Prof. R.I. Sujith studied his pre-degree (in those days that is what class twelve was called) at the Government Arts College, Thiruvananthapuram. He says that the classes used to go uninterrupted and that he was impressed by many professors who really cared about the students (so much so that they might occasionally scold them!). He goes on to say that he liked the place a lot (save the heat)! He learnt a lot here from great teachers like Prof. Pandalai, Prof. Damodaran, Prof. Sreekanth, Prof. Krishnan and many more who were pioneers in their fields. Interestingly, Prof.Sujith says that these professors occasionally invited students to their homes!
Professor Sujith went to the University of Minnesota at first and then shifted to Georgia Institute of Technology and completed his PhD there. He returned to India after getting his PhD instead of working in the US as he loved his country a lot. He wanted to work for the development of Indian Aerospace and joined IITM as a lecturer.
IITM now and then
Initially, he lived in Jamuna hostel as assistant warden as he couldn’t get a quarter in the residential zone. Sports and music filled his days there with fun. In those days, getting research funding was difficult and the amount of money available was little. “But now”, he says, “coming back is easy as one gets many grants to establish oneself”.
An average student back then used to be much better than an average student now. “We really gave the professors a hard time by asking a lot of questions both during and outside the class,” says Prof. Sujith. He himself had to prepare every morning before teaching a B.Tech. class as the students used to keep him on his toes! “But sometime in the early 2000s”, he recollects, “it was as if a balloon had burst and students lost all their interest!” He humorously adds that students these days seem to have fallen asleep even before he enters the class, thus denying him the credit of putting them to sleep.
He tried his best to improve student-teacher relationship and even invited students to his home. Even the students invited him to their hostels but it all ended as no one was interested. He still enjoys going to Aero Night every year and plays music sometimes. He also interacts with students wherever he finds them, even at the stadium and pool area. “Now the postgraduate students are really good”, he says. He has a lot of publications with them in prestigious journals.
Prof. Sujith is a world leader in the area of thermoacoustic instabilities. The traditional paradigm was that a thermoacoustic system goes from stable to unstable operation. He showed that the transition from stable to unstable operation happens via intermittency. Using a unique combination of mathematical physics and the engineer’s feel, he has developed precursors which can provide online early warning of an impending instability. Prof. Sujith and his group are now working towards an understanding of the physics underlying the observed intermittent behaviour in thermoacoustics. They are also exploring the occurrence of intermittent bursts in other fluid based systems such as aeroelastic, aeroacoustic and even biological systems. They are looking for connections between all these systems, to see if there are some universal underlying principles. The type of investigations Prof. Sujith’s group has carried out using simple, yet insightful experiments and the immense impact their work has had on the power industry can serve as inspiration for researchers around the country. Some of his recent papers on unified theory for thermoacoustic systems have made a significant impact to the understanding of fundamental coupling mechanisms.
Prof. Sujith’s work is well recognized and he has received a number of awards including IITM’s Institute Research and Development Award (IRDA) and the Swarnajayanti fellowship of DST. He is the only scientist from India who has been chosen as a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) of the Technical University of Munich, Germany. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Spray and Combustion Dynamics. He works closely with national projects of Indian Aerospace and is also closely associated with ISRO. Moreover, he is also part of many international projects.
When asked about ragging “in those days”, he recollects that there was just a friendly interaction in the form of light humour which generally used to end with a favour (books/drafters) from seniors. Many a time, the seniors would call freshers to play sports and that is how he learnt hockey!
He learnt to play the flute at IITM and was also involved in activities of the photography club (where he actually developed photographs from films) and the astronomy club.
His general pass time back then was playing hockey and listening to old hindi songs. He reminisces about how he used to watch movies at OAT as though it were a ritual. Looking at the cell phone lying on his desk, Prof. Sujith recollects that back then students had to go to Mylapore to make STD calls and that during exams, Nair’s tea stall (outside Taramani gate) used to be a hotspot. Not much of entertainment was needed back then as he loved everything that he was doing at IITM, including academics!
As a student, he says that he cherished the short walks with Prof. Damodaran from class to Gajendra circle while discussing almost anything under the sun!
Prof. Sujith’s Message
According to him, the hard work that goes behind getting good CGPA is very important. “Failing is better than getting a good CGPA without understanding the subject. One must put in great effort in what one does”, he advises.
He says that IITM has transformed from a teaching university to a research university and he has been a part of this transition. He believes that it is important to generate knowledge at any institute and B.Tech. students must make use of the knowledge of the professors and the research scholars.
He adds that one must learn to talk to oneself. “Do not doubt your beliefs. Do not believe your doubts”. According to him, playing safe by doing things that everyone does is the most risky thing that one can do as it might potentially lead to one getting stuck with something he/she doesn’t like for the rest of their life! The solution is to discover one’s passion as we have to live with that for the rest of our lives!