The Electronics Virtuoso: Sarat Kumar Patra
A calm and amicable person, Professor Sarat Kumar Patra of the Department of Electronics and Communication Engineering has been recently appointed as the Director of IIIT, Vadodara. In his 28-long career at NIT, Rourkela, he has handled several crucial responsibilities including Dean (Faculty Welfare) and the HOD of the Computer Centre. Read on to gain insight about his eventful journey.
MM: Tell us about your childhood days, the days that you spent at Sainik School:
SKP: I was born and bought up at Rourkela. At the age of ten, I joined Sainik School, Bhubaneswar. At that time, English medium education was very expensive and a middle class family could not afford to send their children to such schools. On the other hand, Sainik School provided the ambience and facilities of an English Medium school at a very low cost. I was one of the hundred students from Odisha who got selected for admission into Sainik school. In Sainik school, we led a disciplined life and learnt to live in a hostel since the age of ten. We became independent as we had to do our daily chorus ourselves. My stay at Sainik School helped me in imbibing attributes like confidence and time management, which helped me to stick to my principles throughout my career.
MM: How did Electronics and Communication Engineering happen to you? Was it your choice or fate had it in store for you?
SKP: I would say it was a matter of chance, I did my engineering in 1982 and people then were unaware of the existence of a Branch called Electronics. I went alone for counseling which was held at Bhubaneswar, because my father had some health issues. There were two options available for me, either to choose a REC or to go for electronics at Burla, I chose the latter and my B.Tech journey began. I took my own time to get accustomed to the the timetable of VSSUT because the time slots varied largely when comapred with Sainik school. Even the academic calendar was not streamlined, owing to which the university exams were very unpredictable; however the scenario is much different now a days. The academic schedule was very lenient; there used to be a gap of two days between exams followed by external evaluation. The labs were very strict which required us to submit our records within 48 hours. Though I joined this branch without any prior knowledge but eventually I grasped it’s essence and had a pleasurable learning experience at VSSUT, Burla.
MM: What differences do you observe when you compare engineering students then to those now?
SKP: Now a days children are much smarter. With time, intelligence quotient has changed, as a result of the changing nutrition levels and education system. During our times, we witnessed that engineers lead a superior life compared to others. Hence, we took up engineering. But in the present scenario children are much more knowledgeable and they do a fair amount of research before choosing any particular college (or) branch.
MM: How was your experience at DRDO, Chandipur?
SKP: I was a part of the team that built a lab at DRDO, Chandipur. Though we were at the bottom of the executive level, yet I managed to learn many new things. It gave me good exposure and I came to know of the constraints required for building a research lab. We figured out several loop holes in the industrial mechanism. The first Agni missile was tested on May, 1989 from DRDO, Chandipur and I left the organisation after two months. Although I could not spend a lot of time at DRDO due to some compelling reasons, but I learnt a lot from the scientists working in the organization.
MM: When did you join NITR and how has the journey been since then?
SKP: After DRDO, I joined NITR as a faculty member. After joining, I realized that an M.Tech degree was a must and thus completed my M.Tech at NITR. Later I discovered that PhD is the minimum requirement for excelling in a teaching career and thus did my PhD. My M.Tech. days were very uncertain because then REC was under Sambalpur university, there were large gaps between the semester examinations. There weren’t any specific deadlines for project evaluation and thesis submission, which made it very tough for us.
MM: What differences do you observe on comparing REC, Rourkela of 1989 with NIT, Rourkela of 2017?
SKP: During our time, a B.Tech. graduate was considered good enough to become a lecturer. But the current scenario is quite different and having a PhD degree is considered mandatory to get recruited as an Assistant Professor. Also, now a days, teaching B.Tech. students is only a subset of a Professor’s job. Their job also includes teaching M.Tech. students, guiding PhD scholars, supervising B.Tech. projects and much more.
Furthermore, from the time when I joined NITR till early 2000s, our working hours were limited from 8 AM to 4:15 PM but today, we are in a situation where people are working in labs past midnight and students come up till 1’ o clock in the night to submit their assignments. That’s the change that has occurred in the working style of the people. In addition to that, very few people used to prefer higher education before and we hardly awarded 1 or 2 PhDs at NITR but now we are awarding more than 100 PhDs in our Annual Convocation.
MM: You did your PhD at University of Edinburg, UK. What differences do you observe on comparing their work culture with ours?
SKP: In 1995, I saw an advertisement of Commonwealth scholarship. I consulted Prof. Ganapati Panda of our department and he advised me to apply for it. There was an initial shortlisting and after being shortlisted I was called for an interview. I got through it and after that I took my first international flight to Edinburg. My field of work was Sun Solarizing Systems. The work culture at Edinburg was very different. Students and faculties of the University beleived in team-work. After we finished writing a paper, we first got it checked from two of our friends and then took it to the supervisor. This was a very good approach for rectifying mistakes as well as improvising writing skills, considering the fact that learning with friends is always helpful and fun at the same time. But this co-operation and team-spirit is lacking among students at NITR.
MM: What is your field of research? Tell us about your notable publications.
SKP: I supervise students who work in different aspects of wireless communication like device to device communication, optical communication and many other facets. Two of them have worked on fuzzy logic techniques. I have also worked on implementation of fuzzy logic system, PAPR reduction and antenna design.
