Prof. Rijurekha Sen, Computer Science
Q. You did your undergraduate in Jadavpur University, Ph.D. in IIT Bombay, and a postdoc in MPI. How do you see each of these experiences contributing to you as a person?
When I was at Jadavpur University, some professors taught really well, while some courses should be taught better. For the latter, we depended on the textbook. There were no online MOOC lectures. Mostly it would be learning in groups and trying to understand the concepts. I then went for an MTech in IIT Bombay, where I converted to a Ph. D. after the first semester. IIT Bombay was very similar to what you have in IIT Delhi. The course work was quite intense, with a lot of quizzes, assignments, and projects that brought orderliness. There were many departments in IITB, which was a good thing. My Ph.D. was interdisciplinary in nature because I was building a bit of hardware and a bit of software. If I had to learn some concepts, I would have to go to another department or read up on the internet. I really enjoyed my Ph.D. Unlike my undergrad education at Jadavpur university, my Ph.D. was academically fun.
Then in the third phase, I went for a postdoc. My work in the Ph.D. was a bit too applied. If I ever had a problem in my work, I was simultaneously picking up tools to solve it. I specifically chose MPI because my mentor, Peter Druschel, was a core systems person, and I wanted to grow my depth in something. I was quite a broad person in my Ph.D. because I was building this road traffic-related solution as a system. Then I thought that if I wanted to keep my academic options open, I needed to have depth in one aspect. My advisor in MPI is one of those people who started conferences like SOSP. In 4-4.5 years, you get those insights of an old person who tells you how has the field evolved over the last 30-40 years, which is very different from that "this is the problem you have to solve it." Putting my research in a broader academic context, MPI was really good for that. MPI was more like a research lab and was a small place. We had much cross discussion among groups. I was working in one particular area in MPI, but the relations between different areas become clearer in my head.
Academically, I think JU wasn't that good; otherwise, it was a very different thing. From childhood, we are single-tracked, parents tell us that you have to score the best marks. Even in IITB, it was very competitive. It was always about who is getting which internship, who is going where, as if my career is the only thing in the world, and nothing else matters. JU was a very balancing place. There were student unions, and you get to know that there is the art and other stuff. As a human, I can't think only about grades until I am 35 years old. There are so many things - people aren't able to eat, are stuck somewhere on the road, and even as students and professors, if I am thinking about the next paper that I will write, there is something probably wrong with me. I think JU, at some level, made me more of a human person.
Q. When did you become sure in your life that you will be pursuing academia and not industry?
It is still very undecided. When I was doing my BTech, I only knew that industry jobs pay well, and academic jobs probably don't pay so much. My sister is in academia, and she used to say that you have more freedom in academia. It was very vague then. During my Ph.D., I was in Microsoft Research during my internships, which was like academia. I got a job at IBM Research after my Ph.D. At that time, I felt that IBM's role will just keep me there. If you go to the industry at that level after doing a Ph. D, then your academic prospects will close. Because in most industries, I need to do very precisely what they are doing.
I thought that maybe if I went for a postdoc, which would itself teach me a lot more things, I would be able to keep other options open. And after postdoc, I was sure that I would come back. At MPI, I used to feel demotivated at some level because I was working on this significant problem of road traffic in my Ph.D. When I was in Max-Planck, I was working on something which felt a bit synthetic. It was difficult in terms of computer science, but it was very away from the real world. I thought that traffic and pollution are genuine problems and I wanted to work on those. So I wanted to come back to India and not be in the US or Europe.
That was one decision point. Even in India, I got a full research position in Microsoft research as well. I had a faculty position in IIT Delhi and IIT Kanpur as well. Hence, it was a difficult choice because MSR is also quite good research-wise then, I thought that if I really want to work in this domain, then I have to be as free as possible. I would need to work with everyone. If I would have become a Microsoft person, then actually working with the government would become a little harder for me. For me, my choice has been driven by the fact that I want to work in public sector problems. Money was not that much a determining factor. It's more like how my colleagues would be. Even now, I work so much with some of the industrial people because sometimes with some of the technology I build, I cannot continue building that on a mass scale with students. So it's sometimes just the first prototype I will make, and then I have to give it to industry to actually do mass-producing. So it's not like I can say I am an academic person at all points of time. I don't like those arguments that industry is evil, and academia is boring and those. It's more like what I want to work on.
Teaching, I had no clue, and it was only after I started teaching that I really like this aspect. So in my postdoc, even MPI didn't have any teaching, and in IIT Bombay, it was mostly TA duty, which I didn't like. So it was more like grading. I didn't know whether I would like it or not. I was even scared to go to a class. But actually, it's very nice to keep learning until I am very old. I like it so far. I'm not like I have to be in academia.
Q. What differences you found in the working culture between the two cases, among students, or maybe some extracurricular activities?
I think that the level of confidence was very high in MPI. Research is hard. Good research especially is, sometimes, you take like two years to come up with a new concept. Validate it. Get the paper accepted by your community even. In MPI, the faculty is quite brave, and they have confidence that the problem I'm working on is important. And I can convince the research community that this is important, and this is the way to solve it. In India, what I find is that we are not that ambitious. Sometimes it's our own insecurity that comes in. And sometimes it is driven by the system. IITs have not been so productive in research historically. There were not too many students doing a Ph.D. or even at the undergrad level, they were not doing research. Right now, the tendency has been that the director or even the heads of the department or even the government tell you that you have to produce a certain number of papers within a certain amount of time. In MPI, when I worked with Peter, we had one MOBISYS paper in 2016 and another in 2018, and we hardly slept.
