Seeing light in the eyes of the very young

Thursday, 13 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It is always energising to listen to a lecture when it has depth and breadth and is filled with some ‘funtoids’. It was felt when recently we had one of our advisors, Prof. A.P. de Silva from Queen’s University of Belfast (School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering) visiting the institute.

He expressed these very sentiments after listening and discussing a project with three students of D.S. Senanayake College who have successfully completed a project with nanotechnology principles in the area of water supply with the support of one of our scientists.

He is an expatriate Sri Lankan scientist whose initial work at University of Colombo attracted attention and received support from Belfast to read for his PhD. He was relating to us how his scientific research starting in Colombo and then developed at Belfast attracted the attention of Roche – a multinational Swiss company – which led to a ground breaking product.

He stated that a current 60M$ development based on this work by a Swiss firm was first used in Sri Lankan ambulance services during the days of conflict and enabled saving some lives. He was presenting to us his experience as a case study on commercialising research.

Power of a multinational

It was interesting to hear how the company personnel after reading the scientific literature appeared on their doorsteps stating that they have the ability to take his concept as a product across the world – the power of a multinational.

AP, an ever-brilliant teacher and a lecturer, was relating how the multinational company was negotiating with the ‘scientist in slippers’ and in the discussion imparted many ideas to us. He was however speaking to us, the converted, in knowing the potential of science and innovation and we are quite aware how we have failed in the ‘last mile’.

Notice in his case the business was listening to the scientists chatter and was ready to make a move across countries when they observe potential.

His presentation about organic molecules that can act as sensors was a case study based with real life examples taken from the work of Sri Lankan scientists, including his own. He is currently pursuing molecular computing and is a pioneer in supramolecular chemistry.

The presentation demonstrated what one can do if there is will, focus and the right attitude within a conducive atmosphere. The statement is applicable both to the individual as well as to the big organisation in pursuit of novel business opportunities.

Missing piece

There we know what the missing piece in Sri Lanka is in this regard. Companies and personnel observing and being aware of what is going on with an interest to apply new findings into operations and ever willing to try out new ideas into commercial products are a rarity.

When meetings happen in the country in places such as the Sri Lanka Society for Advancement of Science (SLAAS) and other professional institutes (in the science and engineering sector), the meetings are quite conspicuous due to the absence of an audience.

We know that there are people abound about in organisations as functional dinners on the other hand are well attended! Even if you do not participate, please read what is printed as the societies publish proceedings as a matter of course.

Go back in history – we hear how the business people crowded the poor household of Charles Goodyear who invented the process of rubber vulcanisation and then the story of James Watt whose engine development was well supported by a party whose name is not at all well known. Ideas and small-scale action of an individual need to be taken out through a process of facilitation; there is the need for a conducive environment.

What prompted AP to state this set of words is after discussing the project and the positive attitude of three students from DS. I am not sure how well their project is known within the school even and what it was all about.

AP was delighted with the opportunity given by our institute in enabling students to try out an idea over a problem that they have observed and enabling them to win a national competition as well and participate in an overseas event, thus broadening their experience tremendously.

In science and engineering these opportunities are quite rare for our students and he said that this is of paramount importance if the country is to grow making use of its children.

D.S. students’ project

The student project was enabling de-fluoridation of drinking water supply. The presence of extra fluorides in drinking water and its continuous consumption has led to stopping the smiles of so many schoolchildren in the dry zone.

Discoloured front teeth is a manifestation of excess fluoride intake and more of the same can lead to even more problematic issues such as skeletal fluorosis. It is serious when you consider that for decades this has been a problem addressed in some way but never resolved. The DS students have demonstrated using a novel approach that a different solution is possible and forwarded an idea for centralised treatment of water as a solution.

In two earlier years another two groups of students came out with ideas in different spheres of water issues. In these two instances student groups were placed second in the international competition.

It is really sad these ideas and opportunities never move forward as all these were related to local issues. If one gets into their projects and ideas, one would be able to see the opportunities – seeing light in their eyes; unfortunately most of the time we are not there.

In the case of AP, he was connected with the three students to gauge their interest and to see the potential and expressed what he saw and requested us to do more of those. He was seeing the potential of developing young minds of this calibre and seeing the future potential. Unfortunately, we live in a climate of selective application, where even if problems persist, it is the cost benefit mindset that drives solutions.

Indian effort

It is in this regard the effort of Indians in preparing the document ‘INDIA 2020 – A vision for the new millennium’ comes to mind. Before 2000 India mobilised several groups of people under several task forces and discussed what one should do in each of chosen areas from ‘food and agriculture’ to ‘strategic industries’ and what the country should be doing if India is to be a developed nation by 2020.

India’s former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was instrumental in driving this collaborative effort and then he co-authored the report as a book. It is indeed interesting to note what Dr. Kalam did with the findings in taking it to the youngsters.

He wrote a condensed version of the INDIA 2020 as Mission India – A Vision for Indian Youth as a children’s book and went around India addressing students. It is a road map for young people. The fact that he is President of India did not deter him from addressing those who carry no votes!

The effort is truly remarkable as he identified that the message should be given to the young minds if all the programmes are to be realised in some way. The emerging generation must grow up with the ideas and the ideals. If they do not share the passion, plans are history and worthless. This is a disconnect we demonstrate.

Harnessing true potential

The purpose of education and development is not matched to growth objectives. It is important that the growth objectives too are more meaningful and carry depth in their preparation. Aligning young minds, which light up their eyes when they consider what they are doing and with the possibilities clearly spelt out, is harnessing the true potential.

Simply developing more men and women with ever escalating consumptive behaviours is not positive for any country in an era where sustainable consumption is becoming a buzz word for growth and survival.

His conclusion is telling – When ignited minds work with indomitable spirit, a prosperous, happy and safe India is assured. What Prof. A.P. observed with few students needs to be seen across our student population. We were able to ignite few minds but hope that the spirit of such activities will be taken up with a bright future in mind.

(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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