Our relationships with most of the professors starts with the semester and ends as we ace (or pass) the course. Only a few have made their presence felt outside the classroom, and impact us in unforgettable ways.
On popular demand, we bring to you yet another 'Prof Next Door'. This time, our motherly professor from Electrical Department, Prof. G. Bhuvaneshwari
Q. Please walk us through your journey since school. What motivated you to take up a career in research and teaching? Having done your masters and Ph.D. both from IIT Madras, what led to IIT Delhi being your workplace?
I studied in Tamil medium in a government school in the outskirts of Chennai until 12th standard. In Tamil Nadu, the admissions to government medical and engineering colleges were done based on the 12thstandard board exams marks. I wanted to study medicine, but my marks in biology board exam fell much below my expectation. The re-evaluation was not all that methodical. My parents were keen that I should apply only to local colleges (they were not happy to send me to a hostel). So, I applied only to CEG, Madras, and I got through the admission process and joined CEG in 1981. While studying with my classmates, I used to explain some of the concepts to my friends and I used to enjoy those teaching sessions thoroughly. This is what inspired me eventually to take up a career in academia. On completing my B.E., I wrote GATE, got a good score and secured admission in IISc, IIT Madras as well as IIT Kanpur. As I am from Madras, I joined IIT Madras for my master’s and continued there itself for my PhD. After obtaining my PhD degree in 1992, I joined my alma-mater CEG as a faculty member. After I got married, I migrated to the USA to join my husband who was working for Northwestern University, Chicago. I however could not find an academic opening there, and hence I was working for the electric utility company ComEd, Chicago. We decided to return to India and were looking for jobs everywhere in India for the both of us (the usual two-body problem). We both found jobs in Delhi, and that is how I ended up in IIT Delhi.
Q. At the time you pursued engineering, very few girls used to even get their college education. Could you tell us about your experiences. Also, you are among the few senior female professors. Have you ever faced any stereotypes. ?
I did my undergrad from the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Madras – one of the oldest engineering colleges in India. Surprisingly, there were several girls in my class. Our major problems used to be in the mechanical workshop (smithy, welding and carpentry), IC engines lab, fluid mechanics lab and machines lab. Yes, many of the technicians in these labs used to discourage us saying, “After all this education, you are going to be confined to the kitchen. So, why are you wasting these engineering seats?”
Q. How do you compare and contrast the education and culture at IITs and foreign universities?
I have never studied in a foreign university, so my comments are based on second hand opinion. UG education is pretty good in IITs. However, research facilities are better and the time and money available for research are more in many high-ranking foreign universities. The work culture also appears to differ – many of the graduate students in the universities abroad do NOT copy or resort to unfair means because they think it implies a lack of self-respect. I cannot say that that is the case for all students in IITs.
Q. What changes do you see in undergraduate students today compared to when you were an undergraduate yourself? How has the quality of students coming to IITs changed? Do you feel that the environment has become more competitive?
Two major changes: Previously, the number of seats was limited; so, only select few got IIT admission. Also, the question paper in JEE used to be subjective. So, the process of eliminating the wrong answers wouldn’t work. This ensured that the students who entered IITs had a rigorous grounding in the sciences, especially Maths and Physics, enabling many of them to apply these to any field of science, engineering and technology. Many of them were extremely creative. Now, the number of available seats has increased tremendously. Therefore, the students come from a variety of backgrounds and the question papers have to be set very carefully for the courses taught in IIT, so that no one is penalized. The environment has become unhealthily competitive for the top 20% to 30% of students. But, the bottom 30% of students get completely discouraged and stop caring.
Q. From your experiences, any learnings that you would like to give to students. Also, anything that you believe students should know while doing their bachelors which they don’t?
Many students think there should not be any attendance rule. I believe that it is important for students to attend classes to (i) connect with the teacher and classmates; (ii) have some discipline in their lives; and (iii) at least know what is going on in a particular course. If they go back and read through that particular section (that was taught in the class) even once in the evening on the same day, they would be able to imbibe the concepts better. Prof. Visweswaran said once in UG orientation that if one masters the concepts by putting in effort, the grades will become one’s slaves. I strongly believe in that. Due to the increase in students’ strength, we now have 4 students per sub-group in lab classes. So, many UG students take it easy in the lab by letting their more serious group members do all the work. It is very important to pay attention in the lab to internalize the concepts one studied in the theory component of the course. In summary, I would advise students to take their academic pursuits more seriously than they do now.
Q. Many students are unable to find an area they would like to dedicate their career to during the time of their undergraduate degrees. It is mostly selection through elimination of options which takes place. How does one understand their true passion? Isn’t it very tough to do – even more so – when an engineering institute exposes you less to the areas of business, humanities and pure sciences?
I think that as IIT students, you do get more opportunity explore courses in different areas. I feel that your choice is also dictated by the teacher who introduces you to a particular topic. If you like this teacher’s way of handling the subject, then you develop a liking for that topic. There are ample examples in our own students from EE3 in IIT Delhi who have migrated from electrical power to computer science or optics or mathematics or VLSI. If you are passionate about a subject, I am sure you would be able to sense it; when you are reading something in that subject, you would not realize how time flies.
Q. Please tell about your thoughts during the lockdown. How does it feel to not be surrounded by students in the campus for the first time in so many years? Also, any advice to students about how what all they can do during this time?
Yes. It is a strange experience. Even during summer holidays, we normally meet with our colleagues, PhD students and Master’s students. Now, the meetings are through phone. It is getting difficult. However, we are all a part of that privileged population who don’t have to bother about basic necessities. So, I think we should count our blessings. As far as students are concerned, now that the students have most of the course materials uploaded in Moodle, they should try to make use of their time effectively either in studying the material or in work-from-home internships.
Q. What are your non-academic interests? Are you able to pursue them currently? I like listening to music and reading popular science books and Tamil literature. Even now, I spend some time during the weekends, on these activities.
Q. Many students in electrical engineering, who want to go into the core sector, prefer areas other than power engineering and this is a bias which is created even before they have taken up courses in power engineering domain. How do students who like it keep themselves safe from the prejudices?
It is better to ask your seniors who have gone into a particular area for higher studies, before deciding how exciting (or not) that area is. There is no point in taking advice from students who are just one or two years senior to you. In power engineering area, two major sectors are coming up in a big way: electric vehicles and renewable energy. In the former, EV propulsion systems (different motors/converters, their design control and various modes of operation) and battery charging are two fertile areas falling under the domain of “Power Electronics”. There is a lot of talk about exchange of energy between EVs parked in the parking lots and microgrids. This is another area which comes under “Power Systems” domain. In renewable energy, electricity generation using wind and solar energy has tremendous research potential. Integrating renewable energy sources with the grid is another challenging area.
Q. Many students venture into non-core jobs and don’t give much time to their branch. Careers in consulting, business and programming are becoming increasingly attractive. What are your views on this?
I also know of students who had gone for these jobs and come back after a couple of years saying that they were bored. Then, they join as a project associate with one of the faculty members here and then go for higher studies. The jobs in management and consulting are more lucrative than core jobs. But, money, while essential, is not everything. The satisfaction I get by interacting with you all is immeasurable.