An Illustrious Alumnus With Incredible Benchmarks: Mr Ashutosh Dutta
Driven by curiosity and love for the electronics domain, Mr Ashutosh Dutta, an alumnus of the Department of Electrical Engineering, class of 1985 is presently working as a senior scientist and chief 5G strategist at the Johns Hopkins University in the USA. He is the possessor of a multitude of skills and abilities. He has justified his roles as a scientist, a chief 5G strategist, an author, a professor, a speaker and a leader. His inspiring accomplishments have been a profound motivation for all those who wish to see themselves as a researcher. He is being conferred with the Distinguished Alumnus Award by the institute this year.
Team Monday Morning caught up with Mr Ashutosh Dutta over an email-based interview to know more about his inspirational journey.
Monday Morning(MM)- Walk us through your childhood and schooling days. How was life before joining NIT Rourkela (erstwhile REC)?
Ashutosh Dutta (AD)- I was born in Cuttack, Odisha at the residence of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose that used to be a hospital called Netaji Seva Sadan that time. Recently, his house has been converted to a National Museum. My mother, Smt. Pratima Dutta, homeschooled me until third grade. My late father Shri Ganesh Dutta was an IAS officer who had a transferable job and was being transferred across Odisha every few years. Hence, I got used to joining new schools and made new friends once every few years. This experience made me an adaptive and versatile person as I was growing up. Hence, I made NIT my home and could assimilate with my friends from different parts of the country in the hostel just like an extended family. I finished my matriculation from Government Boys High School, Unit-1 and completed my Intermediate Science from BJB College in Bhubaneswar before joining NIT Rourkela in 1981.
MM- How did NIT Rourkela happen to you? Was Electrical Engineering the domain that you always wanted to pursue?
AD- I was always interested in studying Electronics from the very beginning. Hence, I took Electronics as the fourth optional during my Intermediate Science degree at BJB College in Bhubaneswar. REC Rourkela did not have Electronics Branch as part of its curriculum at that time, and hence, I chose Electrical Engineering instead, as that was the closest to Electronics. I enjoyed every bit of my study during those four years. To cultivate my interest in Electronics, I also took advantage of various clubs at NIT. I became the secretary of the Electronics Club when I was in the second year. That allowed me to build electronics projects.
MM- Tell us about some of your fondest memories at NIT Rourkela that you cherish forever.
AD- I enjoyed all my four years at NIT very much. Those four years helped me to develop my personality in all aspects of life. I came in contact with classmates from across India who became my extended family. I cultivated the spirit of "The whole world is one Family" as I lived for four years.
I had many fond memories during these four years. The fondest of the memories was when I was part of a team during my third year when we won the best project. We designed a model of the 21st century (smart city) that is being developed now across the world.
The second best memory was when we developed a project titled "Remote controlled agriculture". This project got acclaims at an International exhibition in Bhubaneswar. Today, as co-chair of IEEE Future Networks Initiative when I discuss 5G for Agriculture, I often think about the electronics project that we were able to demonstrate back in 1983. It was a great moment for all of us.
MM- What other skills you learnt and interests you developed during your four years of stay at NIT Rourkela?
AD- The four years at NIT gave me a chance to rediscover myself. I exploited many of the inherent passion and talents that God has given each of us. Most importantly, I developed a sense of universal brotherhood during my stay there. In addition to the excellent education that I received, I got a chance to develop various extra-curricular activities such as getting involved in the debate, athletics, electronics club, Audio Visual club, drama, poetry recital among others that made me a complete person. I also got the first taste of computers as part of my final year project. I had the opportunity to work with the first VAX 11/780 in India at NIT Rourkela. Fortunately, NIT Rourkela was one of the few institutes that had VAX minicomputers from Digital Equipment Corporation. I also developed a passion for helping others as I continued to live as part of an extended family. That is still helping me when I serve as IEEE and ACM volunteer leader today. I developed the ability to open up and mix with friends from different parts of the country. That aspect is still helping me as I continue to interact with people across the world now.
MM- Your professional career started as a Computer Engineer at TATA Motors post your graduation. How was that initial taste of your professional journey as a fresher then like?
