The Placid Polymath: Prof. Sanjeeb Mohanty
One of the most respected and approachable faculties of the Department of Electrical Engineering, Prof. Sanjeeb Mohanty, took out precious time from his busy schedule for a candid conversation with Team Monday Morning. He talks about his childhood, experiences, research and many aspects of life beyond that. So, here we present to you the entire conversation:.
MM: Tell us something about your early life, schooling, and graduation:
SM: I’ve been born and brought up in Rourkela itself. My schooling was done in Deepika English Medium School in Sector 5, Rourkela. Then I joined REC, Rourkela for my B.Tech. in Electrical Engineering and I graduated in 1992. Then, I pursued my M.Tech. (1993-1995) and Ph.D. (2011) also at NIT, Rourkela. So, I’m a complete Rourkelite! During the period of February 1995 to August 1996, I was the Teaching Assistant here. Then, in August 1996, I officially joined this institution as a lecturer; we were not called as Assistant Professors back in those times.
MM: What made you pursue your career in NIT Rourkela and that too in Electrical Engineering only?
SM: I chose NIT Rourkela because it indeed is a good college and mainly due to its proximity to my home. My father, Prof. A.K. Mohanty was also a professor here in the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Science and served as the Principal of REC, Rourkela from 1996 to 2001. (They were not called as Directors back then). Hence, he motivated me to study in this college since this was close to home.
I had not really planned to take up Electrical Engineering only, but of all the choices that were available to me, I found Electrical the best. Maybe because I couldn’t get Mechanical or Computer Science; but compared to all other departments, I found this the most fascinating. Many people had told me that this subject is highly analytical and involves mathematics, and since I was interested in such a thing, I decided to go for this!
MM: Share with us your experiences at college.
SM: I was a day scholar and naturally, I didn’t get that much of thrill and fun that generally a boarder experiences at the hostel. Nonetheless, I used to visit my friends who used to stay in the hostels. We used to do experiments in the lab and I used to go to their hostels for the record and all other works. I had five-six good friends who used to stay in hostels.
MM: What was the reason behind you taking up the profession of teaching? Was it always an attractive prospect to you?
SM: It’s not that I suddenly decided to go for a teaching profession, but it happened gradually. Immediately after completing my B.Tech., I pursued M.Tech. and that’s when I realized that there is a lot more to explore even after completing the studies. Though this learning would be different from what other B.Tech graduates experience while working in the industries, but I wanted to learn things which I couldn’t do as a student.
MM: Your association with the institute goes back to as early as 1988 (first as a student and then as a faculty). What are some of the key changes that you witnessed during the span of these years?
SM: From the infrastructure point of view, there have been a lot of changes. Prof. Sunil Kumar Sarangi, (the then Director) definitely brought about a lot of development in the buildings and infrastructure. Other than that, many other things have also changed. For instance, earlier the faculties were not getting the opportunity to attend conferences abroad. However, the Institute is funding that now and people are getting a really good exposure. Moreover, all the procedures and formalities were very stringent in those times; but quite a lot has changed in the recent times. All these facilities weren’t there back then during the REC times. Once we became an NIT (in 2002), the Central Government did pump in a lot of funds.
MM: You have so far been interested in the field of applying soft computing and data mining in power systems. Tell us something about your research interests and works?
SM: Actually, after getting my doctorate in 2011, I have supervised 2 or 3 Ph.D. students. One of them received his degree in 2016, one in 2017, and one is due to receive in 4-5 days. But yes, I applied soft computing techniques for a different set of problems earlier when I was doing my Ph.D. It was a high voltage problem caused by the breakdown of solid insulations. Mainly I used Fuzzy Logic and Artificial Neural Network. You see that breakdown voltage is a function of certain factors like thickness and diameter. So once you take the experimental data, you can do the modeling, which was carried out using Fuzzy Logic and ANN.
The Ph.D. students, on the other hand, worked on the power systems security problem, in which they used the soft computing. I slowly entered into all these aspects while supervising them. Another student worked on Decision Tree and Random Forest for classification purpose and for power quality characterization. Power quality signal is of different types; for characterization, you need the help of these techniques. The other student used the soft computing technique for another power system planning of a distribution network using a genetic algorithm. I am slowly entering these but the students are more active in writing the codes and other aspects.
MM: You have had a stellar experience in the domain of research and published 11 significant journals. Tell us about the one which you feel has been a notable accomplishment so far?
