“Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the lighting of a torch.”
These profound words epitomize the unwavering passion and transformative impact of Professor Krishna Kaliappan, Dean – Strategy, and Professor, Department of Chemistry, IIT Bombay.
A self-confessed-passionate teacher, Prof. Kaliappan’s boundless enthusiasm and commitment to nurturing the minds of the next generation of students is infectious. He is an educator who imparts knowledge by understanding the needs of his students, even as he continues to kindle a sense of curiosity, critical thinking, and personal growth in his students. With his genuine belief in their potential, Prof. Kaliappan empowers his students to soar to new heights and become the architects of a brighter future.
The Dean ACR Newsletter was honoured to get an insight into the man behind the teacher and profile Prof. Kaliappan for the August 2023 edition.
For Prof. Krishna Kaliappan, teaching is not a job. It’s his calling in life. He firmly believes that teaching is what he was meant to do.
Prof. Kaliappan traces his love for teaching to when he was a student in school. He hails from a small town, Kallidaikurichi in Tamil Nadu, and still remembers his History and Geography teacher’s teaching style. “He narrated stories to us and brought history to life in the classroom. He was a great storyteller,” Prof. Kaliappan says.
Back then it was also common for youngsters hailing from Kallidaikurichi and its surrounding areas to finish their Bachelor’s degree in Commerce and get a job in a bank or become a chartered accountant. “So, I thought I will take a similar route – study Maths, Economics, Commerce, Accountancy and either get a job in a bank or become CA in Mumbai or elsewhere as many of his seniors did from his town,” Prof. Kaliappan recalls with a smile. But when Prof. Kaliappan approached the same History and Geography teacher, who incidentally was his school’s acting headmaster one day, for advice during the admission process for his 11th standard, the latter outlined a completely different path for him. He suggested that good students like Prof. Kaliappan should look beyond becoming an accountant and pursue a science major.
Prof. Kaliappan took his teacher’s advice and pursued science in school. A couple of years later, he enrolled for his BSc in Chemistry, where he met the most definitive influence in his life – Prof. Arunachalam, who brought Organic Chemistry to life in the classroom. He also encouraged Prof. Kaliappan to widen his horizons and enrol at Madurai Kamaraj University for his MSc. Prof. Kaliappan was determined to make his mentor proud, and he did by winning a gold medal and topping the national-level CSIR exam.
After his MSc in Madurai, he moved to Bengaluru for his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science and his thesis received the best thesis of the department in 1997. When asked why he didn’t choose to work in industry, he replied “Prof. Arunachalam’s influence was so profound in my life that I never even thought about working for the industry. I knew I would be a teacher.”
After his Ph.D., Prof. Kaliappan moved to Geneva for the first of his two post-docs and after spending a couple of years there, he moved to Duke University in the US for his second post-doc. During his tenure at Duke, his American professor was impressed with his research and its potential and recommended that he stay back in America. But Prof. Kaliappan was very clear about his future. “My professor could not believe it when I said NO and told him that I would like to go back to India and join academia,” he adds with a smile. So, after his Post Doc in the US, he applied to IIT Bombay and has been here ever since.
Before delving deep into his passion for teaching, Prof. Kaliappan explains that he is equally passionate about his research. He has received several awards including the Swarnajayanti Fellowship, the B.M. Birla Science Prize, and the Prof. C. N. R. Rao National Prize for Chemical Research to mention a few. Enumerating his research interests he says, “When you look at the history of medicines – most of them are either derived from nature or inspired by nature. We derive the drug molecules from plants, animals, and marine organisms. It’s like nature gives us a clue and tells us to mimic it and recreate the same in the lab. If these organisms grow faster – it’s easier to isolate the drug molecules. But when they don’t, organic chemists like us design and synthesize drug-like molecules for medicines on a small scale in our lab. My co-workers are very well trained to take up leading roles in pharma and agrochemical companies because of their exposure to work on many complex natural products.”
Prof. Kaliappan outlines the three key aspects namely, curiosity, creativity, and hard work that make for a good researcher. He says that all researchers should be curious and creative. The third and most important aspect is hard work and says. “Hard work never fails. I know many who were brilliant, curious, and creative. But they did not put in the hard work needed to bring their creativity to fruition.”
Switching back to his core love, he describes his teaching style first. He thinks like a student and asks himself – if I were a student, how would I want my professor to teach? He adopted the same style as his storyteller school teacher in his classroom. “Because it’s the storytelling that students remember!” he says animatedly. “As important as it is to talk about a scientist’s discovery and their impact on mankind, I also think it’s necessary to highlight their problems and the issues they faced. It’s important to know the background since that provides context behind the innovation and discoveries. Look, these days, all the materials are available online. So, what is the impetus for students to come to a classroom?”
