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Don masters science of growing conference

Prof Chowdari says the conference provides an opportunity for those in the materials science field to meet and interact. It also allows young students, such as those in junior colleges here, to present their research. To maintain the conference's rep
Prof Chowdari says the conference provides an opportunity for those in the materials science field to meet and interact. It also allows young students, such as those in junior colleges here, to present their research. To maintain the conference's reputation, planning starts two years in advance.PHOTO: COURTESY OF STB

In 1986, it had only 80 attendees. Now it sees 2,500, including Nobel laureates

In 1986, when the materials science field was in its infancy here, Professor B.V.R. Chowdari held his first - but modest - conference on it in a university meeting room with just 80 attendees and at a cost of $40,000.

Today, he runs a biennial million-dollar conference at Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre on the subject, which attracts a 2,500-strong local and international crowd on average each time, including Nobel laureates.

His contributions have been so significant that the Singapore Exhibition and Convention Bureau, under the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), invited him into its exclusive Conference Ambassador Programme in 2006. The programme celebrates its 10th anniversary today and Prof Chowdari is one of its longest serving members.

The initiative recognises "notable professionals and thought leaders who champion Singapore as a business events destination", an STB spokesman said.

Prof Chowdari, 73, has been re- elected into the programme every two years, and remains in it today.

But getting his biennial conference going was no mean feat for the man who has dedicated most of his life to researching materials sciences, and is now a senior executive director in the President's Office at Nanyang Technological University.

SELLING THE IDEA

It was a challenge. I had to explain to my bosses the importance of such a conference.

PROFESSOR B.V.R. CHOWDARI, who did not have a dollar in hand when he proposed the International Conference on Materials for Advanced Technologies in 2000.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

Many a time, people are worried. If something goes wrong, who will pay for it? But I just tell them: 'Take the risk, work hard on it, it will be okay'.

PROF CHOWDARI, on how holding a conference for the first time may cause some jitters for new organisers.

Prof Chowdari started the 1986 conference when he was working in the physics department at the National University of Singapore because there was no materials sciences department there then, he said.

More than a decade later, when he was one of the founding members of the Materials Research Society of Singapore (MRSS), he decided that he had to bring the industry together through an event.

He proposed to start the International Conference on Materials for Advanced Technologies (ICMAT) in 2000. The event will have its ninth run in June next year and, like previous editions, it will be held here at Suntec Singapore.

He may be a veteran now in organising the conference, but it was without a dollar in hand that he proposed to start it in 2000.

"It was a challenge. I had to explain to my bosses the importance of such a conference," he told The Straits Times on Friday, adding that he had to convince NUS, NTU and STB to provide funding.

The first conference was eventually held in 2001 and was a success. It was attended by five Nobel laureates, who agreed because of their friendship with Prof Chowdari.

That set the standard for the conference, and since then, he has gone to lengths to replicate its quality, inviting recent Nobel laureates, and keeping the programme engaging.

But an attendee of the first conference told Prof Chowdari that he should cut any future losses, and rest on the laurels of his success.

However, Prof Chowdari did not. "We need an opportunity for those in the field to meet and interact. It also allows our people to showcase their strengths," he said. The conference also allows young students, such as those in junior colleges here, to present their research.

There were other challenges along the way. The 2003 Sars epidemic threw a curveball into plans for the second conference. The MRSS, in which Prof Chowdari is its president, was asked to cancel or postpone the event.

"I had sleepless nights. The biggest decision was whether to postpone or cancel it."

A decision was made to postpone it to the following month, but some speakers pulled out and a number of participants wanted refunds.

Organising a conference is also a tough job because of heavy competition and rising costs.

Over the years, the number of annual conferences around the world in the field of materials science has tripled from 2001, with each of them fighting to be the "right choice" for participants, Prof Chowdari said.

To maintain ICMAT's reputation, planning for the event starts two years in advance. Even as Prof Chowdari prepares for next year's conference, plans are already underway for the one in 2019.

Keeping the high quality of the conference does not come cheap. Nobel laureates at the conference are put up at hotels, given a chauffeur-driven car and paid-for travel, and given an "honorarium" of $5,000 - essentially pocket money. Getting these Nobel laureates to attend can easily cost $25,000 to $30,000, Prof Chowdari said.

For his efforts , he won the Business Event Ambassador award in 2010. The conference also won the Association Conference of the Year Award in 2009. Both were awards given by STB.

Now, the conference is handled by professional event planners, but Prof Chowdari runs a tight ship, ensuring that things go smoothly.

All his weekends are devoted to planning the conference, a fact that his wife of 47 years, Madam Rajyalashmi, 68, has come to terms with.

In fact, she is a pillar of strength for him, he said. She follows him to the conferences and observes the dos and don'ts for Prof Chowdari. She also mingles with the wives of male speakers, forming a bond that has helped some speakers consider returning to the event.

"She takes an interest and is very involved. If you call her today, and ask her who is coming for this conference (next year), she will know," Prof Chowdari said.

He and his wife have a 45-year- old son, a bank executive, and two grandchildren aged 18 and 15.

His advice for new conference organisers? "Many a time, people are worried. If something goes wrong, who will pay for it? But I just tell them: 'Take the risk, work hard on it, it will be okay'."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2016, with the headline 'Don masters science of growing conference '. Print Edition | Subscribe