AD- I worked for TATA Motors (it was called Telco those days) in Jamshedpur for two years from 1985 to 1987. Those two years were perhaps some of the best years of my professional career. I enjoyed thoroughly the interview process leading up to the final placement that included multiple steps, including campus interview, aptitude tests, group discussion, Just-a-Minute type interview, an onsite interview, etc. Besides studying, my extra-curricular activities helped me get this job as Telco emphasised studying and other extra-curricular activities. These two years at Telco gave me a chance to learn a lot about computer hardware, main computers (Burroughs 6800), mini-computers (Burroughs 1900, VAX 11/735), micro-computers, networks, communication and laid the foundation for my professional life and has a lot to do with what I am today. I was fortunate to have worked for one of the best companies in India.
MM- What motivated you in taking up the decision to pursue higher education abroad? How did the New Jersey Institute of Technology happen to you?
AD- During those days, we did not too have many seniors coming to the USA. There was no online application, and there was no Web. That way, our awareness was very much limited, unfortunately. However, some of my friends wanted to venture out to come to the USA for higher studies. Most of those friends are here today. We were partly motivated by a few of our seniors who came to the USA. We used to get their advice. I took my GRE during my final year and was ready to go to the USA. However, my GRE got delayed due to the non-availability of question papers when I went to BIT Mesra to take my exam. Hence, I retook it in February 1985, and it was late to apply. Once I got the Telco job I wanted to get some work experience before coming to the USA. While working at Telco, I applied to various places for higher studies in the USA. I decided to go to NJIT based on multiple factors, including proximity to New York City, tuition cost, and family friends who lived there. NJIT was also one of the best schools in terms of return on investment.
I am very thankful for all the references from my NIT professors that secured my admission to NJIT. I finished my Masters in Computer Science at NJIT in 1989. My experience at Telco helped me to get a graduate assistantship at NJIT.
MM- How did you plan to pursue your PhD at Columbia University? What was the area of research you were into during your PhD days?
AD- After I finished my MS from NJIT, I always wanted to do a PhD. However, it wasn't easy to get PhD admission in the right school with a full scholarship during that time. Hence, I had decided to get a job and study PhD part-time. As I searched for employment during the last semester of my MS, I had a job offer from Columbia University Computer Science department. Compared to the other jobs I had at my hand, the salary was less, but I thought that would be the best place for me to join and continue my part-time PhD if I work in an academic environment. Hence, I took this job and moved to New York City. While working there, I started taking courses and made progress towards my PhD research. It was not easy to do a part-time PhD and produce a quality thesis from an Ivy League school while working full time. However, I completed my PhD under the supervision of Prof. Henning Schulzrinne. My research thesis was on Systems Optimization for Mobility Management that could be applicable to take care of handoff problems in 5G networks.
I am very thankful to my family, friends, my wife Sarmistha, my sons Srijoy, Arijit, for their patience and constant encouragement during my PhD. I am indebted to my thesis advisor, my teachers, and my thesis committee who guided me along the way.
My only advice here is that one needs to be very focused and motivated if one wants to pursue a PhD. However, having a PhD always helps in the long run in one's academic and research career.
MM- You have worked as an engineer, a scientist, a technical leader, a professor and a volunteer. How do you look back on all these roles, is there anything you would have done differently if given another chance?
AD- Yes, I have enjoyed each part of my last 35 years of service since 1985. Each of these roles has provided me with a different experience and made me a complete person. Through my various positions during the last 35 years, I am happy that I contributed to humanity in many ways, including inventions, product development, thought leader, publications, research, and teaching.
My IEEE volunteer role has probably given me the most satisfaction as it gave me a chance to interact with fellow volunteers around the world while helping the community through technology.
Looking back, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, start my own company. I came very close to that and will still look forward to an opportunity to be an entrepreneur.
MM- Tell us about a typical day of yours working as a Senior Scientist and Chief 5G strategist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU/APL).
AD- JHU/APL provides an opportunity for its employees to cultivate their fullest potential by giving them freedom. JHU/APL is an exciting place where I can utilise all my expertise and passion. This is a place where I can wear the hat of a scientist, professor, entrepreneur, strategist, and use my skillset to the fullest extent. As a senior scientist, I can develop new technologies, as a 5G strategist I help our government sponsors and advise them on technologies. Hence, my typical day is split among research, teaching, thought leadership, setting the strategy in the area of 5G. I also spend my evening hours and weekend towards my IEEE and ACM related activities.
