It’s amazing where a love for solving problems can take you. For academic S K Ramesh, born in Madras and now based in California, United States, his early aptitude in working out mathematical and science problems has led him to specialise in fibre optic communication and beyond. “If there is one constant in engineering, it is change. The pace of change in Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECE) has been remarkable when you consider where we are today with ubiquitous connectivity that has changed the way we live and work all over the world,” writes Dr Ramesh, Dean, College of Engineering and Computer Science at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), in an email interview with The Hindu MetroPlus.
Dr Ramesh is also the director and lead principal investigator of ‘Bridging the Gap: Enhancing AIMS2 for Student Succes,’ a collaborative $6 million-project that involves improving overall graduation rates for all Hispanic and low-income students. Growing up in a family of bureaucrats and studying in schools all over Tamil Nadu in the 1970s, Dr Ramesh’s story has a link to Tiruchi too. Following his Pre-University course (PUC) in Loyola College, Madras, he was selected to attend Regional Engineering College (REC), Tiruchirapalli in 1976. The REC is now known as National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli (NITT), and its ECE Alumni Association recently hosted Dr Ramesh for its 50th anniversary celebrations. Dr Ramesh earned his BE (Honours) degree in ECE in 1981. Upon graduation he received a graduate assistantship to pursue his Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, United States. He earned his Master’s degree in 1983 and continued his studies to earn his PhD degree from the same university in 1986. He taught at his alma mater (SIU Carbondale) as a Visiting Professor for a year before he was recruited by California State University, Sacramento where he began his academic career in 1987.
Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in Madras and moved to United States to pursue graduate studies at the age of 21, soon after my BE. I was an only child. My father KA Sundaram, earned his Master’s degree in Mathematics and had a long and distinguished career in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He retired at the age of 58 as the head of the Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA) that was responsible for renewable energy technology. Many projects that he envisioned almost three decades ago in solar and wind energy are now fully operational. My mother Saroja Sundaram, an Economics graduate, was a homemaker. She was an accomplished singer but literally put that on hold while I was growing up. It was not until I left for the US that she returned to her music career – two decades later. She has rendered over 500 Thevaram concerts all over Tamil Nadu and received the Kalaimamani award from the Government of Tamil Nadu in recognition of her contributions. The timeless values that my parents taught me continue to help me every single day in my life. I met my wife Utpala in graduate school in Carbondale. She has a PhD in Biochemistry and is a research scientist for the California Air Resources Board. Our elder son Arvind (26) is an electrical engineer and works for Northrop Grumman Corporation, while the younger one Anjan (19) is in college studying Biology.
Why did you choose to study engineering?
I loved solving problems and I was doing well in my mathematics and science classes in school. That led me on the path to study engineering. Electronics and Communications engineering were fascinating fields of study. If there is one constant in engineering, it is change. The pace of change in ECE has been remarkable when you consider where we are today with ubiquitous connectivity that has changed the way we live and work all over the world. I was excited to be a part of this new and emerging field. My parents thought that I would follow the family tradition and sit for the IAS exam after my studies in the US. But I had no idea at that time that I would find my true calling as an educator here. In my first semester I was assigned to serve as a teaching assistant for an introductory programming course on PL/1. I was worried since I had to learn this new programming language and serve as a teaching assistant at the same time.
But as my department head told me at that time: “You will figure it out”! Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. That lesson has stayed with me to this day and launched me on the path to becoming an engineering educator. Optical Fibre Communications was coming of age in the early ’80s and gave me a chance to work on many exciting projects going back to my roots in Communications Engineering. The other defining moment for me as I look back on my career is my involvement with Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). I was one of the founding members of the IEEE student branch at REC Tiruchi in 1978 and continued my involvement when I came to the US. The IEEE is the world’s largest, professional, technical society with over 400,000 members worldwide.
Despite a boom in engineering education, many institutions are folding up (in India especially) due to factors like a lack of adequately trained faculty. What would be a good reset point for the subject?
I am aware of this challenge and have volunteered my time along with several colleagues to improve the quality of engineering education — particularly by supporting ongoing faculty professional development. It is vital that educational institutions work closely with employers and industry to keep their curricula relevant. While the fundamentals remain the same, there are remarkable developments taking place at the boundaries between traditional disciplines for instance between Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, leading to the field of Mechatronics. We have a number of global challenges in the world today: food security, clean air, clean water, energy, sustainability, healthcare, transportation, climate change, education, and so on. Engineers continue to find innovative solutions to these global challenges that confront society. Global education needs to be integrated into the engineering curriculum to achieve maximum impact on addressing societal needs. Programmes that do nothing to address the challenges of globalisation will soon be irrelevant.
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your days at REC?
I am incredibly proud of my education at REC Tiruchi. We had some truly outstanding faculty in the ECE department who cared about us as individuals. The late Professor AL Abdussattar, who was the Head of the department, Professor P Ramakrishna Rao, and Professor MJS Rangachar and not to forget our dynamic Principal the late Professor PS Manisundaram, left an indelible mark on all of us in their own inimitable ways. Teamwork and communications are much sought after in the workplace today. Thanks to living in the REC hostels, with batch mates who spoke different languages, we had a virtual melting pot of cultures, languages and traditions. Sure, there were differences and disagreements — but the lesson for all of us was that one could disagree without becoming disagreeable!
With the increased move towards artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, are the days of the human engineer numbered?
Hardly! As we advance technologically and come up with innovative solutions that employ heuristics, AI, and Robotics, now more than ever we need engineers who understand the humanistic values and the impact of their solutions on society. There will always be a need for engineers who can create that next generation of solutions that address the contemporary issues of their time. – Courtesy / Profile
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