Professor Chennupati Jagdish is a physicist and an academic and president of the Australian Academy of Science as well as a distinguished professor of physics at the Australian National University Research School of Physics. He is the head of semiconductor Optoelectronics and nanotechnology group which he established in 1990. He is also the convener of the Australian nanotechnology network and director of Australian National Fabrication Facility ACT Node. In this interview with Rami Niranjan Desai, he talks about his journey and why Australia and India are natural partners in the tech supply chain.
Professor Chennupati Jagdish is the first person of Indian origin to become the president of the Australian Academy of Science.
Rami Niranjan Desai (RD): Let me start by saying you are absolutely an exemplary diaspora success story. Let's begin by talking a little bit about your life, your early education was in India then you came to Australia. How has the journey been on the scientific ladder in Australia?
Chennupati Jagdish (CJ): As you mentioned that I started my life in a very small village in India, Andhra Pradesh, I studied in front of a kerosene lamp till I finished my year seven and my father was a primary school teacher but I come from a farming family. When I finished my year 7, there was no high school in my village, neighboring villages were about 300 kilometers away. I was very fortunate as my math teacher posted me at his home during my high school for three years and treated me like his own child. I’ve had two teachers in my high school those who really made all the difference for me, without those three teachers help today I’ll probably be plowing the fields in India.I finished my high school and then studied year 11 and 12, we used to call it as intermediate, studied in Guntur, JC College then gone off to V.S.R. College and did my bachelors in physics then went off to Andhra University where I did my M.Sc. (Tech) in applied physics and then moved to Delhi and did my M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees, then I worked there in Sri Venkateswara College as a lecturer in physics and electronics for three years.
In those days there was no internet, there were no computers, they were just coming up and we used to get magazines by sea mail six months late to Delhi University library. I used to apply for everything which I thought was relevant to me because they are six months late but they never used to give deadlines and I had more than 300 rejection letters in a 3 year period before I got my first post doctoral fellowship at Queen’s University in Canada, I had to change my field from semiconductors to magnetics but that really gave me the opportunity to learn something new and that gave me the self-confidence that I can get into new areas and be able to make an impact.
I came to Australia in July 1990 with my wife and a two year old daughter. I came to the ANU- Australian National University, ANU is a great place to work and then Canberra is a great city to live. Australia is a great country to live and rest is history so there things progressed and now I am where I am.
RD: That’s such a fascinating story and it’s amazing how having the right teachers can make such a difference. Sir, let me also talk about your expertise, especially in semiconductor technology. What kind of cooperation do you think Australia and India can have in this field?
CJ: So first and foremost, I just want to express my gratitude to both - India and Australia, because without the support of India and Australia I won’t be where I am today. There are a lot of opportunities for Australia and India to collaborate and cooperate, so that’s something which we really need to focus on. For example - in the field of semiconductors, while silicone is a technology which we focus on because of the fact that’s where the computer chips are made so relatively speaking both Australia and India do not have semiconductors FABs so that means there is an opportunity for both the countries to work together and develop the opportunities and to create the opportunities for both the countries so that’s sure that we are stronger together and are able to support each other and work together. So there’s an opportunity because of the fact that the investments in the semiconductor industry are huge. Whereas in the area where we got a compound semiconductor which is not silicon based which are used for making high power electronics, high speed electronics and then also for LEDs and lacers, that’s where both the countries can collaborate and cooperate much more closely because of the fact that both the countries have got opportunities to collaborate and then there are research groups who are working in these areas and again there’s a lot of opportunities for developing the industries in both the countries as well, the reason being that in order to start these compound semiconductor based industries, you do not need 5 or 10 billion dollars which you require for starting a silicone pad and then tens of millions of dollars is sufficient to start these industries in these areas so we can really cover the broad spectrum, training of students and then also developing fundamental research to applied research and commercialization of technologies.
RD: Sir, with new regulations coming in the U.S., new semiconductor manufacturing facilities are something that the world is looking to boost current capacities. Could Australia-India cooperation in this regard help?
CJ: Absolutely, I think the only way we can move forward is by working together, collaborating and cooperating. So those days are gone where you compete in the conflict with each other and that's so not the way to move forward and we need to work together and collaborate and cooperate with each other considering that the neither of the countries have got a silicone FABs in the country and I think that’s a good opportunity for both the to work together. We are part of the QUAD so that means we are already working together. There’s a realization in both the countries, the importance of each other, that’s what makes me very happy. India and Australia are becoming closer and closer and now we are talking about a free trade agreement and various things so that’s a good sign that we want to work together and move forward together and progress together.
