Dr Chandra R Bhat is alumnus of Civil Engineering from the Class of 1985. He is currently the Director of the Centre for Transportation Research and holds the Adnan Abou-Ayyash Centennial Professorship in Transportation Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. He is one of the Distinguished Alumnus Awardees for the year 2015. It was a privilege to be able to interact with him. He was here to receive the award personally and we managed to get some time with him. Here’s what he had to say:
When we ask him about his insti name, he tells us that he had no insti name but was called Chander by everyone. He tells us that his father was a professor at IIT Madras, in the Electrical Engineering Department and therefore he was a day scholar. “I studied at KV IIT and it was a very close-knit community for me”. Despite being a day scholar, he was still linked with Godav hostel.
“I …. learned a lot from the diversity that prevailed on the campus. The diversity infused a sense of tolerance towards different philosophies and ideas”
When asked about the highlights of his insti life, he talk about Inter IIT. “I played center for the Institute basketball team. I went for quite a few inter IIT meets – I remember the ones in Kanpur and Bombay particularly well.” His height made him the right person for this position! We asked if we won any of them and he exclaims “Oh yes, definitely. We won two of them. We were quite good!”. We also speak about any particular skill he learned during his studies at IIT. He tells us that networking was one vital skill he got introduced to at IIT. “This is one quality that comes to use throughout your life. I also learned a lot from the diversity that prevailed on the campus. The diversity infused a sense of tolerance towards different philosophies and ideas”. He speaks to us about the continual learning that he experienced. “I learned that you can never stop learning. That’s one amazing quality IITs instill in you”. He reiterates this throughout the interview.
Inter IITs were as big as it is now, too. “These meets meant more than just winning medals. It reflected the sense of solidarity that prevailed on campus.” When we ask about any memorable incidents that strike him, he recalls Schroeter and GC (General Championship). He vividly remembers the hostel chanting “Who won the GC? GODAV” to rub it into others’ faces. “I don’t recall any Saras-Godav rivalry during our time, as you have described it now”.
Dr Bhat is professor at the Civil Engineering department at the University of Texas, Austin. So we ask him how he compares IITs to other universities abroad. He responds by saying that “I learned a whole lot of calculus in High School and at IIT, whose utility I never understood back then, but it has really helped in the long run!” However, he describes the method of teaching as “descriptive” and “bookish”. He sighs and says “Things were quite bookish during my time. The system here needs to inculcate self confidence in the students to take control over their studies. This will push them to challenge and question pre-existing notions. He goes into specifics to talk about how he expects undergraduates from IITs to be better in Probability, Statistics and Matrix Algebra. He says that he feels the same way about graduates from the US too. “It’s not that we don’t have the potential at IITs. We might get the best brains of the country, but only good training can unleash this potential”. On the other hand, he is highly grateful for having had professors at IIT he describes as “phenomenal”. “The teachers I had were beyond words. We were taught our fundamentals really well. This contributed to our enthusiasm for the subject. Another advantage here is the stimulating peer group, which contributes to the enthusiasm to ‘learn more’.”
“The system here needs to inculcate self confidence in the students to take control over their studies. This will push them to challenge and question preexisting notions.”
When we asked Dr Bhat about whether he chose civil engineering by choice he tells us that the situation has not changed. It all depended on the ranks. He says, “I guess that’s something we just need to get used to. In some universities in the US, you get more than a year to decide what you want to major in. Such a setup is suitable for someone who is unsure of where they’re headed”.
Dr Bhat specialized in transportation engineering. We asked him about why transportation piqued his interest. He tells us “Transportation engineering is more than just traditional engineering; it encompasses both the engineering element and the social element in a harmonious and continuous fashion”. He describes it as an interdisciplinary field, as his work involves behavioural sciences and how humans make choices. “These choices in turn have implications in engineering and how we design our services.” He is also currently working on greenhouse gas emissions and reducing motorized transport. “Transportation is about elevating quality of life, as quality of life is essentially determined by accessibility. I basically work towards bringing more equity among, and accessibility to, citizens.” Transportation is quite broad and is involved with subjects ranging from Probability, Statistics, and Matrix Algebra to Operations Research and Psychology. He believes that, particularly for civil engineering, it is vital to have an inter-disciplinary curriculum, that incorporates a flavour of management courses in our core courses too.
We also speak about the transportation problems in India and viable solutions for them. He believes that there’s no magic bullet that’s going to save us from the crisis in the transportation sector. “The number of cars have multiplied and it’s quite logical. If you’re earning, it’s natural human tendency to buy things previously beyond reach. I think the government should invest more in public transportation rather than building wider toll roads.” Dr Bhat believes that India has a really good preexisting solution of mixed land use where one has shopping malls, eateries and residential areas all within walking proximity. “A perfect example of this, is in Mount Road in Chennai. You find so many things within close proximity which allows people to walk. We should focus on these kinds of urban design features rather than building exclusive enclaves devoted for residence and eateries.” These enclaves engender more dependence on motorized transport.
We asked him why he chose to enter academia and become a professor. “I worked for 8 months at a traffic consultancy firm after my MS. To me, it wasn’t stimulating enough. I immediately knew that academia is where I belonged. Teaching and research are exceptional models of leadership and service” he says. He feels that they give meaning to his life. He is also extremely touched and moved to have received the DAA, particularly because it’s from his alma mater. We talk about his batch mates and whether they’re still in touch. “Definitely, we’re still in touch. But I personally have not been as much in touch as I’d like to be.
“ Go with your gut, follow your passion and don’t be arrogant.”
We finally wrap up and ask him for any words of advice he’d like to pass on to the students. “ Go with your gut, follow your passion and don’t be arrogant. That’s going to be hard for the current generation because everyone is busy understanding the science of money. But at some stage of your life, you’re going to realize that it’s just not about the money. Each one of you has the responsibility to help the lives around you and that should be your focus”. Dr Bhat feels that we are all privileged to have been raised in an environment that has provided us with the finest calibre of education. He agrees with the fact that everyone has worked hard to get into the IITs but we were all really lucky, and it is incumbent upon us to not forget our responsibility to the service of society. “Translate your talent to improve the lives of those around you”.