Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Interview with Dr. Mim Lal Nakarmi

We are presenting a brief interview with Dr. Mim Lal Nakarmi.  He was recently promoted as a tenured professor in Brooklyn College, NY. Presenting a brief, yet inspiring interview with him.

Prof. Mim Lal Nakarmi
0. Sir, Congratulations on getting the promotion and Tenure @ Brooklyn College. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself.  
MLN:   I was born and grown up in Banepa. All my school level learning was in Banepa. At college level, I did I.Sc. at ASCOL, B. Sc. at Tri-Chandra, and M. Sc. at TU, Kirtipur. After M.Sc. I started teaching at Kathmandu University. While teaching there, I also did M. S. in Electronics from BITS (Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences), Rajasthan, India. After teaching at Kathmandu University for some years, I started Ph.D. program in physics at Kansas State University (K-State) from 2000 and finished in 2005. After that I worked as a post-doc for two years in the same research group. In 2007, I moved to New York to start my career as tenure-track Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY). My tenure and promotion will be effective from Fall 2014.
My research field is experimental semiconductor physics. I am involved mainly in the growth and characterization of wide band gap semiconductors for optoelectronic applications. I spent most of the time in the development of semiconductor materials such as Aluminum Nitride (AlN) and Aluminum Gallium Nitride (AlGaN) alloys for deep UV applications during Ph.D. and post-doc. In this course, we have to study structural, electrical, optical properties of the materials. AlN that has a direct band gap of about 6.1 eV at room temperature is the one I explored the most and utilized in the fabrication of 280 nm deep UV light emitting diodes (LEDs). Deep UV LEDs have application in next generation general purpose lighting, air/water purification, bio-chemical agent detection, medical/research applications etc. I am continuing the similar research at Brooklyn College. Recently I collaborated to work on zinc oxide (ZnO) aiming to achieve p-type. I have also studied optical and electrical properties of multiferroic materials in collaboration with Prof. Ram Rai at SUNY College at Buffalo. I am building my research lab facility for material synthesis. My focus will still be on deep UV materials, but I am also going to develop different structures such as one dimensional nanowires and two dimensional mono-layer in addition to thin films structures. My research activities can be viewed in my websites http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/academics/faculty/faculty_profile.jsp?faculty=664Or http://userhome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/mlnakarmi/

1. What was your aim in life as a teenager? How did you decide to study physics? When did you know you wanted to be a physicist? Did anyone, in particular, influence you? 
 MLN:  I used to say I would be a doctor in future. But I joined in a physical group in I. Sc. because biology was not my favorite subject. So I was in engineering track sort of in I. Sc. but at the same time I found physics a very interesting subject.  So, my interest to be a physics student ought to be seeded during the I. Sc. period. Our family has already an engineer and I was not attracted that much in that field. Without seeking aggressively for engineering admission, I did B.Sc. and M.Sc. with physics and math. Although those years were like roaming without precise destination, after I started teaching at KU as a Lecturer, I came to realize that there is no real future without Ph.D. in that career. That time, few people have already started Ph.D. programs abroad. I also started seeking for Ph.D. admission. Email/internet was just made available in Nepal. That helped me a lot to get information about admission for PhD. I am very thankful to my friends Sunil Shrestha and Jagat Shakya who were already in USA at that time for my admission in PhD.

2. What strategies did you use to be successful in college, as a student? 
MLN:   I was not a very good student at colleges in Nepal. I like to study to understand the subject. Since the exams in Nepal are not the test of understanding, my exam scores were not good. In other words exams in Nepal are not test of knowledge rather memory test. So my habit and strategy did not work. But I did much better when I studied at BITS and K-State because they look for conceptual understanding and test in the same way in the exams. For the classroom performance, I also try to understand teacher’s psychology. If you have experience of teaching and writing exams it’s easy to get it. To be a successful in a long run, one should try to understand in depth. We cannot have depth understanding of all, so one may scan quickly to get surface knowledge of the field. Once you know your topic of interest, sufficient effort has to be made utilizing all available resources on the topics of your interest.

3. Could you please share your favorite research papers? 
MLN:   There are no such special papers I published that I can say it’s my favorite one so far. If you have particular question about any of the papers I have co-authored please contact me by email or other ways.

