Tales Of Then And Now: Alumni-Turned-Faculty Speak

From playing hide-and-seek on the very same grounds to conducting classes and courses there, from holding other professors in awe to being able to inspire others, this is a group of alumni who have received degrees like the B.Tech, M.Tech and even Ph.D from their alma mater, IIIT-H. As life comes a full circle, we catch up with them as they tell their tales of then and now. In conversation with Prof. Praveen Paruchuri, Prof. Lini Thomas, Prof. Ravikiran Sarvadevabhatla, Prof. Abhishek Srivastava and Prof. Avinash Sharma.

Praveen Paruchuri

Growing up at SriHarikota, Prof. Praveen Paruchuri had been exposed to a scientific temper early on and was always interested in Maths and Science. After his BTech from IIIT-H, he went on to do a PhD in multi-agent systems and game theory. With a post-doc from Carnegie Mellon, he continued to work as a research scientist until things fell into place bringing him back to where it all started. When you belong to the first graduating batch of IIIT-H and then return as faculty, it makes you a legend of sorts. Prof. Paruchuri of the AI and ML lab is candid when he says the IIIT-H option came up only when he didn’t make it to the esteemed IITs. Attributing the early intake of students to the concerted efforts and high level of involvement of officials like Mr. Ajay Sawhney, Prof. Paruchuri says, “There was a vision for the institute”. And it was this vision that convinced many parents of aspiring engineers, such as his own.

As a Student

As a spanking new institute with limited faculty, specific courses were taught by faculty who visited from outside. “Prof. Kaul and Prof. Govindarajalu were among the very first faculty. In fact my first class on campus was a Math one taken by Prof. Kaul,” recalls Prof. Paruchuri. He mentions that with everything in startup mode, there were no research labs to begin with but by the end of second and third year, Prof. PJN and Prof. Kamal joined too. And research labs kicked off. Prof. Paruchuri credits Prof. Kamal, his BTech advisor for introducing multi-agent systems since it was a very new field then. “I don’t think there was any institute in India offering it at the time,” he muses.

Prof. Paruchuri mentions the unhurried pace at which they studied on campus, remarking that things were less hectic then as compared to now. With labs closing early (as early as 5.30pm initially) and the absence of the Internet and mobile phones, the students indulged in plenty of physical activity. “We used to either play night soccer or hide-and-seek in the boys hostel,” smiles Prof. Paruchuri. He explains that the nature of games students played changed over time, especially with the labs being kept open 24×7. “Students started playing video games. If you ask most students, what was the one fun activity from those days, it will be gaming. Watching movies in the theatres at Lingampalli is another.”

As a Faculty

Prof. Paruchuri says that today IIIT-H’s research labs are well-known and the institute itself has carved a niche for itself in cutting edge technology. He goes on to add that the perspective of the way one views the institute has changed dramatically, with its location playing a huge part – from being located at the ‘back of the beyond’ to nestling in the middle of the bustling Hitec city area. With a couple of companies having offices or training centres on campus even then, Prof. Paruchuri maintains that there has always been a good synergy with industry. “Back then, Prof. Raj Reddy and Ajay Sawhney had good contacts with industry. They assured us that there were tie-ups for internships and later placements too. Now, there’s a complete ecosystem. We are situated right in the middle of the IT hub in close proximity to various industries. Opportunities are greater. For example, KCIS (Kohli Centre for Information Sciences) itself is a TCS-sponsored building”, says Prof. Paruchuri.

Speaking of ‘top-notch’ quality of present-day students, Prof. Paruchuri admits that the scale of comparison is not uniform with the selection criteria for students being different now. However, it is not without pride that he mentions how students with better JEE ranks are now choosing IIIT-H over IITs. “Students are more confident, more aware and more specific in their choices these days. They discuss on forums like Quora and so on and know what they are signing up for,” he remarks. He does admit though that the downside is in greater expectations from students these days. “We just went with the flow.”