At no point in time was I or he scared that why you're not getting a paper in two years. Peter's presence gave us a boost that we are doing something hard, and it's just fun to do that hard thing. Even with my Ph. D. students, I'm finding it hard because maybe I'm young, and they don't have that confidence. And perhaps I don't have Peter's confidence. Building up this culture will take time. It's just because the problem is hard. We are not going and getting one paper every six months. This notion of confidence doing proper research slowly and steadily is something we have to build up here.
Q. So you are very active on social media and don't restrain yourself from posting about your social life on social media. How do you it helps you in connecting with your students and for your mental health
It is a recent change. I always had an account, but I would mostly follow and read what people say. It sometimes happens that the friends we have in our real-life might not think or look at the events in the same way as I do. The way we think about the value of what I should be doing with my life. What does death even mean? And what this disease means. Each of us is very individual in that space. That is what I felt.
Social media always also gives us a very, very rosy picture of life. When I was trying to have a baby or when I was pregnant, only the images of baby shower or babies having their first birthdays, which would be posted there. When this happened to me that my babies were in ICU, and we didn't know whether they would live or not. And even if they live, whether they will be blind or can't speak. I thought that am I the only person who is having this problem? Everything seems so good around me. That is when nobody else seems to have this problem. But since it's a real thing, it must be more prevalent. The social media, the connection, which I have the only give me a snapshot of it, only the rosy part of the snapshot. It's not only physical health, but it's also for mental health issues. You just think that I'm so alone in the world that only I have an anxiety problem. I used to search with terms like premature birth, losing your infants, and then I gradually found one or two people on Facebook. Some of their babies have lived. And then I got a lot of strength from them that at least it's not that I'm the only one going through this phase. I thought that I shouldn't be holding back this bad experience. Writing also brings clarity to my own head, because when I am in a dark space, I'm thinking about these things. If I am writing a long post, it's probably that I have been writing it for two or three months on Gmail or something, and I just have a diary or a note. And then if I want to say that these are some positive thoughts which I continuously think, I post it somewhere.
The best part is that some girls I haven't been in touch with since my school day commented or messaged and even called. And before that, they had also gone through this phase, and they're still going for it. It builds a community in that way. And some of them don't have this thing that "I'm a computer science professor in IIT," some confidence that you have a job. They might have been just housewives, and they felt that they had put all their eggs in this basket. And their body is not allowing them to give birth. So it's a low position to be in.
Even in my Ph.D. and my postdoc, sometimes I would write. Because there was also this common problem of a long-distance relationship which any postdoc will have. So I have written about those things. I would like to write about things which I think will be valid for a particular set of people and not only of very personal things. If I'm thinking about death and the value of life, then maybe I will write it. It might change. It's just a phase I'm going through I don't know yet.
Q. You are among the very few female professors in the CSE Department. How has been your experience being a female professor in IITD?
First of all, fewer female faculty members are also a function of the number of female applicants. Most females will do a BTech, get a job, a few of them will go to Masters, a Ph.D., even lesser of them will go to PostDoc. We lose females somewhere in the pipeline. Also, when applications come, it will be like 40 male applicants and one female applicant. So increasing the number is quite hard, which is true even in MPI and in US Colleges. My personal experience has been good. On issues regarding health I had last year, my department would say, "We are all males we know nothing about becoming a mother, so you just take your time, we will help you in other ways." They took up my courses they managed among themselves, but there was complete support, which was very good. Hopefully, gradually, we will grow in numbers.
But when we are women engineers, we are very used to boys. I mean, all of my best friends have been boys forever. So during my time in IIT Bombay, even in MPI, there have been very few females around, and I might think more like a boy who is a friend and not a girl. We, as female faculty, don't really miss girls as such.
Q. Do you like teaching big classes or small classes, and why?
I suck in all the classes. It's like I like singing, but I am still out of tune. Teaching has multiple aspects. Knowing the concept is one part, and trying others to understand the same concept is something else. If there is brrr in the class, then trying to keep my head sane and still keep talking is there. The other part is the evaluation, which is very different from teaching. Even to evaluate what kind of questions to give, how to set the marks is tough. There is a standard deviation, even within the class. There are some excellent people, some terrible people, and the middle ones, and how should we spread that out the level of questions? I am still learning it. What I have been told in IIT is that it takes five years to learn this process, then the next five years go well, and after that, nothing in your life even matters. You just get bored with the teaching part. Some students are there, whenever I say something badly, they have this look on their face, and then I try to explain it better. Then the smile comes, and it is like a relief to me, oh ok they understood it finally. I like that part, but I have to make it much more efficient.
Q. What's your daily schedule in the quarantine?
Thankfully, research deadlines haven't changed much. There are paper deadlines and virtual conferences. At least research-wise, things are good. There are weekly meetings that I keep with the students. They keep dumping results. These summers, I was supposed to be at MPI. That was a really hurtful thing because I really wanted to go. So, this particular period, I am trying to think about the next set of problems and keep working on current research problems with the students. Next semester, I am taking the data structures course with 500 students, so I have to be an efficient teacher. I have to do the class like a robot, teach everything correctly, so I have just started to revise the concepts. That's an easy course. There's is only stats, numbers, and stuff like that, so concept-wise things are easy, but assignments will take a lot of time. Housework, washing dishes, of course, we have to do that. I am not the perfect person; I sometimes do things late, but I am not terrible.
Dr. Rijurekha Sen uses computer science methodologies for urban sustainability applications, ranging from road traffic pollutants to auditing of black-box systems like the Arogya Setu app. Gathering more information securely and preserving privacy is the focus of Rijurekha's work. In doing so, she solves research questions to balance accuracy-latency-cost-energy-heating- privacy-security, etc. in embedded systems.