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Alum Album #7: Sanju Ahuja

Sanju Ahuja completed her BTech in 2016 from the Mechanical Engineering Department. Post that, she worked a job for around 2.5 years. In 2019, she came back to IIT Delhi to pursue a PhD in the Design Department. She is the first PM Research Scholar in the Design Department. Read more about her journey of discovery post IIT, through an interview with our journalist Priyanshi Gupta.

P: Were you inclined towards Mechanical Engineering in the first place?

S: I remember wanting to be an astronaut when I was in school, and that dampened to being an aerospace engineer after JEE. I thought I would do an aerospace masters’ after B.Tech. At least that is the thought process I remember. There was also a bit of a stereotype, that girls don’t like to be or can’t be mechanical engineers. And it got to me. Believe it or not, I didn’t even fill CS or EE as a preference during my branch allocation. Mechanical engineering was my first preference.

After coming to IIT, however, I wondered for many years if I wanted to be an IAS officer, but by the final year I almost knew in my heart that I wanted to study further and become a professor. Only, I didn’t know what to study. I had also gotten a PPO, so I think I just got attracted to the money. I thought I would work for a couple of years to pay for a masters’, and by then I would figure out what it was that I wanted to study.

P: So how was your experience of working a job?

S: I joined HUL, post IIT. During my management training, I lived in so many cities and worked in so many functions, that it felt like a decade wrapped in a year. HUL was the company that literally made me independent. The only reason I left HUL was that I wanted something different from my life, even though I didn’t know what it was yet. I joined OYO thinking that I needed a startup experience, but it was during a policy project there (where I spent 6 months researching something), that I realized I wanted to spend my life in the pursuit of science and knowledge. This is when I started to think about a PhD, because I wanted to work on novel problems of my own choosing.

The question that troubled me the most while I was working was, “Why?”. Why work on this product, why more production, why sell this item, why support this policy, and it is not hard to figure out that almost no one will give you unbiased answers. It was quite discomforting for me to experience that conflict on a daily basis, not knowing what the larger purpose of my work and existence was.

P: So then you considered applying for a PhD?

S: I actually applied to Mechanical Engineering first, because that is the skill that I thought I had, but I did not get through. I got through in Design and I remember after my selection, I came to IIT to meet the professors and only Dr. Jyoti (now my advisor) was available. I had never met him before during my B.Tech, but I had an hour-long conversation with him and I think that was the first time I was able to articulate why I wanted to do research and where my underlying interests were. I could have waited a semester to apply again in mechanical, but after meeting him, there was absolutely zero doubt. We had a long chat about all the whys that I was uncomfortable with during my job, and I could visualize the work that I wanted to do. I don’t believe in destiny, but I think being able to have that conversation at that moment, that did change the course of my life.

I wanted to come back to IIT for research because it was the most neutral and unbiased atmosphere I could work in, irrespective of what I was working on. Why I specifically wanted to come to IITD was because I knew the place, and I wanted to dive right into the work that I wanted to do, instead of spending a lot of time on applications, planning, settling and adjusting. I was also seeing as an alumnus that IITD was going full throttle on impactful research, and I did not want to go abroad just for the sake of going abroad.

P: How are you finding the transition?

S: All I can say is that I love working here. I love how conscious the department is about the kind of work that it does and the kind of impact it wants to make. I think that in the coming years, our department has the capability to be pivotal in multi-disciplinary research with pragmatic real-world impact. I would also say that my fellow PhD students are exceptional, both in skills and perspective, and it really helps to have a solid group of people who can scrutinize your work and make it better.

As for my future plans, I think I want to become a professor. I love the neutrality and freedom of academic life. To the best of their ability, professors can be impartial, think of issues systematically, and come up with solutions that are truly beneficial, and I wish to be able to contribute to that.

P: What do you have to say about doing research?

S: Well, research stories are not at all like B.Tech stories. There’s a lot of hard work, thought, and revision of thought. Research is an exercise in modesty, you refine your work and your ways of working every day, to make your arguments stronger. There’s a joke that goes around that in IIT, B.Tech students are the most confident about their skills and knowledge, Masters students are a little confused and PhD students are completely lost. The more you try to understand something, the more depth you see in it, unaccounted variables, unconsidered implications, alternate explanations. B.Tech was a cruise compared to this, but this is enjoyable in itself.

P: What fond memories do you have of your BTech years?

S: The B.Tech years were truly incredible. I used to play guitar in hostel events. I remember feeling like an impostor musician, but I made some great friends there. I played volleyball for a semester, wrote a lot, mostly blogging. Also, my exchange program in Paris was one of the best times of my life. I fell in love with Europe. The travel, the freedom, the art, and the history, it was just amazing. Some of my best friendships from IIT are with the people I met on that exchange. I also remember a very emotional moment. It was our last night in IIT, and about 12 of us got together for the entire night, and everyone said something about all the other people. And that felt like the end of something really amazing, like the ending of Friends. Other than that, I guess you’re always gonna miss the Mafia games during Rendezvous!

P: One last thing you would like to say to your juniors?

S: Don’t let anyone tell you that there is no passion to be found, or that everyone has to do jobs that they don’t enjoy to survive. Give your everything into discovering the thing that doesn’t make you wait for weekends. If you ever come to the conclusion that there is no passion in the world, let it be after a lot of trying and a lot of discovering. Life is too short to realize this 20 years later.

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