Dr.Mulugeta Bekele, a Physicist from Ethiopia was in Bangalore visiting his alma matter – The Indian Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, where he pursued his Ph. D. With decades of science work and a life to look up to, Bitstream had an opportunity to interact and interview this humble source of inspiration, embedding a deeply accomplished physicist.

An assimilated interview with Dr. Mulugeta Bekele by Sneha Das of Team Bitstream.

 From being a student to a teacher

 “I wanted to do both math and physics.”

“My parents said that I was born on 22 Oct 1947”. Dr. Mulugeta Bekele started his schooling at the age of four. He joined first grade in the year 1954, and at the young age of 12, in the year 1960, he appeared for the 8th grade national exam.“I failed in my 8th grade. That was the first batch to sit for this 8thgrade national exam. Eight of us sat for the exam and only one passed. I was so small, I didn’t feel anything. So, i took it up again the next year, and all eight of us who took up the exam passed”.

In 1965-66, he joined HaileSelassieIUniversity, now known as Addis Ababa University, then the only university in the country. “In the one year freshman programme we had to take up subjects like physics, math, chemistry, zoology etc. We had to decide which
field to choose the next year.”

How and when did you get interested into physics?

I got interested in physics when I was a 11th grade student. I had a physics teacher whom I liked, and liked what he was doing. So I wanted to do both math and physics, but had a choice of only one between the two. I then thought by doing physics I would not be losing mathematics. So I joined physics”.

Dr. Mulugeta was the only physics major student in his year. While serving as high school teacher as a part of the Ethiopian University service, he received an opportunity to pursue his final year of study in the Union College, USA. “ After I finished my studies, I had a chance to continue my graduate studies. But I was homesick. So I came back in 1970 and joined the university physics department as a graduate assistant and from then on I am serving the university”.

Days of the Ethiopian revolution

Dr. Mulugeta lectured in the department for a year, 1970-71. He then went on to pursue his masters in physics at the university of maryland from 1971-73. He taught for a year before the the Ethiopian revolution started in 1974.

He says, “ That time the emperor was in power. The military took over and he was ousted. There were problems in all realms – land distribution, religious imposition, economic stagnation and unemployment. All these forced the military to come to power.

The military, as an organised machinery of the government or the state, it had its force, hierarchy and after they came to power only the monarch was missing- rest of it was all the same. The population was not organised : There were students, teachers and trade unions but weren’t organised to represent themselves and take power. The military gradually formed a committee and in a span of around four months they came to power in September 12, 1974, they declared land as belonging to the state, not to the farmers, they nationalised factories, they nationalised banks and so on and they became more powerful. They had the arms, they the had security, all banks were nationalised and any movement of democratic nature was crushed. Like any other young educated person I too was part of the protests and struggles, and as a result I was put in prison for seven years starting from 1978”.

From Ethiopia to India

Dr. Mulugeta was released in 1985 after an arduous seven year term in prison.

He immediately joined the physics department at AAU as a lecturer and taught there for the next six years. At the end of 1991, he came down to the Indian Institute of Science after his interactions with Prof.N Kumar, who instigated Dr. Mulugeta to pursue his research in India at the IISc, on a research fellowship from Sweden.

“I came here in December 1991, a little over 20 years. I had to stay here for one year because IISc still hadn’t recognised AAU. They were also probing my aptitude during this time and I was given a chance to work with anyone I wanted do. I approached Prof. Ananthakrishnan, because my field of interest converged with his domain of work. I joined him, and after one year in January 1993, I registered for my PhD. That is how I ended up doing my PhD here in India”.

Interests, specialisation and current work

During your PhD, what were your domains of research ?

“The area of my specialisation while doing my research was in two areas. One is non linear dynamics and chaos. The other is stochastic processes or activated processes. We study thermally activated bistable stable systems and statistical physics problems that is working, dealing with systems that try to cross a barrier by getting its energy from thermal background.”

Stochastic resonance, which might of interest to the audience of Bitstream is a mechanism by which a system embedded in a noisy environment acquires an enhanced sensitivity towards small external time-dependent forcings, when the noise intensity reaches some finite level. As such it highlights the possibility that noise, a universal phenomenon and yet one considered traditionally to constitute a nuisance, may actually play a constructive role in large classes of both natural and artificially designed systems.

Talking of his Biophysics work, he says “ I was dealing with systems away from equilibrium in my research, it was not very difficult to take up simple problems of molecular motors. We did simple models of how this energy is being utilised as a transport route through our body system or to do some work using chemical conversion of sugars. This is now a subject which very active in the field of biophysics”,

Dr.Mulugeta is currently working on microscopic heat engines (sometimes also categorised as Quantum Dots), where the generation of electricity due to the potential difference caused by the gradient in heat is his specific interest. “If you have one wire in the hot region, the other wire in the cold, and a micro or a nano system (molecules) between these wires, you get a potential difference across the wire. This potential difference can drive a current : converting heat into useful work”.

When asked about his students, he replies, “I have 6 PhD students, 3 masters students working on their thesis.There is one student who is working for her PhD in characterising the electrical and optical properties of organic semiconductor devices”

Could you please elaborate on the work done on organic semiconductor devices?

“We get organic materials, synthesised polymers from the chemistry department. It is sprinkled on a substrate which acts as a contact. On the top, there is another contact which is formed by depositing vapour Aluminium. When solid aluminium is heated up to high temperature and allowed to vaporise , it is deposited on the substrate via the process of vacuum deposition. In effect,there is a junction of two contacts and there is a polymer sandwiched in between. My students study the electrical and optical properties of such devices. They have found out that these configurations act as diodes”

Organic Field effect transistors utilise organic semiconductors materials in their channel.

In those days, I remember, we used to get a car once in a few hours in the campus.”

On the changes in IISc and Bangalore in 20 years

Dr. Mulugeta thinks the IISc campus is intact and has been well preserved. He also feels there has been a huge increase in the usage of technology. “There is too much information, which to leave and which to choose is a very big problem”, he almost regrets.

Cultural similarities between Ethiopia and bangalore

Dr. Mulugeta talks about the huge similarities between the cultures of the two countries. The family attachment that the people share in Ethiopia is much like the family attachment here. Even the food habits are similar. He said “ I was not feeling lonely. I was sort of feeling homely. It was not so when I was in America. When I did my masters there, I could not adjust to that kind of life . But here, it was not new for me. “

I was not feeling lonely. I was sort of feeling homely.”

Language is definitely very different. He recalls how one of his friends at IISc consoled the loneliness, “Oh Mulugeta, don’t feel strange. Everybody here is as strange as you. Everybody here (IISc) comes from far away places. I come from Kolkata which is far from here. There are others who come from Delhi, from Punjab, different languages, just as far as you are from Bangalore, as are we”. I thought- Yes,indeed that’s true. Nevertheless, I tried picking up Kannada. So there are differences, like the language, but huge similarities as well.”

PS: We at Bitstream are grateful to Dr.Mulugeta Bekele for taking the time to talk to us and for the inspiration he has given to our readers with a glimpse his scientific journey, his incredible work in physics and life experiences.

It was indeed a great honour and pleasure talking to him on behalf of Bitstream.