Getting Hands Dirty!

Remember those days in kindergarten when we were asked to make models out of clay and we would just get to it not worrying of how beautiful our clay model would like? As years went by, the approach of getting hands dirty somehow shifted to a more “sit and observe/analyse” situations. While this could be a good method for understanding a situation, not all courses would succeed by just spectating the progress of the course.

One of the courses that I took here at Virginia Tech that actually gave me a good understanding of the subject through case based learning was in the ME department on Vibrations. The project was to design a wearable device to help patients suffering form Parkinson’s disease. This was relative new to me so I had to read a lot about this. Turns out, not much research has been done here based on a wearable mechanical device concerning vibrations. So this was a perfect opportunity, where I put in use the most fundamental learning of mathematical modelling, where we came up with equations to understand how the human arm behaves and then after a good amount of research we were able to come up with an approach as to how to go about the problem. Then it was all coding and seeing how the design behaved and if it actually helped combat the problem or not.

One realization through hands-on learning was that, the subject although seemingly monotonous and dense theory in the beginning was now much more interesting since I was able to see the practical use of the course materials. This was when I realised how the most fundamental materials could be put into good practice!

Posted in GRAD5114

Do I even belong here? Where are my people?


Its 2019  – a time when the whole world is literally connected and made a small place through technology. Yet, the issue of diversity and inclusion still lingers as a problem to be solved, the silent thoughts associated with people who look different or speak a different language, I personally find it intriguing as to why it still feels uncomfortable! Why is diversity and inclusion still a thing that needs to be discussed? How long is it going to take when these topics are no longer cognitively processed but assimilated as something “normal” in our society?

Well, the truth is, diversity, inclusion and equity is definitely an elephant in the room but this elephant needs to move on and pedagogy is surely one of the best ways. I grew up in India, a country where people speak a ton of languages. I grew up in a small town where the language was completely different from what we spoke at home, the food was different, the culture and traditions were different. Interestingly, it never made any difference to me. I was proud that I knew different languages, I never had to search for a particular item at a restaurant when I was travelling in different parts of the country. It was my everyday life and it was a normal affair.

However, its not the same always. When I first went abroad, that’s when the concept of diversity hit me. Watching news all these years, movies, television and the different ideas I had of the “foreign world” started to hit me when I actually set foot abroad. Until now, I was seeing the world with my eyes, but now I was seeing them through a different lens –  a lens that grew over time, influenced by movies, news, magazine columns and so on. I actually started feeling different because all I knew was what I was told about how I will be perceived. I was lost in the perpetual and autonomous pros/cons tables that my mind started to make. But when I started to become involved with people, started listening, accepting their choices, the way they did what they did, there was a sense of expansion. I think thats what inclusive pedagogy aims at – helping students develop a mindset where they can be who they are and would like to know others for who they are.

I come from an engineering background. Diversity in my department is crucial, why? the whole world uses technology and it would be an irony if the makers of technology cannot accept diversity. I would like to share an anecdote here. I was once working in a lab where the students belonged to a particular country and spoke a certain language. I was the only one from a different place. It was fine initially, however, things started getting difficult when it came to communicating regarding work. It was hard to also make a personal relationship since I was outnumbered and I couldn’t help but feel an outsider. People were more formal to me than required, I could not participate in the small conversations, I could not laugh when they shared a joke, well, i could not even tell if they said a joke and if they did and they all laughed, it would feel like they were laughing at me although they did not, they discussed problems in research which I could decipher based on some words that were English but I could not involve in them. This was making it hard for me to not only grow in my studies but also as a person. I had to leave although I loved the work!

I think it is extremely important for people especially students, to feel a sense of belonging where they are. If one feel that sense of belonging where they are be it their lab, or class room, or with room mates, I think we no longer need to discuss inclusion, because its now a part of us. One does not need to question anymore, “Do I even belong here? Where are my people?




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Additional Post 5: What do grades signify?

