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Prof. Sumeet Agarwal, Electrical Engineering

Unlike most of the interviews that we publish, this piece attempts to stretch the Q/A to a coming-of-age telling of Prof Sumeet Agarwal's story (EE Dept., IITD). In its type and format this is a first of its kind, and we hope it is as interesting a read as it was in process


La Martiniere:

It’s often noted that much of the persona and traits of a person begin to evolve from their earliest encounters with life and its sensibility. Our school life, without a doubt, makes up for the most of it. How did the school shape you on a personal level? Were there any practices/incidents that peculiarly intrigued you?

I guess the most notable thing about my school days, even more so than it is now, was my extreme shyness and social awkwardness. In school I was a real outlier, and from what I can recall a lot of people seemed to regard me as weird and unusual, and I faced a fair bit of mockery for this, and occasionally some bullying. But still, I think I was pretty happy at La Martiniere overall; I never really had very close friends, but I did have some folks with whom I used to like interacting and discuss common interests like books and science.

In fact one of my more important memories from my school days, which I think also influenced my life a fair bit subsequently, was when I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in Class 8 or 9 I think. It’s a very ambitious work of science fiction, which imagines a future where humans have developed a kind of quantitative social science called ‘psychohistory’: a set of mathematical equations which allows them to predict the large-scale evolution of society. The series tries to imagine what the consequences of such an ability could be for human civilization. I remember discussing this with some classmates and us even starting a ‘Foundation Club’, with some kind of idea that we would try to discover those equations ourselves! In some ways, that’s what I’m still trying to do over 20 years later: I think that was the starting point of my interest in being able to mathematically model and predict the workings of complex systems -- at the time it was at the social level of collections of interacting human beings, subsequently I realised that it might be a bit easier to do if I started at the biological level of collections of interacting genes or neurons. Asimov set Foundation (written in the 1950s) some 20,000 years in the future; but we might actually have something like psychohistory a lot sooner!

What was the medium of expression you catered yourself to? [Alas! Facebook didn’t exist back then] Did you make conscious efforts to be ‘informed’ and ‘aware’? How much of it had to do with your friends and family if I may ask?

My school had some grand buildings and a deep sense of history, and I used to enjoy wandering around the corridors and soaking it in. Being involved in literary and quizzing activities was fun, and perhaps those things helped me get out of my shell a little bit. I wasn’t a very expressive person at that time; I guess I used to think quite a lot about stuff (I’ve always been an overthinker), but I never really wrote things down in a diary or anything like that. I do remember relishing the opportunity to write essays and compositions during school exams, and perhaps those were occasions that compelled me to overcome my general laziness and actually try to organise and articulate some of my thoughts. But while I didn’t write much, I was a voracious reader; apart from Foundation, I read all kinds of other stuff, and my favourite slot of the school timetable used to be the ‘library’ slot, where we would go and sit in the grand school library with its vaulted ceiling. That’s where I discovered a lot of my early literary interests. I doubt if I was particularly ‘informed’; and as already mentioned I never had much socialisation. But perhaps it was precisely to seek escape from my loneliness that I began to take an interest in all sorts of trivia and facts and figures about the world around me.

You did your B.Tech in Computer Sciences from IITK. And I hold it to my assumption that a lot of your college life would’ve been an endless s t r i n g of assignments and codes and labs. The breakdowns must’ve occurred, didn’t they? How did you manage?

Life was indeed very active and hectic at times; but somehow, I was lucky enough to never really go through any breakdowns or major difficulties. In fact, looking back, it’s kind of remarkable how happy my days at IITK seem to have been, and I can hardly think of any bad memories at all. I think I really just fit into the place quite well, I was able to get to know some people who had somewhat similar personalities and interests, and while I still had very little socialisation, I was able to keep myself occupied with a whole bunch of things. And then computer science itself fascinated me, and I was perhaps quite unusual amongst IIT students in genuinely enjoying the majority of courses I took! At the same time IITK gave me a chance to develop my nascent interests in the social sciences and humanities, and some of the most memorable courses were HSS ones in psychology, philosophy, and linguistics, all of which influenced me a lot.

