Farewell To A Cognitive Personage : Dr Suman Dhaka

Farewell To A Cognitive Personage : Dr Suman Dhaka

The life of a student is the reflection of his education. Teachers help instil knowledge in us, ranging from complex mathematical equations to the intricacies of behavioural and cognitive sciences. We seldom find a teacher in our life who is highly dedicated to their subject of interest and even motivates students to do the same.

Dr Suman Dhaka, Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, is one of the beloved and popular professors among NIT Rourkela populace due to her unique teaching style, which makes the elective courses ‘super-interesting’. She has also significantly contributed to Monday Morning being the Person-In-Charge (PIC) for around one and a half years.

As she plans on bidding farewell to the institute to continue her venture further at IIT Jodhpur, team Monday Morning caught up with her for an interview, regarding her overall experience at NIT Rourkela and aspirations. Here is the excerpt:

Monday Morning (MM): You have worked at NIT Rourkela for over 2 years now. How did NIT Rourkela happen to you, and how has your experience here been?

Dr Suman Dhaka (SD): I joined NIT Rourkela in March 2018. I had never heard of Rourkela before joining here and had never thought that I would come so far from my hometown to do a job. I appreciate this decision of starting my teaching career from NIT Rourkela. 

Talking about the experience, walking down the memory lane, I would be short of words to express my journey at NIT Rourkela. The attachment with the institute is such that I am emotional and heartbroken to leave. Since, in my professional career NIT, Rourkela is the first thing that happened to me, it will always have a special place in my life. Besides that, to narrate my experience here, I still remember the first day when I was completely lost. I had no idea how I was going to settle over here and everything was so haphazard. I am grateful to NIT Rourkela's fraternity, who helped me accommodate with the new surroundings.

I got my teaching assignment and course allotment in July 2018. When the first time I entered the class, looking at the enthusiasm of the students for psychology and then in the next semester for cognitive science, it led me to indulge in the environment. Frankly speaking, it has been such a good experience that I didn't even realize when the 3 years passed by.

MM: You started your teaching career at NIT Rourkela. What inspired you to take teaching as a profession?

SD: Two people in my life have inspired me to become a teacher. First is my father. He was a teacher in a high school where he studied and eventually became the principal. I grew up in his influence and admired him for the kind of personality he had- very subtle, disciplined, charming and always had a different perspective for life. I remember how he used to go to teach with such enthusiasm and positive vibes which made me realize that this was the profession that I wanted to pursue. 

The second inspiration is one of my college professors, Prof. Arun Chougule. When I was pursuing my masters in cognitive neuroscience, he used to teach us radiology (brain imaging). I was inclined towards his teaching style. His three hours of morning lectures used to pass in a flash. It was like watching a movie. He was passionate, active and had a sense of humour. That helped us understand the technical topics he taught, and I was left curious to know more. 

MM: You are popular among students with electives. How do you try to grab the interest and enthusiasm of students towards your subject?

SD: I feel honoured to know that (although it's hard to believe, chuckles!). Getting acknowledged by your students is the most beautiful feeling. I am happy and glad that students like my teaching. 

Let me tell you the other side of the story. I was under the impression that students don't like me for being so strict, scolding the students for not being on time, not submitting the assignments, taking a lot of surprise quizzes. I remember one incidence when students turned up late and I closed the classroom door, forbidding them to enter into my class. At the same time, I felt guilty to see those students standing outside the whole time and then coming to apologise. That's when I realised that I shouldn't be so strict.

When it comes to the HS elective subject, I have always been worried to give my best in the class because it is not a core subject, so it's difficult to grab a student's attention. Hence, you have to put those materials in the slide which are not specifically relevant to the syllabus but to practical life, to make the students curious and keep them engaged. I always left the class with a question put forward so that students find the answers to it and learn new things in the process. I have also done a lot of experiments with my teaching style since I joined. I used to start the class with an interactive session and Q&A, then deliver the subjective knowledge, in between, make them aware of the facts and figures (with a touch of humour), and then leave them with a question. Thereafter I started designing PPTs with visual graphics. For cognitive science, to make the students keep hold of the terminology, I showed small videos of difficult portions. 

