The Students' Professor: Dr. Susmita Das
An all-rounder, who manages to juggle between a horde of activities including teaching, research, SAC and travelling the world, Susmita Das is indeed an example and inspiration to all her students. Team MM caught up with this amiable and fun loving professor one evening to know more about her and her achievements.
MM: Let’s go back to your childhood and pre-college days. Where did you grow up? How were you during school days?
SD: I grew up in the beautiful temple city of Bhubaneswar. The years spent at University High School, Vani Vihar were crucial in shaping me as the person I am today. Throughout my school days I was very good in academics. I was the school topper in the tenth board examination. My parents and teachers all had a lot of expectations from me.
And for me the greatest source of strength continues to be my father, the late Mr. B. N. Das. He always encouraged and motivated me to go out and explore.
He had studied at I.I.Sc. Bangalore and was a reputed electrical engineer in Odisha State Electricity Board. Our Headmaster Mr. B .C. Das who taught us English has played a pivotal role in shaping my personality. He always impressed upon me the fact that having a command on the English language is very essential in today’s world. I also actively took part in debates and extra-curricular activities.
MM: How did engineering happen to you?
SD: After matriculation, I took up science at B.J.B. College and was lucky to be with a very motivated group of students who strived to excel. My father wanted me to graduate in the natural sciences with physics as my major and continue post-graduation at an IIT. He wished for me to join the civil services. But things panned out in a completely different way when an acquaintance and well-wisher of ours suggested to my father that I should take up electronics as my optional subject in +2. Thereafter I was pretty sure of continuing my studies in Electrical Engineering.
MM: Engineering is still considered a male dominated industry. How do you think more and more women can be encouraged to take up this course of study?
SD: When I was at CET, the branches of electrical, mechanical and civil put together had 120 students and I was the only girl. It obviously was a difficult time for me but then I believe those were the years that made me tough. In today’s time, the scenario has improved a lot. We find a number of girls taking up engineering courses and excelling in them too. The boys to girls ratio may not be very encouraging but we are definitely moving in the right direction.
Parents have become more supportive of the dreams and aspirations of their daughters. And with it the perspective of the society towards girls' education has also changed, for the better. I believe family plays a pivotal role in ensuring girls get to pursue what they really want.
MM: You have attended both CET and NITR at different levels of your education. How do the two match up or differ from each other?
SD: After graduating from CET, I joined NITR and completed both M. Tech and Ph. D. from here. A lot of differences can be noticed when you compare the two. Our institute underwent major changes after it was recognized as an NIT in 2002.
I can proudly say that the campus and facilities of NITR today are comparable to universities abroad.
The professors are very knowledgeable and help the students understand the concepts better. Students are dreaming big and taking risks. Also the research culture has undergone a major change where about ninety percent of our faculty today are involved in high-end research. CET on the other hand is still in need of a more interactive and vibrant campus culture to nurture its young engineers and prepare them for real world problems.
MM: What made you join academia? Did you always want to be a Professor?
SD: I wanted to be a doctor initially (laughs). But taking up electronics as my optional in senior secondary changed my life and I went into engineering. Biology sadly never happened. Talking about my profession, I do enjoy teaching and interacting with students. I joined CET as a teaching assistant just within a week of graduating from there. From then on, there was no looking back.
MM: You have been at NITR for close to 25 years now. How has the institute changed in this period?
SD: The most visible change has been in the institute infrastructure. A number of impressive buildings with sophisticated laboratories have come up in recent years. Also the institute is taking commendable steps to inspire its students to think big and new. The TIIR building promises to be a haven for thinkers and entrepreneurs. Learning today incorporates not only theory but also practical experience along with a free and open mind. Parents are still not very enthusiastic about their children wanting to venture into entrepreneurship. But the support the institute is providing today is indeed going to change the scenario, very soon.
MM: You have been a visiting faculty at institutes abroad. How was your experience there?
SD: I visited George Washington University in 2006 and worked for about three weeks at the wireless communication laboratory. Under TEQIP II I went to the University of South Carolina last year with a Ph. D. scholar and the experience was indeed enriching for both of us. They have state-of-the-art measurement facilities there and my student got to learn and experiment. I am collaborating with Professor David and we are jointly producing research works in that direction.