What was the most ‘bizarre’ night you had in those four years? If that’s a little too personal: What was the most ‘bizarre’ thought you wanted to but couldn’t execute?

As for ‘bizarre’ nights, I’m afraid I’ll disappoint; my life was pretty boring in terms of the ‘fun’ stuff people usually associate with college. I was active in a lot of extracurriculars, in particular astronomy and literary stuff -- and probably my most memorable nights were when we would spend all night out in the sports ground at IITK with our telescopes, stargazing. I even built my own telescope once along with some others, complete with grinding and polishing my own telescope mirror! During my 3rd year, I was Coordinator (equivalent to Secretary at IITD) of both the Astronomy Club and the Book Club at IITK. While it was a lot of fun, it did make it a crazily busy year, the most hectic out of my 4 years there.

When exactly did it occur to you to opt for a ‘Systems Biology’ course? Was it planned? Were the seeds already sown in some form back at the school?

My first exposure to computational or systems biology came during my internship in the summer of the 3rd year, when I worked at the IBM India Research Lab -- which was then on the IITD campus, where the Kusuma School now is. In fact I recall spending that searing hot summer staying in the Jwalamukhi hostel! By that stage I had developed some interest in AI and machine learning, and I ended up working with a mentor at IBM who was applying machine learning methods to genomic data. That project played a big role in shaping my decision to pursue the area further for my PhD. In fact, after graduating from IITK, I spent another year at IBM working on similar stuff, before starting my PhD. In terms of seeds that were sown earlier, I mentioned the Foundation influence above, which I think had inclined me towards getting interested in the formal modelling of complex systems and human behaviour. And in some ways my key academic interests out of IITK ended up being exactly aligned with these themes: artificial intelligence, computational biology, and cognitive science.

Was going to Oxford a shock by any means? Did something take you by surprise? Or did it all turn out as you had expected it to be?

Oxford was definitely a culture shock in many ways; but I think I also somehow managed to settle in quite quickly. It’s a very diverse and open-minded place, and that was certainly helpful. I remember that one of my biggest anxieties when I was going there, strangely enough, was about the formal dressing-up in suit and tie and robes that was required for certain events (Oxford has lots of these quirky traditions). Somehow I really hated the idea of having to do that; but of course, once I went there I got accustomed to these things quite soon. I don’t suppose there were any major surprises, but like most people who go to Oxford, I was quite enthralled by the sheer beauty of the buildings and the city, which you never quite absorb until you’re actually there. The other really remarkable thing about the place is the tremendous weight of tradition and history all around you, and how much attachment there is to it. I found it very different from India, because here we don’t seem to care about history all that much; we seem to be impatient to modernise and develop and leave our past behind. But Oxford is a place where the thousand-year history, and the modes in which it has been preserved and built upon, is central to its very essence as a university town. And yet, I found it remarkable that this could be reconciled with also being a very modern, forward-looking place, with cutting-edge scientific laboratories and the latest technology and facilities. This kind of very creative synthesis of tradition and modernity is what struck me the most I think, in my initial days there.

------------------------------------------------------------ Thursday, 28 June 2012

False Hopes

Why did the green bubble flicker, only to go grey again? One moment you were Available, the next, Offline My fingers hovered over the keyboard, wondering what to say: I never had a chance: have I hands of clay? Why throw me crumbs of hope, only to blow them away? 'TTYL you said last time, and so I've been waiting... Counting every passing day, updating my running sum: No one ever told me Later would never come! Why must you encourage me, only to break my heart? All those :)s and :Ds and :Ps, I thought you liked me. But then you left, cut me off, I could barely type Good Night; Now i just sit and stare, awaiting the next green light.

- from Prof. Sumeet's blog


Before asking anything else (which might even be of a lot more relevance), I’d love to know the back-story behind this. What transpired the hope, or the pain if I may rephrase?

As for the poem (if it can even be called that) on my blog, I wouldn’t read too much into it.

