Krishna Jagannathan obtained his B. Tech. in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras in 2004, and the S.M. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2006 and 2010 respectively.
During 2010-2011, he was a visiting post-doctoral scholar in Computing and Mathematical Sciences at Caltech, and an off-campus post-doctoral fellow at MIT. He joined as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras in 2011. He talks to us about his life at IIT, both as a student and as a teacher.
Did any of the present faculty teach you and how was your experience when they became your colleagues?
I graduated in 2004 with a B. Tech in EE. Most of the senior professors in the department were around when I was a student, and several taught me (including the current HoD). Prof. A.N. Rajagopalan was my B. Tech project guide.
People change quite significantly after doing their PhD and postdoc, so even if you come back to the same department, it doesn’t make that much of a difference that you studied here. Our department does not have any significant hierarchy or political equations, so that also helps. I occasionally fight with my senior colleagues on issues that I’m passionate about, but it’s never personal.
Has the department changed since you were here? If so, how?
No, the lift wasn’t functioning even back then!
On a more serious note, I think our department has already turned a corner towards becoming a serious research-oriented and PG-focussed place. UG teaching is important, but I think people realize that you need a flourishing research ecosystem in order to achieve excellence in activities such as teaching, consultancy, entrepreneurship etc.
How was your experience at MIT and how was it different from here?
As you might imagine, my graduate period at MIT were the most formative years of my career. I think I got into MIT by a slight turn of luck, as I was initially rejected, and my advisor subsequently pulled me out of some wait-list!
I found MIT to be an intensely competitive place, filled with very highly motivated people. It was a bit intimidating at first, since one is not used to being surrounded with so many top-notch students who are so driven, and a whole pantheon of towering personalities for professors. It was immediately clear to me that I have to get used to NOT being at or near the top of my classes. However, after a semester or so, I managed to settle down, after realizing that one just needs to stick to the basics, by being diligent, methodical and working hard.
In retrospect, I think what differentiates MIT from say, a place like ours is primarily just one thing: an unwavering tenacity of purpose. True, some people at MIT are exceptional prodigies and outliers, but a majority of students and researchers are the more ‘normal’ people, not unlike the folks we see here. However, they do great and grand things precisely because of a certain fire-in-the-belly phenomenon, that drives most people to work insanely hard without necessarily feeling burnt-out.
What made you choose research as your career and come back as a faculty member?
I realized very early (even during my high-school years) that I want to be an academic. I can’t quite put my finger on what made me decide so early, but I did derive a distinct sense of joy from learning and exposition.
Returning to India was also always the plan, so there was no moment of decision when I decided to come back. I didn’t specifically plan to return to IITM; it just worked out that way, and I’m quite happy here.
Please tell us about your experiences at Shaastra and Saarang?
I was moderately active in participating at Shaastra. I recall winning an event called Math Modeling (does it still exist?) in 2003, and ended up organizing the same event the subsequent year. At Saarang I was only hanging around, mostly attending the pro-shows and the classical music events. In 2004, I was part of the organizing team for the classical music event.
Please tell us about you hostel life and have you visited your hostel recently?
I lived in Saraswati hostel room 339 during my final year. In my first three years, I was a day-scholar, and used to pedal from Besant Nagar everyday — OMR was a small road those days, and the traffic was manageable, so it was feasible to take shortcuts and enter through Taramani gate. I can’t imagine doing that now with the explosion in traffic — or may be I am just getting old. I moved to hostel in my final year after my father retired, and my parents moved to their hometown. I’d like to think I got the best of both worlds because I spent the final year in hostel, which is probably the best year, while I could go all out acquiring skills without distractions during the first three!
How is your experience as a teacher?
I love it! It takes a huge amount of time and effort, particularly the first time I teach a course. However, teaching is also a process of learning constantly — indeed, I believe you master a topic only when you teach it a few times. Overall, I consider myself lucky that I am paid a salary to do something I love doing anyway.
What would be your message to the students?
I don’t want to sound preachy, but I do get a distinct sense that about 50% of students at IITM end up deriving very little value out of their time here. I think the time spent here is a great opportunity to acquire both hard and soft skills that can give you a serious shot at leadership positions in various carer paths. A lot of students would give anything to be at IIT, but only a few get a chance. So, I do wish that a far greater fraction of students make better use of the knowledge ecosystem and infrastructure here.
Please tell us about some of your memorable experiences at the institute.
I can’t count this as a memorable ‘experience’, but the single biggest influence on me during my student days at IITM was Prof. D. Veeraraghavan (HSS department) or Dilip as he was fondly known. Before he succumbed to cancer in 2009, Dilip was a great personal friend and mentor to dozens of students at IITM. Despite being visually impaired from a very young age and bogged down by several illnesses, he was constantly radiating positivity, and was a source of inspiration for many students such as myself I learned a lot from him about classical music, history etc. I learned a lot from his life. I learned even more from his death, which he embraced with the same gusto with which he embraced life. I know Dilip would’ve been immensely happy to see me back at IITM, and continue the conversation from where we left off. I do miss him.