RD: Absolutely sir, I think it is one of the newest strongest relationships that is developing on the Indo-Pacific specifically. I think the FTA has just been signed so that is our sign of trust between the two countries. Sir, in what fields especially in the STEM areas do you see maximum cooperation between Australia and India?
CJ: So in terms of semiconductors, design areas have a lot of potential for collaboration. As I mentioned the compound semiconductors which are used for high-powered, high-speed electronics and LED or laser technologies, there is a lot of potential for collaboration. In the area of silicon technology we have got some nano-fabrication facilities in Australia through the Australian National Fabrication Facility. India also has created some clean route facilities in IIT Bombay and IIT Delhi so again there is a lot of potential for collaboration and cooperation over there as well.
RD: Fantastic sir, let me also ask you what your opinion is on the rising profile of the Indian community in Australia. How should they be perceived in Australia and in India and what more should the community do to raise their profile and contribution to both Australian life and the Australia-India cooperation?
CJ: Well, the Indian diaspora has an important role to play in terms of strengthening links between Australia and India. Rami, I always tell people that the Indian diaspora are ambassadors for India in Australia and they are the ambassadors for Australia when they go to India. So when people ask 'can you love both the countries', there is nothing wrong in loving both the countries. That's what I tell people and there are a lot of opportunities for the Indian diaspora to strengthen the links between both the countries. Already there is a very positive attitude towards the Indian diaspora in Australia. Mainly because of the work ethics of the people and the adaptability to the society and the Australian culture. That's why Indians are seen as very adaptive people and get involved in society. Also, once both the governments are also working together, that can also lead to the diaspora playing a local role and seeing the potential opportunities for Australia and India to work together, whether it be in terms of education, skill sharing and also starting companies. There are many such areas where the Indian diaspora has a role to play. I also believe that the Australian government also should make use of the diaspora much more effectively to better understand how we can strengthen the relationship between India and Australia. Sometimes, understanding the cultural nuances of India is very important if you want to bring that relationship even closer and stronger. '
In fact we produced a report as a part of the Australian Council of Learned Academies where we did a report called "Diaspora Advantage" on how the governments can make use of the diaspora effectively to strengthen the links between Australia and their native countries.
RD: Absolutely sir, I think that India and Australia with a rising profile and as key partners of the Indo-pacific can really use the diaspora to make strategic strengths come forward. Having said that sir, let me also ask you and this would be one of my last questions, you have had such a fascinating life and you have made this long journey from India to Australia. What would you say to our young Indian students who want to come to Australia and make a life there?
CJ: So, in general, Indian students have a tendency to work towards the west and traditionally they go towards the US, UK and Europe. In all honesty, I can say that a positive life in Australia is phenomenal. If you want to have a good opportunity for career progression and a high quality of life, Australia is a great country to live in. In fact people always ask me, 'why don't you move?' as I get many offers from the US and Europe and other places and I always say ' what for?'. Australia is a great country to live in and I enjoy living here and I cannot think of any other country with such a match than Australia. It's a multicultural society and a very accommodative society, a stable political system and a stable economy. The weather is great and it permits you to do lots of outdoor activities. Australians also love sports so overall it is a great country. I would very much encourage people to think of Australia as a destination for high quality of life.
In terms of your question on what diaspora can do. Rami, because of the fact that I started my life in a very small village in India. To open the doors for the next generation, my wife and I started an endowment to bring people from the developing countries including India to come to the ANU and spend three months within their summer break to they could get exposure to the Australian quality of life and also to open the doors for them with the hope that they develop the linkages so that they could come back as PhD students. So, really opening the doors for the next generation is really important for all of us.
RD: Sir, the information about your family starting this endowment is really heartwarming. Do you think that the India-Australia people to people relations have gone beyond cricket? Do you think now they know more about us and we know more about them?
CJ: Absolutely. In fact in the old days we used to talk about cricket, curry and the commonwealth but I think we have gone much beyond that. There's a much better understanding. In Australia, people are aware that India is becoming a tech superpower with skilled people in the tech area and so from that point of view the image of India has changed in the past thirty years quite significantly.
RD: Well Professor Jagdish, on that positive note, thank you very much for your time, I really do appreciate it.
CJ: Thank you!
(This piece has been republished from our partner website Mate Mitra (www.matemitra.com) dedicated to the Australia-India relationship.)