Internationally-renowned engineer Ashutosh Sharma shares the key to success for students – reinvent yourself often and learn from others

Ashutosh Sharma.

Ashutosh Sharma is the Distinguished Alumnus Speaker at the School of Engineering and Applied Science's Graduate Commencement Ceremony.

by Rebecca Rudell

Published May 17, 2019

Ashutosh Sharma, secretary for the government of India’s Department of Science and Technology and professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IITK), will receive a SUNY Honorary Doctorate in science at this year’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences graduate commencement ceremony.

“Don’t just talk to people like yourself [for example, fellow engineers], talk to people with different backgrounds. You will learn much more.”
Ashutosh Sharma, secretary for the government of India’s Department of Science and Technology and professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

Originally from Jaipur, India, Sharma obtained his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from IITK in 1982, his master’s degree from Penn State in 1984 and his PhD from UB in 1987. He explains that he chose to earn his doctorate at UB so he could work with the world-renowned Eli Ruckenstein, Emeritus Distinguished Professor and nanoscience pioneer.

As a PhD student, Ruckenstein told Sharma he could work on anything from atoms to astrophysics. Instead, Sharma chose a topic not tackled by many chemical engineers: ophthalmology, in particular, corneal epithelial stem cells and the issue of “dry eyes.”

He tells a story of taking Ruckenstein to dinner for his birthday and thinking, as a 24-year-old student, that the 60+ year old professor had his best years behind him. But the older man corrected Sharma, saying, “No, everything is still ahead of me.” Sharma found this incredibly inspirational and also mentions that when he visited his mentor in the hospital just a few years ago, Ruckenstein was still discussing his research. “He is truly an amazing guy. No one is more dedicated to the pursuit of research,” Sharma says.

After Sharma earned his PhD, he spent time as a research scientist at Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) in Buffalo, continuing his work in ophthalmology. He then moved back to India and began teaching chemical engineering at IITK, where he has been working ever since. In 2015, he began working for the government of India as well, helping them develop science- and technology-related policies and startups, including a new $2 billion artificial intelligence (AI) mission.

It’s interesting to note that while Sharma’s job as a professor has remained more or less the same, he has changed his area of research – which has included topics such as condensed matter physics and nanotechnology – every five to seven years. “If you keep working in the same area,” he explains, “you cannot grow because you know everything. Changing your focus may take more time, but it’s fun.”

Another way in which Sharma keeps his viewpoint fresh is through his artwork. He has created more than 1,000 original paintings and sketches over the years, many of them during meetings and conferences. “I’m not sure how it works, but making art helps me concentrate on what the speaker is saying,” he explains. “I like the sense of expression, but it also helps me focus. And it makes me feel good.”

When asked if he had advice for UB students, Sharma mentions a few challenges he believes today’s students will face in the future, such as sustainable development and the need to create solutions that reach forward not just a decade, but 100 years. He also wants to prepare students for the rise of intelligent machines – where people won’t just be competing between nations, but also with AI machines. Since technology including AI, is changing so quickly, he believes people need to reinvent themselves and the way they acquire knowledge. “Today, it’s not what one learns, but one’s capacity to learn new things,” he says.

A final challenge he discusses is globalization, which by chance, fits in with his philosophy of having a wide range of interests outside of science and technology. He tells students to converse with people from a variety of fields and communities. “Don’t just talk to people like yourself [for example, fellow engineers], talk to people with different backgrounds. You will learn much more.”

By speaking to people outside your comfort zone, he explains, one can learn to better understand how other human beings live, what their aspirations are, and how we can connect with and cooperate with them to make the world a better place.