Q. Introduce yourself to us in your way. Tell us about yourself, who you think you are and how you see yourself.
I would say that I primarily started as a teacher who wanted to do something exciting and learn something interesting. I used to like writing; I somehow started liking research because of that. I wrote fiction stories, even some blogs, which might embarrass me now.. When research came to me, however, it was a different challenge. I loved it because it was like developing your own baby, making new contributions to the world. Every day is fun as every day you’re doing something new.
Material science had a perception that it was not computer science in terms of job opportunities etc., that it was something for the long haul. I mark this as a transformation into an educator, more than just a teacher. An educator is very important. He does not only need to know the subject, he needs to find a way to make it interesting for learning; otherwise, an educator is a failure. That is also my motto, that I’ve to use my skills be that showmanship or anything else to make the subject appealing. Before every class, I take five minutes to prepare myself for a “show” as in a play. A lot of dramatic experience comes into play, every line and every punch matters, it’s like doing an act in front of the audience. Every day I go with the hope that the audience will love me, will love what I say and if that happens, that makes my day. That way I firmly believe that I’m an educator who wants to evolve with the generation and not become somebody who you might feel has become very old and just doing the job to get the money for his bread and butter. I'm someone who would want you to feel the need for technical education because you guys have worked so much for coming here, and if you have come here with expectations then I want to be the one who fulfils those and brings you the future, into this field with joy.
Q. Can we talk about your enthusiasm for memes? That is not something we commonly come across in professors.
These are changing times and we can't just rely on simplistic tools. Earlier I used to teach my classmates. They would often turn to me and say “mujhe padhade bhai” at the last moment and I used to teach because I'd also learn and revise the content alongside. My methods were very different at that time, I used to go very deep into the concept and explain it in detail. I managed to help these people pass, sometimes they used to score even more than me, so I used to feel that at least I'm a good teacher. But later on, I realised as you get more and more technical, the interest levels will go down as the attention spans have vastly gone down given so many devices and distractions present today. So why not use that distraction to your advantage? See, for example, I got a WhatsApp message from one of the students in MLL100 that he saw the tiles in one of the hostels being arranged in a unique intersecting fashion and he remarked that there’s a “Tilt Boundary” here so that is something that he could immediately relate to. Real-life is full of memes, so why not bring it into science? Especially for material science subjects which are so very well related to human beings and real-life situations, this is the only way to go. That’s how I went into the meme world; to explain things better so that at least for those five seconds you’ll have a good laugh, but later you’ll relate to the concept. My quest is always to develop more and more memes for the next lectures; there is a separate time I take out just for memes because the content is usually prepared in an hour but making the memes takes time as you have to stay relevant.
I would spend two to three hours making memes for the lectures of MLL100. I do understand that some of my references might be old. I said one time “you can hit a rod when it’s hot” and put an image of Dharmendra standing. I was worried you guys might not get it as it was from Sholay, an iconic movie from our generation but maybe not relevant for yours. Fortunately, people also got it. The dialogue was so critical, I could immediately put it there. Every meme has it’s story, and you practice the lecture just like it’s a play and that’s how it’s a performance that comes automatically.
Q. I make out that there are two broad versions of your existence.
One is the ‘academician’, the way people expect professors to be. However, there’s also the other side of you, the pop-culture enthusiast, the side which is refreshing for us as students to be exposed to. What makes these two parts fit so effortlessly in the Professor Lakshmi we know?