MM: How was your experience as the HOD of the department of ECE? What major changes did you initiate during your tenure?
SKP: I was the Head of the Department from 2008 to 2012. During my tenure, OBC reservation had started which led to an increase in the student strength. In three years, there was a 54% increase in the number of students of the department. Also, we had just started the branch of Electronics and Communication Engineering and we hardly had any lab to accommodate so many students. I suggested combining two labs in the ground floor to create a lab for 80 students with 16 tables. It eased the lab pressure. During my tenure, we also conducted a few conferences followed by some short term courses. I was also consulted for the networking work of all the buildings in the institute, including the Lecture Avenue and all other halls of residence.
MM: You were also the Dean (Faculty Welfare) and the HOD of Computer Centre. Tell us more about it:
SKP: I was the Dean (Faculty Welfare) from 2012 to 2015. My primary responsibility was faculty recruitment, to prepare annual report along with the academic responsibilities, such as sanctioning leaves. We hosted two faculty recruitment drives during my tenure. We also created a portal for faculty recruitment such that the entire process could be made online. There used to be 5000-6000 applications for 21 departments. It was tough to scrutinize the applications, and to arrange for the experts to hold interviews. It used to take more than 45 days. Thus, organising a proper & efficient selection process for an institute like ours was a strenuous task. Making this process smooth and less cumbersome was a challenge that we faced. With respect to preparation of annual reports, we created a process by which we could gather information directly without asking the department.
I’ve been associated with the computer centre for the last 15 years. In fact when Prof- Sarangi joined, our IT infrastructure was very poor. I was assigned with the task of designing our campus LAN. Every department was connected to this network. Cyber cafés were created in all the hostels with around 30 computers in each hall, which could be used 24*7. Later, they went out of order, and a plan was made in 2005 for installing LAN in the Halls of Residence. Thus, with several new departments, laboratories and hostels coming up, the network started expanding, and under my supervision, the network was planned and equipment was purchased. I also supervised the development of the data centre regarding the installation of storage servers among several other things.
MM: You were also a part of the committee which revised the academic curriculum. What major changes did you propose?
SKP: I was the Chairman of the committee, responsible for the curriculum revision. Some of the major changes undertaken were:
- Abolishment of Open Elective Courses.
- Reduction of credits and limiting them to 160-170.
- Introduction of Minor degrees, in which a student gets a minor degree in the department of his interest if he takes up 6 extra theory courses from that department along with 2 labs in between 3rd – 8th semester.
- Introduction of several new courses with a variety of credits.
MM: If someone has taken up a minor degree, can he withdraw himself from that if he wants to? Also, if a person has a minor degree in a particular department, will he be allowed to sit for the placements of that department?
SKP: Yes, definitely, a person, who has taken up extra courses, can wilfully withdraw himself from the minor degree. And concerning the placements, the institute will inform the companies about the minor degree introduction, rest is up to the discretion of the companies whether to allow or not.
MM: How are the prospectus of Electronics as far as placements and higher studies are concerned?
SKP: Electronics offers remarkable opportunities for higher studies as well as placements. Communication has more market demand compared to Instrumentation. Nevertheless many dream and super dream companies recruit electronics graduates from our campus. Concerning higher studies, the scope is great, with more and more students opting for foreign universities compared to Indian universities such as IITs.
MM: Recently, you have been appointed as the director of IIIT, Vadodara. Guide us through the selection procedure.
SKP: I came to know about it from an advertisement of MHRD. I was shortlisted by the search cum selection committee and hence went for the interview. The interview committee included prominent personalities like Director of IIT-BBSR, Director of IIT-Gandhinagar, Chairperson of BOG of IIIT-Vadodara, Mr Ajay Mukherjee, who is the Global head ( HR) of TCS and one member from the State government of Gujarat. There were seven candidates, who were shortlisted for the interview and I was selected among them.
MM: Have you been associated with IIIT Vadodara before?
SKP: No, I have never been associated with this institution before. It’s only been 4 years since the institute had started and the first batch of students graduated this year. The Institute Building is under construction in Vadodara and for the time being, it runs from a building provided by a Government Engineering college in Gandhinagar. It currently provides B.Tech. courses in two branches i.e. Computer Science & Information Technology while M.Tech. in Computer Science only with a total strength of around 800 students.
MM: What are your other interests? What other activities do you indulge in?
SKP: I don’t have many hobbies as such. I mostly watch television during my free time. I am more inclined towards IT and keep myself informed when it comes to the use of new technology: be it apps or gadgets.
MM: You have been in this institute since 1989. Now that you are leaving, how do you feel? How has the Institute helped you grow as a person?
SKP: The Institute has contributed a lot to help me evolve as a person. Moreover, I have nearly spent my entire professional career at NIT Rourkela. I have learnt a lot, got a very good exposure, and worked in many different fields. I have seen the Institute grow from a predominantly B.Tech. college to an Institute of National importance.
MM: On a concluding note, any message that you would like to leave for our readers.
SKP: Academics should never be neglected and should always be your first priority, as CGPA is something that can never be changed. Don’t limit yourself to class notes. Instead read a wide variety of books and widen your knowledge beyond the academic curriculum of the Institute.
On a final note, respect your parents and take good care of them in their old age. Nurture them in the way they nurtured you because at the end of the day, they are the ones who supported you and loved you.