A Q&A with standout alumnus Sanak Mishra, former president of the Indian National Academy of Engineering.
Our alumni are leaders of industry. Sanak Mishra, former president of the Indian National Academy of Engineering, is one of our stand-out University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Materials Science and Engineering alumni.
Mishra earned a master’s in 1970 from UIUC followed by a doctorate in 1973. He became the founding member of the Research & Development Centre for Iron & Steel at Ranchi, a corporate unit of the Steel Authority of India Limited. In his 25-year stint at SAIL he worked his way up to managing director of its large integrated steel plant at Rourkela.
Mishra climbed his way up the ladder becoming group vice president and CEO of India Projects of ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker. He went on to become the first secretary general of the Indian Steel Association, where he helped establish India’s National Steel Policy and set up the Steel Research and Technology Mission of India.
In 2010, he was recognized with the Distinguished Merit Alumni Award. Mishra also authored an autobiography, “Sanak Mishra: An Autobiography,” in 2020 detailing his prolific scientific accomplishments and career.
Let’s chat with our all-star alumnus in a Q&A!
Q: What made you interested in materials science and engineering?
A: “Before coming to UIUC as a graduate student in 1968, I had done a bachelor of engineering degree in metallurgy at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. I had pursued this after obtaining an undergraduate honors degree in physics, with chemistry and mathematics as additional subjects.
“On both occasions I came to understand that exciting new developments were taking place in an interdisciplinary field that was being referred to as materials science and engineering. It is the interdisciplinary nature of the subject field that held my fascination and interest. I also thought I had the right academic background to pursue it.”
Q: Why did you choose MatSE at Illinois for graduate school?
A: “I had found out that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was not only one of the top universities in the world in the field of engineering and solid-state physics, (but) its graduate school of metallurgy, as it was then called, had a world-wide reputation as well. I was particularly interested in the physics of metals and how it exerted a strong bearing on the magnetic, electrical, electronic and mechanical properties of all materials. UIUC was a clear leader in the domain.”
Q: What are some of your fondest memories from your time at MatSE at Illinois?
A: “Professor Paul Beck, one of the greatest names in physical metallurgy, was my thesis advisor for (my) master’s and doctorate. I had the fortune of working with him as his research assistant for five straight years. Besides being a brilliant mind, he was (also) passionate about the research programs he had initiated. I was inspired by him and enjoyed working with him. I learned much from him, among other things the virtues of work ethics.
“Professor Charles Wert was the chairman of the department. He was a kind and supportive human being (and was) highly respected for his scientific accomplishments. I had the opportunity to take courses from professors Ted Rowland, Marvin Metzger and Howard Birnbaum, who were all famous in their own right. The weekly colloquium, delivered by eminent scholars from all over the world, opened my eyes to the most recent advances in materials engineering.”
Q: What kind of research did you conduct during your time as at Illinois?
A: “My research work at MatSE was on the nature and features of magnetism in alloys of transition metal elements. My experimental measurements went down to temperatures at and below liquid helium. We also collaborated with Simon Foner at the National Magnet Laboratory at MIT for certain measurements at high magnetic fields.
“My work with professor Beck led to establishing the presence of atomic, short-range order and magnetic clusters in dilute alloys of copper-iron and copper-nickel-iron. Because of the fundamental nature of the work and the significance of the results, we published several papers in physics journals.”
Q: What kind of research do you conduct now?
A: “Coming back to India from UIUC in 1973, I joined as a founder member of the Research & Development Centre for Iron & Steel at Ranchi, which had just been established as a corporate unit of the Steel Authority of India Limited, the country’s largest steel company.
“For the next 25 years, I was engaged in product and process innovations relating to steel. I may mention that in the year 1985, I delivered a symposium lecture (at) UIUC on my work on crystallographic textures in grain-oriented silicon steels. It was a proud moment for me as I was introduced by professor Beck, and professor Wert gave the concluding remarks. At RDCIS, along with my colleagues, I was able to take several patents. I received the National Metallurgist Award in 2003.
“Eventually, my career took a turn from research to technology planning and corporate strategy. My last stint (at) SAIL was as managing director of its large integrated steel plant at Rourkela. Subsequently I worked as (the) group vice president and CEO of India Projects of ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker. My last fulltime engagement was as the first secretary general of the Indian Steel Association, where I worked closely with the government of India in the formulation of the National Steel Policy and in setting up the Steel Research and Technology Mission of India.
“In 2018, I received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ministry of Steel. In 2019 and 2020, I served as the president of the Indian National Academy of Engineering when I interacted with the government of India on matters of science and technology policy. Currently I am focusing on future prospects of us(ing) green hydrogen for production of green steel.”
Q: How did your time at MatSE at Illinois prepare you for your career?
A: “MatSE gave me a strong foundation in the frontlines of science and in research methodology and structured learning techniques. It trained me in the art of pursuing an end result of meaningful and impactful value while being conscious of the larger picture. It also boosted my confidence in handling matters outside the realm of metals and materials. During 2015 and ‘16, I had the privilege of serving as the president of the University of Illinois Alumni Club in New Delhi.
Q: What advice do you have for current MatSE at Illinois students?
A: “Set for yourself a purposeful goal that explores the unknown. Work hard and with passion to achieve it.”
Q: What do you cherish most about your time at the U of I?
A: “This is where I met my future wife Veena Paralkar, hailing from Bombay, who was also a graduate student there. I might add that she received two master’s degrees at UIUC — one in library science and a second one in journalism and communication. After working for three years at City University of New York, upon our return to India she took up a successful career in information and documentation and corporate communication.”