4. As a professor, do classes have personality? Any tips on dealing with students in a big class and then as a single individual? 
MLN:   Personality matters everywhere since it is the first thing people make perception on you. But after all, student will judge based on how knowledgeable you are how well you can explain. That’s why beginner has to study more before the class. For big class, a professor especially beginner, has to design the class in order to make the teaching/learning process effective before the class. Depending upon the topic of the day, the class has to be careful designed how to introduce the topic, how to interact with students, how to get the feedback and how to test. First thing to do in a new class is to win students trust. Allow them to ask, or ask them to make sure most of the students understand what you are trying to teach. Keep eye contacts with everyone so that students know that they are being watched. These things also come with experience.
5. How to make a class effective? Is there a defined structure to achieve maximum benefit from teacher/student contact? 
MLN:   In order to make a class effective I use the following strategy. Once I have the topic for next class, I first think as if I were a student of the class, pretending as an average level student in the class. After that I check the goal of the topic. And then I design the class where to raise the question/ where to give examples or demonstration, give some time for discussion or activity, which problems to solve or ask them to solve, etc. Class should not be monotonous. That is why ‘Lecture’ mode of teaching is not considered now as an effective way of teaching. My personal experience also supports it. Especially teaching science in ‘Lecture’ mode is the least effective method.
There are lots of effective teaching methods developed recently by physics education research groups. All of them are intended to engage the students in the class and learn by actively participating in the class through hands-on activities, working together, discussions, project works etc.  Our traditional lecture rooms are not suitable for utilizing most of these kinds of teaching methods.

6. Could you share some effective teaching techniques that result in intended learning. 
MLN:   I have been using an active learning method called SCALE-UP (Student Center Active Learning Environment for University Physics) in general physics courses. Classroom for this teaching method is completely different from traditional ones. The SCALE-UP classroom has round tables like in a restaurant for 9 students in each table and they are divided into 3 groups. The three students in the group work together or learn each other. Each topic is generally introduced by hands-on activity. They collectively perform the activities and draw conclusion what they learned. They can also discuss with other groups. They also work together in problem solving. The classroom is made technology rich with laptop for each group, whiteboards around the classroom so that they can discuss with others or present their works. Instructor has to monitor students’ progress and help them to bring into the track. They also perform lab in the same room correlating the subject they are learning that week. There are regular quizzes which force students to prepare at home and help for feedback. Quite often I use Interactive Lecture Demonstration (ILD) in that class which enhances conceptual understanding. In ILD, students not only observe the demonstration, they have to think, predict what would happen, observe what really happens and discuss on the results. This helps to understand if there is any misconception. From my evaluation survey tests, average gain of the conceptual understanding in the SCALE-UP mode is about double of the traditional lecture mode.

7. Could you please share independent study/ projects with your students. Or any interesting moments with students. 
MLN:   There are many students I have mentored in independent study and research projects. They are mostly physics majors. Some students decided to go for graduate programs due to their involvement in the research projects.
I think my interesting moment with students would be in general physics class. There are always some students in the class who never had physics before. In their high school, they did not learn physics at all or do not know what happens in physics class. After a while they say, this course needs thinking and this professor really makes you think to understand in this class.

8. What have you found to be the roughest aspect of discipline, if any? 
MLN:   I think we are still not able to present physics in a simple way that everyone likes to know. Another rough aspect could be, although most people in science make significant investment of effort and life, their financial status in their life is mostly poor.

9. Tenure process is regarded as a daunting exercise. Could you please share tips on balancing life and work? 
MLN:   Tenure period is the time to prove you as a successful person in teaching, research and college service. Evaluation is done in most places based on these three categories. You have to show your significant contributions in all these sectors. Most institutes give more preference in research. However, poor teaching evaluation may also lead to denying from tenured. You have to check with your college and know how the evaluations are done.  Actually one has to spend more time on preparation for teaching in the beginning because you do not want to be a band professor in the class. In the mean time you have start thinking about research projects, writing proposals for grant, getting students in the lab for research projects. Some institutes evaluate every year for reappointment. One could be out before during the tenure track period. So you have to maintain the progress. Working on short term and long term projects in parallel is a useful idea. Some projects can be done in collaboration with others. Family support is a must. You cannot spend enough time (with them) until tenured. Family also needs to understand and cope with you for your success. There was a joke told in the orientation that tenure track professor does not see daylight until tenured.
Enjoying with the work including dealing with problems is the key to success. Once we enjoy with our work, it will be part of our life. Our life is successful if we are successful at work.

10. Sir, not being a professional interviewer, are there questions I have not asked that you wish I would have? Or anything to add? 
MLN:   There are lots of Nepalese physicists now in the USA working as post-doc. If anybody likes to discuss personally please do not hesitate to contact me. We have to increase this number as we did in the number of graduate students from Nepal. In order to get tenure track professor job, requirement has to be very well matched. Additionally, one has to compete with selected candidates in application process and interview process. One has to exhibit an outstanding quality to distinguish from others. So, it may need more pre-plans and quality works. If you are working as post-doc, my suggestions are, take opportunity of grant writing, teaching classes in undergraduate, mentoring students, designing your own research project and publishing articles.
Lastly, in order to improve quality of our work, we have to initiate research work while studying in Nepal. As a contribution to our motherland, I am proposing to establish a research fund to initiate physics research in Nepal. The fund will be used to support research projects in Nepal which can expand the research works and publish in international journals so that proposals can be developed for bigger grants. Contributions to the fund are collected from all physicists in the USA including graduate students. I think our small contribution every year will make a big change in our society.
Thank you Nabin ji.

NKM: Thank you for your time!  

This is an attempt to share successful Nepali physicists. The hope is to invite one personality every month. Please kindly suggest whom to invite next.