When I started off, I used to think the same about professors: That they’re boring. I thought that when I become an educator, I want people to feel that it’s a viable career choice and that it's exciting. Not a single day goes by when I am not excited about tomorrow. I'll be showing you memes, I'll be making people laugh or maybe I'll do something in research if no course is going on. The best time of my semester is the interaction with students, I get to hang out with them, discuss ideas and get to know what they have to say. I realised that you can be cool, you don't have to be too serious in academics. Of course, there is a perception that the first benchers are the serious guys who will be “ghissu”. I was a first bencher who was not the topper but I used to sit in the first bench because some professors found it difficult to speak, so just to make out what the professor has to say and note it down. Basically, I used to sit on the first bench to gain knowledge. I strongly feel that whatever the subject is, it is important for a reason and by learning it, I can do something nice with it. This is how my two personalities merge. I'm a fun guy who believes in enjoying life; I do not want a single day where I say I died a miserable guy. I want to be dying smiling. I probably shouldn't talk about dying so fast (*laughs*), but the point is I do not want to live a single day where I say “yaar bas ye job hogaya”. So every single day I thank myself that I got this job, every single day I’m thankful that IITD took me in and my students have accepted me as one of their professors. When I first started teaching, in the institute I joined, I was directly thrown into taking a course immediately as there was a severe lack of faculty there. So, I had to take a course on Material Selection. I thought that I had done reasonably well, I didn't put in memes as I didn't have the time. When the time for feedback came, one guy gave a feedback to the question ‘what I didn't like about the course’ as “MR. LAKSHMI'S PORTION” (yes, in caps). It sounded like he was shouting and it was very shocking. I was upset, of course, but a lot of people had given positive feedback also. I wasn't angry with the student, but yes I realised I need to put in more effort and I also need to bring out the fun side. If you think that technical knowledge is boring and teach it that way, then only 10% will take it. If, however, you make it fun then at least 30% will consider it. We’re always short of teachers, for that matter, we’re short of teachers in any phase of life. This is how maybe we can motivate good people to pursue teaching. Education has to be made fun and that is how I merge my two personas. There was a time when I even thought of doing an MBA and even bought books which are probably still lying around somewhere. When I transitioned into academics I managed it very well as I had the passion, you will feel it. This passion has to be instilled into students because if I don't do that, then there is no future. I don't know how it really happened, but it happened over time. I'm enjoying my life here.
Q. What motivated you to go into academia and teaching? Do you feel your life would have been very different had you chosen the lavish corporate life like many of your friends might have? Alternatively, if not a professor, which path would you have taken, meme lord being the obvious choice?
I always had one thing in mind: wherever I am, I have to do my best. I don't think of any job as menial. You just need the passion, the drive and single-minded determination about what you have to do. I'll draw from an experience where we had a very difficult teacher in Thermodynamics and that teacher taught three other courses as well. Though Thermodynamics is itself difficult to understand, the problem with the teacher was that he was very severe. He used to do absolute grading, nobody could score more than 50 and F grade was at 40. The entire struggle was to remain between 40 and 50 and a lot of people used to fail. I hated thermodynamics as I could not figure out a single thing that was being taught. I spoke to one of my seniors, who I also refer to as my technical father, and he advised me to write whatever the teacher said. I followed his advice and to my surprise I began getting good marks and even scoring the highest. Every system has a crack. Don't give up..
If I was not here as a professor, I would have been a guy making memes in a company or maybe the admin of a confessions page. I would have done well in MBA too. At the time I was choosing a career path, I did join a job with some other friends of mine. We were all celebrating and happy that we got a job. But my mother was very disappointed. She told me to go to Katni (a small town in Madhya Pradesh) and write the GATE just for her sake once. I had one experience of writing GATE in my third year and I didn't do really well. In fourth year, I wrote the exam for my mother’s sake and got a great rank. With that I came to IISc Bangalore and that changed the world of Metallurgy for me. Until then, Metallurgy was all theory for me; I was unable to develop an understanding. There, in IISc, I found that these material concepts can be developed and chose this as my core field.
Q. Who do you consider your role model in life?
That’s a tough one. I have many role models, in fact. One is my PhD supervisor, Professor U. Ramamurty. He is a great researcher and the way he writes papers is brilliant. Someday, I want to reach his level and I’ll keep striving for that.
The second is Professor Ramagopal Rao. Now I know it may sound like flattery; that I’m sucking up to people. However, he was one of the main reasons why I wanted to join IIT Delhi, because he has got vision. The way he handles himself, the way he expresses opinions and gives out a message is very unique. He has a stature, a very decorated guy and a very sensible person. He always supports youngsters and people who have good ideas. He wants a change in the system and that is very clear in the way he deals with things. Some people just talk about change. Only talking about change doesn't make sense, you have to do it. He has been a doer.
Third, I would say my mother is a role model for me. She taught me how to be a multi-tasker and manage many things together. She gave me confidence. She encouraged me to do dramatics and extracurriculars, didn't allow me to be just in academics. I was introverted to the extent that I couldn't talk to girls. At one point, I used to start sweating. We were from a very conservative family and when you come to Delhi from the south, it’s very different. The culture is very different. My mother realised this and explained to me that I’ll have to deal with women later in life as colleagues and maybe as a partner. My mother does everything. She brought us up while holding on to a teaching job.
