked in NASA and was taken as a lab instructor. He was obese weighing almost 325 pounds and loved to eat. We had couple of hilarious incidents in restaurants. One day we went to a Pizza Hut in Gainesville for lunch. Inky ordered a thick crust super medium sized pizza. The waitress turned to me and asked me what I would like to drink! I told her that I have not even ordered yet. She was incredulous and said, “You mean to say that he is going to eat all that pizza himself”!
We must have sampled some of the best restaurants not only in Gainesville but in all other cities, wherever we took the TAET participants - courtesy Inky. Before visiting any city he would get the magazines of that city and studied very thoroughly its eating places. He could eat a huge steak within minutes!
In 1984 he visited us in Phaltan. We had just moved into our new house and there were hardly any places in town for a good meal. So the poor guy had to survive for a week on a strict vegetarian diet in our house. All his pants became loose! He wanted to see Phaltan so I got him a bicycle since I did not have any car or scooter. He rode the bicycle all over town. In those times there was a circus playing in town so according to Inky there were many more people who came to see him ride a bicycle than to see the circus! Besides when he came back the bicycle was all bent out of shape because of his weight!
While in Phaltan he tasted Alphonso mangoes and loved them. So when he went back to US he took one dozen mangoes. Obviously at the customs in the New York airport he was stopped and told to destroy them. So he calmly sat on a bench and ate all one dozen mangoes! He was a real jolly fellow and unfortunately died of cancer in 1998.
Even before I was hired for TAET I was doing some teaching and used to enjoy it. I was a graduate assistant to Dr. Farber so anytime he went out of town - which he did quite regularly – I used to teach most of his classes.
I guess students liked my teaching because at one time they went to the Chairman of the Mechanical engineering department and requested him that I should teach a separate course on energy and specially related to biomimicry. The Chairman told them “Anil is still a student so how can he teach a separate course!” Nevertheless my occasional teaching must have made quite an impression on some of the students since even after 30 years I got an e-mail from one of the American student who after locating me thanked me and wrote how my teaching helped and inspired him!
Since I was put on the staff of UF, my visa status had to be changed from student (F-1) to either green card or H-1. I was opposed to the idea of getting a green card since I thought that once I got it I would never go back to India and thus I had a mental block against getting it. The UF administration was very surprised by my decision. Normally people were ready to give an arm or a leg to get a green card and here I was refusing it when I had an opportunity to get it. But then I have always been a foolish and arrogant person!
Hence UF administration did the necessary paper work for H-1 visa rather than the Green Card. After that they arranged for my interview with the immigration official in Jacksonville to convert my student F-1 visa to H-1. I was also warned that the immigration officer at Jacksonville was a very obnoxious and rude person. So on the appointed day I took the bus from Gainesville and reached the immigration office for the afternoon interview.
As per his reputation the immigration officer, one Mr. Carlyle, was extremely rude and he started the interview with a nasty remark that the UF must have already started the process of getting a green card for me so applying for H-1 visa was just a ruse. I immediately told him “Mr. Carlyle I have no desire to stay in this beautiful country of yours and before we start this interview I would like to inform you of a couple of things. Firstly my wife was a US citizen and she renounced it. If she does decide to take her citizenship back I will automatically become a US resident. Secondly I will be working in a USAID-sponsored project and have been told that if I need a green card then Washington will help me in getting it and thirdly if I wanted a green card in the first place then the University would have applied for it rather than for the H-1 visa. So now you can ask me all the questions you want”.
He was quite taken aback by my remarks since in such circumstances the applicants are generally very polite, subservient and try to keep the immigration officer in good humor. Mr. Carlyle told me that in his long civil service he had not come across a person like me and for the next 45 minutes we had a very pleasant discussion on UF football! The next day the UF officials asked me what I had done to charm that character! Apparently they had contacted him and he spoke in glowing terms about me. I was immediately given an H-1 visa. Just before I finally left for India in 1981 I again called Mr. Carlyle and informed him about my exact date of departure to India. He was quite apologetic about the interview exchange and said that US would be better off by having people like me stay there!
