Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani is a self-made, home grown technology developer who does not need that much introduction. He is the Professor and founder Chairperson of the Department of Biomedical Physics & Technology,University of Dhaka. Scientific Bangladesh is happy to obtain an interview from him, from a busy researcher like him. From this interview, people from different level can gain guidance, from senior researcher/supervisor to young graduates to policy makers’ of government and research organizations. Scientific Bangladesh expects every relevant quarter will make best use of his insight and experience.
1. Scientific Bangladesh: What has made you a researcher side by side being a teacher while majority of your colleagues are only teachers?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: If I answer in a nutshell, this happened because I did not want to do ‘research’ when I started my professional career, rather I wanted to do ‘something useful’ for our own people. On the other hand most of my colleagues wanted to do ambitious research as a continuation of what they did in advanced countries during their PhD work, which made them ending up simply as teachers.
Now to answer in a bit of detail, I need to go back to the thinking going inside my mind from an early date. When I was doing my PhD in UK (1974-78), I realized that the European countries have established a good quality of life for their own people mainly through technology. I also realized that the main ingredient of human civilization is the use of natural resources for the benefit of mankind, which is technology. This led me to think that the emancipation of our own people will not happen unless we apply technology to enhance their quality of life.
The next question that I put to myself was that who will do it? It led me to the answer – we have to do it ourselves; the Europeans will not do it for us, they are not responsible for my country. Since I am born as a Bangladeshi, it is my own responsibility to deliver the benefits of technology to the people of Bangladesh. I felt that unless people like me, who have learned and acquired technology, return home and try to apply technology for the enhancement of the quality of life of our own people, the lot of our people will never change.
I thought that I have only one life, and I want it to be meaningful. Therefore, it became my religious motive. I seemed to find a new meaning of the word, ‘Ibadat’ or religious submission. Most people would associate prayers, fasting, etc., to ibadat, but it dawned on me that these are not items of ibadat, rather these are activities to help me create and sustain my inner strength for the real ibadat. So what is real Ibadat? I found the answer in the Holy Quran as well. Allah wanted to create humankind as His ‘representative’. Therefore carrying out the responsibility of this representative should be the real ibadat. The next question is, ‘What is the responsibility of this representative?’ To me it is the creation of a harmonious universe - a harmonious society, a society that has in it people of all religious beliefs, creed, race or colour. Since I have a knowledge and experience of technology, my religion would be to fulfill the above objective through the use of technology. This commitment on the basis of my religious philosophy gave me the strength to carry out and sustain research in an environment which is not that research friendly.
I also tried to relate my situation to that of a family in poor Bangladesh. If a son tends to do well in studies at school, everyone else in the family sacrifices to support the study of that son. Even neighbours and relatives come forward and provide support. He is sent to good schools and colleges and eventually to a University. This happens while others in the family may remain half fed, remain not being educated. They may be selling lands and possessions as well, to educate that son. They have a faint hope that once the son gets educated he will be able to pull the whole family and the village up. Now suppose after getting a University degree the son says, ‘I can’t come home because you don’t have good roads, you don’t have electricity; I can’t live without a fan, you cannot provide the minimum of comfort that I am enjoying in the city, and so on’. Guess what would be the response of the family, ‘We couldn’t do it ourselves, that’s why we provided you with good education so that you may bring about the changes’. I realized that the whole of Bangladesh is my family. They toiled hard the whole day and sacrificed their comfort, even food and education to provide me good education (with the advent of the private Universities it is now easy to understand how much money my father spent for my education and how much was contributed by the people as a whole). The Commonwealth Scholarship that I received from UK was not given looking at me or my career, rather it was targeted to the enhancement of the poor people of Bangladesh where I was simply a medium. I felt that it wouldn’t be ‘moral’for me if I stayed back in the West, and therefore I decided to come back home immediately after the degree in spite of opportunities, even offers outside the country in my area of specialization (Microelectronics) which was a hot area at that time (and still is).
Looking at the thinking process of senior Bangladeshis staying back in the West, I realized that taking up a job in the West, even for a short time, will entangle me somehow in a chain of self-justifications that will not allow me to return. Therefore, in spite of having offers from abroad, and the fact that I had no job to come back to at home either, I returned home immediately after my PhD in 1978. I thought that with my technical ability, particularly in Electronics, I can carve out a living somehow, even if it means opening up a small repair shop.
Fortunately, Dhaka University still allowed ad-hoc appointments till that time and the then Chairman of the Physics department, Professor Muhtasham Hussain said that he liked my field of work and appointed me against a post of leave vacancy without going through any advertisement (incidentally, I once had applied in 1973 when 4 posts were advertised, and although none of the other candidates were above me in terms of examination results, I was not taken then).
I wanted to do something related to technology that could be useful to our people, as that is the aim with which I came back, and therefore, ‘research’ was not at all in my mind as I had mentioned before. I left Microelectronics totally giving the reasoning that we cannot put an IC chip in the market from Bangladesh in the next 20 years (it is more than 30 years now, and still we do not know whether we can, or whether we should, in another 20 years).
Professor Muhtasham Hussain at that time had switched from Nuclear Physics to Solar Energy research as it was more appropriate for our country, so I also joined him. I made solar water heaters, wind mills etc., from scratch. Meanwhile another senior teacher, Late Prof M Shamsul Islam, asked me one day to help himself and his childhood friend Dr. A Sattar Syed who were trying to carry out a research on bone healing using electro-magnetic stimulation. (Dr. Syed learnt about this new technique from a television programme and got interested). This gave me the opportunity to design an electronic bone healing stimulator for this work which was used in a hospital successfully for two years giving successful outcomes. In this way I was gradually drawn into research in the field of Biomedical Physics/ Engineering/ Technology. However, I set three conditions upon myself, i) my research should be target oriented, geared to the needs of our own people, and I should expect to see a result within five years or so; ii) I shall only do research in areas where I can make the specialized instruments myself so that I do not have to depend on expensive specialized equipment from abroad, and iii) I shall not try to go for a problem that even the West is finding difficult. I often used to quote the Bangla saying, ‘Haati-Ghora gelo tol, Bhera boley koto jol?’, meaning, ‘where elephants and horses have drowned, a sheep asks, ‘how deep is the water (as if it is prepared to attempt crossing the canal)?’ – an audacity which I did not think appropriate for me.
