At a time when the spotlight is on the world’s youngest leaders, at IIITH we shine ours on 31-year-old Assistant Professor Aftab Hussain from the Center for VLSI and Embedded Systems Technologies (CVEST). In a freewheeling conversation with him, we find an avid gamer, a professor and a family man, all rolled into one. Read on.
When informal lingo slipped through while setting up a meet with this faculty member, I knew not to expect someone far along in years. But to my mock horror and embarrassment, it turned out to be the ‘student’ I had authoritatively asked a demo from, at an Electronics Workshop Open House in early 2018. “You won’t believe how much that happens …literally every single day, especially by the security guards! Either I’m mistaken for a student or if I come on my bike with a backpack, I’m taken for a delivery guy for sure!”, laughs Prof. Aftab Hussain good naturedly.
Flex n Stretch
As one of the newest faculty at the Center for VLSI and Embedded Systems Technologies (CVEST), Prof. Aftab Hussain’s core area of expertise lies in flexible electronics. In fact he teaches an elective course by the same name for the 3rd, and 4th year BTech batches as well as the first year PG and PhD students. “My entire research, right from my Masters and PhD (at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) to the Post-Doc (at Harvard) has been on flexible electronics,” he says. To explain what it means, he demonstrates by twisting and bending an innocuous-looking, slim plastic-like film. “Anything that has to do with wearable technology, that has flexibility and even stretchability comes under the purview of my research area,” says Prof. Hussain. Citing the Fitbit as a ‘crude example’ of such a device, he elaborates to say that he has worked on tech such as thermal patches. A flexible sensor also finds applications in ‘smart’ everyday objects such a smart chair. One of his students is currently working on one that is embedded with an array of pressure sensors. “The chair can tell if you are drowsy, or too tired and if your posture is incorrect and so on,” he says. Another application of sensors that the young professor is working on is in the Smart Campus project. In this case, sensors are used for monitoring air pollution, water quality, or electricity consumption on the campus first and by extension the entire city too.
Marrying Material Science
But apart from these applications, there’s indepth research that goes into the making of a sensor itself. “A lot of thought goes into the design of specific sensors, whether it ought to be elliptical, or circular and what are the boundary conditions. We next do some mathematical modeling, integrate it and figure out sensor drive circuitry,” says Prof. Hussain. Since the core of flex circuit technology depends on the ability of the plastic substrate to be folded, wrapped, rolled and twisted, understandably then, it involves a substantial knowledge of material sciences too. “For instance, if you have to make a polymer that is conductive, you not only have to know about conductivity physics but also about polymer chemistry,” says Prof. Hussain.
“As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. Even when people asked me in school about what I wanted to become, I said I wanted to be a teacher. The best teachers are your role models and I think you want to be like them,” Prof. Hussain muses. Having had a brief industrial stint post his BTech from IIT Rourkee, the IIITH role isn’t the professor’s first job. Nevertheless, he displays a childlike enthusiasm and glee while saying,”I’m really loving it here”. He is all praise for the mutual respect, camaraderie and the ability to walk into the Dean’s or Director’s office to discuss anything. “I think the culture that has been set up in IIITH is brilliant”. Apart from the course on Flexible Electronics, Prof. Hussain also takes a first year UG course titled, ‘Digital Systems and Microcontrollers’ that he terms as an ‘incredible experience’ not in the least because it involves delivering the same lecture twice back-to-back to 150 students each time. “The great thing about UG1 is that they are very receptive and eager to learn. It’s amazing how much hunger they have for knowledge,” he says.
One Of Them Or Us
With young children at home, one of whom is a 11-month-old, Prof. Hussain finds himself dedicating his waking hours to the office and family. “At home, I’m either playing with my older one or changing my younger one’s diapers!” But that doesn’t stop him from indulging in his passion whenever he can,”I love video gaming and I still play video games. Once during Felicity, I played with the students too.” In response to the lament of the current generation’s dependence on gadgets and ubiquitous online presence, Prof. Hussain says, “All the things you are talking about, I’ve lived them as a BTech student. I can relate to it because we used to do all that in IIT Rourkee in the same situation”. This connect with the students also finds the professor often on the student side of things in faculty meetings. On video gaming, he dismisses the charge of it becoming an addiction by saying,”I tell the students it’s nice to have fun. As long as you are controlling the game, it’s ok but not if the game starts controlling you.” In fact he says there’s a generational shift in the way video games are perceived today. From the games of yore which involved just playing with a computer, they have evolved to involving multiple players. “You chat during the game and discuss it at length even after. So, it’s a social experience in itself and can work as a social glue if used in the right quantities”. As the Head of Club activities, no surprise then that Prof. Hussain has been instrumental in kickstarting a Video Gaming Club. Another recent addition to the repertoire of clubs is the Humour Club. “Students get together, share jokes, do some stand-up comedy probably at the expense of faculty (!), anything to ease the stress here,” laughs Prof. Hussain.
Dream Come True
Speaking of the day he received a job offer from IIITH, the Amravati-born professor says, “ It was the best day of my life because it’s one of those things where everything falls into place – a dream job, in a dream city, in a dream institution.” He was 29 years old then poised to become an Assistant Professor. “It’s nice to be in a place like this where you wanted to be, starting your 30s.. I’m absolutely in love with this place and will probably stay here for the next 30 years.”