Kishore Kothapalli is a Professor at the Centre for Security, Theory and Algorithmic Research (CSTAR), IIITH. He strikes a balance between teaching courses on Algorithms and Distributed Systems while diving into research in Parallel Computing. He has recently been selected as Associate Editor of the ACM journal on Transactions on Parallel Computing. In an informal conversation, he tries to demystify his work and speaks of things close to his heart.
The pursuit of a technical higher education seems a good place to start a conversation with a professor. In Prof. Kishore Kothapalli’s case, the context is set when he alludes to the engineering boom of the early 90s that saw a spike in the number of engineering graduates. “Options were limited to the IITs and state-run engineering colleges,” he says, adding that though he qualified for IIT, he didn’t get the preferred seat of his choice. Things played out very differently though in the state-held exam, the MCET. “I got a very good rank, and could get into what is now known as NIT, Warrangal.” A dalliance with Computer Science here that began as a necessary step towards an undergraduate degree eventually lead to a steadfast commitment. A Master’s degree at IIT Kanpur followed in quick succession. An inclination towards teaching and other allied academic activities was present all through. Prof. Kothapalli credits this to the presence of a large extended family who don faculty positions at various places “from degree colleges all the way up to universities”. The most direct and early influence though was perhaps his own father, a Physics lecturer. In order to be better prepared to advance his education, Prof. Kothapalli took a short break and worked in the software industry before pursuing a PhD at Johns Hopkins University, USA.
Theoretical Computer Science
While the professor is known for his work in parallel computing, his initial PhD work was on other theoretical areas of Computer Science such as Distributed algorithms and Network algorithms. “My MTech dissertation was on parallel algorithms,” he says, continuing, “When I decided to come back to India after my PhD and found that parallel computing was going through a resurrection at the time, it seemed like a good area to get into.” The year was 2006. IIITH beckoned and there has been no looking back. Prof. Kothapalli’s group currently focuses largely on algorithms related to graphs as well as matrices. “Because of my training in distributed algorithms, I still do something of that in addition to parallel computing,” he says. But how would one explain parallel computing to a layperson? “It’s all about using multiple resources at the same time,” he elaborates, drawing a parallel with multi-tasking that requires some deal of coordination. “You’ll have to figure out how algorithms change, how data structures change, how to write these programs, and execute them, – these are all the questions that are important in the context of parallel computing.”
Life At IIITH
By virtue of it being his first job as faculty at IIITH, Prof. Kothapalli draws on his doctoral experiences from Johns Hopkins and says there are similarities between the first research university in the US and IIITH. “The thing I find common across both the institutes is the low teaching load that is required of faculty, Both there and here, we typically teach no more than 3 courses a year and that gives you a lot of time to focus on research,” he says. But then he mentions differences too. For instance, in the Indian milieu, Computer Science in any top university typically attracts the smartest and the best students. “This means that we are looking at technically very strong student bodies. And it changes the way you can teach some of the basic courses as well,” he states. However he is quick to add that there are things we could imbibe from others such as the sacrosanctity of punctuality – in starting and ending classes. “Here it seems we are a bit more lax and it’s something we have to work on”.
Evolution and Growth
Given the small size of the institute coupled with its relative ‘young’ status, the professor is all praise for its significant evolution. “A lot of policies on campus change in response to the perceived need for these changes in the external environment. And that’s been possible only because we’ve been open to change. If one can find the best next policies or rework on existing ones without being emotionally attached to the old, that’s a great thing to have,” says Prof. Kothapalli. He adds that what he really likes about the institute is its positive attitude. “We are constantly encouraged to try and do new things. This kind of support along with a nice student body can help you grow.” The other plus of the institute is the opportunity it offers appropriately qualified and interested spouses of faculty. The professor’s wife, Sailaja Paramkusam has been working in the Language Technologies Research Centre (LTRC) under Prof. Dipti Misra for over 5 years. “She works as a Language Editor, helping systems convert from one language to another and making sure the translation is correct. Work has now transitioned to the online mode but it was very convenient when we were previously living on campus,” he says.
ACM Associate Editor
Adding a feather to the professor’s cap is his recent selection as an Associate Editor for the Association of Computing Machinery Transactions on Parallel Computing (ACM TOPC). The latter is a 6-year-old journal initiated by ACM focusing on aspects of parallel computing – recognised as an essential ingredient of Computer Science. “My role as an Associate Editor, which is for a tenure of 3 years, is to help the editorial team get submissions reviewed by subject experts and make timely recommendations,” says Prof. Kothapalli adding, “Despite being very ‘new’, it is prestigious and considered one of the top journals in the field of parallel computing. Papers published in this journal, on an average, get upto 4 citations per article.”
Of Leisurely Pursuits
Growing up with access to open spaces and home gardens, it’s little wonder that Prof. Kothapalli counts gardening or pottering with plants as one way of unwinding. “I watch movies too occasionally”, he says, hastily adding that he’s not a critical viewer. “I watch movies and then completely forget about them! It’s not like I critically analyse anything in them,” he explains. Interacting with students is something he does – and enjoys – in view of his role as a coordinator for UG students. The role requires him to meet and advise them on the rigours of a BTech programme “so that they don’t fall behind.” He signs off musing about the pros and cons of virtual education – dismissing notions of the difficulty in teaching theoretical subjects online, while expressing a desire to return to physical brainstorming sessions in the case of research, all at once.