MM- You have had several publications and patents published/registered under your name. Tell us how a student aspiring to pursue research in his career stay motivated to bring significant developments in the R&D of a domain.
AD- To succeed in research, one needs to develop a passion for contribution and curiosity and train oneself for research and development. First of all, one needs to survey various research topics and then pick a specific area to pursue the research on. Once one decides the focused subject, one should look at the related work, find out the gaps and then develop new technologies and inventions. It is essential to publish papers, get involved in professional societies such as IEEE and ACM, network and collaborate with the researchers worldwide as appropriate.
It is not always necessary to have a PhD to be able to contribute to Research and Development. However, I have experienced that the process of getting a PhD is an exercise and trains oneself to succeed in R&D. One should always think out-of-the-box and innovate new things that may result in patents.
MM- How active are you in the activities of NITRAA and according to you, how can the alumni help the institute in a better way?
AD- I am so glad to be part of NITRAA and NITROAA (NIT Rourkela Overseas Alumni Association). I am one of the founding members of NITROAA initiated by Mr Sandip Dasverma, an alumnus of the premier batch. Every member of NITRAA should find ways to give back to the Alma mater in any modest way as per their convenience and capacity. It could be via mentoring, donation for a specific project, teaching, education, research or student scholarship. I am a member of NITR Vision 2025. NITR vision 2025 is just one way of giving back to NIT. Here are various ways to contribute to the Alma mater NITR Vision 2025.
- Cutting Edge Research Output
- World-Class Faculty Pool
- Student Success, Training & Career Planning
- Industry Engagement & Entrepreneurship Ecosystem
- Brand and Image Revitalization
MM- What would you consider as your most significant achievement till date?
AD- My greatest achievement to date is my IEEE Fellow award that is a reflection of peer recognition towards my technical contribution. I was awarded the IEEE fellow with a citation, "for leadership in mobility management and security monitoring in mobile networks”. More details about IEEE Fellow can be found at the following link, https://www.ieee.org/membership/fellows/index.html.
I encourage and hope many of fellow NITRAANs can achieve this type of award in the future through their contribution to the technology.
MM- How do you feel about being conferred with the Distinguished Alumnus Award by your alma mater this year?
AD- I feel profoundly honoured and humbled to be conferred with the Distinguished Alumnus Award by my Alma mater; this is the second time I was conferred an award by my Alma mater. In December 2015, I had the pleasure of being a recipient of the Star Alumnus Award. I am very thankful to the faculty who taught me, my friends, whom I studied with, and the environment I grew with. I am very much indebted to REC Rourkela for shaping my life during those four years.
MM- What was NIT Rourkela's contribution to grooming and preparing you for the world beyond college?
AD- My four years at NIT Rourkela prepared me and gave me an opportunity and freedom to experiment with my passion and interest. I was able to cultivate many of these that I would not have been able to do otherwise. NIT was a learning ground, training ground and launching pad that gave me all the future amenities. This is where I got a chance to realise many of my innate talents and prepare myself for the world ahead. The training and education that I received in NIT are of immense value and made me a complete person in life. Even after I graduated, I used to get a lot of motivation from our Principal, Prof. Somnath Misra. I am genuinely grateful for his constant encouragement.
MM- What shall be your final message for our readers and the entire student fraternity of NIT Rourkela?
We are all born with different talents, and at the same time, we also develop new skills or activate our innate talents as we grow with the environment around us. However, we need to explore opportunities to exploit these passions and talents for the benefit of the world. To the current NIT students, I would suggest that they take advantage of all aspects of NIT's facilities and consider this as a training ground for making oneself ready for the future world. To my fellow alumni, I would suggest that they should find every opportunity to give back to the Alma mater. To my esteemed faculty and staff at NIT, I would recommend them to find ways to strengthen the alumni relationship and make NIT a place where the students can learn to exploit their full potential. I wish all the best to the NIT community for a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year 2021! I am committed to staying engaged with NIT, NITR, and NITROAA to make NIT one of the world's best institutes.
Team MM congratulates Mr Ashutosh Dutta for all his achievements and wishes him best for all his future endeavours.