Before the TAET project which started officially in September 1979, I was hired as a post-doc in the department. Thus four to five months from the time of my Ph.D. defense to the start of my TAET assignment were hectic months with traveling, setting up the solar house in UF and starting the dew condensation experiment.
During this trip I also visited Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) as it was called in those days. The name was later changed to National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and nowadays one has to get a special permission to visit the lab. In those days it was very easy to visit most of the national labs and discuss with various scientists about their energy projects. There were hardly any restrictions which unfortunately came during the Reagan era.
I visited the thermal sciences section of SERI and since the lab had just started in late 1977 they were also scouting for staff. Thus the concerned scientist took me to the deputy director of the lab. We chatted for quite some time and suddenly he offered me a job at SERI. In that short time somehow he got a liking for me and even showed me my parking space in the parking lot! I politely declined the offer telling him that I was going to teach in the newly formed TAET center at UF and then go back to India in a couple of years. The SERI deputy director was sorry to hear about my plans and told me that a research position at SERI was any day better than teaching at TAET! “If any time you feel suffocated at UF, call me and we will take you in SERI”, he said.
In fact during that trip I was also offered a teaching position at the Colorado State University in Fort Collins to work with Dr. Lof, another solar energy pioneer.
Getting my Ph.D. under Dr. Farber was also a plus point in all these job offers. The best part was that they came without my asking. In fact just after I had finished my Ph.D. I was also offered a good position in the world famous Bell Labs, since one of the senior managers at the labs had sometime back done his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from UF. In those days getting a job after Ph.D. in renewable energy area was quite easy and I am sure I could have gotten a good teaching position in any University if I had chosen to do so.
However I was quite certain of going back to India and felt that TAET experience of teaching scientists and engineers from developing countries will be the best “post-doc” for me.
Since we were getting the TAET center, we decided to consolidate at one place all the solar energy equipment and projects that were scattered all over UF campus. It was also felt that with this big grant the solar energy work at UF will expand further and hence we decided to set up a Solar Energy park. A 23-acre facility was provided by UF just off campus to house it. Consequently I and one of the graduate students in our solar group were given this task of setting up a Solar House and equipment in this park.
Thus we set up a solar house which was heated and cooled by solar energy and also laid a fairly large sized concrete slab to display other solar energy equipment. The Solar House was originally set up by Dr. Farber in Gainesville in early 1970s and was the first house in US to be completely air conditioned by solar energy. It was located in a part of Gainesville close to a major road and when the road was converted to a 4-lane highway the house was shifted to Energy Park. Because of its importance it was declared a National landmark building in 2003 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
So both of us laid fifty feet by thirty feet concrete slab for displaying the solar equipment. Besides we set up the solar collectors on the roof of the solar house, welded all the pipes and did all the plumbing for solar heating and cooling. This exercise took nearly 2 months. I learnt a great deal about using earthmoving equipment for laying the concrete, welding copper tubing (welded about 1500 joints) and general hardware of plumbing and solar systems. This hands-on work experience was a tradition in our lab and one of the main reasons for my coming to UF. Unfortunately this type of training is getting scarcer and nowadays most of the graduate students simply graduate without dirtying their hands. In fact all my Ph.D. experiments were designed and fabricated by me and other graduate students in our lab used to do the same for their experiments.
This practical training not only helped me to teach the TAET participants about hardware but also helped me in setting up my lab when I came back to Phaltan in Maharashtra. It was as if I was being prepared to return to rural India.
During my post-doctoral stint a funny incident took place. A three member high-powered Chinese delegation came to see our Solar Energy Lab. Most of the time when foreign delegations came to visit our lab, Dr. Farber used to ask me to show them around. Since our lab was world famous, lots of foreign delegations came and I was always glad when asked to take them around. Dr. Farber somehow never felt happy in meeting the Asian delegations!
The head of the Chinese delegation was one Mr. Wu who was also a politburo member of the Chinese Communist Party. He spoke good English and told me that he did his Masters in Mechanical Engineering from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1949. The other two solar energy researchers feigned not to know any English though in a slip up later on, they were also observed to speak good English. In fact I found all of them quite devious.