MM: How and where do you think NITR and the EE Department lack/differ from institutes abroad?
SD: Today, there is not much difference between NITR and universities abroad. NITR only lacks in the field of high end laboratories and measurement equipment. We can improve on the laboratory set-up and research avenues, and our infrastructure is growing, at a wonderful pace. Our work culture, enthusiasm and competency has also improved, and we see a lot of people taking initiative.
MM: How has the EE department changed/grown since your stay here?
SD: The faculty has grown and so has their expertise. We have faculty from various specializations. We have four specialized groups now, so students are getting opportunity to learn about various domains. The laboratory development is remarkable compared to earlier days. We have a large number of research projects going on right now.
MM: Tell us about your ongoing research. Any interesting or high-impact projects?
SD: I am currently working on a pedagogy project on course development in Mobile Wireless Communications in collaboration with Prof. S. K. Patra (Dept. of E.C.).
MM: You are very active in the various student activities. How do you like your role in SAC?
SD: I've been involved in the SAC for the last two and a half years. This opportunity to work with and for the student community is something I have been thoroughly enjoying. SAC is a wonderful medium which gives us professors a chance to interact with the students.
We know that all the students are intelligent, and there is no doubt about their technical abilities. However, the extra-curricular activities develop their leadership and management skills. Everybody should have a passion, and through the various activities of the SAC, we are allowing them to pursue their hobbies, and unknowingly grooming them to become better individuals. NITR has a very diverse culture, is very cosmopolitan and we should capitalize on this diversity through different activities.
MM: How do you manage to handle the various SAC activities along with your academic commitments?
SD: Sometimes, it’s really tough to handle. I have to manage my professional, personal, household and extra-curricular work simultaneously. So, I have to define my priorities. Every day, I have to decide how to allot my time to all my various activities. It’s very important make this daily allotments of time to ensure a balanced life.
MM: How hectic is the life of a professor? Do you ever feel over-burdened or feel that your family needs more time?
SD: If you enjoy your work it’s not hectic, and I really enjoy what I do. Firstly, you have to be disciplined, only then can you perfectly execute your work. Secondly, you have to clearly work out your priorities. Thirdly, you have to give time to whatever you do. Certain things require more time in particular occasions, e.g. SAC during fests and you cannot neglect that. My family has always been very supportive throughout. Their cooperation has made it possible for me to not feel guilty about giving so much time to the institute.
MM: What is the best part about being a professor? How would you encourage more students to take up this career path?
I personally feel that the satisfaction that you get by teaching, the joy of discovering something new through research, and the ability to inspire students to go ahead in life are the best aspects of being a professor.
We are the ones who have to guide the students and motivate them, and if these things are a pleasure to anybody, this is the best career they can have.
MM: How do you think NITR SAC could be developed and made more efficient?
SD: We work at the last moment. We are all preoccupied and start working only right before the fests. If things are pre-planned, events would be much better organised, and the expenditure would also be lesser. Also, the budget is allocated to the clubs at the beginning of the academic year, and some seed money is kept for all of them. However, the clubs are not using up all the money, which goes on to show that they are not conducting enough activities all through the year.
All the students in the institute are not associated with clubs, and there are many who aren't a part of even a single club. The clubs should contribute to the entire student community.
SAC needs a bigger building with sufficient rooms to carry out all activities. There should be a suitable atmosphere of student activities.
MM: Do you pursue any hobbies? Any activities that you enjoy outside your research, teaching students and managing SAC?
SD: I like going to movies, and listening to music. You might just find me at PSR on a certain weekend. Also, I love teaching my daughter, who is in 10th Standard now. Even if I am tired at the end of the day, I always find at least half-an hour to teach her and clarify her doubts. I particularly like teaching Physics, and she in turn thinks I'm the best teacher! I enjoy interacting with people and love the company of friends and gossiping with my department colleagues. I also love travelling and visiting new places.
MM: What message would you like to pass on to your students at NITR?
Dream big in life, pursue your passion, even if there are hurdles. Always do the things that you enjoy, never do anything forcibly. Don't worry about what the society thinks of you, rather do what you want to do. Also, you must give back to society whenever you can. Give your 100% to whatever you do.