I’m pretty sure many of us have heard a ton of ideas concerning grades. I’m just going to be sharing some of mine. What does grade mean to you? For me, its a measure of the “smart work” plus “hard work”. It had nothing to do with who we are as people, does not have a measure of our latent abilities, however, it does give a measure of how well we can take up a test at that given point. In high school, I used to get perfect scores and then in university, I have also failed in a mid term. Yet, I am here today pursuing a higher education degree. What it meant to me in my life was clearly how well I was ready to face the exam. When I was fully prepared and free from all distractions, focussed and correct in my approach for the test, I got those beautiful As. But then, when I was distracted and got involved in unavoidable personal situations, I kind of lost focus and couldn’t really put in my best which resulted in poor grades. However, grades did have a great impact in my life. The university I chose for my Bachelor’s was heavily dependent on the grades alone. My scholarships were based on grades. Credibility among faculty members were based on grade. Its really weird because on one hand, I’m pretty sure everyone of us reading this can agree that grades dont define anyone, yet we place so much importance on grades.

Western education is doing a great job in this area. In the east, marks create insane obsession among students and when some score low, they go the extent of even killing themselves! There are very few universities that look at a holistic profile of a candidate. The problem with eastern countries I feel is that the population is too much and ranking applicants based on numbers they get in a particular exam easens the process. But that is completely unfair to the person. What would you think would be a better way to admit applicants in countries with a millions of applicants each year?

Posted in Grad5104

Additional Blog Post 4: Stress in academia

When I was an intern during my undergraduate study and help the grad students in their experiments, I couldn’t wait to have my own lab one day, write papers and contribute something new to the world. I was enthusiastic to learn as much as I could and join research. However, within two weeks of my internship, I realized the scene in research is not as colorful as it is to a high school student. I remember how my PhD adviser would complain day in and out about “just getting done with this”. To be honest, I was appalled at this PhD student’s attitude. As I met his students and knew more people, I realized they have a club and almost the entire university belongs to the club where they meet occasionally to fret about their research life and the boring things they do. I used to wonder what all this was all about. As a high school student, I used to picture myself wearing goggles, white coat and working with golden sheets wrapping a satellite and prepping it for launch. The whole idea of research seemed so exciting at that point but why is it so different now?

The fretting episodes were not limited to my experience as an intern alone. As a graduate student myself, I see my colleagues fretting about it in a similar fashion and every day is a deja-vu right now. Why? If I break this problem down, I feel it has a lot to do with understanding one’s own psychology. A solid foundation of how the mind works can help one to navigate through everyday life seamlessly than another who has no clue about how the human mind works. For example, I see some people trying to put the other down because he knows more than the other, some brag about how many hours they have been working, some are working desperately to please their professors, some are just complaining about not getting results – the negativity is immense. Yes, there is a lot of positivity and a ton of people out there who love their work and are really happy to be here, but the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored is the growing negativity which is affecting the research environment. This negativity is the node of all mental health issues that is generated in graduate life apart from personal experiences hither to.

A lot has been discussed regarding Mental Health issues in school and how universities are trying to help students in this aspect. However, counselling centers help people as a reactive measure. Once there is a problem, and after a great deal of courage to go beyond the social stigma associated with mental health does one go for therapy only to spend months in trying to recover. Wouldn’t it be better if psychology and concepts of cognitive distortions, appreciation, acceptance etc is taught in a course? I strongly feel that an exposure to such topics will help students greatly. Many may not be able to relate to several issues at first, but if they ever go through a rough situation, they will know how to deal with the situation.

Posted in Grad5104

Additional Blog Post 3: Work Life Balance – Is there a balancing scale to know for sure?

The class room discussion on work-life balance intrigued me greatly. I couldn’t help but speak about it to many of my friends and has opened up so many questions in my mind. I’d like to share them here and would be happy to discuss your views on this.

I’ve met several people of the two institutions of thought: one who work all day and accomplish, the other who balance life very well. Some questions that came to my mind is, how is it possible that one group accomplishes the same but are not workaholic? how do some have no time for family? how much of success is success?  what is success? what is the “life” in work-life balance? when do I know I’m balancing it well? Is there a reference to this? At what point do I stop or should I ever stop working? Is this a life long struggle? Is it a struggle in the first place?