Once in HS elective, I was allotted 2 sections with 220 students each! That made me nervous initially, but I rather took it as a challenge. Although a bit hectic,(I got spondylitis correcting 440 answer sheets) I am happy that I could pull it off. I still remember my students by their faces and names, which I attribute to the in-class interactions. I feel that if you are kind, caring, empathetic towards the students with a little humour added to the conversations, it can help build a strong bond between the students and the teacher.

MM: How has your experience been as the PIC of Monday Morning? 

SD: This is the first responsibility that I got at the institute level. When it was assigned to me, I wasn't familiar with the functioning of Monday Morning. I had the impression that it was just a newsletter that reached NIT Rourkela fraternity about the activities on the campus. But after joining as the PIC, that perception changed completely. I realised that it was not just a mere newsletter, but brought out important information for students and fraternity every week.

I am amazed by the writing style of MM and the content which it brings out. Putting forward the facts, issues, and grievances of students in such a well-structured way to the administration are worth appreciating and admiring. I learned a lot while working with MM in my two years of tenure. So, it was a great experience.

MM: What were the changes you observed on Monday Monday's functionality since the time you were appointed as a PIC?

SD: At first, I was not aware of the functionality of Monday Morning. It was not until we had a few meetings together that I came to know much about this organization. Since the articles stay over the internet for years, hence there were certain issues with the comprehension and perception of certain articles after a few years. To fix this, we organized the meeting with the Director, SAC President, and all the Chief Coordinators, and certain guidelines were made for the upcoming publications. Owing to that, now those problems have been sorted and everything is working smoothly.

MM: You pursued your PhD in Sleep and Cognition from IIT Guwahati. What intrigued your interest in this field?

SD: This particular area of research has to do with Mathematics, Computer Science, Neuroscience, Biomedical, etc. So, before taking this as a subject, I had to look over all the other aspects that comprise it. When I was pursuing my Masters, I got selected as a DST (Department of Science and Technology) IAS(Indian Academy of Science) fellow back in 2012. At that time, I was researching at the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) on Image Processing. Having known Neuroscience before, I moved to Brain Image Processing. I got a chance to work at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru on EEG, ERP, and FMRI, which developed my interest in experimental psychology, and hence I moved to pursue my PhD at Sleep and Cognition Lab in IIT Guwahati under the supervision of Prof. Naveen Kashyap.

MM: How would you compare the opportunities and exposure in the field of your interest (Cognitive Psychology, Sleep, and Cognition) in IIT Guwahati to that in NIT Rourkela?

SD: Being a researcher I never felt confined in terms of facilities and opportunities at a place, but defiantly, it's a challenge to start your career at a place where you don’t have these infrastructures in terms of experimental Psychology Lab. I desperately wanted to ameliorate this condition and hence collaborated with the other departments, colleges, and even institutes abroad to make projects while submitting them to various funding agencies.

Luckily I got two projects approved at ICSSR and DST and hence developed some facilities to ease the research for the PhD students under me.

Although I thought of building a full-fledged lab environment, since I am leaving, I have to start from scratch somewhere else (chuckles!).

MM: You bagged the DAAD fellowship, which led you to research at the University of Göttingen. What was the research project and how was the experience among researchers at the university?

SD: DAAD is an exchange program that you can utilize to work in institutes in Germany in the field of your interest. I came across the fellowship in 2015 and got the chance to work at Gottingen University, Germany with some of the pioneers in the field of Brain Stimulation. At the University’s medical school, I worked on the project titled ‘Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)’ with different directions to study how the Theta Burst stimulation (iTBS) on motor behaviour. The experience there was overwhelming and I learned some of the most important research tactics that I even share with my students.

MM: You have cited various articles on the effects of sleep and naps on emotions and memory. What is the significance of proper sleep scheduling in the life of a student?