Some well wishers advised that I should do some ‘high class physics research’ otherwise I’ll not get promoted. They also commented, ‘wouldn’t your research outcomes appear silly if you use your crude homemade equipment? Can you publish papers with this type of work?’ My reply was simple, ‘I am not bothered about promotion, nor I am interested in publishing papers in scientific journals. I want to make something that may be useful to our own people.’
Although it was not my target, eventually I had many publications because of which I got appointed to higher positions early too (I joined as an Assistant Professor in 1978, became an Associate Professor in 1985 and a Professor in 1988). In the 30 years I was in the Physics department till 2008, more than 80 students did their M.Sc. thesis under my supervision, I have at present more than 60 peer reviewed publications, more than 35 conference publications, and more than 70 invited talks at home and abroad.
Of course I had to cross many obstacles too. The most important one was the financial hardship for bare survival. Occasionally the pressure forced me to think of going abroad, but Prof Islam always stopped me saying that ‘this country needs you’, occasionally giving me loans when I needed. My engineer wife supported the family as well which allowed me to concentrate on the work that I did. However, at a certain point she had to make a sacrifice to her career as our two children needed the presence of one of us at home. Prof Islam arranged a part time job for me through people he knew at this time of particular hardship.
Prof Islam also organized research funds from WHO and organized an academic link with Sheffield University, UK under the sponsorship of British ODA, through the British Council. All this allowed me to develop myself and our research activities with the help of M.Sc. students. The link with Sheffield was instrumental to our expansion in research. It was mainly an exchange programme. Although several other colleagues got benefits of this programme, somehow I alone seemed to have utilized the visits in a sustainable way. Seeing that I am interested in making everything from scratch, the British scientists went all out to help me in getting the expertise in the areas of my choice. They became very personal friends and even though the programme ended in 1992, we still have good communication and exchange of thoughts and ideas. The research programmes that I took up were added to, bit by bit, by M.Sc. thesis students, each working for hardly a year. I had to keep everything in my head, and continue the work by teaching a fresh batch of students each year who would again leave after one year, leaving a little addition to the previous work. After 30 years of work in this manner we got innovations in several items, and we were being acknowledged in international forums.
The above success in research eventually led to the creation of the new post graduate department of Biomedical Physics & Technology where I attempted to build up an environment for committed research at the level of Ph.D./M.Phil, not listening to colleagues in the Faculty of Science who tried to persuade me to start M.S. courses first rather than a PhD programme. I was apprehensive in the beginning whether I would get full time students, so accepted a few part timers. However, I had a feeling inside me that things should change with the quality of work that I could offer at that time. Eventually I found a few talented students who opted to work with me in spite of the fact that they could have made it to USA or any other advanced countries of the world with their examination grades. Some of them had to go through a lot of opposition at their homes. At present 10 PhD/MPhil students and 5 post graduate research fellows are working under my supervision. The University rules do not allow me to take more than 10, so the fellows are working with the hope of enrolment in future. I think one of my greatest achievements is in being able to attract these talented young boys and girls to work full time for research through the formation of a cohesive research group, who will carry on the flame of my efforts to the future. Thus the contribution of Prof Islam and the British link was instrumental in my making to the position where I am in today.
Side by side, I realized that if I do not commercialize the products that I develop, they will rot in the laboratory for ever. Therefore, I kept working at home outside office hours and tried to develop gadgets that the common people may need. I made a low cost emergency light from scratch and sold a few units, but it was not a success. Once a continuous high voltage of 400V occurred in our mains supply of 220V and damaged all electrical appliances in our house. Finding no protective device in the world market against such abnormal voltages, I designed a simple electronic device which gave a successful protection to such abnormalities and commercialized it with the help of two ex-students in 1989. I did not have any capital, small savings from my salary served as the seed money. The two students worked without any allowance or salary and the drawing room at my residence became an R&D centre and factory during daytime. My family had to bear this trouble for almost a year till we were financially able to start the initiative in a separate establishment. Thus I turned myself into a successful entrepreneur as well, and that with virtually zero capital. The students worked without any salary for about three months when I made the first sale and could start giving them a small allowance.
All these first hand engagements and efforts made me face various obstacles which I had to overcome through various innovations. Through this process the inner currents of our society and Government were revealed to me as all of these affected my efforts, and now I seem to be researching into almost everything that affects our life, not only science and technology. I now realize that philosophy and research are very important in every affair of the humankind, and it is the absence of these two that is causing most of the wrongdoings and failures of the modern world.
A University has to assimilate universal knowledge and disseminate this among its own population; side by side it has to create knowledge and disseminate it to the whole universe. Therefore, research is a fundamental character of a University side by side with its educational programmes. Students learn these all, remaining in very close association to the researcher-teachers, much like the ‘Guru-Shishya’ of the past. This is unlike schools and colleges which are designed to impart education only, to create necessary manpower for the future. Unfortunately, most of our universities have taken up the role of a college, that of teaching only, and I feel I have some clues now to answer why it happened.
i. In order to inspire children to education we have always given the wrong message that education will help them build their own career and will give them money and comfort in life. The old saying, ‘Lekha-pora korey jey, garee-ghora chorey shey’ carries this sense. Therefore, all our education makes us selfish, prepares us to use the education for our own benefit. In a recent gathering of the Commonwealth Scholars Alumni, I heard the chief guest saying that this scholarship is meant for building our own careers. I think this is a completely wrong view. The people of UK donated their money looking at the poor people of Bangladesh, not looking at me.
ii. When a person gets a PhD from abroad, s/he carries back a closed mindset for research. S/he thinks that continuing something similar to what was done abroad is the only way forward for research, as s/he thinks that research should always be at the cutting edge of Western knowledge. S/he does not realize that research is possible in various ways and if we were innovative, we could find topics of research appropriate to our own country, for which one does not need a huge expenditure either. Besides, we have to realize that a Ph.D. programme also gives us training for pursuing independent research, sticking to the same field is not essential. (As for me, I did not have biology in my SSC or HSC. Nor did I carry out PhD in Biomedical Physics/Engg or related fields, but now I seem to be successfully innovating in several areas of this new field, and I can talk and interact with doctors, speaking their ‘language’.)
