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  • Vijay Chandru

The Age of Irresponsibility

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

When I turned 60, friends sent the usual “Shastipoorti” messages. One older friend congratulated me on entering the age of irresponsibility. After all at the age of 60, one is usually done with householder duties and in some situations with professional careers. I tried to think back to when the “responsible” phase had begun and that took me back to 1970 when I set foot in BITS Pilani as a college freshman.

I was born into a prominent family in Bangalore in 1953, the year that Mount Everest was officially scaled and the double-helical structure of DNA was officially solved. My father, Dr.H.G.V. Reddy was a lecturer in zoology at Bangalore University who had switched to the national civil services (IAS) out of a sense of duty to participate in nation building. He hailed from a family of lawyers dedicated to politics and public service. My mother was the only child of B.N. Reddi, a pioneer producer-director of Telugu films in Madras (now Chennai). Due to a combination of circumstances, my sisters and I were raised by my maternal grandparents in Chennai with my father playing a larger role after I had reached the age of eight.

I was a sickly child who had to be home schooled in 3rd grade because of ill health. My health improved considerably after my father, a skilled sportsman, moved to Chennai and took charge of my lungs and limbs. I swam and played cricket and tennis almost every day and my lungs settled. My father’s interest in science was infectious although I was also fascinated by films and saw an average of 3 feature films a week in our private studios. I was gifted in mathematics and Don Bosco’s Matriculation School in Egmore had fabulous math instructors who gave me a lot of challenge problems to solve beyond the regular curriculum. My mind was made up to be an engineer when I interacted with my Dad’s brother who was a chemical engineering PhD trained at the Imperial College in London. He had returned to be a technical director of the Shell Petroleum Company. I had an engineering drafting set and a slide rule by the time I hit my teens!

A couple of my older cousins who had grown up in Delhi went to study mechanical engineering in BITS Pilani in the late 60s (BITS had been established in 1964) and I was keen to follow their lead. So in 1970 I made the transition from the incredibly nurturing nest of my grandparents’ home to the somewhat rough and tough dormitory life in the magnificent oasis of Jhunjhunu District. Pilani gave us an outstanding 5 year undergraduate education in engineering sciences and I ended up enjoying every aspect of campus life to the extreme. I captained the cricket team, acted and directed in plays, played water polo and student politics. My academic performance was above average and I learnt to get by with a regular habit of a couple of hours in the library in the evenings after cricket practice. My abilities to multi-task and manage my time to fit in a large number of activities at BITS would serve me well all through my professional life.

My branch of choice was Electrical Engineering and I enjoyed working with hardware – I was into DIY electronics and had built my own audio amplifiers and a small medium wave radio transmitter in my room in Ashok Bhavan. I would transmit a “castor” music session late on Saturday nights – Doors, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Deep Purple, etc. While building gadgets was more like a hobby, what really fascinated me intellectually was the mathematical complexity of signals, systems and control. In our final year, the director of BITS, the enigmatic Dr CR Mitra, had invited Dr Stafford Beer to visit him in Pilani and give a few lectures about Operational Research and his adventures in Chile as a technical advisor to Salvador Allende. I was enthralled by Beer’s descriptions of the field of “cybernetics” and its application to real world systems. I had found my academic passion – my segue into a career in research.

My training in systems science began in 1975 when I was a Masters student in Engineering at UCLA. I moved to MIT for my PhD and my big influences there were Jerry Shapiro, Tom Magnanti, Ravi Kannan, Sanjoy Mitter, Richard Larson, Dmitri Bertsekas, Christos Papadimitriou and Jim Orlin. I wrote a thesis on computational complexity of super group methods in integer programming bringing together the exposure to theoretical computer science (Kannan) and Gomory constructions for integer programs (Shapiro). I could not have asked for better teachers. My Guru and friend Jeremy F Shapiro, who sadly passed away in 2012, was a special man. Jerry taught me more than anyone else how to be courageous in research. He was never one to be unduly impressed by “reigning paradigms” – mutual admiration clubs trapped in cul-de-sacs of specialization. If my career has taken on such a variety of experiences, it is because of Jerry’s encouragement to seek them.

As a professor of engineering in Purdue University, I started looking at computational geometry in the mid-80s and together with a few graduate students and colleagues we worked on many aspects of optimization problems posed on planar and 3D geometries. I also became a part-time student again and studied algebraic geometry with (late) Shreeram Abhyankar – a colleague and a great mathematician at Purdue. I had a lot of fun working in geometry because it brought back many high school math skills in ruler and compass constructions, conic sections and high school algebra. Two of my students from these geometry days stood out – Debasish Dutta who is currently a chaired professor and dean of graduate school at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign and Ravi Venkatesan who just stepped down as the Chairman of Microsoft in India.

In the mid-80s another important influence in my research ideas came from the late Bob Jeroslow at the ARIDAM workshops at Rutgers. Bob asked integer programmers to look more closely at the interface of integer programming and logic. John Hooker of CMU and I responded to his call. My book with Hooker called “Optimization Methods for Logical Inference” published by Wiley Interscience in 1998 was the culmination of a decade of joint work that the remarks of Jeroslow had triggered.