SD: I always suggest to my students to take good care of their sleeping schedule, but college life is all about watching web series, playing video games, going on night-outs (chuckles!). A college is a place where you dream regarding your career aspirations. However, the kind of lifestyle students follow can turn those dreams into nightmares, as that type of lifestyle can cause physical and emotional problems during this duration. So, in my opinion, one shouldn't override the importance of sleep.

Each of us should maintain a healthy lifestyle. I know the advice is easier said than done. However, I am practising a healthy schedule, and I know it is manageable. We even need to participate in different activities like sports, exercise, yoga (my favourite one) and meditation to have a healthy sleep cycle.

MM: In your opinion, how can the issue of social isolation and detachment among students (which has heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic) be addressed?

SD: The detachment is not only experienced by the students, but also by the faculties. A college is a place for socialisation, gaining new experiences, exploration and earning all the required skills. However, this particular pandemic put us all in a completely different world which we never even imagined and specifically in the field of academia, I never thought I would have to teach through a blank computer screen and expect students to understand whatever we are teaching. It is a tough time for the students and the teachers as well.

All I can say to my students is to stay calm during this time and try to explore something new and creative in your life. Always train your mind with the words- “This too shall pass”. Words have a potent effect on your brain. Always read books as much as you can. Reading a few logical books during this challenging time is a very good habit.

MM: What are your plans for the future after leaving NIT Rourkela?

SD: After joining NIT Rourkela, it was one of my dreams to go into an IIT in the future. 

When you dream about achieving something in your life, your total energy will be directed towards the goal, and you feel complete only once you reach that goal. However, during the journey of achieving dreams, we forget to prepare ourselves for other aspects, like saying goodbye to your present.

I was trying to fulfil my vision from last year, and now I am leaving NIT Rourkela, and would be joining IIT Jodhpur. It is a very emotional moment for me. I am grateful to NIT Rourkela, Director Prof Animesh Biswas and my colleagues who supported me in every step. I tried my best to justify my job here at NIT. In terms of the plan, I would like to continue to do that in my future as well and excel to the best of my potential. Besides that, I don’t have any specific plans for the future as I am a person who loves to live in the moment and enjoy.

MM: What are the things you will miss the most about NIT Rourkela?

SD: The things I will miss the most about NIT Rourkela are my students, the beautiful campus and my apartment (which has a hill view, smiles!). Now that the students are not on campus, we can feel that difference. It is tough for the teachers to stay on campus without the students. I am fortunate to have made some great friends here who are my colleagues as well. I am definitely going to miss them.

MM: What made you take the decision of leaving the institute?

SD: When you are in the teaching profession, you will look for further progress in your career by getting into one of the good IITs once you get into an NIT. I have been trying for this since the past one year to get into an IIT. Finally, I was fortunate to get into IIT Jodhpur (my home city). It is a normal part of life that you would want to do even better in life, and for me, the next place better than NIT was an IIT.  

MM: On a concluding note, what message would you like to convey to the students of NIT Rourkela?

SD: When I am in class, I speak about a lot of things to my students, besides my subject. I would say being here for the past three years; I heard many stories and experiences through interactions with the students. I always tell my students to share their problems with me whenever they are afraid, tensed or anxious. Usually, people say that we should do at least one thing that makes us happy every day. However, I always say that in addition to that, one should do at least two things that he/she doesn’t like doing. This will give you all over different experiences and prepare you for the upcoming challenges in life and make you ready to take personal responsibility for your own life choices.

The biggest gift of life is the gift of life itself. Enjoy it and live it. Some of our knowledge goes beyond simply learning. It’s not about just mugging up and writing in the exam. The information that you learn in class might not be written in your long-term memory, but the critical thinking skills that you acquire during your education will last a lifetime. Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.

Team MM extends a warm token of gratitude and a mark of farewell to Dr Suman Dhaka for her wonderful journey at NIT Rourkela as a Professor and as the PIC of Monday Morning. Team MM wishes her all the best for her future endeavours.

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