The day they arrived at our lab was the same day when US and China established embassies in their respective capitals and so there was quite a lot of photo-op on the campus.
Initially Mr. Wu was quite reserved since he did not expect an Indian to show him around but very soon he warmed up to me when I told him about my father’s very indirect connection with Mao and Zou Enlai !
One of the persons in jail with my father during the 1942 freedom struggle was Dr. Madan Atal. He was the uncle of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Dr. Atal became very fond of my father and as he was an excellent cook he also taught my father to cook some well-known Kashmiri dishes.
During Mao’s long march in 1930s Dr. Atal had visited China and had given medical treatment to both Mao and Zou Enlai when they were critically ill for which they became eternally grateful to him. He therefore became their very close personal friend. I was told that there was a bust of Dr. Atal in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I still remember that in early 1960s when the relations between India and China deteriorated, as a last resort Prime Minister Nehru sent Dr. Atal to plead with Mao and Zou Enlai. Dr. Atal was treated very well but both of them were unmoved. In fact when he came back to Lucknow after this trip he gave my father a small packet of green tea that Mao had given him as a present!
As Mr. Wu became friendlier towards me he started telling me how Chinese remained backward in technology because of the “Gang of Four” alluding to the four leaders (including Mao’s wife) who had plotted against Deng Xiaoping. This reference to Gang of Four became a constant refrain of Mr. Wu’s during the day. I tried telling him that he was nearly 10,000 miles away from China and so did not have to parrot the official line about Gang of Four! But I guess the remnants of the communist rule were still very much in existence and so everybody in the delegation was spying on each other! What also surprised me most was that though Mr. Wu was a politburo member and hence must have been close to Mao and the Chinese leadership he had suddenly changed his colors after the change of guard and was spouting the new party mantra of economic liberalization of Mr. Deng.
As I was showing them around our lab, I saw from the corner of my eye that one of them was pocketing a small piece of insulation used in solar collectors. So I took a 1 sq. ft. panel of the insulation and gave it to them telling them that it was a present from the UF solar lab! All of them became extremely red in face and mumbled an apology. That is when the other two also spoke excellent English!
I again saw Mr. Wu during the International Solar Energy Society (ISES) conference in Atlanta in June 1979. By this time Americans were falling all over themselves to curry favors from the Chinese, since China was the flavor of the month. So there was a special session in ISES to hear Mr. Wu who was to give a talk on the Chinese efforts in solar energy research. He read his speech and refused to answer any questions citing difficulty in spoken English! I knew very well that he spoke excellent English and was capable of answering any question.
After his talk was the lunch break and since so many people were crowding around him I decided to see him later on. After on hour I suddenly saw him - the politburo member of the Communist Party of China - carrying in one hand a McDonald hamburger and in another a can of coke, the two ultimate symbols of capitalist society! What an irony and what a sight it was! This irony was not lost on Mr. Wu either because when I wanted to photograph him he became red in face and vehemently opposed it. I wondered what Mao must have been thinking in his grave about his loyal cadre member!
From September 1979 to January 1980 we had to develop the course material for TAET and also set up the lab and experiments. The onus of doing all this mostly fell on me partly because a substantial part of TAET program was based on imparting instruction by external lecturers - a majority of whom I already knew and when invited they came readily. Quite a few of these lecturers were distinguished UF professors that I used to invite for the multidisciplinary seminars. Besides I was also in tune with Dr. Farber’s philosophy and hence knew what teaching material to develop.
Besides writing the course program and timetable I used to spend almost 8-10 hours per day on the phone ordering equipment for our lab and discussing with, requesting and cajoling energy experts from all over US to come and lecture to our participants. It was not very difficult in those times to get these experts to come and lecture since I knew most of them and also the fact that our Solar program was very well known. Also we gave them to and fro air fare, plus an honorarium of $ 200/lecture and an overnight hotel accommodation. Thus we were able to get some of the world renowned experts to lecture in TAET program and these lectures/seminars – an extension of my department’s multidisciplinary seminars, were always rated as the most popular aspect of our course.