Between 1989 and 1992, I tested the idea of returning to India to teach at IISc, Bangalore. After almost two decades in the US, this was clearly an adventurous move. I was at the top of my academic career, a high flying tenured professor of engineering at Purdue University. But I was36 years old and knew deep down that it was time to go home and make a difference. When I landed in Bangalore, a stanza from a poem by Sir Walter Scott, from childhood memories kept coming to me:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land! Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned, As home his footsteps he hath turned.

Ensconced at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), I was on the prowl again for a new research experience. The students from Molecular Biophysics Unit came over to ask me to teach them combinatorial computational geometry to use in exploring functional structural properties of proteins in biology. I got excited with the optimization models associated with minimum energy conformations also called the protein folding problem – the so called holy grail of structural biology. The more I looked at biology, the more excited I became about possibilities for data science and decision sciences in the life and health sciences. We began with a small academic effort in computational biology seminars and workshops at IISc but after a sabbatical at University of Pennsylvania in 1999-2000, I was ready to plunge headlong into computational biology.

By the mid-90’s, I was increasingly concerned that my work at IISc continued to be quite abstract and unrelated to the society I lived in. I may as well have done all this in the US. I needed to look beyond the usual academic conquests (by 1996 I was a full professor and a fellow of the academy of sciences). It was my great fortune that I discovered a few younger colleagues who felt likewise and were willing to think outside the ivory tower. So Swami Manohar, Vinay Vishwanathan, Ramesh Hariharan and I began our journey by first convening an applications lab at IISc, we called it the “Perceptual Computing Laboratory” (PerCoLat) and began building relevant technologies for pursuing interests in ICT for development and some practical aspects of bioinformatics. In 1996, PerCoLat started off with several funded consulting projects with Indian IT companies and international clients.

In 1998, as a consequence of our focus on ICT for development, we had the concept design of the “Simputer”, a unique handheld computer that would put India on the global technology map for innovation. Instead of getting into a lot of details, let me point the interested reader to and the citation we received in 2001 from the New York Times as the ICT innovation of the year . The Simputer project rolled into a dynamic startup called PicoPeta Simputers which brought out a commercial Amida Simputer in 2004. Picopeta was eventually merged into Geodesic, a public company based out of Mumbai and the Simputer has now morphed into the Geo Amida.

The transition from convening an applied lab PerCoLat to starting companies was a big step for a group of professors at IISc. It had never been done before and so we were pioneers in the launch of academic entrepreneurship of this kind in India. The dream that drove us was to create world beating technology innovation companies from India. We felt that while the ICT sector in India had made great strides in services business, there would be an important niche for innovators who could help the sector add value through research and translation of intellectual property. If this group of smart technologists from IISc could show the way, our dream would be realized.

The other startup Strand Life Sciences from PerCoLat was born in late 2000. Strand has grown into a large and well-respected bioinformatics company. It was not an easy journey to success with a software product line from India and a global market in research biology. The frustrations of working in a niche, under-appreciated scientific field with the market size being a small one almost overwhelmed us at the end of 2003 when we had to retrench and refocus the company. Most bioinformatics companies that started out with the completion of the human genome project in 2000 have received a quiet burial.

The bioinformatics products from Strand for Array, Mass Spec and Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) analysis are used by over 2000 laboratories worldwide (about 30% global market share) with citations in thousands of publications. Strand has received many accolades for innovation and the most recent one was for biotech innovation of the year 2012 for the health sciences awarded by DBT/BIRAC. This award was in recognition of the extraordinary work by Strand scientists in quantitative computer modeling of the biochemistry of the liver to be able to predict and profile the mechanisms of toxicity of chemicals (including drugs) in the liver.

Strand’s new clinical genomics product provides deep interpretation and reporting pipelines driven by real clinical experiences, computational expertise and the large-scale aggregation of genomic knowledge. Strand has the potential to bring genomics based personalized medicine at prices affordable for the Indian healthcare needs. The next few years will tell if the 200 brilliant scientists and technologists at Strand can deliver the goods. We are racing forward to be the first at the finishing line with an end-to-end platform for sequencing based diagnostics. We expect to reach there by the summer of 2014.

The team at Strand is perhaps a unique experiment in India of gathering the best and the brightest talent in a multi-disciplinary, gender balanced, collegial, and highly performance driven environment in an indigenous private enterprise. I arrive at work every morning knowing this is a team that can deliver almost the impossible. So Ramesh Hariharan and I demand the impossible of ourselves and the team. The work life balance does get challenged at times and we have to make some conscious choices about travel, vacations and work hours to keep some sanity in our personal lives.

On December 28th 2005, I had faced a real test. In a terrorist attack at the Indian Institute of Science, I was shot repeatedly at close range with an AK56 and gravely injured. Both my arms were shattered and a bullet to the chest had taken out my left shoulder musculature as well. I survived that night and, in the eight months that followed my courageous wife Uma and daughter Maya brought me back to normal. Of course there were some great surgeons and physiotherapists who pulled off some miracles as well. My second chance in life has given me an even greater sense of responsibility than I started out with in 1970 when I landed at BITS, Pilani. I will accept the option of claiming the age of irresponsibility, but I can wait a few more years before I play that card.

A modified version of this appeared in “BITSian Achievers 50@50” January 2014


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