With the increase in student intake, Prof. Paruchuri admits that the level of interactions between faculty and students is on the wane. “With 200 students in class, there is almost no way we can get to know more than 30 of them. In our times, the level of interactions were definitely very different.” Recalling fondly Prof. Govindarajalu’s interactive nature, Prof. Paruchuri says, “Even now, he remembers not just the students but places they come from, for example, “The Vijaywada guy”, “The Vizag guy”..and so on. He taught us all the core courses then..Operating Systems, Compilers, the big ones that form the crux of CS.” Prof. Paruchuri also mentions Prof. Kaul, calling him a “very very nice faculty” who invited them twice to his place for dinner. Speaking for himself and most other current faculty, Prof. Paruchuri says, “This is not even feasible for us now and we certainly don’t do it.”

Prof Lini Thomas

Prof. Lini Thomas is a Visiting Prof. who has been taking classes in Data Structures for the B.Tech first year students, and Algorithms and Operating Systems for the 4th year students. Besides this, there are company-sponsored projects where her students work on solutions to their problems on their data sets using data mining and so on. Ask Prof. Thomas for a favourite memory of her’s as a student and out tumble awe-inspiring stories of her professors.

Finding Inspiration

As a student at IIIT-H, she had signed up for a PhD in graph mining and classification of databases under Prof. Kamal who she recalls as being ever-patient and giving her a free-hand, letting her take her own time to pick whatever interested her. She mentions Prof. Pudi who was the new faculty then for the Data Mining course, with a fresh PhD from IISc. “When he walked into the class for the first time, we weren’t sure if he was going to sit amongst us or he was going to teach. But then he chose to stand in front of the class instead!” Speaking highly of Prof. Pudi’s take-home exams peppered with questions not routinely found in textbooks, Prof. Thomas says, “It was very satisfying to answer a question paper that was so different, where there’s nothing from the textbook but more about how you can imagine or create things out of your head to solve problems using what you have learned”. Speaking wistfully of the classes conducted by Prof. Prasad Jayanthi, who was a visiting professor from Dartmouth, Prof. Thomas gushes saying, “The classes were fabulous, groups were small, and everyone was encouraged to think. He used to hold a puzzles class every Wednesday where he would come with some puzzles and discuss strategies on how you could solve them.” She credits all her professors with the ability to teach so intuitively that everything fell into place. “Prof. PJN taught us Pattern Recognition. If you tried to read the textbook before his lecture, you would hardly understand anything. But the class would be so intuitive and it would seem so simple. Reading the textbook afterwards would bring a ‘that was all that was there!’ feeling,” explains Prof. Thomas.

Like A Family

A common sentiment shared among alumni of the early years is the close-knit bond they shared not just with faculty but their families too. Prof. Thomas mentions ‘Asha Kiran’ – the school they began for educating slum children. Initially run under the name of ‘Muskaan’ by faculty named Prasenjit Gupta, it evolved as a student-volunteer-led initiative that expanded to serving snacks to the children along with teaching. “Faculty wives such as Prof. Rajeev Sangal’s wife, Prof. Kamal’s wife, and Prof. PJN’s wife, to name a few, were all involved in the effort,” says Prof. Thomas. As far as students are concerned, Prof. Thomas mentions the smaller, more personalized class sizes then that made interactions a joy. “Discussions and debates that did not reach their natural conclusion inside the classrooms were often times carried outside the four walls,” she says.

Financial planning is another attribute Prof. Thomas credits the institute with, saying it gave her the very first exposure to managing finances prudently. Back then, the stipend for a PhD research student was a modest Rs 6,000/-. But Prof. Thomas says that everyone managed the money well, even saving some of it.

The Other Side

As a professor herself now, Prof. Thomas admits that she has more empathy towards her students. “There are always ups and downs. Rewriting of journals, papers getting rejected and so on. What research students in the lab go through, I’d feel that I had experienced it too.” Inspired by Prof. Kamal’s liberal nature and the trust he vested in his students, Lini says, “He never pressurized us. Today, I feel maybe that’s the way I should be with my students too..”