iii. Carrying out research at the level of what one gets used to in an advanced country needs a huge investment, even high compared to their high income level. Those countries justify this expenditure since the outcomes of the research programmes are most probably going to boost their country’s economy, or help their own societies. Even these rich counties will not invest in research that will not help them in some way. On the other hand our researchers, on return from abroad, demand that this poor country has to allocate such huge sums to allow them continue with research that has either none or remote benefit to the people of this country. The scientists should realize that to fund their research, we have to grab the money from the mouths of the hungry millions. Unless we have a very clear idea that this research is going to help our people within a foreseeable future, this country cannot fund that kind of research. Till the people of the country gets three square meals a day, good shelters above their head, clothes to wear and a reasonable healthcare, we cannot fund research that are not directly or indirectly related to these goals of basic needs. The advanced countries have provided these basic needs to all their people, they can afford to play around a little with research at the borderline of science, not us right now. We need to appreciate that our agriculture scientists have contributed to a tremendous success in our country. Thirty years back our top scientists in Physics and Chemistry used to look down upon the agricultural scientists, but they persevered with small target oriented research starting at the level of the technology of our country. The resulting progress made by our farmers, still not using very high tech tools and equipment, is phenomenal, and should be a role model for research. The population has doubled since 1971, but we are almost self sufficient in food now, which was not so in 1971.
iv. For promotions, our Universities and research institutes mainly count the number of publications a person has, and give more weight to those in international journals. There is no clause to see whether the research has been done in this country or not. There is nothing to see whether the paper contributed to any benefit to our country, or its people or not. There is no clause to see whether a scientist has been able to establish a group or not. There is no clause to see how many PhD, M.Phil. or M.S. thesis students s/he has supervised locally. Therefore, the existing clauses only encourage scientists to think of research in terms of the advanced countries, which is not possible in this country. Therefore most of them go back to their Universities in the West to do some work for publication, which they need for their promotion, but end up doing no research here.
2. Scientific Bangladesh: How do you manage fund for research?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: The small regular funds normally provided by the University and sometimes by the Ministry of Science, and recently by the Ministry of Education were used to purchase generalized measuring equipment and tools like Oscilloscopes, Signal generators and computers, etc., which are not that expensive, and which last for 5, 10 years or more. Usually specialized equipment needed for research are of very high cost. Since I chose research topics where I could design and make our own specialized equipment, I needed a very small fund. Usually electronic components and raw materials needed to make specialized electronic equipment constitute a fraction of the commercial price of the whole equipment. Typically one needs components costing a few thousand taka only for an equipment which would have cost a few lakh taka if purchased commercially. The difference is even more for computerized equipment. I had developed a capability for designing electronic equipment through self learning, as a hobby. Through the British link I learned the techniques of computerized data acquisition (hardware and software) which was further boosted later through self-study and practice. This allowed me to make the specialized research equipment at very low cost. This is something that always keeps my research going. We can get our equipment repaired almost immediately if something goes wrong, and that at a very low cost, typically requiring to buy a few components worth a few hundred taka only. Now some of my students have shown great talents in designing electronic and computerized equipment.
Of course we received some funds from WHO in the mid eighties for three years, the British link from 1983 to 1992 allowed mainly exchange visits from both ends. Besides these, there was no major funding till recently when the success of our work made people interested to give us funding. For the last two years we are receiving a good funding from the International Science Programme of Uppsala University, Sweden; most of which I use up in paying scholarships and allowances to research students and research staff. Outside this, we got small funds for a year from UNESCO and some funds from a private corporate body, which gave the grant out of philanthropy and partly for its potential future advertisement.
3. Scientific Bangladesh: Where does major part of your research fund come from, home or abroad?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: As mentioned above, we needed very little funds, and a major portion of that was obtained from the University or from the Government initially. The main resource needed is the human resource, and the M.Sc. students contributed to this, for which we did not need any other funds. Sometime in mid-eighties we received small funds from WHO as mentioned before. The British ODA support received during 1983-92, mainly for exchange visits, not much for equipment, was very useful in developing my expertise. Since 1992 we did not receive any major support till 2011, and concentrated on building up our own capability. Only recently, since 2011, we are getting a good funding support from Uppsala University, Sweden, for which they found us through their scouting procedure and asked us to apply. Our previous success was therefore, behind this funding. I am spending majority of it after human resources and field trials rather than on equipment and appliances. Some limited funds were also received from UNESCO and from a private corporate body in Bangladesh in the recent times. At present ISP funding from Sweden is the major one. However, it needs to be clarified that we would have carried out research, may be at a reduced pace, even if no such special grants were available.
4.Scientific Bangladesh: Inadequate fund for research is a major problem in Bangladesh. What would you say in response to pointing fingers by many to this basic problem worldwide, not only in Bangladesh?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: My answer specially relate to research in science and technology. As mentioned above, I don’t think this is the greatest hurdle. As a scientist we can overcome these obstacles through ingenuity, through choosing appropriate research topics. As I hinted in mentioning the scenario of agricultural research in our country, the scientists went down to the level of technology that used to exist in the country and improved upon that level. Therefore, they did not need highly expensive machinery or equipment. Similarly all our small indigenous technology based industries have some tools and appliances for their work. If we decided to start target oriented research starting at their level, we could use whatever equipment these small entrepreneurs have, and would not need funds for very expensive equipment either. Therefore, if we had concentrated on our small industries, we could have done really useful research. If we had started in this manner 40 years ago, we would be in a much advanced footing today. Even if we start today, we can expect reaching some advanced level in another decade or so, but if we continue with the wrong concept of ‘research’ as we are doing now, we will be in the same sorry state one hundred years later. We also need to understand that our small industries will not come to us at this point in time since we have distanced ourselves from them in the past, and we have lost our credibility to them. Therefore, we need to go to them as friends, find out where they have problems, and offer solutions based on science and technology, initially, without asking for money. Once they find out that our research has given them benefit, they will come to us with money as well.
Most of us are under the false impression that the large industries should give money to the Universities for research. In Bangladesh, all the large industries use total foreign technology, fully turn-key projects. They do not need any help from the universities. They also do not need any science and technology graduates of the country, what they need is technicians to run these readymade machinery, as we need drivers to drive cars, and technicians to repair and maintain the car. One should appreciate looking at the history of the West that technology innovators like Cartwright, James Watt, Edison, Ford, Marconi, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates – turned themselves into entrepreneurs, and each of them started small to build up the huge industries of today. Therefore, we need to focus at the small indigenous technology based industries – either we have to help them without asking for any return initially, or we need to start small industries ourselves. Only then we will see success, and the blame game in terms of funds will become irrelevant.