My mind was exploding with these questions and I began exploring one by one, spoke to so many friends, read so many blog posts online and psychology today to understand this. I still couldn’t find a very satisfying answer though that answers all my questions but I have gotten some understanding. One of the key qualities among people who are “successful” is that, they speak of time and deal with time as if it were a tangible resource. They know exactly of how much to spend on what and that is how they get things done. But the “how much time to spend” raises the question of skill. Some get done with task A in one hour and some in two – it depends on how well one is good in the work. If one can learn to work in the smartest way possible optimizing their working strategy, I feel there will be no comparison based on how many hours someone has worked. And to stop comparison, we need to define what success is in the first place. If my success for today is completing tasks X,Y,Z, spending some quality time with family, going for a run, watching a good movie and if I am able to get through all of these seamlessly, I guess, that is perfect work-life balance and this eliminates the concept of boasting about the number of hours we work. I strongly feel that it is futile to put in 100 hours for what can be done in less than 50 and wearing the 100 hours as a “badge of honor”. What matters is the accomplishment that we define for ourselves.

We have classified our time into “work” and “life” and try our best to balance both. But, what exactly is life? How do we define it? Can we quantify it? In my perspective, life is that which gives one true fulfillment. It is definitely not the same for some. For a person X, probably playing soccer for an hour is more satisfying than spending time at the park. For another, spending time over the phone to speak to a friend or maybe spend time with family is more satisfying. For another, probably working in the lab is more satisfying than socializing – now this is purely subjective and I think it is unfair to put everyone in the same basket and assert that Person A does not have a life, Person B works all day, Person C is happy. This is something we really don’t know and I feel it is best to leave it to one’s own judgement as to what suits him or her best.

According to you, when do you think you have reached a balance? I’d really like to hear your views!

Posted in Grad5104

The future of University – will there be a future?

The basic needs for living are indeed: food, shelter and clothing. But as humans, the most important need for survival is learning. Education has been there centuries ago and has traversed a tremendous journey. From messages being passed down to generations orally, then with the advent of papyrus and scripts, the printing machine and digital media, the teaching-learning activity has experienced a tremendous change undoubtedly. In an industrial conference table, we could put some amazing plots and statistical data on the table and congratulate ourselves on how technology has come along they way in serving education. The fact however that watermarks the colors of “technology in education” is the basic question, “are we empowered?”

I would like to talk about the future of university based on this question, “are we empowered” or “will future generations be empowered?” Close your eyes for a moment and transfer yourself back in time to two hundred years ago. Imagine you father teaching you how you get to home from the field that is several miles away. You have no option but to pay attention, trust your memory and take your step. Now, you move a few decades ahead and you have a pen and paper. So you make notes of what your father teaches you. If you get lost, you need not worry about forgetting the way home, just look at your notes. Now lets go a few more years ahead and say, you buy a map. Now you need not depend on whether your father teaches you or not, for you know everything that your father knows. Now come back to the present. You don’t even have to but a map. Just google it!

I can attest that every grad student’s philosophy in learning has now changed to “Google It!” What I observe is, in the first case, we trusted our memory because we had no choice. Then, we depended on something for the “just in case I forget”. And now we are in a situation where we are like, “We can google it when we need it”. This is the future of education in my perspective. I hear so many peers talking in class when some concepts are described and they say, “Its all available online so what?” I think it is really important to step back and understand what learning is. Today, we have a ton of information out there on the web but there is a huge gap in understanding “Now What?”. So, should I say that learning in today’s world is all about merely applying the facts available to us? Or is it about, just knowing how to use the resources correctly? Well, I know the math, so what should I do? My peer does it using a software without even knowing whats going on! So, is there a difference when I learn the derivations and understand the math whereas another simply uses software and still gets a really high pay job? Where is education going?

I believe, we are in a world where we can decide who we get to be – a privilege of no other generation. We decide how to use the information to become what we want to become. The future of university will depend on the outcome of the policies that will be based on the answer to this contemplation.

Probably, in a few decades, given the rising tuition costs and ease of online education with nano degrees like Udacity, will it be a viable option to spend tens of thousands of dollars in tuition? Probably, the future of universities could just be a phone! Let me know what the future according to you will be like?

