iMahal Interview Series:
M. Vidyasagar
May 19, 2000

iMahal: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned that your daughter is planning for her higher education in the US, please tell us the process you are going through (or have gone through) and the decisions you have had to make in regards to that. Can you tell us why did she chose education in the US, as opposed to India or elsewhere?
Sagar: Ever since the Sixth Grade, Aparna has been quite clear in her mind that she wants to study Biology and specialize in Genetics. To do this, she would of course have to do a Ph.D., though I told her this only recently. In fact, the first time I mentioned doing a Ph.D. to her was when she was in the 10th Standard, when she was 15 years old. Apparently one of her school teachers told her that she would be 30 by the time she did her Ph.D., and she told me "That is another 15 years from now! I can't imagine being 30!" But of course now she is a bit older and realizes the importance of doing a Ph.D.

The unfortunate aspect of Indian society is that undergraduate education in the pure sciences has been badly neglected. Some very famous scientists who teach at leading scientific research institutions only lament that youngsters are not entering into the scientific subjects, but they think it is beneath them or their institutions to dirty their hands teaching undergraduates! For the past several years I was hoping that there would be some good undergraduate programs in Biology springing up somewhere or the other, but unfortunately this has not been the case. So somewhat reluctantly all of us came to the conclusion that Aparna has to go to the U.S.A. for her Bachelor's degree. The route to enter an American university is pretty well understood by now -- Write the SAT I and SAT II, and so on. She has gone through all that, and is now waiting to hear from the various universities to which she has applied.

iMahal: How have the responses been so far?
Sagar: So far there have been mainly acknowledgements. One thing that struck me is that, even though Aparna has applied to the topmost schools in the U.S.A., the letters she has received from these schools, even when they said that some form or the other was missing, were *so polite.* These places are much more elite and exclusive than our over-hyped IIT's, and yet the public face they project is so friendly and polite. In contrast, practically every bit of official correspondence in India will be impersonal and unfriendly. This has led me to formulate the following thesis: Indian organizations are unfriendly, but individual Indians are very friendly. American organizations are very friendly, but individual Americans are less friendly. Do you agree? :-)

iMahal: There were some loaded comments in that last answer Sagar. I hope our audience takes you to task on them ;^) By the way, as you know we have setup a discussion forum for people to post follow-up questions to your interview or to post specific comments. I would like them to know that you have graciously agreed to address their questions, concerns, and comments.
Sagar: Certainly, I would encourage people to contact me through the forum and I will be more than happy to share my views and experiences.

iMahal: I have now known you for several years and I know that you are an accomplished researcher as well as a prolific author. Share some thoughts on your accomplishments and insights in being a "successful" researcher.
Sagar: I don't want to talk too much about my own research accomplishments -- it is for others to do that. But I can share the following insight. During my thirty-year career, of which the first twenty years were as a professor, I found that intelligence is in abundant supply everywhere. It is *curiosity* that is in extreme short supply. All around me I see so many persons who are very intelligent, who could be outstanding researchers if only they were more *curious*. Another trait is that, once a researcher has tasted some success, s/he does not like being a novice again. This is why researchers tend to stick to one narrow area rather than to branch out into newer areas. But I myself don't have any ego about starting at the bottom of a brand new area, feeling completely fogged and out of it, and working my way up the ladder, time and again, and in different areas. I think most of my success as a researcher has come about because I have not been afraid to change areas every four or five years.

There is a related point I would like to make here. It is often said that in theoretical areas like pure and applied mathematics (and control theory would certainly qualify as applied mathematics), a person does his best work when he is young. I have thought fairly deeply about this, and I have come to the conclusion that the reason why one does one's best work while young is that youth is the time when one's mind is freshest and uncluttered by preconceptions. In contrast, when we taste a bit of success in research employing a particular line of attack, we subconsciously try to repeat the same methods in different situations. To overcome this bad tendency, I have consciously tried to change my research areas so substantially that my previous "tricks" won't work in the new field, and I would be forced to think afresh as to how to solve the various research problems I encountered. This seems to work for me.

iMahal: On your second point, it takes a great deal of courage to break out of the cocoon that researchers build around themselves. Your comment is very valid and I hope that young researchers take it to heart. Tell us about your days as a graduate student.
Sagar: My father was a professor of mathematics until he retired in 1971. He continues to be an emeritus professor. So probably that was why I did not choose mathematics as my major subject. I also enjoyed building things, even though in the India of the late 1950's this was very difficult. I remember buying something called a "Meccano" set which came out of Liverpool, back in 1958 or 1959, and building little cranes and other movable objects. (As an aside, I might mention that i paid *FIVE RUPEES* for this set, which was considered a lot of money back then! :-) )So when I started out in university, Mechanical Engineering was a natural subject for me to choose. But one semester of Engineering Drawing cured me of my liking for ME and I switched over to Electrical Engineering, mainly because I was good in mathematics. I have been in EE ever since! :-) In my days at Wisconsin, every Ph.D. student had to choose a "minor" subject which was essentially a master's degree program without the thesis. I minored in mathematics (coming full circle to my father's speciality after having initially rejected it, so to speak), and this was why my Ph.D. thesis had such a strong mathematics flavour, as well as my research since my Ph.D.

iMahal: How did you deal with financial aspects of higher education?
Sagar: My parents supported me through undergraduate education. Because of my high marks, though I was not a resident of Wisconsin, I paid only the resident tuition fees all through my undergraduate days (except for the first semester). In graduate school, I had a fellowship throughout. I finished at the top of the Engineering graduating class in Wisconsin (not just EE), so I got one of the most prestigious fellowships UW had to offer. I also got *full* fee waiver, i.e., even from the resident fees. The only disadvantage of having a fellowship instead of a research assistantship that most Indians get is that, when it came to the assignment of *office space*, a Fellow was low-man on the totem pole. The most coveted RA's were those from professors working in experimental areas, since they used to have *huge* labs, in which RA's could live in ample comfort. At the other end of the spectrum, we poor Fellows were herded 12 to 15 in a single office. This office was rightly known as "the bullpen." :-)

iMahal: About bullpens - been there, done that. Your comment brings back memories best shared on a different forum. Tell us about your moves to the US and then to Canada. How did they come about?
Sagar: My father was a Reader in Mathematics at Sri Venkateswara University in Tirupati. He went abroad in 1960 on a J-1 visa. After finishing three years, he had to leave the U.S., since all the various bypass routes that people routinely use nowadays were not encouraged back then. (Please note that they *existed* even back then, but they were not *used*! Nowadays the provisions of visas like J-1, H-1B etc. are merely winked at, not to be taken seriously.) So he moved to Canada along with my mother and younger sister. I stayed behind in the U.S. to pursue my B.Sc. After I finished my own Ph.D., it seemed logical for me also to move to Canada so as to be closer to my parents.



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