Regarding lack of research funding worldwide, a recent exchange of ideas with a UK scientist revealed a new scenario. Most of the multinational industries have become very rich in the recent times, thanks to Globalization, and they have enough money to hire experts to do in-house R&D. Therefore, funding to Universities has gone down in the West too, and globalization in trade and commerce is responsible for this to a great extent.
5. Scientific Bangladesh: What are the areas you are researching in? What are your developed technologies that are being used in the respective fields?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: This main motivation of this department is to make available the benefits of modern science and technology in healthcare to the deprived people globally, particularly in the Third World through indigenous research efforts. 80% of global population live in the Third World and they are deprived of the modern development in healthcare technology. Conventional method of developing a new technology, patenting and commercilaisation through a limited number of companies has resulted in this undesirable situation. Therefore, we feel that each country should develop the capability for designing and developing healthcare technology on its own. This will allow manufacture and marketing of such products at affordable cost and will allow long and sustained use of such products through local maintenance and repair capability. We have also decided not to take patents on our inventions. Rather we will organise trial manufacture of our developed products locally. When the technology matures through this process, we will open the technology for others to learn and make. Therefore we started off developing low cost versions or improvisation of existing essential equipment, but this led us to innovating and developing some new technologies as well, which are the basis of our research. Efforts are being made to extend existing research activities giving emphasis on application.
Four items of research based on innovations of our group, which got international acclaim, are gaining momentum and are being pursued with vigour. These are described below.
i. Focused Impedance Method (FIM) for probing the human body
FIM is a low cost and easily manageable electrical method for probing the human body, having high potential in the diagnosis and detection of different diseases and disorders of the human body. The concept of FIM and the name both originated from this group. Some of the researches being carried out in the department are:
a. Development of single frequency FIM equipment by minimising errors, and to make it suitable for measurement on human patients in a clinical situation.
b. Development of dual frequency FIM equipment. This will be useful for the department’s research into the detection of pneumonia and of certain cancers.
c. Development of a microcontroller based instrumentation for automatic measurement of 4 electrode multi-frequency FIM.
d. Characterisation of breast tumour using FIM: Apreliminary study has been performed on about 20 subjects at a private hospitalto assess if FIM can be used to characterise breast tumours - whether malignant or benign. The results look promising. If successful this may become an alternative to biopsy. This research was taken up on a suggestion by a Bangladeshi scientist in the USA.
e. Development of a special soft electrode set, to be worn on the hand by a mother, to measure the respiration rate of babies without upsetting the baby. This will be essential to diagnose pneumonia in conjunction with heart rate and temperature. Necessary computerised data acquisition and software to extract the respiration rate has also being developed. This device is awaiting field trial. This research was taken up on a suggestion by an Australian Professor.
f. Development of a FIM system for detecting cancer of the cervix. A scientist in UK has already succeeded in this objective through a tetrapolar electric impedance measurement at several frequencies. FIM is expected to localise the measuring area to a smaller region. Besides, studies will be done to see whether measurement at only two frequencies can give adequate sensitivity.
g. Some initial success has been achieved in developing a technique to measure the thickness of subcutaneous fat layer in the abdomen using FIM. It is expected that this technique can be taken to an application phase in the near future. Abdominal fat layer is a risk indicator of several diseases like diabetes, heart attack, etc.
h. Theoretical work is being done to analyse the 3D sensitivity distribution for different electrode configurations. One aim is to find out if deeper organs inside the body can be focused using different arrangement of the electrodes.
i. As an extension of FIM, a Pigeon Hole Imaging (PHI) method is also being developed to give a low resolution image, suitable to locate the position of an organ, or to follow organs moving inside the body.
Some funding has been received recently from the Ministry of Education and from the International Science Programme of Uppsala University, Sweden for furtherance of the work on FIM. The potentials of FIM have attracted scientists from other countries too. Research on FIM has been initiated or is being planned in universities in UK, Korea and Norway. Students working with this group at Dhaka earlier got admitted in those Universities to do post graduate research on FIM.
ii. Distribution of F-Latency (DFL) as a new method in nerve conduction.
A peripheral nerve trunk consists of thousands of nerve fibres with different velocities, and for a proper diagnosis of nerve disorders the researchers throughout the world have been looking for ways to experimentally determine a distribution of conduction velocity (DCV) of the fibres. The only experimental method available earlier involved complex measurements and lacked accuracy, and was not suitable for a clinical setting.
Distribution of F-Latency (DFL), again a new concept and name originating from this group, appears to have provided a solution to the above measurement of DCV, as DFL has been logically established as an approximate mirror image of DCV. Therefore this innovation of this research group has opened up a new horizon in the study of nerve conduction. Researchers of this department have already been able to identify patterns in DFL that relate to neuropathy due to cervical and lumbo-sacral spondylosis. Using this pattern identification they are now carrying out research to determine the effectiveness of DFL as a diagnostic tool, particularly for detecting such neuropathy at an early stage. A non-profit organisation established by the teachers of this department and some ex-students have been providing regular clinical service for measurement of nerve conduction in the country since 1988 using computerised equipment made by themselves. The real life data obtained through these measurements have helped the research of this department, and again new method DFL, developed in this department, has helped improve the diagnostic quality of this clinical service.
Earlier DFL was performed on about 20 subjects and those demonstrating DFL patterns identified to relate to cervical spondylosis were further examined through X-ray and MRI. Almost all of these cases were found to have problems through this study although many of them were young in age and did not have any symptoms. Thus DFL appears to be an early indicator of such disorders. Farm Fresh, a concern of Akiz group has provided partial funding for this research.
It was possible to convince a Medical researcher in Singapore General Hospital to take up DFL for detecting cervical spondylotic neuropathy. They carried out DFL study on 24 nerves of 12 patients and also provided us with the diagnosis based on MRI. A very good correlation was observed. Recently we have carried out a double blind trial with the collaboration of a local private hospital where 62 nerves of 31 subjects have been tested both using DFL and MRI. The results have been combined at the end which has established DFL as a very satisfactory and cost effective technique in detecting cervical spondylotic neuropathy. We hope the whole world will accept DFL as a first line screening test for peripheral neuropathy eventually. Besides Singapore, Nottingham University in UK has also initiated a PhD programme using DFL and its correspondence with new imaging techniques of MRI.
