Dr.Santhakumar is a retired professor of Department of Aerospace Engineering and is one of the few distinguished faculty who have served the institute for almost 50 years. A proud alumnus of IIT Madras, he did his B.Tech, M.S and Ph.D at IITM. He is known for leading the IITM Satellite project along with Prof. David Koilpillai and was awarded the Excellence in Aerospace Education award by the Aeronautical Society of India. He has also served as the Dean of Academics at IITM.
“When I was a student, I never studied for my exams. I believe if you understand the subject properly, you don’t need to study at all.” says Prof. Santhakumar with pride in his eyes. He believes that cribbing a day before exam and forgetting it the next day doesn’t make any sense. If you are interested in learning, you don’t have to study for the exams at all. “During exam days, I used to watch lots of movies in Thiagaraja and Jayanthi theatres in Thiruvanmiyur and Rajalakshmi theatre in Velachery. ”, he says as he reminisced over his college memories.
At the time when IITM was founded there were only three colleges in India with dedicated Aerospace departments. This pushed the institute to begin a department of its own and was initially piloted as the department of Applied Mechanics in 1966. By 1968 there was a dedicated department for the same. He enrolled as an undergraduate in Civil Engineering but later explored his passion in dynamic objects and joined the Aerospace department.
Dismantle and learn:
His father being an engineer, exposed him to lots of engineering materials in his house right from his childhood and showed him the practical side of things. He made all kinds of items from layers of cardboard similar to a 3d printer. He recalls his dad being generous in giving him money to buy a radio kit from Ritchie Street which he ended up building successfully. “I used to dismantle all newly bought things at home. Only if something new is dismantled, I can learn how it works and repair it if needed. This was a good precaution in those days when there was no guarantee for a product”, says the professor.
This habit stuck on to him in college as well. ” I was fascinated by a real two-seater aircraft at MIT Chrompet. I wanted to remove the parts and learn what was happening inside”, he says. And that’s precisely what he ended up doing one summer vacation! The then HOD of MIT was impressed by the curious kid’s interests and allowed him to work on it. Of course, he was responsible enough to assemble it back! During his B.Tech. days, he used to do a significant task every summer vacation. He had learnt about helicopters all by himself one summer, and gas turbines during another.
Engineering- a passion from my childhood:
“I didn’t have much difficulty in finding what my passion was. I knew it was Engineering right away”, he said. In his first year, his drawing was so professional that the teacher commended it as remarkable. Prof. V. Ramamurthy, who taught vibrations, used to encourage him a lot. Prof. Ramamurthy asked him to make a vibrometer which he was happy to make. When Santhakumar wanted to study transmission belt vibration,he gave full access to the laboratory and equipment one summer . His works attracted the attention of Prof. K. Balaraman a Professor and Prof.KAV. Pandalai, HOD of aero department at IITM,who happened to be the former HOD of MIT. He himself summoned the young engineer to his office and offered a faculty position saying people like him were needed to develop the fledgling department. It may be noted that aero was the only department of IITM which did not receive German aid.
”I am someone who feels that I should serve my home country. I wanted to live here” says the professor when asked of his choice of not going abroad for higher studies. He later did his M.S and Ph.D at IIT Madras. He was one of the few undergrads in the institute to become a faculty here. He started teaching soon after his B.Tech degree.
Once when a German professor in Applied Mechanics was not sure about a concept being discussed in class, Prof.Santhakumar, then a student, explained it to him. This gained him popularity among his mates. “I found the class so easy that I used to take my notes with my left hand!” he says proudly.
Interest in electronics:
“When I was in high school, a science teacher showed me a crystal radio. I saw a needle touching a crystal forming a junction causing rectification and demodulation and driving a headphone plucking power out of thin air and I could hear All India Radio, it was awesome!. And that’s how I fell for electronics.” expresses the professor. He has an entire room in his house dedicated to electronics. He shows his self-made digital power supply, multiple transformer cart and many other electronics projects arranged on his slotted angle shelves. He shows his wattmeter, 200V dc supply for testing LEDs, on-line LED driver of 75% efficiency, battery charger, a digital Vernier caliper,a screw guage, drilling machine and hand tools including file sets in his room cum laboratory. He says he uses the CPU cooler from old computer and magnets from its hard disk drives for his experiments. He adds that he buys lots of electronic components in India and also whenever he goes abroad.
Prof.Santhakumar’s room where he stores all his electronics and other engineering apparatus.
IITM satellite project:
“When two first year students approached me with an interest to launch a satellite, I didn’t take it seriously” he said. But even in their third year, they didn’t lose interest and so he agreed to kick start the project. This satellite has unique applications. It aims at getting a forewarning of earthquakes. The IITM Director himself spoke with ISRO and they agreed to support the project. This grabbed the attention of Director of ISAC Bangalore who asked the IITM team to present the satellite project before him. Prof. Santhakumar wanted the students to learn and do the project by themselves. “I used to be very harsh with them”, he says. The students have put in tremendous effort and the project now is in its final stage. IITM is likely to send the satellite by the end of 2015.
Indians vs Rest of the world in science and technology:
When enquired about the reason why there aren’t many Indians in the field of science and research, this is what Prof.Santhakumar had to say:
- Infrastructure is a predominant factor for a scholar to excel in research and unfortunately we don’t have good infrastructure compared to Germans, Japanese or others, due to various reasons.
- The Indian society does not permit students to explore their interests. Their parents support them even after their schooling which is not the case in U.S and many other countries. So, Indian kids are not independent enough to recognize and thereafter pursue their individual passion.
A message to students:
Finally when asked if he has anything to tell to the student fraternity, he speaks about passion. “Grades are not important at all even if it means getting placed or earning lots of money. If you are truly passionate about something you need not approach anybody, instead people will come searching for you. When you pursue something that you really like, you will become great in it” he concludes.
Edited by: Bragadeeh, Chennai36
Interviewed by: Bragadeeh & Rama Srinivas, Chennai36