Talking of students in the current batches, she says, “I find extremely brilliant students, whether it’s the first year or the fourth year.” She also mentions getting used to mannerisms unique to the current generation like using the thumbs-up sign to show a ‘Like’, something she would have never thought of doing. “But I have fallen in love with doing that too,” laughs Prof. Thomas. Borrowing heavily from the teaching style and philosophy of her own gurus, Prof. Thomas says her aim is to make her students think through the process and arrive at the ideas on how you can reach a particular solution. While an open-book exam is not feasible now, Prof. Thomas says that she tries to set exam papers with atypical questions, generated from classroom discussions. An explicit exam preparation might not be necessary, but it requires an involvement and participation in the class.

Ravikiran Sarvadevabhatla

Belonging to a family of educators who laid importance on education, Prof. Sarvadevabhatla attributes his brush with the Sciences and Mathematics to his own parents. Especially his father who always sought out the best teachers for each subject in the city of Warangal, where they resided. However, it was a conversation with a Mathematics teacher that took place in the 8th or 9th grade laying the foundation for Prof. Sarvadevabhatla’s inquisitive spirit. “One such Mathematics teacher who was teaching quadratic equations asked me, ‘what happens when the discriminate is imaginary?’ When I quoted the response verbatim from the textbook, “the roots do not exist”, he asked me what that meant. For the first time, I had someone question the textbook! He explained that there’s always a chance that sometimes the answer is wrong or there’s a deeper answer. This incident never left me,” remarks Prof. Sarvadevabhatla.

As for the tryst with IIIT-H, it was Prof. Sarvadevabhatla’s father who accidentally discovered the institute and its entrance exam at the opportune time. Part inspired by the presence of some of the state-level engineering toppers and part swayed by the conviction and excitement levels of the eminent faculty and the Chief Secretary to the CM, the initial promise of a mere Graduate Diploma did not perturb the family. It all turned out very well indeed. But mentioning how his father always nursed a regret that he couldn’t make it to the IITs, Prof. Sarvadevabhatla says there was a sense of vindication thanks to a summer internship in the US for which he was nominated from his batch. “I was studying in the Dual Degree programme under Prof. Jawahar. Both he and Prof. PJN nominated me for the Microsoft India Internship programme. Under this programme, Microsoft India would invite nominations from engineering students from Indian institutes to spend 3 months in the US for a summer internship. I don’t think I would have gotten this even if I was studying in an IIT, at least not very easily,” he exclaims.

Inspiring Minds

Currently teaching a course in Digital Image Processing, Prof. Sarvadevabhatla mentions that incidentally this is the course that steered him on to the path of research. As a student himself, the course was taught by Prof. PJN. Having no idea of what to pursue next after B.Tech, a software job in a software company seemed the obvious choice. But the course impressed him so much that he says, “I went over and above what was expected in order to learn more about it”. At the same time, Prof. Jawahar announced the setting up of a new lab and asked him and another batchmate if they would be interested in working with him over Summer. “At that point, we didn’t know what research was. And yet I started working on a project. It was Prof. Jawahar who guided us all the way – from paper writing, to literature survey, how to avoid mistakes and so on. Because he was critical of the way we functioned and due to the fact that he had set the bar so high, it came to serve us very well. It played a great role in shaping my decision to go towards research.”

Current Challenges

According to Prof. Sarvadevabhatla, “We live in a world where not only content is online but there are great efforts made towards simplifying it.” As instructors and educators, he says they are up against the familiar argument of redundancy of a classroom lectures when there’s so much digital content already available. And today, the challenge of keeping the students interested is greater. Based on his early impressions, he says, “I think students are more clued-in these days, but at the same time there are the indifferent ones. It’s a perspective I never had as a student myself”. His current focus is on eliciting feedback from students early on. “The ones who study are going to do it anyway, but I would feel sad if someone gave up on a course and I find myself wondering what I can do to help – if it’s the content, teaching strategy, is the student lost, and so on..” An interesting thing Prof. Sarvadevabhatla points out that is that they were taught Digital Image Processing without a single image shown in class. “It did not come in the way of the course at all. This clearly shows how good a teacher we had. In a sense it helped us more because we had to take all that was dispensed, imagine and conceptualise it,” he says.

