Living A Life Of Learning

Sai Prasad Gollapudi recently obtained his doctorate in Computer Science and Engineering, a process that he began in 2009. As a living example of the adage, ‘You’re never too old to learn’, the 52-year-old talks of his motivations behind going back to school, his takeaways from the experience and what he plans next. 

When Sai Gollapudi came to Hyderabad from the US on an expat assignment in 2006, he didn’t know it would be the beginning of many new things to come. As the head of R&D at Nokia, he was here to handle an acquisition. But when the company decided to move some of its operations to Bengaluru and the US, he opted to stay back in Hyderabad. It seemed like a natural choice. “My life had been spent in the US. My education, upbringing, and even my fairly successful work…but I have roots here in Hyderabad,” he says of his decision. After dabbling in Consulting and travelling relentlessly all over the world for a few years, he took a step back to reassess his ambitions and find out where his childhood desires lay. ”I felt comfortable and successful in my own life but I felt like there was an interest in getting a degree, something in higher education,” he says.

Although his formal education was in Electrical Engineering, as a student in the US, Sai had been exposed to scientific pursuits from working at scientific labs as a research assistant. And that’s where an interest in ‘brain science’ stemmed from. Since animal experiments and pure Science research were not exactly up his alley, he decided to pursue Cognitive Science. “I wanted Computer Science, and I decided I wanted a little more technical and computational work,” he says of his choice of higher study. His quest for the right academic institute led him from the National Brain Research Institute in Manesar, to Hyderabad Central University before he found a right fit at IIITH.

Back To School

Sai’s initial mentor was Prof. Bipin Indurkhya who first vetted him before he was absorbed into the doctorate program in Computer Science with a specialization in Cognitive Science. To demonstrate his seriousness and interest in the field, Sai frequented the institute on a regular basis. “Looks like I was able to impress rather early!,” he says with a laugh. Speaking of his ‘back-to-school’ experience, Sai admits that it is not so straightforward. “People presume you’re like a youngster. But the truth is that (as older students) we have different responsibilities. I had my responsibilities towards my kids, I had a bedridden father I had to take care of, I had travel, and other necessities. These are responsibilities that crop up at a later age. Thats perhaps why schooling is not so common after a particular age. It is a pressure.” But juggling a professional career and other domestic responsibilities alongside an academic degree were only half the challenge for Sai. With Prof. Indurkhya moving away to Poland, Sai had to look for another advisor. Luckily for him, he ran into Prof. Venkatesh Choppella and made a quick transition under him. However, here too, he had to switch research direction a few times losing time in the process. But he took all these hurdles in his stride. “There was nobody waiting for me to complete my degree, no pressure. So I just dropped what I was doing and took up something new. It helped me grow a little bit,” he says pragmatically.

Collaborative Research

One of the things that worked in Sai’s favour was that he was in a lab with other researchers of similar ages. Since they came from a similar background of having worked in the corporate field before coming back to earn a(nother) degree, they found that they could understand each other better. The other thing that boosted his academic endeavour and helped foster the sense of community among them was when Prof. Raghu Reddy, head of SERC suggested that they could all work together. “We didn’t think of it before. He encouraged us to work and publish together. And that really helped,” acknowledges Sai, adding that unlike students who are on campus interacting with each other all the time, part-time students miss out on similar informal chatter.

Academic Process

For someone who was already successful in his career, Sai by his own admission didn’t need the doctorate to be any more successful. “In fact no body even bothers with my degree. It was a personal experience for me. Even my family didn’t ask me what I was going to do with it,” he quips. But on the day he turned in his thesis, he had an offer from a company. “I don’t think PhD is a product, it is a process,” he says sagely going on to compare the process with a puppy playing with a toy. “At the end of the day, it plays to learn some life skills and then pounces on prey. (Similarly) The actual litmus test is how did you behave when the need came, not what did you do with the toy.” As the Head of Technology at an educational tech company, he is currently working on digital interactive books, an area very similar to what he worked on for his doctorate.

A precious piece of life advice that he gives is to definitely pursue your  ambitions. As for academic advice, he suggests pursuing it in a place like IIITH. “I’ve been to different universities, and been exposed to different places. This place is equally stressful, and pressure-oriented but there’s a lot of onus on the students as well to take responsibility in shaping themselves to be strong candidates. I wanted real academic rigour and I found it here. The professors are very committed too,” he says, recounting his exchanges with Prof. Vishvanath and Prof. Nori fondly. He states that he owes his discipline to Prof. Choppella, who while simultaneously being aware of Sai’s ‘older student’ status and supportive, was at the same time strict in his expectations. Prof. Choppella in turn says, “I still find Sai’s journey fascinating. Although his PhD was not without its hurdles (including switching of advisor), and the numerous, inevitable cul-de-sacs, he did extremely well at the end.  He was able to sustain it through its long innings.  He never lost sight of the prize. I think if you want an example of perseverance, you need to look no further.”

Done And Dusted? Not Quite

If you think Sai is resting on his much-accomplished laurels, think again. “I finished a PhD and now I’m looking forward to what next to study. It’s just amazing that the thirst just didn’t go away. I thought it would after finishing this off,” he says. Intrigued by certain interesting things that came out through the doctoral process, he is contemplating pursuing those novel interests now. “Going through one PhD has helped me understand the process and how we must go about it. So I’m hoping that if I try pursuing something else, it might help me..but having said that, I’m already employed and busy with my schedule. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do it. It might take another 10 years to crack it, but it’s okay. This is life, you learn.”

 

 

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….

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