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4 Questions With Dr. Panchanathan of Arizona State University

BrainGain magazine recently conducted a Facebook live session with Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, Executive Vice President at Arizona State University. Below are highlights from the conversation.
BY Braingain Staff Writer |   04-10-2016

Dr. Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan;
Photo courtesy of asunow.edu

Dr. Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, Executive Vice President and Chief Research and Innovation Officer at Arizona State University, chatted with Uma Asher, editor of BrainGain magazine, about how to make the most of studying abroad in a Facebook live session held on 22nd September 2016.

Below are edited excerpts.

  1. You studied at IIT Madras and IISc Bangalore, before going on to do a PhD in Computer Engineering from the University of Ottawa.
    How did your education here prepare you for studies abroad and what were you unprepared for? What were the challenges and surprises?


    What you get in India is a very high quality education that is delivered by selfless and dedicated faculty members. Added to that is an ecosystem of your fellow students who are bright and have high aspirations. When you’re working with them as a team it really raises you up. So, it is not only what you do by yourself, but what the entire ecosystem does for you. And I feel that it academically prepared me when I went to Canada to do my PhD.

    What were the surprises for me in Canada? One of the things I did not have as much exposure to, in India, was independent work. My PhD advisor, Morris Goldberg, a highly independent and top quality researcher, emphasized to me that I had to find the problem that I needed to solve. He said to me - you figure out the problem and you also figure out the pathway and the solution. I’m going to be your mentor – sit with you, have conversations, and guide you to the best of my knowledge. But you need to have an authoritative approach to solving the problem.

    I loved that quality of independence. It was a surprising and enriching experience.

     
  2. Many young Indians are heading abroad for higher studies. Their numbers are growing. And so is the number of factors that they need to consider – from course and college, to financial aid. What do you suggest students look at while making a decision?

    The first thing you need to do is introspect - what is it that makes me get up every day? What do I feel excited about?
    Do you want to be an artist, a pure scientist or a part of the business world? You need to first figure out what excites you the most. Sometimes, you may not know this. And that's fair.

    This is why you need to go to a university. It gives you an opportunity to not pitch into one thing right away. Instead you have a breadth of opportunities to test things so you might figure out what you’re passionate about. This is one of the things I find very exciting about the United States of America. It gives you an opportunity to figure out things even as you’re pursuing an undergraduate degree.

    You might have entered a computer science program but you might find you really like an aspect of cognitive science or psychology. So you could either change your major, or do a major and a minor, or even a double major!

    Everyone has intellectual prowess, creativity and passion. See what best meets that and expose yourself to a variety of things.

     
  3. You have been a pioneer at Arizona State University, helping create an atmosphere where inter-disciplinary exploration is possible. What is it about the ASU that enabled you to be so pioneering? What is the lesson in that for other schools and universities?

    If a university takes responsibility for the well-being of the community that it is embedded in, then you project everything that happens at the university very differently. If I take responsibility for my community, as ASU, then I want to make sure that Arizona’s water problems are addressed by ASU’s research output.

    If you want to solve a big problem like sustainability, health or any other global problem, you need to bring multidisciplinary inspirations to solve the problem. The economic health of a community is impacted by what the university does. When you take responsibility for that, you can become a great partner for many entities. For example, ASU is partners with organisations like Intel and Mayo Clinic in order to bring a holistic approach to solving problems.

    We don’t have as many departments as most universities have. Instead of departments, we decided to think in terms of broader constructs. So we have a School of Human Evolution and Social Change, a School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and a School of Sustainability – the first in the nation.

    All of these institutional objectives engage faculty in holistic pursuits and inspire students to follow. We have student teams made up from students of engineering, business and law, working on new conceptualizations. It frees people up. They are no longer confined to narrow boxes.

     
  4. Any tips on financial planning for those who want to study abroad?

    You must look at your own financial means. In the broad swathe of universities, you have a variety of financial structures – in terms of what it takes for you to finish a degree in X,Y, Z institution. There is a range of possibilities there.

    Be mindful that when you go to US, you will have opportunities to work on campus. If you have the skillset, drive, energy and passion – you will have opportunities to earn while you do your degree. Don’t focus on the debt. Focus on the world class educational experience. Soon you will have a career and pay these debts off. This is how domestic students in the US think. The experience broadens and builds them as a person. If research excites you, intern in a research lab. They will pay you some stipends for that. This may not cover all of your educational expenses but it will defray some of the them. But by and large, if you do well, you are bound to get a job that helps you pay off your debts.

    But make sure that your budget and planning match your choice of university and program. It’s up to you to find the right university and match it all up!

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