International Science Program of Uppsala University of Sweden has recently provided funding to extend this research.
iii. Provision of safe drinking water using Solar Energy and other innovative methods:
We innovated a very low cost technique and its variations in late nineteen eighties to pasteurise water using solar energy. This uses bamboo trays, hay and polythene bags or sheets, all available widely. A simple method to collect pure rainwater for drinking, again using bamboo frames and polythene sheets was developed. All these were designed so that village women can install the devices in their courtyard. These can also be installed on banana plant rafts used during the floods. Even flood water may be rendered drinkable using the solar method. These innovations can save lives of rural people throughout the globe, particularly during floods and other natural disasters. A funding from UNESCO was received in 2011 to disseminate this techniques, and we prepared and published two illustrated colour booklets, one in bangla and the other in english, and a brief handout in Bangla. Severel thousands of the bangla booklet and handout have been distributed among people who matter throughout Bangladesh.
We have carried out extensive microbiological studies recently of the water treated using our techniques and these all proved the efficacy of our innovation. Furthermore, the effectiveness of different variations of the innovated techniques, and some new methodologies are also being studied. This work is being carried out jointly with the Centre for Advanced Research (CARS), Dhaka University.
The word is getting round. Recently a student from Uppsala University, Sweden has come to work in this department for her Masters thesis on this solar pasteurisation device. Engineers without Borders, an international organisation has requested us to organise summer schools on this technique where they want to send engineers for training.
Hopefully, this technique will possibly become a life saver throughout the world.
More than 80% of the global population, living in third world countries like Bangladesh, live in villages. Due to practical situations it is a far cry to expect these people to have the services of an expert doctor for their medical treatment directly. Telemedicine using the modern technological innovations of computers, internet and mobile phones is coming up as a solution, and many groups are working in different parts of the world. In this system a patient in a remote village can get the consultation of an expert doctor sitting in a city hundreds or thousands of miles away through such communication facilities. In Bangladesh the health ministry has established computer video links through internet to 800 health complexes spread throughout the country with such an aim, and doctors sitting in Dhaka can virtually see a patient and talk to him or her to prescribe necessary treatment. Providing a few computer connected diagnostic instruments at the rural end of the network, the quality of this service could be improved significantly, but procuring such technology from foreign producers is prohibitively expensive, in addition to the potential problem of maintenance and repair. In order to provide an indigenous and affordable solution this department took up a project last year. Through consultation with the health ministry and other stakeholders the following five digital instruments were designed and developed, together with necessary computer software for data acquisition and transfer through internet.
a) Digital Stethoscope
b) Digital Microscope
c) Digital X-ray view box
d) Digital colposcope (for detecting cervical cancer)
e) Digital ECG (12 lead, diagnostic quality)
Expert physicians examined the devices and have been satisfied with the performances. For its field application, discussions are going on with the ministry and some other organizations. Some NGOs have already initiated telemedicine programmes based on these equipment made by us. Some of the above items are also being procured by doctors and clinics as standalone equipment, not only for telemedicine. Farm Fresh brand of of Akiz Group partially funded this project.
v. Low Cost equipment
Besides the above research areas we also made several low cost versions of equipment that are being used by patients, clinics and hospitals. These are:
a. Anti-Sweat, an electrical equipment (iontophoresis) for the treatment of excessive sweating of palms and soles (Hyperhidrosis). Several hundreds of patients have been using this equipment at home over the last 18 years or so.
b. Muscle and Nerve Stimulator, for physiotherapy. Physical Medicine specialists, physiotherapists and hospitals (including BSMMU) in Bangladesh over the last 15 years or so.
c. Computerised Dynamic Pedograph: for getting dynamic measurement of foot pressure distribution under the soles of the feet. This is particularly needed to prevent eventual ulcer, gangrene and amputation of diabetic patients who do not have nerve sensation in the feet. A hospital in Karachi, Pakistan is using such a device since about three years, and we have made two more for their other hospitals. We have recently made and installed one unit at the Footcare Division of BIRDEM, Dhaka, which was paid for by Farm Fresh brand of Akij Group.
6. Scientific Bangladesh: What type of research facilities/ infrastructures you have developed over years and how?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: We have a very limited space (about 2000 sqft) available to us at present and about 15 PhD/MPhil students and Research Fellows are working through an efficient utilization of space. We have an electronic design and development laboratory together with a small mechanical workshop. Many of the facilities are manned by our students. Some of the hardware fabrication is done outside at commercial workshops. Facilities are added in-house as demand is created. Two students are specifically engaged in the development of dedicated software for computerized instrumentation. We have computers for almost each student/research fellow, with internet and Wi-Fi facilities. We hope to get another 2500 Sqft within a short time which will enable us to expand further.
We have access to an open space where we carry out research on low cost solar water pasteurization devices innovated by us. We collaborate with the Centre for Advanced Research in Sciences (CARS) of Dhaka University for microbiological studies on water treated using the above methods.
Most of the equipment that we need for research on Focused Impedance Method has been developed by us and we have several of these units, and plan to make more for different applications. We offer routine clinical services for nerve conduction at a local hospital using computerized equipment developed by us. Of course we procured some units of commercial ECG, EMG and EEG equipment, but these are mainly used to provide as a secondary calibration for our home made equipment, and to give guidance to our students on the expected design of equipment. Occasionally for special research we use these equipment.
Right from the beginning of our work in 1978, we have been carrying out research in collaboration with local hospitals. We have been able to maintain collaboration with several other hospitals and doctors since then for joint research and field trial. Recently some NGOs have joined us for trying out our telemedicine systems in the field. Now that some foreign Universities and research groups have taken up research work on our innovations, we take all this to be extensions of our research infrastructure.
Contrary to traditional concepts which give emphasis on equipment and tools for infrastructure, I feel human resource is the main ‘infrastructure’ needed for research, and I give more importance to my students than material facilities. Therefore, I spend the major part of our grant money after scholarships and allowances rather than in buying equipment.
