Answer your kids’ questions:A Wknd interview with the first woman to head an IIT - Hindustan Times
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Answer your kids’ questions: A Wknd interview with the first woman to head an IIT

BySukanya Datta
Jul 21, 2023 06:16 PM IST

Preeti Aghalayam says the way her parents encouraged her curiosity shaped her life. ‘Young people need to feel they can chase a dream at elite institutes too.’

Preeti Aghalayam’s childhood home was a laboratory, she says, laughing.

Her wishlist, if she had a magic wand, would be to have more of the sprightly zest of Monday mornings, Aghalayam says. ‘I think if you’re happy, you work hard, and you wake up on Monday mornings ready for everything!’ (HT Photo: Rangaprasad) PREMIUM
Her wishlist, if she had a magic wand, would be to have more of the sprightly zest of Monday mornings, Aghalayam says. ‘I think if you’re happy, you work hard, and you wake up on Monday mornings ready for everything!’ (HT Photo: Rangaprasad)

She grew up in Mysuru, Karnataka, the daughter of two academics, a chemistry professor and a linguistics scholar. She dismantled clocks and toy cars in playtime; crafted mirrors from plain glass; stayed up all night to watch a bud bloom.

One summer, she and her now-late father, AS Janardan, went a bright pink from chopping and pressure-cooking beets. “We were determined to extract their natural sugar, after reading about the process in a journal. The kitchen went quite pink too,” she says. “The ‘sugar’ ended up tasting funny and horrible, because the American scientists had used a specific variety of the vegetable, called sugar beet.”

What she remembers most, Aghalayam says, is that any question she and her elder sister Jyothi had as children found an answer or sparked a conversation. “I was chatty and curious, and our parents were very indulgent. There were simply never too many questions.”

Now 49, Aghalayam has just been appointed the first-ever woman director of an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). She will head the Zanzibar campus of IIT-Madras (IIT-M), in Tanzania, the first overseas campus in the 72-year history of the centrally funded elite technical institutes.

As director, Aghalayam says she aims to build an environment where young people are encouraged to look beyond marks and lucrative jobs, and tap into their inventive side, as she did all those years ago.

The new IIT is determinedly forward-looking. It opens in October (applications are being accepted until August 5) with two academic programmes, a four-year graduate degree course and a two-year Master’s, both in data science and artificial intelligence.

“The IITs have stood not just for academic excellence but for shaping young people into mindful, scientific citizens. I want IITM-Zanzibar to be a place where we can shape young individuals in a way that they do good in the world, where they realise that hard work and academic rigour impacts not just their lives, but a vast horizon of people, places and problems.”

***

Aghalayam is currently juggling two continents, two cultures and two lives.

For six months, she has lived between Zanzibar and Chennai. Having a family excited by the change has helped immensely. Her husband, Rajiv C Lochan, 52, who heads a finance and investment firm in Chennai, and their daughter Vichar Lochan, 19, a university student in Chicago, “have constantly pushed me to be my best self,” she says.

She has had it so much easier than her mother, she adds. Rama Janardan, now 77, earned a PhD in language, linguistics and education, while running a household and raising two children. “My mother worked so hard. It was the ’80s, a completely different time and environment. But she never changed her ambitions to suit any societal norms. She always maintained that, of course the world is not equal for men and women, but you must know in your heart what you’re capable of, what you want, and chase it.”

Aghalayam grew up knowing exactly what she wanted. She was in love with science and math. But by the time she walked into IIT-Madras (IIT-M) at 17, she knew it was where she was meant to be.

The year she enrolled to study chemical engineering, the IIT-M batch of 360 students held 20 women, a figure that was celebrated because it was so much higher than in preceding years. The women studied together, supported each other. “For nearly 30 years, these women have been my support system. We’ve moved from Yahoo groups to a Google group to WhatsApp to stay in touch,” Aghalayam says.

Looking back, she adds, “I wish my sister and I had done more to help our mother.”

***

After IIT-M, Aghalayam earned a PhD in chemical reaction engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, then spent about 18 months as a post-doctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“The infrastructure in the US was great; the student community, more diverse. But women were still a minority there in the late ’90s, especially in leadership roles. As an Indian woman, I was part of an even smaller minority group,” she says.

But IIT-M had prepared her for the world. “Even at MIT, where every second lab seems to hold a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, I wasn’t overwhelmed.”

She now wanted to teach, at an IIT, and returned in 2002 to find a spot open at IIT-Bombay. In 2010, she got a chance to return to IIT-M, as faculty, and jumped at it. While there she served as a nodal officer on the campus division of the GATI (Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions) programme, which seeks to identify and address disparities and facilitate more opportunities for women on IIT campuses.

It’s crucial to have women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) because “we are equal to men in skill and intellect, and when we exclude women, we stand to lose out on opportunities and innovation as a society,” Aghalayam says.

And doing this begins with listening to young women — “about the kinds of opportunities they want; the living, studying and research spaces they feel comfortable in; hidden barriers such as economics and caste. Rather than waiting for women to participate, we need to create opportunities for them to speak, conduct surveys to understand roadblocks, reward women for achievements and proactively seek them out while hiring.”

***

Listening will be a big part of how she and her team do things in Zanzibar.

“We want to create a world-class space for academics but not foist ideas on them,” Aghalayam says.

There are lessons from IIT-M that she wants to carry over: flexible elective subjects; a focus on innovation; infrastructure, funding and a culture that prioritise research in diverse fields.

Diversity is key, because the bulk of Indian STEM students still aim for careers in either engineering or medicine. “From science communication and writing to data science, there’s so much else to explore,” Aghalayam says. “I hope we can help students realise that there are endless opportunities. They can take into account what they are good at, and what can help them make a change in the world, and make that their dream.”

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