NEWS | Sept. 26, 2017

The Great Years of Rath -- Materials Science & Component Technology Head Concludes 41-year Career at NRL

By Michael Hart

WASHINGTON -- Walk into Dr. Bhakta B. Rath’s office on a mid-August morning, and he welcomes you with a warm hello and handshake before settling in behind a desk piled unreasonably high with countless stacks of folders, documents, DoD correspondence and other paperwork requiring the attention of a man who leads more than 750 researchers and manages a $260 million budget.

Dressed casually in tan slacks, white oxford dress shirt and loosened tie, Rath, the Associate Director of Research for Materials Science and Component Technology at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, looks just like what he is and has been – a highly regarded professor, scientist, researcher, patent developer and expert in the field of materials science and engineering.

The walls of his office are literally covered with mementos of a rich career that has taken him to every continent on the planet except Antarctica. Look around and you’ll see diplomas from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Michigan Tech University, countless honorary degrees, photos with secretaries of defense and state, photos with other science and research luminaries and a photo with President George W. Bush. Look further and there’s even a certificate acknowledging a knighthood (equivalent honor) bestowed upon him by the president of India.

A wall-to-wall bookshelf behind his desk, overflowing with books, papers and other research material, looms behind the doctor like a tidal wave ready to engulf a surfer. You can’t help but think it’d be a treasure trove for eager PhD candidates to peruse.

Reminding himself of an international phone call he must take later that morning, this is not the picture of a man preparing to retire.

With slightly graying hair, an animated and lively conversational style, and a face that belies his 82 years, one can’t help but imagine him leading researchers in his department for another decade.

But as late summer eases into fall, Rath is in the last few days of what can best be described as a brilliant career.

Dr. Rath retired Sept. 2. A ceremony celebrating his four decades of research at NRL was held Sept. 12. On this summer morning in August though, he took a few minutes to reminisce about his life and a career where he led nearly 1,000 researchers here at NRL in various capacities, had more than 300 papers published, edited or co-edited nearly 30 books and proceedings and became a member or leader in over 10 professional or scientific societies … the list goes on.

A Small Village in India

The second youngest of five, Rath grew up in Cuttack, India, the second largest city in the state of Odisha, where his parents made education a high priority.

“Education was always emphasized,” said Rath. “My parents believed it was the most important thing a young man can do.”

His three brothers and sister are all “highly educated,” according to Rath. Each of them are retired now from practicing law or the engineering field, after studying and working mostly in India.

Remaining in India, though, would not be in Rath’s future. A circuitous set of circumstances landed him in the United States.

He graduated in 1955 from Ravenshaw College (now a university) in Cuttack with a degree in math, physics and chemistry. Then it was off to Germany to earn a master’s degree in metallurgy. Now a father of three – twin sons and a daughter – Rath was a “maverick” back in those days. “I was very brash and restless back then,” he said. “I wanted to see the world.”

Germany and Adam

A German company was building a huge steel plant in India and wanted to send only the brightest students to Germany to study, according to Rath. He applied and was one of two selected for a full scholarship. Now was the time for work – before the work.

“I didn’t know German from Adam, so I decided I needed to learn German,” Rath explained. After three months of intensive tutoring, all he could say was “where is the bathroom, and where is the restaurant?”

“I said, ‘this is where I am going to study metallurgy? In the German language, with German professors?’”

Moving on.

Welcome to the USA

After forfeiting his scholarship to Germany, Rath researched several schools in the United States specializing in metallurgical studies. His mother gave him two years to earn his master’s degree before returning home to begin his career.

It came down to four schools: Columbia University (“Not a good fit”); University of Montana (“Too far”); University of Missouri (“Okay”) and Michigan Technological University (“The best choice”).

After arriving at Michigan Tech in Houghton, Michigan, Rath found that working with students from America and other countries around the world was not a problem. In fact, he enjoyed it. He was outgoing and eager to absorb his studies in and outside of the classroom. But the weather? That was another story.

Growing up in India, warm weather wasn’t an issue, of course, but the coldest temperatures the future member of the “Who’s Who in Science” had ever experienced before arriving in Michigan was only 60 degrees.

“I had never even seen snow before, and the winters in Michigan reach minus-20 degrees,” Rath remembered, seemingly bristling at the thought nearly 60 years later. “I had no idea how cold it would be.”

Needless to say, the double-breasted suits and light overcoat he purchased en route to the States would not be enough to fend off the numbing Michigan winters. “I learned they would be hopelessly useless,” Rath remembered with a chuckle.

A Simple Solution

Weather, however, would only be the beginning of his worries at Michigan Tech.

During Rath’s initial meeting with his department head (DH), he learned there would be a little more classwork required than what he had planned.

