Prof Krishnan Balasubramanian speaks to Chennai36 about his experiences as a teacher and the work he does as Dean, IC&SR.

Your experiences as a teacher here

I’ve taught in both U.S. and India. If you ask me what the big difference is, it is that in US, the questions that were asked used to be “How do you do this?” or “How do you do that?” When I came here, in my first year, students put up their hands and said “Sir, you’ve made a mistake” or “That is not the way to do this”. They were far more direct. I learnt that I had to be more careful when I came to class. That was the major difference. But even this used to be only with first or second year students. Somehow, inevitably in all batches, the student’s energy levels used to drop as they progressed. This was something I never understood.

Most memorable moments

Lots of memorable moments. Incidentally, one of my students, Bharath Kumaran came to deliver a talk at the Leadership Lecture Series. Most of the students work with me for 2-3 years. This kid is a very smart kid; he was a gold medal winner. He talked for around an hour. It’s a very proud moment for us . He’s a guy who could have cakewalked into MIT or Stanford but he was very adamant that he would get into a particular job. When students come back and tell me that they learnt something from us that made their lives better or of some times in their careers when they were reminded of things we had done for them, it gives me goose bumps. We hope every kid who graduates from here gets a good career and does well in life.

Your work as Dean, IC&SR

I simply collect money and hold on to the money (laughs). I’m a collector. Actually, we are here to facilitate research in IIT, the money that comes from industry or the Government. Today, the Government of India is pushing what is called collaborative research wherein we work closely with international organizations particularly universities. We are funded by collaborations between countries; many foreign companies are coming to India. Our job is to ensure that the excitement levels are up. We are, in the end, a Government of India organization and hence there are a lot of rules and regulations. We do our best to insulate faculty from these rules. If they say something, we sugar-coat it and try to convince the faculty.

We have a very large contingent of temporary contract workers who manage the funded research program of IIT Madras. We typically have had 900-970 projects in the last two years, about half of them come from industry and others come from Governmental type sectors. This year we are looking to procure about 400 crore rupees for our research. We maintain 1200 contract research employees in our campus. Make sure they are compliant with government rules so they can’t be found fault with.

So that’s basically what we do but of late we have also taken up a few other things into our scope. One of the things we are doing is outreach. The idea here is that we want all the stakeholders to know what we are doing. So, in this process, we now have official Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn handles. We are also on working a very large platform which is a brainchild of an alumnus. We are trying to modify it into something that gives you live updates on what our faculty are doing. We also have an e-newsletter which comes out  every fortnight. We are now trying to do build good relationships with the media. You would probably see the effects in local newspapers. We have a team of 10 contract professionals working on that. We also have Intellectual Property Management. We now have a new office to manage this and we have hired very experienced professionals to work on this. The idea here is that if there anything good in any papers that faculty publishes; we make sure that no one can steal their work. So far, we’ve been quite successful in doing that. We also have quite a few deals with industry to increase our IP output. We have also conducted workshops to educate people about IP. So this is basically what I do as Dean of IC&SR.

On your experience so far

Absolutely fantastic. I just wish we had more time because all this takes a lot of time. We have exceptionally motivated people working here. There is no going home at 5 in the evening for our staff. We work on Saturdays and Sundays also. The idea here is that we get the job done. We have also created a new research fund. We are trying to use some of our funds to promote research internally. We are trying to fund our faculty and see if any new ideas can be implemented. We are also working with the Central Workshop to ensure that quality instruments are available to work with for both students and faculty. Along with the Dean AR, we are also working on new research awards to faculty. Many of these will come up over the next few months. We also offer B techs and M techs unique opportunities to do new projects. Although not many of them come out with marketable products, there are a couple of good ones. We even had a few patents which give you a lot of money. We’ve gotten about 2 lakhs back from students. We’ve instituted scholarships from this money. These are some things that always keep you motivated.

When did you decide that research and teaching was your career choice?

If you would’ve told me that I was going to become a faculty at IIT Madras when I was doing my PhD, I would have looked at you weirdly. It was fate I think. Someone made me an offer I could not refuse. Most people don’t understand the freedom that a faculty gets. We can work on any problem we choose and when we choose. That makes a lot of difference. A lot of faculties are busy but that’s because they choose to be busy. Their choice makes all the difference.

Every year, you work with a new set of students. It heartens us to see them doing well. We sometimes solve their personal problems also. They make it a point to at least call me as often as possible, if not come and visit.

Is there a change in mindset of students from your time?

Honestly, it hasn’t changed very much. You always have a range of mind-sets among students. It’s just that when you become a faculty, you forget that you were a student just a short while back. I do see a change in IIT Madras in the last decade. The B techs goals in those days were to go to the US to do an MS or an IIM. So they actually used to be very serious. People like Bharath Kumaran have actually published reputed papers in leading journals. Today, I don’t see that happening. Why? Because they don’t need to go US to get a job in Microsoft or Google. They get it right here. And hence, they don’t have the same motivation. They feel that some other cultural activities might get them the job rather than research. So there’s a significant drop in B techs pursuing research. When I came in, I told my students I was going to send them to the US for internships. They were shocked. They said nobody would take us and even if they did, we wouldn’t get a visa. In the end, I made sure all of them went. That changed. In 3 years, I found that everybody was going. I suppose we found out that visa is a very small matter.

After you started teaching, did you want to come to IIT?

I didn’t want to teach at all. Well, it so happened that when I was finishing my PhD, suddenly somebody called me and asked if I wanted to come for an interview. I said I want to join GE and GM and not teach. But he convinced me to take a look at his offer and when I did, I was amazed at the opportunities. I thought I would try for a couple of years and if I didn’t like it, I would move on. I was working everyday with Honda. I had freedom and I was still doing work I liked. I then wanted to come back to India. The IIT Director that time sent me some feelers. I came a year in advance and looked at the offer. It was a good opportunity for me and I took it.

Message to Students:

I’m excited. In fact, as a part of my outreach program, blog was one of things that I wanted to do but we backed off. You guys are doing it, I wish you good luck. Freedom is fantastic but it can sometimes be a bad thing. We would like to get feedback from students on our outreach program called Reach IITM. It gets updated 2-3 times a day. Feel free to send any news, photos, etc. to us. You can contact us at reachiitm@iitm.ac.in We’d be happy to put it up.

Prof Krishnan Balasubramanian did his B.Tech at Madras University and then went on to do MS/PhD at Drexel University. The outreach programs which are undertaken from his office can be reached at Prof Krishnan Balasubramanian are on facebook at  www.facebook.com/ReachIITM). He currently holds the position of Dean, IC&SR.