Dr. Preeti Aghalayam isn’t your average sedate Professor. This vibrant and quirky Professor of Chemical Engineering took some time out from her busy schedule (which includes organizing and running in marathons all over the country) to share some of her fond memories from her time here. Here is an account of what she had to say-
Can you recount to us some of your experiences as a student?
Well, there are so many of them, but the one that really stands out is my memory of the lab courses. We were divided into groups of four or five, which was fun in itself but considering that the equipment hardly ever worked, it was an interesting challenge! I was into a host of extra-curricular activities too. I was on the Inter IIT team right from my first year and was very involved in Mardi Gras where I organized elocution and even qualified for the debate finals in my final year here. In my final year, Prof Kolar started a Bharat Utsav which we were very enthusiastic about. Being interested in literary activities, a few of us took on the organization of some of your current lit-soc events for the first time. On Prof Kolar’s advice, we started off the tradition of India Quiz. Obviously it was a little amateurish. All of us were dressed up and we conducted the event under a tree in front of Sarayu! We had a hard time ensuring the guys did not copy during the prelims.
How was Inter IIT then? Any interesting anecdotes from there?
In our time the number of IITs was very small. It wasn’t that much of a big deal those days as it is today. I was part of the Athletics and Basketball team in my second year in 1993. We were in good shape and were hoping to do well. However that was the Babri Masjid Demolition year and riots broke out. We were pretty disappointed as we were rushed out from the Inter IIT camp and couldn’t go to Bombay for the tournament. There was another major hiccup when the tournament was held in IIT Madras during my fourth year. Being part of the home team I was really excited. Also, this was the first time individual events were happening and being the senior-most girl, I thought I could win a few medals. Alas, rain played spoilsport as it poured cats and dogs. Most events were going to be cancelled. We protested outside the Sport’s advisors office and made him clear up OAT and SAC. While most of the athletics events were washed out, the silver lining was that we went on to win the Basketball gold.
What motivated you to take up research? How different was it from your Bachelors?
I was always interested in Chemical engineering. Though my CGPA was not particularly high (I guess all my other activities were to blame!), I was motivated to learn more Chemical Engineering.
I did my masters at a place called Rochester and then I went to do my PhD at Amherst in Massachusetts. I then did a Post Doc at MIT. After this I joined IIT Bombay to continue my work.
As a grad student, when I went there we did the same subjects there and suddenly everything started making sense. Academically I had a great time. They had a good strong Indian community. Here I think the professors are trying to be very methodical and teach everything. There you would have to study a lot outside class. The tutorials would be very hard and being a TA, a lot of undergrads would spend a lot of time with me just to solve the tutorials. Over here I think we can get good grades with a smaller amount of effort. It’s pretty student friendly. You, of course, will disagree with me since I am now on the other side of the fence (laughs). At Rochester, I only spent a year but the four and a half years I spent at UMASS was very eye opening. I was still doing some extra-curriculars and there were opportunities. The Basketball team was really big. I did play despite being short and Indian and all that! It was only the weather that troubled me.
Why did you choose teaching? How has the profession treated you?
I always wanted to be a teacher. My family is full of teachers. My dad was a chemistry professor at a local college. My mum was also a teacher. My granddad was also a historian. My school was attached to the college where my dad worked and my mum was doing her PhD there. I never thought about anything else. We moved to Chennai 4 years back. I was still employed by IIT Bombay and I took a one year sabbatical. My main job was still at IIT Bombay but I could still teach and interact and all that. At the end of my one year, I applied and there was an interview process and I got the job here.
It’s been more than 7 years now. The best memory I have was I was teaching a 3rd year course. IIT Bombay had already hit close to 100 years and the class was one of those dark class rooms where you couldn’t really see what was going on at the back. Of course, we would guess. It was very close to the end of the semester and I was several months pregnant at the time. I very painfully dragged myself and taught the class. Even climbing that small step in the class was very hard for me. The last class was very memorable as 2 days later I had a baby. I was very proud of doing that!
What would you like to tell the students at IIT Madras?
I know that there are a lot of distractions on campus. Even now for me, I have a lot of very different things on my table. I think if we are enthusiastic and do the best job possible of the things on our table things will fall in place. Some of those things are of course forced on you but you have to give the best possible. I think the disconnect between faculty and students needs to go. Some of us feel that students don’t care for us and some of you seem to feel that we don’t pay attention to your needs. All of that goes away if you work hard.
I had a great time at IIT Bombay. I spent a one year sabbatical here to see how I would fit back here having been a student here. I’m so very happy to say that I’ve very seamlessly integrated into the weave that is IIT Madras. It’s really worked out well for me and I hope to finish the rest of my career here.
Dr. Preeti Aghalayam, after graduating from IIT Madras in 1995 with a B.Tech in Chemical Engineering, went on to do an M.S from University of Rochester and Ph.D from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA IN 2000. She did her Post Doc in MIT.
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