Posted in Grad5104

Additional Blog Post 2: Relationship with Advisor

When I was applying to grad school, I remember the first thing I did was visit QS Rankings. I started gleaning through the websites to understand what kind of research happens in different places and what I could relate to best. Having decided on my strategy, I did my best. I had a huge list on an excel file googling every single thing I could find and then applied to a few.

One thing I missed while prepping up was to understand what happens behind the colorful and fancy websites that Professors put up. I could not understand how the interpersonal environment was in the lab, what kind of people I was going to work with, will I be able to adjust in the group or will everything be comfortable? Does the advisor actually “advise” students or is it just WORK WORK WORK for academic credit. So many things go unnoticed during the application phase and many people land up in a well planned out lab but regret it later on simply because it was too late for them to have discovered the reality.

As a grad student myself, what I feel is, yes, it does matter to have an advisor who is really good at what he does but it is even more important to have an excellent relationship with an advisor. When I discuss grad life with my friends with other universities, they cannot believe that I can walk into my advisors office with a notebook and a pen when I have a doubt and he spends hours until I am clear with the concepts. Having a good advisor breaks the ego barrier and helps one to build a real Teacher-Student relationship which last way after one graduates. On the other hand, having an advisor with whom one is not comfortable can be a nightmare. Imagine working for someone you dont like, moreover, that person needs to approve of whatever you do: thats the worst psychological trauma you can create for yourself. Dreading to wake up and work everyday and just counting when each semester will get over. Several people are under such a situation but they are too afraid to come out because they feel its too late, it might affect their academic standing, funding etc.

There are several universities with a governing body that looks over such issues, but then, why is it that still students do not come forward? What stops them? Please let me know your thoughts below.


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Additional Blog Post 1: Keep it simple!

The other day I came across an article about Elon Musk and Richard Branson who mentioned about the use of jargons in their company. Jargons among the scholarly community is a matter of privilege, well of course it should be, we spend most of our childhood developing vocabulary and then the GRE test made sure that I memorized the 3000 words.  When I was preparing for my test, I used to wonder where am I going to use all these words!!! Some of them were not used (according to google) in the last 5 decades, yet, I was going to be penalized for not knowing that “I’m agog” means “I’m super excited”.

After I came to grad school, what I realized is, the vocabulary of Jargons is surely helpful when I read technical literature but definitely not when I go out on lunch with a fellow grad student. The point is, its really interesting to see how a good vocabulary helps and could also make me the weirdo in the group sometimes.

I’ve had a few faculty members who were known for their extreme vocabulary. He would talk some words which none of us in class would understand and when we would visit him during office hours to clarify doubts, he would use his list of words to confuse us even more. What happened is, we lost faith in his teaching and within the first three weeks, no student would approach him to clarify doubts. He was irked by this attitude and would accuse us of not making use of the office hours but would never attempt to look at it from our perspective.

I think this is a serious issue that happens in various situations of life. Some would like to boast their skills with the biggest of words and leave out the whole idea of communication i.e. transferring an idea with feedback.

Do let me know what you think: do big words matter?

Posted in Grad5104

What does innovation in higher education actually do?


I read the article titled, “4 ways universities are driving Innovation” by the World Economic Forum. The synopsis of this article boils down to 4 trends namely, Fostering Entrepreneurship, Encouraging collaboration with the private sector, Promoting diversity and inclusion and Exploring the nexus of technology and society.

I would like to pose my opinion on these four trends. Fostering entrepreneurship is perhaps a leading trend in the major universities as well as the low ranked ones. Living in a capitalist society today where money is a serious motivation behind any activity, bringing the idea of creating monetary opportunities through incubators for startups is perhaps a great way of exposing learners to the real world. Education today especially due to such entrepreneurial motivation changes the whole purpose of learning: education is no longer limited to grades and managing to obtain a job, rather, people are now motivated in thinking out of the box as to what sort of application could their knowledge be invested in so that it could generate revenue. This is real and the purpose is real which is why education can have a greater impact while learning and the seriousness of what courses one takes and the time and effort one puts into the subject seems driven.

By developing relation with the private sector, students get a better idea of what is happening in the world and what people “out there” are really upto. It gives a a direction of how one can enhance the activities of the world in a very pragmatic perspective. One can align their research accordingly and know their market well which is an essential because it gives crucial feedback.

