Member Profile: Dr. R. Venkatesan

September 22, 2020

Scientist G and Head of Ocean Observation Systems, National Institute of Ocean Technology Ministry of Earth Sciences, Chennai, India –

Dr. R. Venkatesan

MTS: Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you attend school (grad/undergrad/etc.)? Were you always interested in the marine sciences? 

Dr. R. Venkatesan (RV): I completed early education in a remote village Kallal and later in a city Madurai in India, which is a very famous Temple Town and one of the oldest cities of India known for its jasmine-flower plantations. After graduating, I moved to Goa to work at the National Institute of Oceanography. Goa was a Portuguese colony before independence and continues to be visited by a large number of international and domestic tourists each year for its famous white-sand beaches.

I gained extensive practical field experience during my sailing days on the Indian Ocean – each voyage with an average span of 45 days (longest in those days) in Indian research vessels (RV), British, Norwegian, and German RVs. One of my most memorable sailing experiences is the maiden voyage of then newly built India Research Vessel Sagar Kanya (currently 36 years old) from Germany to Malta via Kiel canal, Rock of Gibraltar, and Sicily. I had other interesting sailings to Djibouti-Mauritius, Colombo, Diego Gratia, Maldives, and recently to Svalbard Arctic to deploy the Indian Arctic Observatory at Kongsfjorden. 

During this tenure, I got qualified with a Master’s degree and Doctoral Degree at Indian Institute of Science Bangalore ꟷ one of the premier universities in both India and worldwide. During my Ph.D., I pursued research on materials for deep-sea applications. I have continued my education, earning a post graduate diploma in maritime law last year as well as a post graduate diploma in Marine Pollution management and International Business management.

The turning point in my professional career was my tenure as Regional Coordinator of South Asian Seas under the UNEP Regional Seas Programme in Sri Lanka. One of the key achievements in this role was that I successfully resolved the impasse pending for nine years on signing of the regional agreement between Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka with support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

In life, I am a strong believer of the five Ps: Passion, Patience, Persistence, Perseverance, and Positive thinking. This helped me to re-establish Indian moored buoy network from zero to a full network of 17 buoys along with tsunami buoys sustaining for a decade.

In the last decade, I have been fortunate to successfully execute few societal projects – planting 20,000+ tree sapling plantations in Gaja cyclone affected areas, fish aggregation devices, and lobster and crab cage culture devices for fishermen to name a few. I am a strong advocate of bridging the gap between academia and industry. To this end, I frequently interact with students through seminars, guest lectures, organizing competitions like student autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) competition, Ocean Technology Student Camp, and teach ocean law and ocean instrumentation at premier graduate schools (IIT Madras, IIT Kharagpur & IIT Bhubaneswar)

MTS: Talk to us about the importance of both success and failure in shaping your career.

RV: It is very common to hear only success stories in business, academia, entrepreneurship etc. today. I am a firm believer in the principle that learning from failures is equally important. Through my journey, I have come to realize that only failures teach us to learn and enjoy the success much better. Everyone makes mistakes in life, what is important is to reflect on those. Mistakes + Reflection = Success. I have my own list of failures of losing a few international scholarships to pursue my Doctoral degree, I succeeded in my seventh attempt at the age of 30 when my sons were at age 11 and five. I would then go on to lead delegations to United Nations meetings at UN Headquarters, UNEP, World Meteorological Organization (WMO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), and I currently hold the Chair of GOOS Regional Alliances and Vice Chair of WMO Study Group of Ocean Observations and Infrastructure Systems, and visited 40 countries. He is also a prestigious Fulbright Scholar and worked in University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, USA as a Honorific Scholar. He is also PI for two Indo US collaborative programs with NOAA/ONR and is evolving one more Currently he is associated with 6 professional societies either as a Chair/ Past Chair/ Executive Committee member such s IEEE/ IEEE-OES/NACE etc

MTS: Who were some of the most important mentors during your career?

RV: To me, a mentor is a role model who understands and supports our journey and helps us grow professionally. I am fortunate to have two influential mentors in my life without whom I could not be where I am today.

  • Dr. Dwarakadasa – Professor and my Ph.D. Supervisor who after retirement has become a successful entrepreneur and CEO of Karnataka Hybrid Micro-devices Ltd – a manufacturing company consisting of 250+ employees
  • Prof. Ravindran, founder Director of National Institute of Ocean Technology, Co-Supervisor for my Ph.D. degree. He successfully established a premier Ocean Technology Institute in India (NIOT) which has completed 25 years of service.

These two personalities are known for their exceptional dedication, immense contribution to their respective fields and selfless service to society.

 MTS: What are the marine technologies that you feel are in most need of investment and development?

RV: My specialization is on ocean observation tools. I have authored a book titled Observing the Oceans wherein I strongly advocate providing cost-effective affordable technologies to monitor the ocean even better within exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Many countries feel that the cost of such equipment is equivalent to that of an expensive car which results in limited understanding of the ocean within EEZ. Currently, less than 50% of EEZs are monitored in real-time – a reality that affects forecasting and early warning to save lives and accompanying infrastructure. Futuristic marine technologies could be automation in observation and data telemetry in affordable pricing.

MTS: What advice might you give to those starting out in ocean science and engineering?

RV: The ocean component of the earth system is still not understood in its entirety. Google has recently announced a new technique to identify under seabed earthquakes and tsunamis. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data are going to play a major role in ocean sciences. There is a need for diversified knowledge along with a specialization in a field and ability to deliver end-to-end solutions for cross-cutting issues in the Earth system science. The challenges are continuously growing due to ever-growing coastal population, coastal disasters, seal level rise, coastal erosion, etc.

MTS: What technologies most excite/interest you currently in the fields of ocean science and engineering?

RV: I have a deep interest in autonomous ocean observation tools, gliders, and AUVs. Further importance of ocean monitoring ꟷ from weather forecasting to tsunami early warning  and observations of the oceans play a critical role in our daily lives. But by drawing on a variety of observational tools, scientists are slowly developing a better picture of how the ocean is changing and how it might continue to change in future.

MTS: What does MTS need to do to ensure that it remains MTS remains vital, growing, and relevant in the future?

RV: I feel the opportunities are plenty, though one must choose the field of his/her interest by engaging with technical societies like MTS to connect with industrialists. The OCEANS conferences continues to be one of the best-structured events of its kind, encompassing some of the most talented and diversified experts drawn from academic, research, and industry. It is doing yeoman services which is spreading across other continents apart from Northern America.

MTS can adopt a country which is less developed in marine technology and support them with one or two projects by encouraging few personnel from the MTS pool of experts to collaborate with them to solve their challenges.

Some possible areas of collaboration would be erosion in island nations, support to coastal, island tourism, resource mapping and promoting local youth to encourage marine science as a career and equip them as a marine technologist along with few scholarships that can be exclusively identified for the least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS).

MTS: How can MTS and SUT work together more cohesively to communicate the paramount importance of marine technology in people’s everyday lives?

RV: I strongly support the idea of collaboration between MTS and the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT). SUT has a strong presence in the UK and Europe and can assist in actively involving MTS through ocean technology conferences. MTS is strong in building professionals. Together, both bodies can organize online courses and partner with universities to support them by identifying faculty for specific specialization from MTS and SUT. They can also assign mentors for students to assist dissertation of projects which are relevant to the Industry  ꟷ for example, Underwater Connectors ꟷ and offer internships to the student members from MTS and SUT.

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