Of Persona, Substance and Vision: Dr. Nooruddin Ahmed

Fauzia Sultana

Email: faujia_j27@hotmail.com

 

The society is an institution that fosters humanity. For centuries, it is the society where leaders, philosophers, educators, visionaries and so many others are nurtured. Down the new roads and alleyways of the society, men took their first steps, where they were armed with nothing but their own vision. Had the visionaries not existed, the moon would still be the unreachable silver ball and the computer, a magic box. Nor are they only significant, their contributions make a difference in people’s lives. One such visionary is Dr. Nooruddin Ahmed (NA). Why a visionary? Because every rung that he has climbed up the ladder in life, be it as an academician or the ex- Vice-Chancellor of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), he has climbed it with a vision and had had a hand in benefitting the lives of others.

 

Born in Barisal, Bangladesh, Dr. Ahmed graduated in 1961 from Ahsanullah Engineering College (now BUET), which was the only engineering college in the then East Pakistan. Chemical Engineering, not a popular choice among the freshmen students then, was what Dr. Ahmed opted for during his university years.

ChE Thoughts: You come from a time when Chemical Engineering was not a popular choice of discipline among the students in the then East Pakistan. What influenced your choice of this field?

NA: Choosing Chemical Engineering was a bold decision for me. I thought it was alright to be different from the other students who chose the mainstream Civil, Electrical or Mechanical Engineering, which were popular choices back then. Another reason behind my choice could be that my elder brother was studying Electrical Engineering in the same college, and I did not quite like the civil and mechanical courses. Probably it was at the back of my mind to be different from my brother.

After the completion of his degree, Dr. Ahmed was awarded a Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship in 1962 to study at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Although he would be living continents away from home, Dr. Ahmed did not want to give up the opportunity of studying there for this thought. At the University of Saskatchewan, he researched in the field of corrosion and completed his M.Sc. in Chemical Engineering and consequently his PhD. He was then offered a post doctoral fellowship, where Dr. Nooruddin Ahmed got the opportunity to perform research on a wide range of projects.

ChE Thoughts: “NASA IMRC and Professor N.D Greene”, you had a rather glamorous post-doctoral fellowship.

NA: I was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at NASA Interdisciplinary Materials Research Center (NASA IMRC) at the well known technological university- Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy, New York.  At RPI, I worked for Professor N.D. Greene, co-author of the book Corrosion Engineering by Fontana & Greene.

On his return from the United States in the year 1969, Dr. Ahmed did not consider joining any of the local industries in Bangladesh. He thought he was a misfit for the industry, shared Dr. Ahmed. On the other hand, he was attracted to teaching and also had the knack for it; so when he was offered to join the Department of Chemical Engineering, BUET (the then East Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology, EPUET) by Professor M.A. Naser, ex-Head of the Department, without further ado Nooruddin Ahmed joined the fraternity as Assistant Professor. He later became a Professor in 1976. During 1974 –‘75, he was a Visiting Fellow at UMIST, University of Manchester, on a Nuffield Foundation Award.

Throughout his years in BUET, Dr. Ahmed did not limit himself to just classrooms and courses; rather he was always engaged in pursuing new ventures. The library in the Department of Chemical Engineering is one such venture. During the morning of his career, Dr. Ahmed established the open shelf library in the department, which was the first departmental library in BUET. The library, which is open to the departmental students and faculties, surely plays an integral role amidst all the hustle and bustle of the university life. Dr. Ahmed and other senior teachers donated their personal books for the library; his friends, ex-students and the Asia Foundation also contributed to the library’s foundation. What stands this visionary academician apart is that he did not only work for the welfare of the students, but also thought of the people around him. In order to provide financial aid to all employees of BUET during times of severe crises, Dr. Ahmed established the BUET Welfare Trust Fund.  One of a kind, this medical insurance pays for the medical treatments of all teachers, officers and the other employees for a nominal monthly contribution.

ChE Thoughts: Throughout your academic career, you haven’t confined yourself to students only; instead you tried to help and better the lives of all those associated to BUET. Was this philosophy the foundation of the BUET Welfare Trust Fund?

NA: I tried my best to help everyone in the BUET family and the BUET Welfare Trust Fund was one of the ways of doing so. I believe, happy employees are good employees and I wanted all in the BUET family to have peace of mind so that they could devote all their energy and concentration to BUET. The BUET Welfare Trust Fund was created with a seed money of Taka ten million from the BUET reserve fund with small monthly contributions from teachers, officers and the other employees. The fund was created as a sort of health insurance for all BUET personnel. The scheme became highly popular. Many employees, who were hard up, could get expensive surgeries done and also obtain other financial help from this fund.

The compassionate teacher did not only insure the lives of the employees; besides looking after their health and well-being, Dr. Ahmed also ensured that the employees’ children received their share of welfare. Dr. Ahmed was the Co-founder of the Engineering University School, BUET. He along with faculties from other departments established the school which provided education to the children of all the BUET employees.  For nine long years, Dr. Ahmed remained the Chairman of the Managing Committee of the school.

Besides teaching and performing administrative activities in BUET, Dr. Ahmed involved himself in initiating the publication of the first research journal of BUET: Chemical Engineering Research Bulletin (CERB). In his later years, he became interested in environment and introduced courses on Environment, Water and Air Pollution in the department. Soon he was recognized as one of the leading experts in the field of Air Pollution and its abatement. He contributed to the banning of Two Stroke 3-wheelers from Dhaka and the banning of lead in petrol. In recognition of his contribution in this field, he was appointed a Consultant and Coordinator by Asian Development Bank regarding Air pollution in Bangladesh. He also made himself known as one of the leading Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) experts in the country; he was elected president of the National EIA Association of Bangladesh (NEAB).