7. Scientific Bangladesh: How many researchers (PhDs and Masters) have you developed by this time? What qualities you focus to develop in the researchers who work with you?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: So far about 90 students did their Masters thesis under my supervision (alone or under joint supervision), about 80 of them when I was in the Physics Department till 2008. While in Physics, two students did PhD and one student completed M.Phil under my supervision. I was also joint supervisor of several M.Phil students of the then IPGMR (present BSMMU). In the new department, 10 students are doing their PhD/MPhil research under my supervision and one of them just got his PhD.
The qualities that I would like to inculcate among my students include all the things that we touched before and include the following.
i)motivation through invoking a purpose to life,
ii)capacity to comprehend problems from a depth,
iii)ability to make things from whatever resources are available, or that which can be acquired without much difficulty (which calls for improvisation and innovation),
iv)ability to turn technological innovations into usable finished products, that can be handled and used by common people,
v) ability to manufacture and market products not with greed, but with a sympathy and love for others,
vi) ability to embrace all human beings with love and trust that calls for sharing of knowledge and techniques so that others can utilize the benefit of our innovations (for this reason we are not applying for patents on our innovations),
viii)being a proactive social person and a good human being.
The PhD program that keeps a student for several years with me allows me the opportunity to inculcate the above values, which was not possible with Masters students earlier who had less than a year to concentrate on a research project only. Besides, I have plans that have given possible employment hopes to students after their degrees, hopes that are necessary in view of the realities of the world.
8. Scientific Bangladesh: If the government had asked for your suggestions/advice for scientific advancement of Bangladesh, what would be three advices you would make as a researcher?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: i) Scientific advancement is intimately linked to the development of a society based on a scientific and technological culture, and this in turn is dependent on large scale availability of relevant and affordable products for the enhancement of the quality of life of the common people through a proliferation of small industries based on homegrown and indigenously acquired technology. Historically this sector has always been suppressed in order to serve the interests of rich and influential importers. This situation has not changed so far, therefore this sector needs special support through an unbiased, wise and transparent policy formulation. The foremost requirement at present is to allow these small industries to be profitable by having comfortable price competitiveness against imported foreign products through proper taxation policy, which includes tax rates on products and their raw materials at import, and that at manufacture. It is necessary to free the entrepreneurs from the perennial harassment by all sections of corrupt Government officials, particularly from the taxation department and from the law and order organizations taking the taxation system as an opportunity for their corrupt interests. This needs immediate waiver of all taxes and VAT from the small industries based on indigenously acquired and homegrown technology.
ii)Establishment of a service in the name of ‘Small Industry Extension and promotion office’ under the industries ministry (in a way similar to the existing Agriculture Extension Office) where our science and technology graduates can take up jobs to help the small industry sector improve their technology and entrepreneurship. This division will be there to help and support the entrepreneurs as friends and guides, not as a regulating authority. This will allow our science and technology graduates, produced at considerable cost to the nation, to be useful to the country, and to put a brake to the expensive ‘brain drain’. (We need to remember that these graduates have virtually no role to play in the existing large industries in Bangladesh which fully depend on foreign technology).
iii)Promotion of PhD level research in the Universities on problems relevant to our country by providing incentives and preferences to local PhDs through appointments in jobs. The University teachers should also be evaluated in respect of their contribution in producing PhDs locally and in contribution to local industries and agriculture, not only through publications in scientific journals. (Only Masters level research is not helping the nation significantly because a student only gets less than a year to do research which is not adequate to develop necessary expertise and to complete a research to fruition.)
9.Scientific Bangladesh: What is your suggestion for young graduates who want to be researchers?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: (I am answering this question addressing the young people directly, irrespective of whether they have a job in a research organization or not.)
I believe each of you has the talent and capability to become a researcher, and you can do that at home. If you are employed in a research institution, obviously you have more openings, but unless you know how to start with whatever you have, you will always end up blaming others. You have to take charge of your life and work yourself.
Another very important thing is to have patience. Don’t get disillusioned by popular sayings like, ‘if you do not achieve something by the age of 40 you are gone’. Also don’t try to get publicity too soon. Listen to the ancient sayings, ‘when a fruit ripens, its aroma spreads automatically’. Wisdom and local culture of ancient civilizations like ours have many things to offer for a sustained world compared to many of the immature arguments and philosophies coming from the recently developed West, which is increasingly putting pressure on the sustainability of the planet itself.
Don’t think that the whole world will come up with open arms if you have a brilliant idea. An idea is not enough. You need to demonstrate its success through your own efforts first, for which you will have to commit your own resources initially. Only when you succeed you will find that appreciation, funds and supports are coming automatically, proving the ancient saying mentioned above. After more than 30 years of continued work I am finding myself in such a situation now, and this interest of ‘Scientific Bangladesh’ for this interview of mine is also an example of the spreading aroma.
You need to be realistic too. You need a financial support to live. Therefore, take up any job that will give you survival and a little to spare. Here are some tips for taking a path towards successful research, from any background.
i)Don’t get bogged down by high sounding research. Think of doing something simple, something useful for yourself, your own family or for people around you. Think of a technology that solves a burning problem in the lifestyle of your family. After you solve such a problem through the innovation or adaptation of a gadget you will find that others have use of it too, and you can possibly sell it to them. Keep a reasonably good margin, don’t sell your products at cost price. You will need this margin to sustain yourself and for doing further research which will be necessary as you go along. When you have sold a few you will face complains, something went wrong under certain circumstances, something was not handle well, or something should have been designed in another way, and so on. You have to promptly respond those issues, and for this what you need is research; to find out why things went wrong, how to quantify some measures of quality, etc. This will help you to rectify the errors, and to improve the product quality. Others will start copying you but your research will give you a lead which would be difficult to beat. Besides, you will have to compete through product design, quality control, after sales service, advertisement, etc. All this will create a healthy competition which will contribute to a development of the whole society. You can use the money to continue research in order to improve the quality of your product, and to develop other useful items of greater complexity. At one time you will find that you can survive on the margin earned and you can leave your job that you took for survival; so much so that you can possibly provide jobs to others. Besides if you remain creative and allow the creativity of your associates to flourish you will find yourself at regional or world leadership in a certain item or items after a decade or two. You will find that what you are doing is quite sophisticated and admired by others.
ii)Think of doing something that is achievable with your own knowledge and expertise, with resources that you have, or that may be available to you without much difficulty, and ‘start doing’. I emphasize this phrase, ‘start doing’ because many new ideas come only when you start doing; you possibly could not have thought of these if you only kept on planning in your mind. Don’t be too ambitious at the beginning; try to be content with a simple item initially.
iii) The above approach will most possibly give you an easy success which will give you satisfaction and a feeling of achievement, and will build up your credibility among people you know. When people find out that you can do something really useful, they will come forward with appreciation, and monetary support may come as well, even without asking.