In terms of his teaching style in a classroom, Prof. Kaliappan still prefers teaching with a blackboard more than making PowerPoint presentations. He recalls adopting a hybrid system sometime back when he used ppts. in the first half of the semester and used the blackboard during the second half. “Guess what? When my evaluations came back – my students said that they don’t want to see any ppts. and that they loved the second half the best!” he laughs. Nevertheless, he uploads all his lecture notes (PowerPoint slides) in Moodle as well as on his website so that his students can always look through the lessons that were discussed in the classroom. He still feels bad that he couldn’t use the blackboard in the classroom last year due to his frozen shoulder.
What truly sets apart Prof. Kaliappan from others is his innate deep empathy for his students, which, in turn, reflects in his personality as a teacher. He remembers his maths teacher who used to give tests in his morning class that ran between 12-12:45 pm. Then the school would break for lunch. When the maths class continued once again at 3 pm, the teacher would return the graded answer sheets. He says, “Our maths teacher knew how scared and anxious we would be. So, he graded our answer sheets during his lunch hour because he cared so much about how we felt!” Prof. Kaliappan took that lesson to heart. And until he took on additional administrative responsibilities at IIT Bombay, he did the same. He always graded his tests and returned them in the next class to his students.
Given his intense love, passion, and respect for teaching, Prof. Kaliappan is very clear about who should and shouldn’t become teachers. When he comes across students who are inclined towards teaching, he advises them to accept any teaching job since any experiences are important in a teacher’s journey. But he is also clear about those who are on the fence about teaching or who look at teaching as a Plan B or backup option. To them, he says, “Teaching brings with it immense responsibility. Good teachers impact and inspire the next generation of youngsters who will carry the country, the world, and humanity forward. Teaching requires a different type of skill set. Teachers should never be selfish and unless you are devoted to it – you should never become one.” Prof. Kaliappan adds that a true teacher wants their students to not just do well, but do much, much better than them.
Prof. Kaliappan is also deeply appreciative of his students. Unlike many others who can be dismissive of the younger generation, Prof. Kaliappan understands their issues and travails as well. As much as he appreciates that the current generation has many more opportunities than his generation did, he also argues that this generation is also weighed down by expectations and extreme levels of competition. “It’s easy for us to think that the current generation has everything and they’re not using what they have. But who knows how we would have reacted if we had been born and raised in this current world? We must understand that.”
Also, unlike others of his generation – he is very open to having conversations about depression and mental health that plague the younger generation today. He isn’t dismissive of coping mechanisms like therapy, yoga, and meditation. For he understands that the world has changed (is changing) and that we all must understand and appreciate these differences and change with the times.
Among the crucial teachings that he imparts to his students is the importance of giving back. A couple of decades back Prof. Kaliappan addressed a group of MSc students during their Valedictory Function at IIT Bombay and asked them to save 1% of their annual salary for five years and give that money to their primary school or their college. Whether they donate a water purifier or a few chairs or paint the walls of the classroom or build washrooms…it doesn’t matter, it is important to pay back whatever one could do for one’s alma matter. Prof. Kaliappan says, “When 2000 students graduate every year and collect 1% of their salary for some time – that money is huge. But to each student – 1% of their salary is very affordable.”
And it was this idea that has now become a key part of the Institute’s Valedictory Function when the graduating students take the “Give One for IIT Bombay” pledge and promise to contribute a percentage of their future earnings to their alma mater.
While teaching remains at the very core of his being, over the past few years, Prof. Kaliappan has taken on a significant administrative load at IIT Bombay. He started his administrative duties as an Associate Warden of Hostel 4 and then became the hostel’s Warden for four years. He took a break from administrative work for a few years before he took over as the Associate Dean of R&D and then as Head of the Department of Chemistry. His interest in research and regular interactions with faculty members and mentoring the newer professors made him a good fit as the Dean of Faculty. Recently, he was appointed as the first Dean of Strategy at IIT Bombay.
After more than a decade of taking on administrative positions and his teaching and research pursuits, Prof. Kaliappan is determined to wrap up his final decade at IIT Bombay concentrating on teaching and his research. But as clear as his vision for the upcoming decade is, he also believes in destiny. Other than wanting to be a teacher – he never aspired for anything else. Whatever he got – if he felt like he could contribute – he took it up.
“So, I never say never!” he laughs.
As we bid goodbye to an extremely heart-warming Prof. Kaliappan, he quickly tells us about his hobbies and says, “Whenever I get free time I prefer to listen to Ilayaraja’s music and watch cricket and Tom and Jerry cartoons.” The key takeaways from our conversation are that as busy as he is juggling his professional life as a professor, researcher, and administrator – he also makes the time to keep in touch with his students and connect with their needs. The students at IIT Bombay are extremely fortunate to have Prof. Kaliappan to guide and mentor them. Prof. Kaliappan also hopes and wishes his students success and happiness – whether they walk in his footsteps and become teachers themselves or blaze new trails by choosing their path in their lives.
It was truly an honour and we thank Prof. Kaliappan for speaking to the Dean ACR Newsletter.