Likening Prof. PJN and Prof. Jawahar’s teaching methodology to the peeling of a banana where all one had to do was eat it, Prof. Sarvadevabhatla says that now when he sits down to preparing his own lecture notes, he understands that in order for the material to be presented the way it was, they must have worked an incredible number of hours. “If you looked at the same material in the textbook, it was very hard to comprehend. That is the value a good teacher brings,” he remarks with admiration.

A Memory That Takes The Cake

Labelling himself and his batchmates, “something like a man-child”, Prof. Sarvadevabhatla recounts a bizarre event that he still remembers vividly. When IIIT-H got deemed university status, a huge cake was procured to celebrate the news. It meant that graduating students would now get an engineering degree. “The idea was to celebrate the accomplishment with a speech or two in the presence of all students and all faculty. And then everybody was to get cake. The word spread ..not about the deemed university status but that there was cake! A lot of students didn’t even know why there was cake but that didn’t matter. As the crowd swelled, everyone started pushing against the table laden with the cake. All hell broke loose and the gigantic cake meant to feed around 150 students slid off the table and landed on the grass.” Prof. Sarvadevabhatla says that watching from the sidelines bemused, they saw students picking up cake from the grass and licking it. He recalls overhearing faculty remark wryly that these were the same students for whom they fought and got deemed university status!

Vision

As a faculty now, Prof. Sarvadevabhatla says that at the very least he wants to continue to take the institute to a better place. “All the senior faculty here who have come before me, have in their own ways contributed to what IIIT-H is today. I would want to continue that…not just by teaching but in multiple other ways. I subscribe to the current thought process that we should not just churn out engineers but well-rounded personalities,” he concludes.

Abhishek Srivastava

Prof. Abhishek Srivastava is an M.Tech graduate from IIIT-H who studied under the VLSI and Embedded Systems programme in 2007-09. There was an option of either doing an internship in a company as part of the MTech degree or a project under an advisor on campus. Back then, most of the students chose the industry option since it ultimately got converted into a job offer. Even though he interned at a company, after graduation he began teaching at an institute in Noida. A few years of teaching experience coupled with a PhD later from IIT Bombay brought him back to his alma mater. “I was here in the 10th year of IIIT-H’s existence and now I’m back again in its 20th year,” smiles Prof. Srivastava.

Drawing Inspiration

As faculty, he’s currently with the CVEST (Center for VLSI and Embedded Systems Technologies) lab teaching Analog and Integrated Circuits, an elective course open to B.Tech, M.S and PhD students. Borrowing from the teaching style of his own professor who taught Analog and Mixed Signal, Prof. Satyam, Prof. Srivastava says that he doesn’t put unnecessary pressure on students.  “I liked Prof. Satyam’s style a lot…it was very fundamental and the flow was very good. It was at an unhurried pace, where we learned a lot minus any pressure,” he says. Prof. Srivastava himself is known among his students for his ‘gyan bites’, or relevant and funny quotes that he typically presents at the end of each lecture.

Winds Of Change

Remarking about the scarce number of students one encounters typically these days in the evenings, he says they were lucky to have enough spare time on their hands then. Between football, cricket and frequenting the gym on a regular basis, they were involved in some kind of physical activity. “From what I can see, an indulgence in physical activity seems to be on the wane. Maybe people are more involved with mobiles or computers…,” muses Prof. Srivastava. Asked if this sort of a preoccupation with devices is posing to be a distraction in class, Prof. Srivastava narrates an incident where a student insisted on playing music on speaker mode during lab. “Fortunately he turned it off. But you can expect anything now-a-days,” laughs Prof. Srivastava.