Let me give an example to the above mentioned suggestions. Suppose you have a refrigerator at home and you want to keep the water that you carry to your office in a plastic bottle cool for a few hours. You can do this by covering the bottle using thick polythene or polystyrene foam (commonly known as cork sheet), and finish the outside with any material, a jute bag or a plastic bag. Now you should do some research with this low cost flask. Many young people make this type of items for science fair, but what they do not do is research. For your research, take some measurements; determine how the water temperature increases with time at a particular air temperature, typical for an office. Then change the thickness of the insulation and change the material; find out the temperature change with time. Then try to apply your knowledge of science to explain the results. This will help you carry out further changes in design and measurements. Based on the above results decide which material and which thickness you would choose by optimizing cost, size, user-friendliness, aesthetics, etc., for your final design.
So you have done a research. Did it demand a lot of money?
When you start using the product yourself, you will find that others are asking for it. Start selling it and follow the procedure I mentioned briefly before. You don’t know where you will end up. Ideas for newer products and innovation will come as you go along.
If you are in a research organization, try to choose a similar item for research. When you achieve success on a simple item, your seniors will also get interested. This will help you in changing their outlook to research. Try to convince them for taking up pilot scale manufacture and sales of your product from the organization. I understand initially this may prove difficult, but try to convince fellow young researchers too and motivate them into taking up similar target oriented research, and the collective pressure may bear fruit. If no one shows interest, make the item at your home and try selling it informally to friends and relatives and use the margin in further research, at home in such a case. Save all the money that you earn for further expenses which you will need soon for expanding your work. I don’t feel this is wrong/unethical since this action of yours will benefit the whole nation which is more important than what your office seniors think right. Otherwise all your research outcomes will rot in the laboratory. If you look at BCSIR, most items developed there were never manufactured. So all money spent by the nation in developing these items eventually went down the drain.
If you find that your product has a potentially good market try to set up a small company where you will use the saved money. My advice would be not to take any friends or any moneyed person as a shareholder. If someone gives a gift, or a simple loan, you may take it but don’t allow anyone else to dictate your business. You know the best about your product, you know how to modify it if need arises, you know the best what your capabilities are. Many such efforts ended even after success in business simply because of partnership problems. Many well wishers will tell, ‘You are a scientist, you don’t do business. Give your product to a businessman’. I have learned the lesson the hard way. I have tried all these avenues; all failed till I turned myself into a part time entrepreneur when I succeeded. My first successful factory was the drawing room of my residence. Now looking at the global history, I find all successful technological businesses were initiated by the innovators themselves. Microsoft. Apple computers, IBM, Sony, Marconi, Ford, Edison, Cartwright, James Watt – all tell the same story. There is no other alternative.
An industry growing on own R&D can understand and realize the value of research and of patience. Scientists of later generations may get support from such industries. However, in our country, in fact, in the whole of the Third World large or medium industries based on homegrown R&D do not exist. All the rich businessmen in our country are either traders or entrepreneurs of industries based on fully foreign technology. They expect return to their investments very quickly, they will not have the patience to see your product mature and succeed. Your product is your ‘baby’, you will leave no stones unturned to see that it succeeds, and this commitment is very essential in the successful marketing of a product.
10.Scientific Bangladesh: Do you think different professional bodies of scientists are playing their due role? What are your suggestions for the leading professional organizations of scientists?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: I think the answer can be easily deduced from what I have talked about so far. Only the agricultural scientists have contributed successfully in research in our country as their work was target oriented and they started from the technology level existing among the farmers in this country. Scientists in most other fields’ think of research in terms of high sounding ‘research’ that they have seen abroad, not the one that we should do here, and they carry the same wrong views to their professional bodies. Therefore, contributions of these scientific professional bodies have remained insignificant so far. They have to change their concepts and views of ‘research’ based on the opinions I have put forward through this interview. I feel our youth will understand this faster than their elders. Once this happens, changes will happen in Bangladesh like magic, because I feel this country has one of the highest concentrations of talent and skill. We do not deserve to remain poor or backward, and the time is ripe to look forward to this change.
11. Scientific Bangladesh: Have we missed any point that you would like to share with our readers?
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: Yes, I’ll add a couple more questions in the following pages.
a)Question: Did I think of employment of my students after they get their degrees?
There is virtually no place in Bangladesh where the expertise of students doing a PhD with me would be fully utilized. So I had to think of their future as well. Besides, I don’t want them to be lost to this country after so much effort going after them. I want their expertise to continue in helping our people, and the other deprived people of the world.
Therefore, together with my ex students, we had a society registered in the name of ‘Relevant Science and Technology Society, Bangladesh (RSTS,B) in 1996 through which we have been carrying out some dissemination activities in the past. Students had been taking part in some of these activities at certain times. This also gave us some income to cover some of the expenditures. Recently we got a company registered under article 29 of Company Law where no one is a shareholder, and no one gets any share of the profit. It will do business and earn profit, but this will be reinvested in the company or will be used to fund research at our University department (BMPT), at RSTS,B, or at any other organization, or for any other good cause. The name of this company is ‘BiBEAT Ltd’ (a name brought from the abbreviation of ‘Bangladesh Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Appropriate Technology’). Through BiBEAT we will make trial marketing of products that will give us the opportunity to improve the quality through simultaneous R&D. Side by side it will give the opportunity of employment and income. Again, under RSTS,B we are planning to initiate a centre with the name, ‘Centre for Technology Equalisation (CTE)’. The name stemmed from my realization that the economic disparity in the world is mainly due to technology disparity starting from early times. Therefore, unless we can bring equalization in technological capability of nations, economic parity will never happen. The products that will be sold through BiBEAT will get matured in technology within a few years. We will then invite people with technical background from the Third World to come, stay at CTE and teach them the technology of the successful and matured products, right from R&D to manufacture and marketing. Then they will be able to make and sell these products in their own countries at affordable costs and will be able to give sustained service through local maintenance and repair. This will also allow them to incorporate their own ingenuity into the products. Also we expect experts from technically advanced countries to give part of their times at CTE, to help CTE with newer technologies and ideas. Therefore, CTE is going to contribute to a larger global cause. CTE will mainly function with donations, and BiBEAT may be one of the donors too.