SM: Yeah, I made 2 publications during my Ph.D. and the other 9 are by my students. Well, I will consider one publication that was from my own Ph.D. days and that was on Artificial Neural Networks. It appeared on the IET (The Institution of Engineering and Technology), United Kingdom.
MM: How has your experience in teaching been so far?
SM: I would say some 15 years ago, students were not so intelligent as they are now, but they were more dedicated. Now a days, students are brighter and more talented, but the dedication level has definitely gone down. I am not saying that this applies to everyone, but it is true in general. In every class I find that 18-20 students are very brilliant, they have got a very good IQ level. For the rest, I don’t know but the way they perform in exams makes us difficult to understand how they could qualify JEE. Earlier during the REC days, we used to enjoy teaching more, now the focus is also on other things. A part of our energy also goes behind the research, both the things have to go together.
MM: What according to you makes the difference between the research of a professor in our Institute, and a full-fledged R&D based profession? How can the Institute work in tandem with R&D organizations and better the interests of research in NITR?
SM: So far we have tried to work with R&D based firms as well, but things haven’t quite clicked on that front. A college professor is different, it is wholly based on teaching; students learn, get their degree, and at the end of the day, the college is closed. In an Institute like ours what happens is that even after morning hours, the faculty is still engaged in some active research, they come back to the department after 5.15 pm and carry on with their work.
The Institute as of now doesn’t get sufficient funds to do works on par with R&D organizations. So a professor will definitely write a proposal in which there will be collaborative work, meaning a professor from our institute will collaborate with a person in some R&D field and come up with a publication or a product. Moreover, a lot of funding is also possible from these external agencies, so we need to wait for this.
MM: You have had some administrative responsibilities in the past, as the PiC of Electrical works in the Estate office. Kindly share your experience there.
SM: Between 2012 to 2015, I was the PiC of Electrical construction. It was quite hectic because every day there were meetings, which lasted for 1.5 to 2 hours. You have to spend that much time every day because many people came to those meetings, including visiting professors. Also, it was because the construction activities were going on very actively during Prof Sarangi’s tenure. So obviously there would be a lot of tender committee meetings, review meetings at the last Wednesday of every month. You have to take certain responsibilities at times to assist the administration, I believe. Apart from that, I haven’t worked in Hall matters like being a Warden or an Assistant warden, maybe. I have to work in positions like these in future but as of now, I am not in any administrative post.
MM: What is your take on the attendance and evaluation policy in our Institute?
SM: Personally I may feel something, but the thing is, a sincere student will attend classes in any case. I think there is no need of so much strictness, that somebody who is not attending classes will likely not perform well in exams. There may be a few exceptions, but that is rare—not more than ten percent. We need not be so strict on this issue, we can be a bit flexible also.
Evaluation during the REC days was not so student friendly, but now the policy is a bit student friendly. This is in a sense that when you convert the marks into CGPA, it gets unfair sometimes. A person getting 88 and the one getting 81 are both clubbed under A grade. So you cannot know the difference between the quality of the students. I feel there should be some other measure.
MM: How well equipped are the labs in your department for research activities?
SM: If you compare with the IITs, it is a different story, still there is a lot of scope for improvement. So labs are coming up, but mostly the funds are focused on the construction of the buildings. Hence the rate of development of the labs has not been quite as expected. Some improvement is still needed.
MM: What is your opinion about the quality of Research going on here?
SM: We do have a lot of lab equipments, but we still do not have state-of-the-art facilities for doing any outstanding research. You can’t compare us with institutes like IISc Bangalore, but we still are placed quite high in the NIRF rankings. Among almost all NITs, NITR is placed towards the top. If you see many other NITs, they are still coming up. Also, qualification of the faculties is an important factor. Here more than 90% of the faculties are doctorates. So overall the research is at a decent level. And it is developing, within 2 to 3 years it will go much higher I believe.
MM: What are your hobbies?
SM: Mostly I listen to a lot of retro music, not the songs which are popular nowadays though. I also play the violin which is considered to be the king of instruments. Then I also take a lot of interest in cricket. I used to play during my childhood and college days, maybe not competitive enough to get into the college team. Now for the past four or five years, I don’t get that much time to indulge in this. I listen to a lot of Hindi songs of the yester years, RD Burman was my favourite music composer.
MM: What would be your message for the students?
SM: Any student should always stay positive, and should keep thinking that good things will happen. One should always aspire in the positive direction. There will always be some grey spots, but one should overcome that. Ups and downs are part-and-parcel of a student’s life also; you focus more on the ‘ups’ rather than on the ‘downs’!