During my PhD days I started a blog and started to write prose and poetry occasionally, though at least in the latter form of expression I was pretty hopeless I think. Of course my social awkwardness and anxiety meant that I still had very few meaningful relationships with other people, and even the ones I did have weren’t always smooth. While the piece you point to was written during one of those lows when things weren’t going great, it also reflects some poetic license, and isn’t a direct description of real events. But yes, like most people I suppose, I did yearn for human connection, and since there were so few people I was really able to talk to or get to know, I think I had some tendency to get over-attached to the ones I was somewhat close to, and to start expecting too much from them. And then when those expectations weren’t met, that would hurt me quite a bit, and that’s probably what led me to write this kind of thing (which, frankly, feels a bit silly and embarrassing to read now).

Having completed your post graduation from Oxford, didn’t you wish/search for a professorship in a university abroad? What pulled the strings back to India, precisely to IITD?

I think I was always keen to return to India, and so I didn’t even consider post-doc options outside. It’s hard to articulate the reasons for coming back, beyond the obvious one of some kind of attachment to home. But I don’t think this attachment was of a nationalistic kind. Rather, it was more about a feeling that I wanted to be somewhere where I could make a difference, make a meaningful contribution to the society around me. And I felt that there could be no better place than India, both because of the tremendous needs and opportunities for development, and because it was the place I knew and belonged to, more than any other. I ended up at IITD largely because I had some collaborators in Delhi whom I wanted to try and be close to, and while I had been quite keen on joining JNU where some of these collaborators were, logistically things didn’t work out there, and IITD seemed to be my best bet.

Was there anything which bothered you during your initial years at IITD? Did you, at any point in time, feel dissatisfied or let-down?

I think my initial experiences at IITD were largely positive; one thing which I do remember being bothered by a lot was the prevalence of plagiarism. In my first course here, a big machine learning course, I had assigned a term project in groups of 3, and I remember being very impressed by some of the work students presented during the evaluations. Naive as I was, I never even thought that the work would be unoriginal. But when I happened to do some Turnitin checks on their project reports a few days later, I was shocked to see widespread copying across a large fraction of the class. I remember being so disturbed by this that I couldn’t sleep well for a few nights, and I agitated a lot about how to deal with it. Perhaps my reaction initially was a bit on the harsher side, and over time I’ve come to realise that plagiarism at IITD is a complex problem with several deep-rooted causes. And I think I’ve worked out some strategies which have led the frequency of copying in my courses to go down quite a lot, as far as I can tell; but it’s still something that bothers me. I don’t see it primarily as the fault of individual students, though of course they have to take some responsibility; I see it more as a systemic problem, of having created an environment which somehow has the wrong incentives, which normalises academic dishonesty and makes it more appealing to many students than genuine learning.

Has there been a change in the expectations you have from your classrooms/students? What are they now?

So that’s one of the things which has evolved with time; of course there are many others as well. Gradually, as I’ve come to know the place better, I’ve become more aware of the many other kinds of structural issues which exist here -- such as caste and gender inequities, gaps of understanding and expectation between students and teachers, lack of student empowerment and autonomy, and so on. And I’ve found myself increasingly getting involved in trying to work with others, both colleagues and students, to think about how to address these issues -- at the very least, to have conversations around them, since even that seems to be so rare! We have this image of ourselves as an elite, ‘world-class’ institute, and we often like to think that we are here just to pursue academic excellence and not be distracted by any other issues. But what I’ve increasingly realised is that it is precisely these kinds of structural or ‘political’ problems which very often act as barriers to doing that, because they inhibit many people from being able to realise their full potential. And so I think I’ve started to see a lot of day-to-day academic activity through the lenses of these deeper undercurrents, and I try to be more aware and sensitive to how a student’s performance in a course or project, for instance, might be affected by all these other things that might be going on with their campus life.

How much have you learnt about 'being a professor'? Have your experiences as a student had any role to play?