We also set up a first class renewable energy lab within a short period of 4 months and after spending close to $ 400,000. That is where I realized the power of things happening in US where with sufficient money one could buy almost any equipment and set up facilities in a very short time. I had never done anything like this in India so could not compare at that time but later on when I came back to India in 1981 I realized how difficult it was to get any decent equipment and even if one could get it, it took an inordinately long time for its delivery.
I also believed that the success of TAET would largely depend on the selection of the participants. Though USAID would pressurize us sometimes in taking some of the participants because of political reasons, we developed application forms on the lines of applications for graduate students applying to any good US university. Thus not only did they have to send their detailed bio-data, but also enclose a statement of purpose on why this course would be important to them and also three letters of recommendation from professional people. This application format more or less got us good participants.
Quite a number of participants we got were very senior government officials from 40 odd developing countries and some of them were even advisors to their Presidents or Prime Ministers. Hence they complained about filling such applications but we stuck to our guns and thus got a good number of participants who could understand the heavy dosages of course work that we dished out to them.
Since we expected them to do work with their hands quite a number of them revolted (especially participants from African countries) since they were big bosses in their own countries and not used to doing such work! Some of them bitterly complained both to Dr. Farber and to USAID that they were not college students to be told to weld solar collectors! Nevertheless majority of times the very same participants were thankful to us near the end of the course for this hands-on opportunity and told us that they had better understanding of renewable energy after the course and so could make an objective and proper choice for their country.
Teaching in TAET was a very rewarding but at the same time a very frustrating experience. Rewarding from the point of view of getting satisfaction of imparting education to elite of developing countries so that they became better informed and could make a better choice regarding renewables. Also I made many new friends in these countries. Later on whenever I visited some of those countries I was treated with great respect and showered with their hospitality. Some of these friendships have continued even today. I also learnt first hand the problems of energy in most of these developing countries and this knowledge came very handy when I set up my own energy work in rural India. Besides the interactions I had with other renewable energy experts who came to lecture at TAET was really very educational.
The experience was also sometimes frustrating because in every batch (each batch consisted of about 30-35 participants and the session lasted for 4 months) there were quite a few participants who had a very bad attitude and they were least interested in learning anything. They just wanted to come to US and enjoy good life and quite a few of them tried to remain in US to do their graduate studies and why not since everything was paid for them!
To my knowledge this was the only training program in US at that time which paid completely the air fare of all the participants from their country to Gainesville, put them in very comfortable hotel rooms with a kitchenette and also paid each a small stipend for 4 months to take care of their food ! I do not think any such program which gave a paid holiday to foreigners existed even later on! After a couple of years USAID became wiser and stopped paying the air fare altogether.
In fact I found out that quite a few of them behaved in an extremely shameful manner unbecoming of the high positions that they held. Quite a number of times our office secretaries complained that some of them even groped them during the class sessions as if the white passport gave them a license to do so!
Another frustration I had was that I got completely cut off from the campus since my office in TREEO center was 10 miles away and during the sessions I would spend almost 12 hours a day in TAET starting at 7 a.m. in the morning. Thus the intellectual environment of the University life stopped completely for me and I felt that as very suffocating. The discussion with the peers or the equals and the attendance at seminars or going to the library therefore became very difficult. Besides I could hardly do any research since most of my time went in teaching and supervising the participants. Thus the choice before me was to either get a University or research appointment in US or go back to India. Since I had already decided to go back, I had told Dr. Farber that I would not be staying beyond June 1981.
After the first session there was an evaluation of the program by USAID. The main person Mr. Alan Jacobs, who was a very senior bureaucrat in Washington and who also used to sit on President Carter’s Security Council came to see and discuss the program with us. He was accompanied by Mr. Bill Eilers the Director of Energy Office in USAID. During the meeting any time Mr. Jacobs or Eilers asked a question, I answered it because the whole program was designed by me. Mr. Jacobs was quite annoyed by that because I was not the director of the center. In any case he realized my contribution to the program and I think he appreciated it also. In fact the staff at TAET used to joke that not a blade of grass moved without Anil’s permission! The evaluation team was also unhappy by the fact that I would be leaving by June 1981, since almost all the participants gave a glowing report about my teaching and interactions with them.
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