One can say, undoubtedly, that Dr. Ahmed has earned recognition and respect in his career. But the achievement that Dr. Ahmed considers his biggest honor was when he was appointed the Vice- Chancellor (VC) of BUET. According to Dr. Ahmed, this honor is unparallel to any other, as the position of the BUET VC is a distinguished one.

 

ChE Thoughts: For a term, you served as the VC of BUET. During your tenure, you brought many significant changes within the institution, some of which you were even ridiculed for. Could you name the one change that you think made your Vice Chancellorship worthwhile?

NA: I served BUET as Vice Chancellor for one term (1998-2002). During my term, I tried my best to foster research activities in the departments and uphold academic excellence. I tried to finance new laboratories from BUET’s own reserve fund. Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) was getting very popular among the students at that time. I persuaded the CSE Dept. to increase its intake, from 60 to 120 students. Simultaneously, CSE Dept. received three new laboratories granted from the BUET reserve fund.

To avoid disruption of lab classes due to power failure, a 2 MW gas engine power generator was established using money from BUET’s reserve fund. At that time, many in the BUET family ridiculed my proposition and thought it was not right to set up the power plant with such a huge cost. Now everyone is so happy and satisfied that people retiring from BUET feel doubly sad as they will have to face load shedding no matter where they live outside BUET campus. So BUET is the only educational institution in the country with its own power plant. On the night when cyclone Aila hit the nation, BUET was the only place in the country with lights on, at least for quite some time.

Founder -Director of the Institute of Appropriate Technology (IAT) in BUET, Dr. Ahmed conducted projects of the Commonwealth Science Council and the World Bank in the energy sector. As such the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) made him Chairman of the National Committee for Natural Gas Reserves and Potential in 2002. After the termination of his Vice-Chancellorship, he returned to teaching. In 2008, the GOB appointed Dr. Ahmed the first Chairman of Bangladesh Accreditation Board (BAB), Ministry of Industries, GOB. The same year, Bangladesh University Grants Commission (UGC) appointed him a UGC Professor (2008-11).

ChE Thoughts: A UGC Professor?

NA: After my retirement from BUET in 2006, I went to USA to live with my family. During my stay there, I learnt that the University Grants Commission (UGC) had offered me one of the five UGC Professorships. This was an honor for me. I accepted the offer and decided to work again in the Department of Chemical Engineering from November 2008. As UGC Professor, I took both undergraduate and graduate courses at the Department of Chemical Engineering, BUET.

We all know the saying ‘actions speak louder than words’. But in case of Dr. Nooruddin Ahmed, both the actions and the words are loud and resonating. Molded into a text book, the words of this leading expert and consultant in corrosion engineering in Bangladesh are now taught to the final year Chemical Engineering students as part of the course curriculum.

ChE Thoughts: What drove you to authoring the book, “Corrosion Engineering: An Introductory Text”?

NA: While teaching corrosion to the final year students, I noticed that most of the students had difficulties and felt uneasy with the text book that the department had been following. This is an excellent text book, and in many universities in the West, the text book is followed both in the undergraduate and graduate courses on corrosion. However, it is too voluminous for a one semester course. So I started to write up my lectures in simple English and distributed photocopies of my lecture notes to the students with the help of my colleague, Professor Emeritus Iqbal Mahmud. Within a short time we realized that the students were very happy to have the lecture notes and that they were getting better grades in the exams. Soon, after I resumed teaching as UGC Professor, Professor Mahmud and I decided to expand and revise the notes. Professor Mahmud volunteered to rewrite some of the chapters. We again distributed the revised version among the students, and finally we decided to get the book printed. To save time we decided to finance the publication ourselves. One of our ex-students, Kazi Bayzid Kabir (Assistant Professor, BUET) helped us with all the drawings and made the manuscript ready for the press. Now this book “Corrosion Engineering: An Introductory Text”, is followed in different engineering universities in Bangladesh, including Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) and Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology (CUET), besides BUET.  Recently, we published the Second Edition of the book.

 

Dr. Ahmed retired from UGC Professorship after three years in November, 2011. Of late, he is conducting some research on air pollution due to diesel fuel.

Certainly, Dr. Nooruddin Ahmed is a visionary, who has successfully managed to carry out his visions for decades, since the start of his career. Academic excellence, improvement of physical infrastructure and well-being of fellow teachers, officers and other employees of BUET have been the various facets of this academic’s endeavor. ‘ChE Thoughts’ takes the privilege of celebrating the success and accomplishments of this visionary teacher. The interview comes to an end with the concluding question, to which Dr. Nooruddin Ahmed gave an answer that would certainly not corrode!

ChE Thoughts: Who else is Nooruddin Ahmed besides the Author, Ex-VC, and the UGC Professor?

NA: At the age of 70 plus I feel quite happy and I am grateful to Almighty for living a life full of activities. I have been with BUET since 1957 except for about seven and a half years that I lived abroad. I feel that I touched many hearts among colleagues, students and employees. I take great pride in the success of many of my classroom students who are now successful chemical engineers at home and abroad, some of whom are Professors of Chemical Engineering at well-known universities in UK and USA.
I might be remembered by the BUET family as the Co-founder of the Engineering University School on BUET campus, Founder of the BUET Welfare Trust fund, the one ridiculed for setting up a 2 MW gas engine power plant, or simply the man whose real passion lies in teaching and does what he loves doing best.

 

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