I think experiences as a student definitely help in trying to be aware of how the other side of the room perceives you as a teacher. But one does also have to keep in mind that there are so many different kinds of students and different kinds of backgrounds and experiences they have; and so one cannot generalise one’s own experience to everyone. For instance, as a privileged-caste man, I did not have to face sexism or casteism in my student life, but I am increasingly aware that a lot of my students now do have to cope with these issues, and that makes it important for me to try and educate myself about them as well, to the extent possible. I’m sure there is still a lot of room for improvement in this aspect of my teaching, in terms of being sensitive to diversity and the differing needs and expectations of students, and this is an ongoing learning process for me. And relatedly, my expectations from students have also changed I think, and at least I now try to be more flexible on several aspects, and also try to gather and take on board as much student feedback as I can, since that is probably the only way I can adapt my teaching to better cater to the variety of what students are looking for. My aspiration, at least, is that my expectations from students should be geared not so much towards looking for absolute outcomes such as scoring a certain number of marks on an exam or being able to solve certain kinds of problems, but rather more towards how much they have been able to grow and develop and add to their learning via a course. But given both my own limitations as well as those of the system, I think I still have a lot of work to do to make this aspiration a reality.

I make out that there are two broad versions of your existence: one the ‘academician’ Sumeet, the other a very well-read, ‘literature enthusiast’ and expressive [albeit virtually] Sumeet who doesn’t shy away from voicing himself. What makes these two parts fit so effortlessly in the ‘Sumeet’ we know?

Regarding my academic versus social media avatars, I guess all of us are complex human beings with multilayered personalities. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about my combination of interests and activities; there are probably many others, especially in academia, who are similar. So I don’t have a particular answer to why the different parts fit together, other than the kinds of influences I’ve already indicated above -- for instance, my fascination with understanding human nature and behaviour and social interactions. I think this is something which links both my academic interests and my broader inclinations to think and speak and write about certain kinds of themes.

Has anyone ever advised you to consider writing a bit more seriously and take up the task of writing a book? Do you wish to pursue it someday?

I don’t think anyone has ever advised me to write a book as such; I think the problem is the same as during my school days, which is laziness. Apart from that, I’m not even sure if I have anything sufficiently substantive to say to be able to write a book; but even if I did, I think I would really struggle to focus on a single writing project for an extended length of time. My mind tends to wander around a lot, I’m not someone who can usually pursue a single goal doggedly. I even find writing research papers hard, and am not as productive on that front as perhaps I should be. So I’m probably better off expressing myself in short bursts, and social media seem to be quite well suited for that. Sure, in theory, I’d love to be able to write a book about something someday; but realistically it’s hard to see it happening...

What have you been doing in the Lockdown?

I think like most of us, I’ve mainly just been trying to cope and come to terms with it all. Like perhaps many of us, I have indeed been spending quite a lot of time on social media, driven by a kind of constant thirst for more and more information about what is going on in this strange new world we find ourselves in. I haven’t actually been able to do much serious reading, and perhaps my normal difficulties with attention span have become even more pronounced in this situation of so much uncertainty and anxiety. I’ve been trying to talk to lots of scientific colleagues and figure out how I might be able to make myself useful in some way, but again haven’t been able to do anything very focused, just bits and pieces here and there. It looks like the pandemic is far from being over, and I’m still thinking about it a lot (as are most of us I guess) and trying to see whether I can do something more substantive.

How do you manage to keep yourself sane amidst such a heavy downpour of sorrow? Is denial the way out? Is immersion in an otherwise act a plausible getaway?

Yes, mental health is a major challenge in such times, and I wouldn’t say I’ve been doing very well on that front lately. I guess just day-to-day chores in some sense keep one occupied, and virtually every activity, from getting groceries to cooking to cleaning and so on, comes with an extra layer of overheads these days. I tend not to be attracted by escapism very much, somehow; perhaps it’s my overthinking nature which makes it hard for me to forget about reality for very long. So I think I seek recourse more in just trying to be constantly aware of what is happening, trying to think about how things could be better and whether I can somehow nudge things in that direction, albeit in a very small way. I suppose this helps sustain some kind of sense of purpose; but indeed, what one realises more is just how powerless we are in the face of all kinds of forces beyond our control. And while that realisation itself can be quite depressing and anxiety-inducing at times, perhaps it can also inculcate a sense of humility, and serve as a reminder to us of the importance of focusing on the small things we do have some agency over -- being kind and compassionate to each other, and supporting each other to find ways to come to terms with those forces collectively.

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