The world as a ‘live-in lab’

Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan is the executive vice-president of Knowledge Enterprise and chief research and innovation officer at Arizona State University (ASU). He was the founding director of the School of Computing and Informatics and was instrumental in the founding of Biomedical Informatics Department at ASU.

After a B.Sc. in Physics from University of Madras, Dr. Sethuraman went on to pursue M.Tech. in electrical engineering from IIT Madras, and received a PhD in electrical and computer engineering from University of Ottawa, Canada. In this interview, he talks about the need for more exposure for students in the Indian education system and more.

From a bachelor’s degree in physics to a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, how has your experience been?

The fact that I started with physics and then went on to engineering helped me appreciate how the sciences influence engineering, and, more importantly, also gave me a chance to look at more than one discipline. What I personally found interesting was that in institutions such as the IITs, the professors and peer group inspire you in such a tremendous way that you discover your intellectual spirit. Then I went to Ottawa. I found that it is not enough to be at a certain intellectual ability scale; it is important to demand your independence in order to succeed. My advisor, to my surprise, was not guiding me and told me to come out with more solutions to my problems. He gave me an opportunity to exercise my individual spirit, which I never had earlier. This whole experience made me more creative and capable of handling my own life and problems.

How different is the education quality and exposure in the U.S. compared to India?

In the U.S., students look at faculty members as mentors. So if the faculty is involved in intellectual pursuit, students tend to follow the same path. However in India, this practice is not seen to such an extent.

Secondly, in the States, students have the freedom to express their talents in creative ways. They do not depend on their parents to pay for their course. So when you earn your own degree, you ensure that you pick out the disciplines you want. There is an ownership of your degree.

Thirdly, universities break out of the cocoon of the campus and engage in problem-solving, be it local or national. This does happen in India but not on a large scale. I think it would be better to expand the boundaries of learning and think of the world as a “live-in lab”.

Is there any difference in the way people react to entrance exams in India and the U.S.?

In India, going to school is either not focused or not enough. However, in the States, if you go through regular school, you are prepared for entrance exams.

Another major problem is, in India, people get obsessed about entrances. It is not the only way to do what you want. You need to follow your passion, be it through any valid way. That is a major difference between India and the U.S.

At times, students are sceptical about pursuing a degree abroad. How can one overcome this?

You have got to step out of your shell and explore the world in order to succeed. The opportunities provided far exceed the risks involved.

What is needed is a shift in the mindset. If you really want to build a career, you should be okay with taking a loan and flipping burgers. You should be willing to do what it takes in order to get what you need. Also, be your own source of information. Don’t rely on fairs and parents. If you want to know about universities, talk to them on your own.

In the States, we believe that just because you did not get a straight A in your school does not mean you will not blossom in your life. Learning is a lifelong journey. You can enrol yourself at any point of your life for whatever course you want to do. We care about talent, not grades.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 10:49:30 AM |

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