Physicist and Dean of Science at the Université de Moncton
Our interview with Dr. Pandurang Ashrit, a Canadian specialist on the solid state of matter (physical science) takes place both in his lab and in the office of the Université de Moncton’s Dean of Science, a position he has held since 2017. A man of great kindness and humility, he has enjoyed an exceptional professional journey that speaks to his remarkable capacity for adaptation. Now responsible for developing pure and applied sciences at the university, Dr. Ashrit is well-known in Moncton’s scientific community, and throughout his career, he has demonstrated social and interpersonal skills that go well beyond the complexity of mathematical equations or the principles of physical optics.
At home, in the company of his wife Anita, who’s an engineer, and their daughter Meeta, he still speaks his native language of Kannada. This is the language of Karnataka, a prosperous state in southern India which these days is developing new information technologies. Born in May 1957 in the city of Hyderabad, the physicist was already fluent in India’s two official languages, Hindi and English, when he arrived in Moncton in 1982 as a post-doctoral researcher in the Université de Moncton’s Department of Physics. Nevertheless, he decided to take up the challenge of learning French as well.
“Coming from a country where a host of cultures and tongues intermingle, learning the language wasn’t too difficult for me! My immersion classes allowed me to appreciate the beauty and poetry of French,” he remarks.
In 1983, he successfully defended his doctoral thesis on thin conductive layers, receiving his Ph.D. in 1984. Carrying out research work at Université Laval in Quebec City from 1985 to 1987 and the offer of a teaching position at the francophone Université de Moncton provided him with the ideal conditions for mastering one of New Brunswick’s two official languages.
The work he leads at the Université de Moncton and in the Groupe de Recherche sur les Couches Minces et la Photonique (GCMP), or Research Group on Thin Layers and Photonics, which he co-founded, has applications in the fields of optical surfaces, solar panels and smart windows (which regulate received light and transmitted heat).
“The conductive properties of thin layers (a few dozen nanometres thick), when applied to solar panels and related equipment, represent a solution for managing energy throughout the world,” he explains. “Now that we can no longer depend on hydrocarbons, hybrid methods of producing energy—such as photovoltaic, wind power and hydroelectricity—must become priorities for society. Canada has the knowledge, resources and land to develop and make use of alternative energy sources. If we do that, we’ll be using the environment appropriately and governing the consumption of natural resources in a responsible manner.”
In 2017, Dr. Ashrit received a substantial grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERG), in partnership with a private-sector firm, to develop an ultra-thin reflective film for the cockpit windows of commercial aircraft. This is intended to deflect laser beams aimed by people with harmful intentions. “This technology could have an impact on the aviation industry at both the Canadian and international levels,” he notes.
As a researcher, he already had some experience with high-altitude environments. From 1995 to 1998, he conducted numerous microgravity experiments for the Canadian Space Agency, with the aim of designing and producing organic material. The relevant equipment was the subject of experimental protocols during a voyage undertaken by NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.
A keen explorer of foreign cultures, Dr. Ashrit has travelled widely in Europe and Canada with his wife and his daughter Meeta. With a view to bringing cultures closer together, he served as president of the Indo-Canada Association of Moncton. In this role, each year he would have a booth in the heart of the World Village as part of the Mosaïq Festival’s programming. Both father and daughter proudly recall the joy they took in introducing India, its cultures and its culinary traditions to residents of Moncton. For Meeta, the event typified the multicultural experience of being Canadian and sharing your background with others.
In July 2014, the Acadie Nouvelle newspaper quoted Dr. Ashrit as follows: “Often, people are afraid of the unknown, but once you start to learn more, you realize that there are wonderful things in other cultures, which is very rewarding."
He is also very proud of his daughter’s achievements. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is fluent in French and English. Meeta has had the opportunity to visit many regions of Canada, from the east coast to the west coast.
In addition to his duties as dean, Dr. Ashrit continues to supervise research work by grad students and supports numerous social organizations in the Moncton community. He notes that he loves the dynamic and active Canadian lifestyle. He plays tennis, badminton and golf along with practicing yoga. A volunteer with the Kidney Foundation of Canada, he recognizes the value and quality of the country’s social safety net. In particular, he’s very grateful to the care staff at Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Dieppe for their exceptional professionalism and generosity—another example of Canada’s high standard of living!
Asked about his values, this scientist and humanist responds that he believes in pushing your limits, showing initiative and achieving excellence through hard work and healthy competition. “As a small Maritime university, reaching our research and teaching targets requires extra effort on our part,” he comments. “Enabling the Acadian people to flourish includes pursuing scientific development and educating students at all post-secondary levels so that they can perform jobs of strategic importance to our advanced society. More than ever, the technologies used in all business sectors and our relationship to natural resources need to respect the principles of sustainability and be aligned with our duty to protect the air, the water and the environment.”
Dr. Ashrit also has a vision of social and economic development focused on the benefits for Acadians and Canadians. “We export many of our natural resources to other countries and are highly dependent on goods produced abroad. A better society would be one where we invest more in manufacturing products here in Canada,” he says. His call for economic independence does not mean there is no need for ongoing interaction with people from different cultural backgrounds, which defines Canadian multiculturalism. “Ultimately, we’re a nation of transformation built by immigrants who have helped to shape our shared identity and rich cultural heritage. This aligns perfectly with the values of our university: equality, diversity, inclusion.”
In conclusion, he mentions some principles that should be shared by students, decision-makers and elected officials alike: “Act individually and collectively as custodians of the values laid out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982): freedom of expression, respect for individual rights, the right to bilingualism. Support the principles of public services and investment in health and education. Cultivate the value of tolerance toward others.”