Fourth, my father became a role model because of his honesty. My father, regardless of whatever happens, is honest, bloody-minded. He will never lie. You have to tell him that father, you have to lie here otherwise we’ll get in trouble. So this kind of simplicity and honesty is what I also try to maintain, even though it’s not possible sometimes. It’s a virtue. His single-mindedness for a particular task is also admirable.
Q. You’ve studied in a lot of different countries. You must’ve had vastly different experiences doing a BTech and PhD from here in India and then going to CMU as a PostDoc fellow. Can you talk a little about these experiences, and about the differences you found? How do you see each of these experiences contributing to you as a person?
This is a good question. Something changed in every location I went to and each place taught me something new.
After BTech, I felt like I could do anything. I went to IISc and got the DAAD fellowship, because of which I went to Germany for a year. There, it was very interesting because it was the first time I was going out of the country. I’m a vegetarian guy, I can’t touch meat. Even if I try I cannot have it. So, it was a huge struggle for me. I realised how many things I’d taken for granted. That was the first thing, I stopped taking things for granted because I saw that life is tough. You can’t always have a hostel life with a mess and lots of food options. You go outside, it’s a struggle. Moreover, markets, supermarkets, everything closes at 6 pm there. As a researcher, I used to have to keep working. I had no time. I used to rush, take the bus. There weren’t even any cabs. The buses also used to have fixed timings. Germans are very organised, that’s for sure. They work 9 to 5 and in those eight hours, they work very efficiently. At 5, they completely switch over from work mode. They have an on and an off and that’s admirable. We Indians, on the other hand, use that 9 to 5 for gossip. Fortunately, we Indians end up doing well because we have good minds. The Germans, however, have sectioned out time very well. To compartmentalise our efforts, that is something we all should learn. And this compartmentalisation and time management is something I learnt there.
After graduating, I went to the USA for some time and I had a great time there. I had excellent colleagues from India, some of them being undergrads from IITD. Then it was time to go to China. America is good in the sense that food options are not an issue, facilities are excellent and the language of communication is English. Life is set with the American way of life. The moment I went to China, things became very difficult because no one spoke English. The horror had only begun, though, because the moment I opened my phone, Google didn't work, FB didn't work, Twitter didn't work, and even Google Translate doesn’t work! I had to use Microsoft Bing which is, quite possibly, the worst search engine.
Chinese people are very nice people, actually, contrary to all the political propaganda. Always straightforward and sweet to interact with. I never had a prejudice against them, and they were always nice to me, but the issue was, their English vocabulary was severely limited. They also wanted me there so that they could improve it. China taught me how to survive in the wilderness. I really regard China as the best place I’ve been. It was a challenge, but I loved it. China is my second home; if I go there, I want to feel the same thing. I made a lot of Pakistani friends also, who I still love to this day. All prejudice Indians have against Pakistanis will disappear once you meet them. So all these learnings I’ll value forever. China, hence, was a game-changer for me. I felt that I could survive anywhere. Surviving isn’t a challenge; it’s all about your mental state, how you approach things. So lots of things you learn. Any place you go, transformation comes with it.
Slowly I started stepping up, then I went back to CMU and then went to Singapore which was again very very different. Again, a bunch of great people I met. They were much more research-centric. I saw how they are working very hard. They have a very smooth system of approvals; very strict too because they want things done. Everything is done in a very corporate style. I believe that scholarship of a place has to develop by independent thought; not just by a number of publications. Scholarship develops by the kind of system we have here; education at the lowest to the highest level and then excellence, brought about by innovation, with minimal resources. Of course, we’d do better if we had more resources, that’s the one thing I’ve always felt, but I think it’s a matter of time before we get more resources.
So that’s the essence of it. Every experience, even the smallest of experiences, matters and you learn something from it. Another thing I realised, travelling and all this “wanderlust” stuff that people write is… very good for Instagram (*laughs*), but you get tired also. That is something I realised about myself.
Interviewed by: Stuti Lohani and Adhiraj Goel