V. Srinivasa Chakravarthy is a Professor at the Department of Biotechnology, IIT Madras. In nearly two decades of his career, he has worked in three different engineering disciplines – Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Biology. Having started out as an Assistant Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department in 2000, he moved to the Department of Biotechnology in the year 2006. He served as the faculty advisor of National Service Scheme (NSS) till September 2012. He recently created a script called ‘Bharati’ that aims to unify the scripts of all major Indian languages. Additionally, he is an alumnus of the EE Department at IIT Madras (BT/EE/1989).
T5E engages the brilliant professor in a conversation –
Could you recount your undergraduate days on the campus? What was your motivation to pursue research at the end of B.Tech?
B.Tech days were fun! I was in Narmada hostel. Like a typical teen, I didn’t take my academics very seriously. The stringent grading tradition of my department didn’t make things any easier. But I used to do things I liked a lot, like reading Sri Aurobindo. Then there were long discussions with a close circle of friends over uninterrupted cups of tea at Quark. Also, one of the most memorable parts of my institute stay was the external lectures. I used to find the speakers really fascinating. Going over it, I think this place abounds in inspiration – you don’t even have to look for it!
But, come final year (1989), many of us were confused about our future prospects. At the same time, a friend of mine came across a paper on neural networks. The field was just taking off and seemed an interesting line of research. I applied for an M.S. in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas. It turned out that neural networks were one of my mentor’s research interests. So, I began research in this field. Thanks to my basic training in EE, I realized that a whole vast area could be founded on a single, unified theoretical basis. EE training can enable an individual to get into pretty much any other field – that’s why I sometimes feel I should have studied harder in my B.Tech.
How was your post-graduate experience? Why did you decide to come back to India, after nearly a decade in the US?
My advisor, Prof. Joydeep Ghosh, gave me immense freedom to pursue lines of research of my choice. While at it, the going seemed rough, but I think that’s exactly how doctoral training must be. A spoon-fed, fly-by-wire Ph.D. is a contradiction in terms! The doctoral program gave me an immense confidence boost. Later, I took up post-doc in Baylor College of Medicine with an intention to study neurobiology. My mentor there, Prof. Read Montague, was a huge inspiration. He was just in his 30’s and he already had a string of papers in Nature, Science and other top journals. He had this ‘cowboy-style’ approach to research (naturally, that was in Houston!). He constantly used to come up with and pursue bold and novel ideas. Research for him was more like a battle of ideas, rather than clerical, lame “paper writing”. This really inspired me.
After a year of postdoctoral work, I took up a software job due to financial difficulty. After a stint of three years at the oil-field services company, I decided to come back to India. The thought of returning was always there – only when and how seemed to be the questions. My work in industry only increased the resolve to come back to India. I realized I did not have the freedom to do whatever I liked in an industry. I chose to come back to my alma mater and pursue academic research.
What made you shift from the EE department to the Biotech department?
As an assistant professor at the EE department, I was approached by an aerospace engineering student, Sridharan Devarajan (he recently completed his PhD in neuroscience from Stanford), who was interested in doing a project on a neurological disorder called Abulia. One of the causes of this disorder is damage to a part of the brain called basal ganglia. It had been quite a few years since I lost touch with biology. This project revived my interest in it. We came up with a hypothesis, got some results and published it. That initial work also led us to a better understanding of the mechanism underlying the Parkinson’s disease. After that, it seemed to make more sense to be part of a department of biology or allied fields. So I decided to move to the BT department when it was set up in 2006.
What is the Bharati script? How does it unify elements of all Indian languages?
Handwritten character recognition in various Indian scripts is something I have been working on for years. It has been quite difficult to reach commercial level performance at recognition because our scripts are so complex. Instead of struggling with existing, overly complex scripts, it seemed easier to create a whole new script, with simpler design. The result was Bharati. Something similar was done with English in the ‘90s. Jeff Hawkins, the creator of the palmtops, designed a writing convention called Graffiti which is a simple modified English script that is not susceptible to a lot of individual variability and hence easily machine-recognizable. So we embarked on building a common script that could represent a majority of Indian languages.
We noticed that most languages had similar sound and structure of alphabets – the vowels, consonants and the barakhadi. But, there is no logic in the way you write different letters, at least those belonging the same family. Removing such irrationality from the characters, we ended up with an extremely simple script, which is what Bharati is.
In total, the Bharati script has only about 15 symbols with a few short, diacritic-like attachments. The motifs for these characters are drawn from various Indian languages and English. Therefore for a person who knows an Indian script, and preferably English, it becomes trivial to learn Bharati.
What are your thoughts on inter-disciplinary research?
When I moved to biology, I was taken aback by the sheer amount of detail involved in every small topic. It was a kind of culture shock for me. But slowly I realized that if biological data is looked at with engineering, or systems perspective, one will know how to encapsulate things, and see patterns. Once you approach biology this way, it becomes extremely fascinating. In fact, my invitation to every engineer would be to explore biology from the point of view of their branch of engineering. Biology has infinite potential for research and application of engineering skills!