Most of the students completing a PhD programme will be offered to carry on her/his research at CTE or BiBEAT through leading an income generating project based on her/his expertise. This will allow her/him to earn for several others in the group in addition to her/himself. I myself am planning to engage myself full time in these two organization after my retirement from the University in about two years (of course I will continue advising my successors at the University department). I have a dream that both CTE and BiBEAT will provide opportunities to hundreds of PhDs, and may become models for the whole of the Third World.
b) Question: How am I preparing my students for the above future?
Answer: The PhD programme is allowing me to interact with my students personally for a longer period without the pressure of finishing something at a close margin of time. I make myself available to all of them most of the working day and am easily accessible. I try to act as a friend, not as a teacher, which helps us solve problems together. Through this association we combine the merits of both young and old.
Our department also has a multidisciplinary atmosphere. We have students from Physics, Applied Physics, Electronics & Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Medicine and Microbiology. Sometimes when I discuss problems of research with one student, some others are usually present and they contribute through suggestions based on their individual expertise and experience. This enriches our research and we are coming up with improved solutions.
With the PhD programmes I am trying to develop an independent leadership in each of the students, bringing out their strengths through my personal observation and individual tutoring. They are encouraged to understand the basic science of a technology and build up the capability to develop the necessary instruments. Some are specializing in hardware while some in software, in order to carry out the target research and/or applications. Side by side each student is assigned some design and development work on products that can be sold. This gives them the realization that laboratory research is not the end of a project, it has to go through further R&D to make it suitable for delivery to the people, and that it is necessary to design a product, its housing, its manuals, etc., in a way that it is cost-effective and user friendly. Besides, this will also generate income, when we start selling these products commercially through the company mentioned above. This will give the students a confidence that we can stand on our own if we have the knowledge and expertise. Our students will also be involved in decision making in this new company and will get an opportunity of being employed after their degrees as mentioned above.
Trial marketing of products through the new company will reveal weaknesses in the technology of the products through customer feedback and the students will be involved in the correction phase too. Thus they will go through a subsequent process of maturation of technology which is an essential part of development of a product. Therefore, my focus is not only in research, but in the whole process of taking the benefits of research to the people. This is very important since no industry exists in Bangladesh that can manufacture and commercialise a new technology based product which needs further R&D for maturation. In fact the same situation exists in most of the Third World. I also put forward my ideas that technology innovators have to become entrepreneurs too, and I am preparing my students with that focus.
It needs to be highlighted that we are not applying for patents on any of our inventions, as we aim for an equalization of technological capability throughout the whole world through an open source concept. This is again a philosophy our students are getting acquainted with, contrary to prevalent notions and practices.
Computer technology is changing very fast and without a constant updating and experimentation it is difficult to keep abreast of recent developments, which I tried through the last decades. Even then it is becoming difficult to follow all the very latest techniques as I am aging, and some of my students are coming up with expertise in these newer techniques to carry the task forward. However, my expertise and experience helps in guiding them to the desired paths when needed.
I try to express my appreciation openly for any small achievement of my students which I think goes a long way in building their self confidence, and motivation for work. However, I never hesitate to tell them where, in my opinion, they went wrong, through appropriate logic and reasoning. I try to do this without hurting their self dignity, as I think this is the most valuable treasure that one has to uphold to build up an individual, and to create a harmonious society. In some cases it may turn out that I was wrong and the student was right, and therefore, I always keep that in mind, and never force my ideas or opinions. Besides, I immediately accept if it turns out that my ideas were wrong. I think this openness is very important in building up a healthy teacher-student relationship.
When some mistake is detected we try to follow the golden rule, ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’. We analyse what went wrong without blaming the person through whom the mistake happened. I always start with a premise that the mistake was unintentional and this approach has improved our social relationship. All this has also contributed to an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, and we work together like a family. Small skirmishes between people in my group do happen sometimes but the overall atmosphere makes them sort things out by themselves mostly.
I wanted to build a society based on mutual trust from the very beginning. Everybody in our department has keys that allow them free access to every room including mine. Cash for all contingency expenditures is kept in a locked Almirah but anyone asking for money is given an easy access to this reserve so that s/he can pick up the necessary amount her/himself; just leaving a note or a cash memo is all that one has to do. I find that this has worked out very well, and everybody acts responsibly with full trust. I feel an immense pleasure to find that my understanding of human psychology seems to be working in real life.
All the students are in the age group of my own children, and this is a great advantage for me as I look upon them in the same way. In fact, interaction with my students turns out to be more than that with my own children in terms of time, as well as in terms of professional discourse.
We discuss various social or religious issues during our informal discourses, and during lunch, which we all take together. We try to maintain a close interaction so that our students become aware of their social responsibilities and become good human beings. I also wanted to spread my realization that trust and honour given to a fellow human being brings out the best of that person, whatever be the social position. Everyone in our department including the lowest paid staff is given due respect by everyone else, the respect due to the age of a person is also given a high value.
I feel this PhD programme in the new department has enabled me to open up myself to my students more than teaching at any other level. I had a good interaction with my M.Sc. thesis students earlier as well, but it was not so much intimate, nor did it allow so much of time. The PhD programme has given me the opportunity to convey the knowledge and experience that I gathered over my 63 years of life to the new generation, which in fact is the essence of life, the root of the progress of human civilization. I feel good that what I could gather myself over the decades will not go in vain, there will be at least a dozen carrying that burning torch to the future. I consider this as my greatest achievement in life.
The pleasure I get from this association is immense and both my family, consisting of a supporting wife, an Engineer herself, and my daughter and son, and all my students made my life full, and I owe my happiness in life to all of them.
12. Scientific Bangladesh: Thanks for your time.
Dr. K Siddique-e Rabbani: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to bring out the thoughts that accumulated deep in my heart over the years, which will now remain recorded for our progeny.