“He looked at my transcripts from Ravenshaw and realized I didn’t have any courses in metallurgy,” said Rath. Then came the peppering of questions concerning metallurgy courses:

DH: “Do you have electro metallurgy?”
Rath: “No.”
DH: “Pyro metallurgy?”
Rath: “No.”
DH: “How about …”
Rath: “No.”
DH: “Perhaps you have …”
Rath: “No.”

You get the picture.

The DH realized Rath didn’t have any courses or background in metallurgy, but he offered a simple solution. Rath’s DH broke the news that he would have to earn a bachelor’s in metallurgical engineering before working on his master’s. He was looking at a six- to seven-year prospect. This of course was not an ideal situation.

“I told him I promised my mother I would return to India in two years,” Rath said. That’s how she agreed to him forfeiting the scholarship to Germany in the first place.

So Rath and his new DH made a deal. He allowed Rath to work on his bachelor’s and master’s requirements simultaneously, and he could take the bachelor’s courses in any order that was offered by the department which would fit his schedule.

“He said, ‘If you think you can finish in two years, that’s your choice.’

“I decided I would take the challenge,” Rath said. “I was a young man – healthy, strong and stupid.”

And so it went – 35-plus courses per year, classes year ‘round. “I did it all in two years,” said Rath. “The bachelor’s requirements, master’s research and thesis. I didn’t sleep much four nights a week.”

After Michigan Tech, it was on to a fellowship at the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago. That promise to return to India in two years?

“After finishing my master’s and bachelor’s, I was not very happy about it,” Rath admitted. “All of the teachings were like a cookbook. I wanted to know the fundamentals of how matter behaves, from the atomic and electronic level up.”

He decided the only way to do this was to pursue his doctorate. His mother gave her blessing. Rath earned his PhD in 1961 and was still missing something. After several discussions and some back and forth with his mother, off he went to teach at Washington State Univ. and pursuing research projects during the summers.

Early on at Washington State, Rath traveled home a few times to meet, court and marry his wife, Sushama (Panigrahi) Rath. A widower now, they were married for 50 years, raising twin sons and a daughter. Both of the boys are attorneys. His daughter is in business administration. Rath spent five years at Washington State, followed by seven years at a highly renowned lab in Pittsburgh called the Edgar C. Bain Laboratory for Fundamental Research of the U.S. Steel company, and another five at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis.

Welcome to NRL

NRL reached out for his services sometime in early 1976. Their letter inviting him for an interview mistakenly went unanswered for weeks, until he came across it one afternoon while clearing off his desk. He finally responded and got that interview. Things obviously went well, and after wrapping things up in St. Louis, Dr. Rath arrived at NRL in October 1976 as head of the physical metallurgy branch, leading five sections.

“After being here, I fell in love with the lab, fell in love with the work we are doing here,” he said. “There are high-caliber, world-class scientists here,” he beamed. “I was delighted to be able to guide 15-17 scientists in the branch and build it up,” he said about his early days at NRL. “We got a lot of funding and started many new research activities.”

Ironically, he wasn’t really looking for the division head position when it opened. He submitted his resume only as a “benchmark” for selecting the new hire. “He or she should be better than this,” he said when submitting his qualifications. Nobody was, so he was hired.

Rath spent 41 years here at the lab – six as a branch head and another four as a division head, with the last 31 years as an Associate Director of Research (ADOR) in the Materials Science and Component Technology Research Directorate. He leads more than 750-plus scientists and engineers, managing a $260-million-plus budget.

During his three decades as the ADOR, there have been countless papers, conferences, collaborations, research projects and an immense impact in his field. His research impact on improved and advanced materials could be felt for decades.

“Our mission is to solve problems of the intricacies and behavior of matter,” Rath surmised. “We want to understand how nature has perfected matter over billions of years and what we can do to improve and make new matter. That is our job.”

He said it’s a job he has dedicated his life to pursuing, hopefully leaving scientific progress and talented researchers in his wake. He mentored five scientists who were inducted into the National Academy.

And those mementos on the office walls? “I will leave my collectibles here at NRL for some young researchers to see,” he mused. He hopes there will be a room reflecting his contributions to the Navy, DoD and the nation.

“I want them to say, ‘If Dr. Rath can do all of this, I can do it too,’” Rath added. “I want them to be inspired, to be creative thinkers,” he said.

With a vision for the future, he has established endowments at three universities in Michigan, Colorado and Illinois to recognize with a cash prize the best PhD thesis, endorsed by U.S. industries of its value.

As Rath leans back slightly in his chair, he gives a final thought on the legacy he leaves behind. "I want young researchers to make grand contributions," he said, “for our nation.”