At the same time, making the world a smaller place is an important objective. It helps people grow as humans, become more appreciative and accepting by including diversity. It is a great way to break racial and ethnic barriers.

Finally, exploring the nexus of technology and society is the next great trend. This is perhaps one of the pivotal changes in modern education where a relation between the “application of education” to the “process of learning” has a clear connection. Careful analysis of the society and structuring education programs accordingly is an essential. In a society where one needs revenue to survive, the university is responsible to provide education that can actually help the students land with jobs rather than investing their time in a field that is outdated or perhaps too much into the future that the society does not really require at this point of time.

All these trends are truly leading modern learning to a progressive path and indeed, the results are quite clear. For example, competitions like Hyperloop and the Self driving cars or Baja/Supra help engineers to actually invest their ideas in real world challenges bringing them much closer to what they might be doing after they graduate while still studying. Clarity of the future helps better decision making and planning and the current education system is indeed helping all students in this way.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

Posted in Grad5104

Will Open Access Journals survive?


This is my third blog post and its about open access journals.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in India, I remember how passionately I would look for the latest research being carried out and then when I tried to read them up online, I would be stuck on Sciencedirect asking me to pay 25$ sometimes more, which is about 1750 Indian Rupees, that was almost 10 times my weekly allowance. When I would ask my librarian for the papers, he would help me out but then, the clock would be ticking for more than a week. Getting access to the papers from reputed universities was a nightmare. I first came to know about open access journal when a Professor from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras gave a keynote address in my university about the resources online and I first heard about “Nature”. My penchant for science would drive to read the “sciency” things online and I would sift through the internet for more of such materials. I had not heard of the concept of open access journal until the end of my Junior year, however, once I knew about it, I knew I found something worth looking into.  Before I jump into analyzing a particular journal, I want to mention how and why I believe that research should me made open to everyone based on my experience.

A wise man once said, if you help another with money, it is partial help; if you help him with food, its again partial, however, if you help someone with knowledge, that is the best help you can do because knowledge will help one to walk on his own feet. I have never since found a saying so close in altruism and this is perhaps a reason why I am even in this class with a goal of spreading my learning to others a future Professor. Research is expensive and hence everyone wants to protect their data and findings which makes sense. However, sharing the gist of their research or papers should not be stopped. Knowledge is the only hope for a better world, but the capitalist society has put a huge price on education – a right to every single individual in this planet. It is not only our duty to learn what has been understood but also share what we understand, that is how this world will continue to evolve. Labeling knowledge with a price dehumanizes the art, it breaks away the connection between learning and the learner, there is a barrier when the learner extends his identity with what he wants to learn. When I wanted to understand why an ion plasma engine is better than the conventional one, I had a hard time looking for resources to get to the paper, which if had been open access, the answer would have been a click away. Several enthusiastic learners are spending so much time in searching for the right resources or simply give up because they do not have the resources – the sad reality is, such situations are only affecting our own society. Skilled and talented individuals are bereft of several opportunities because they are living in countries with bad economy and cannot afford a good education, but with the advent of digital age and “connecting the world”, why do we let money come in the way of learning? Maybe, because those who know business models recognize that learning is as important as water and so putting the price helps business grow?

In my case study, I have chosen the journal, “Journal Technische Mechanik”. This is a German journal published by Magdeburger Verein für Technische Mechanik e.V. and Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg. The journal publishes refereed original articles on Engineering  Mechanics . It provides a dais for researchers to present their work to universities and industry highlighting the practical applications of their results and findings. This journal publishes several articles on an annual basis starting from 1980. The quality of the articles are however not as high as those in reputed Journals, nevertheless, the journal does help researchers in providing a space to share their work. It surely comes in favor of the open access movement.

However, there is a caveat that I would like to point out that happens behind the stage. While there are several reputed open access journals, most of them are not very popular and hence, in order to compete with those that are not open-access, are willing to accept papers with compromised quality. This is a vicious cycle because open-access journals want to help researchers but are not able to compete with the mammoth market of the contrary. How will they survive? How do I trust an open-access journal? If I have the resources to access non open journal, why should I go for open-access journals that are not popular but might have some exemplary work?

Let me know what you think!


Posted in Grad5104