Forever Friends

They say you make the best friends when you are in hostel. Confirming this, Prof. Srivastava speaks of the life-long bonds he shares with a couple of other batchmates, saying they are in frequent touch and still meet up often. Despite the fewer chances of interaction with the larger B.Tech batches, Prof. Srivastava was fortunate enough to be staying in the same wing as B.Tech students and enjoyed a special rapport. Under the prevailing mentorship programme at the time, he was chosen as a mentor for a B.Tech student, an association that he enjoyed immensely.

Vision

“After going to IIT Bombay, I felt that there’s a lot of scope for growth in the area of VLSI. For example, in my area of interest, Analog and RF Circuits, we need to grow a lot. While IIIT-H is a leading institution in the field of Computer Science, we have some ways to go before we reach that stage in VLSI. I have plans in my mind towards which I have started working. A few MS students have joined me and I plan on making this group bigger. The challenge and the opportunity is here at IIIT-H keeping us on our toes,” says Prof. Srivastava.

Avinash Sharma

Avinash Sharma first came to IIIT-H in 2005 for his M.Tech at the Centre for Visual Information Technology. He later converted it into an MS by Research which he found more challenging and completed his thesis on 3D Object Recognition Using Projected Texture under Prof. Anoop Namboodiri. After a PhD at Inria (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation), and a brief stint as a post-doc researcher in Germany, he worked as a research scientist at the Xerox Innovation Group before academia beckoned him back to IIIT-H.

Institute’s Pull

Speaking of what brought him back, Prof. Sharma says that his first love is to interact with students. He also mentions that there is more liberty given in academic research as opposed to industrial research. While admitting that there has been a steep learning curve in the beginning, he labels it a good experience so far. “The funding support given by the institute, and the liberty given to the faculty to focus on research, coupled with the radical improvement in infrastructure are all the pluses that worked in favour of me coming back,” says Prof. Sharma.

Campus Life

Talking of students, Prof. Sharma says that there are generational differences that are evident which are not institute-specific. “Expectations were not so high back then. While I’m satisfied with the competency and sincerity of students now, I find them to be more job-oriented,” he remarks. As a student himself not so long ago on the very same campus, Prof. Sharma avers that student life is the best. And reiterating a commonly known fact about long-lasting friendships resulting from hostel life that includes late nights spent in labs, he is quick to point out that he is in no way endorsing a ‘late-night’ culture. Not everything was all fun though. There was a sense of ownership too. For example, Prof. Sharma was an active contributor to the opening of Yuktahar mess. He says that it was a student-initiative to ensure quality and healthy food. It was not uncommon to find students themselves pitching in to cook food if there was a shortage of staff. He is also grateful to Prof. Sangal who initiated the move towards washing one’s own plate in an endeavor to minimize wastage of food. Management of the then new WiFi was also done by Masters students. “They were active stakeholders then,” he says. While observing that there has been a slight orientation change with the level of expectations on the rise, he says, “We are ensuring now that MTech students contribute more since they spend only 2 years here.”

Beyond Academics

“Students mobilized support for blood donations, co-ordinating hospital visits on campus. We also participated in the ‘Asha Kiran’ project in whatever way possible despite Telugu being a deterrent to the ones not familiar with the language. There were late night philosophical discussions and long walks on the green campus”, says Prof. Sharma very nostalgically. Calling it a small yet vibrant campus, Prof. Sharma mentions that he was personally responsible for initiating the celebration of ‘dahi-handi’ (a ritual associated with Krishna Janmashtami) on campus.

Values and More

Speaking highly of the ‘Jeevan Vidya’ programme kick-started by Prof. Rajeev Sangal, Prof. Sharma describes it as a programme that induced value systems and attempted to reduce stress while giving a healthy environment to grow with the right perspectives. About his own aspirations as faculty, Prof. Sharma says he wants to contribute to making India a more knowledgeable society where one goes beyond his or her comfort zones, seeking not just personal wealth or regular jobs.

 

 

Sarita Chebbi has been a stay-at-home mom of two for the longest time. When she’s not painstakingly documenting heirloom recipes from her mom into a tattered diary, she can be found on the yoga mat, trying to impress her family with her pretzel poses. She also likes to nit-pick on the written word.

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