IISc Main Building 04 May 2015

With its imposing 150-foot-high tower, the main building has stood witness to more than a century of scientific progress and accomplishments at the Institute. 

 

First batch of IISc students 27 May 2015

In 1911, the first batch of 21 IISc students began their studies in 2 departments. Today, IISc has grown to host over 3500 students each year in various PhD, Master’s and Bachelor’s programmes.

PM Shri Narendra Modi visits IISc 27 May 2015

Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi made his maiden visit to IISc on February 18, 2015. He inaugurated the Centre for Brain Research and dedicated the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering to the nation. 

Story

The IISc Alumnicle: Casually Inspiring - Tête-à-tête with Gaj Birur

By Abhinav Dey, Phd

Until time travel becomes a reality, the human race will rely on space travel to seek an answer to the question of life beyond this blue planet. We know how the human body responds to extremes of environment, and the same considerations need to be taken into account when designing a space travel capsule- which needs to resist a much wider range of environmental variations. While we wait to hear from our friends in a galaxy far, far away, Gaj Birur has been designing systems that help us reach out to them. His 35-year-old career in NASA made him join the league of scientists’ extraordinaire, which ensured that the Curiosity Rover not only lands on the red planet but also sustains itself through the vagaries of nature during its pit stops and road trips. As the Curiosity Rover tweets selfies from the Gale Crater and Jeff Bezos competes against Elon Musk to re-create “The Martian” in real time, the IISc Alumnicle team connected with Gaj Birur, our alumnus who ensures that the human quest for knowledge endures the tests of Mother Nature.



What has been the constant in your career graph from IISc to NASA?  

A strong desire to be part of an enterprise, developing new engineering technologies for the betterment of society.  This took me from IISc to ISRO and then to the US for graduate school, which in turn led me to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  All of this was my constant desire to make positive contribution to society.  


What was your experience during your initial years after arriving in the US and how does that compare to the situation today (especially for freshers from IISc)?

My first six years were spent mostly in university settings.  The first few months were a big cultural and social surprise for me. Even though I was aware of the lifestyles of Americans before arriving in the US, still I was quiet surprised and impressed by the Americans’ lifestyle (openness, freedom, lack of fear, abundance of material, the rational and logical thinking, and the informal way of interactions between professors and students). It was just amazing how this society encouraged and provided abundant opportunities to its members to reach their full potential. I was quite influenced by this lifestyle and this led me to the kind of organization where I wanted to have my professional career.


I think the experience for a new IISc student arriving in the US today will be similar.  However, now an IISc fresher has a much better understanding and appreciation of the US and its society and its university environment. On the same token, there is much better understanding and appreciation of an IISc graduate student at American universities due to the roles played by the IISc alums at universities here over the last 25 years.  


Tell us about your role during the Curiosity Rover project?

I was involved with the Mars Curiosity Rover project from the beginning, dating back to 2002.   I was the lead for developing an architecture for the Temperature Control Subsystem of the rover. In a spacecraft’s architecture, typically there are over two dozen subsystems such as temperature control, mechanical, propulsion, power, telecom, avionics etc. I was involved for ten years in the development of the rover from design start in 2003 to landing on the Martian surface in 2012. I was involved in forming a team consisting of about two dozen engineers and technicians to design, build, test, and integrate a temperature control system on the rover that was never tried before by any space agency.  It was challenging, exciting, scary, humbling, and most gratifying experience in my professional life.  I had similar experiences on the first Mars surface mission, Mars Pathfinder, in 1994-97, which gave me the confidence to take on this role on Curiosity.



Gaj Birur during the build of Mars Curiosity Rover at JPL


NASA has been the incubator for a lot of technologies that serve as utilities in the contemporary work, be it lightweight car seats or LEDs. What future applications do you anticipate from your mechanical pumped loop and small loop heat pipe development?

The management of heat on spacecraft is very critical for its safe operation and survival. Similarly, many advanced electronic devices (computers, avionics, and laser instruments) developed for space and terrestrial applications (computers, cell phones, etc.) have severe constraints on managing their heat dissipation. The developments made at NASA are being used and further developed for both space applications and applications to terrestrial electronics.   


As a mentor, what are the practical qualities that a student in scientific research must possess in the contemporary world?

The practical qualities a research student possess are: a curious mind, a willingness to take risks, being good team player, and possess good oral and written communication skills.  The experiences at graduate schools and working at NASA JPL have helped me develop these attributes over time and has led me to enjoy an exciting and most fulfilling life.    


You have been actively involved in philanthropy through Birur Educational Foundation for Children (BEFC). What inspired you towards this effort and what challenges do you foresee in reforming the educational system of India? 

I was strongly influenced by the unjust inequities in our Indian society since my college days in India.  The strong and overt discrimination meted out to the members of socially and culturally weaker segments of our society very strongly influenced me. I wanted to have a positive part in changing this ever since my college days.  The first time I could take any practical step was around 2000 when I cofounded the Birur Educational Foundation for Children (BEFC) that works mostly with government primary schools in the rural areas.  I strongly believe that we need to start with children at their most formative years (ages of 6-14 years) to inculcate good societal habits and outlook. It is incumbent on us, who benefitted the most from the opportunities provided by the Indian society for our education, to repay the society.  Many IISc students have volunteered for BEFC over the last seven years.


The challenges I see reforming the educational system in India are many. The biggest challenge is the mindset of the people who are involved: parents, teachers, bureaucrats, and politicians. Much of their thinking is still tied to the gender and caste discrimination practices that exists in the society, this is especially true in the rural areas.  As the recipients of the large educational benefits from the Indian Government, we have a duty to help the students, teachers, and parents by being active role models.      


Teachers and IISc Volunteers at BEFC Teacher Training Workshop in November 2013


As the next Co-Chair of IISc AANA, what are your immediate plans in creating a vibrant alumni group in North America?

Starting October 2015, new Chair and Co-Chair were elected to IISc AANA.  Professor Sunil Kumar, Dean of Booth School Business, University of Chicago is the Chair and I am the Co-Chair.  Our immediate plans for the next three years are as follows: 1) Reach out to many alums in the US to participate in AANA activities (professional/social networking, connect to alma mater etc.), 2) Develop close interaction with IISc campus working with the Director and his staff through Office of Development and Alumni Affairs (ODAA) for academic/professional exchange of alumni between AANA and IISc, 3) Encourage various AANA chapters to actively engage the local alumni by organizing professional and social events.   


Interviewed by 
Abhinav Dey, PhD
(MBU, IISc;2005-2011)
ALSF YoungInvestigator (Emory University)
Co-founder of IIScCareer Support Group
Vice-President IIScAANA (South East Chapter)


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