Interview with Sandhya Prabhakaran (CEC 2001), PhD from University of Basel, Switz

Kiran C of 2003 batch conducted an interview with Dr. Sandhya Prabhakaran (CEC 2001) who completed her PhD at University of Basel, Switzerland.

1) Could you tell a few things about yourself?

I am Sandhya Prabhakaran and hail from Karakkad, Chengannur. I grew up in Dubai (U.A.E) and continued my education at Mavelikara, Tiruvalla, Chengannur, New Delhi, Edinburgh (Scotland) and Basel (Switzerland). Apart from research, I enjoy spending time at home, reading scriptures and travelogues, running, hiking, having chocolates and experimenting various tea. At home, we also practise meditation and yoga.

2) You started your career with UST and then worked at IBM STL? How was life and work at these two places?

I enjoyed work both at UST and ISL. At UST I worked on mainframe front-end applications and at ISL, I was more involved at the OS level (zOS assembler).

Dr. Sandhya during her PhD Presentation

Dr. Sandhya during her PhD Presentation

3) Why did you decide to leave IBM and go for higher studies in Edinburgh?

The call to do something in Artificial Intelligence was much greater than work at IBM, although I did enjoy developing the zOS assembler. At this point, ISL was also disbanding the core assembler group in India and shipping the work to Russia. With no clear path envisioned for us here at India, I decided to leave.

4) Why not higher studies in the US/India?

GRE for the US and GATE for India simply intimidated me. Again, Europe does have good quality research – just that it is not so much in the limelight. See here for an interview with University of Edinburgh at the time of my MSc completion.

5) Were you a topper in college?

Good question. I have no idea who the topper was or perhaps there were more than one. In any case, this ‘topper’ question only makes sense for competitive exams.

6) Then you started a PhD at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Why did you decide to do a PhD?

After the Masters from Edinburgh, most of us headed for a job. The job responses for AI/Machine Learning positions reiterated that one needed to have at least a PhD. This was in 2008. I am aware that now the scenes have changed and if you do a handful of certified courses in Coursera, Udacity etc, even after your Bachelors or Masters, you stand a chance to get a job, get into a startup or start one for yourself 🙂

7) How did you choose your thesis topic?

(Topic : Machine Learning Methods for HIV/AIDS diagnostics and Therapy Planning) The group at Basel allowed freedom in choosing the research topic. We could decide between a theoretical and an applied thesis. I chose the research area that was interdisciplinary – between mathematics and biology and therefore was very application oriented. Here one gets to prove theorems as well as implement them by running extensive real-world applications. This is the best takeaway of such research where you know that what you have researched on does not get archived but is really valid and put to use.



8) How was your PhD? Was it enjoyable? Or full of anxious moments?

I thoroughly enjoyed the PhD phase. Certainly it was no cake walk and there were plenty of times when I was clueless as to how to proceed. With many setbacks, many paper rejections, one then thoroughly enjoys the fruits of success. All this paves the way to moulding a tougher person and changes your perspective to life. Again, success is not mandatory; the will to persevere is all that matters – success is only a by-product.

9) How was Switzerland? You seemed to have trekked a lot of places.

Switzerland it is 🙂 It could not have gotten any better. Plenty of Alps and all so reachable. I once again lived as a student in an international environment and this gave me umpteen opportunities to think, reflect and compare between education, lifestyles and people in different parts of the world. I am extremely humbled by this enormous wealth of experiences.

10) Now that you have finished your PhD, what do you plan to do now?

Looking for a Postdoctoral position in academia.

11) What will be your advice to a CEC Alumnus working in a company wishing to go for higher studies?

Answer the primary question as to ‘why’ higher education. Is it for a job promotion, better job prospects, or to get back to studies, explore the latest developments in research and be part of the drive. This is also a period where one’s bank balances can recede and/or one has to be ready to live as a student once again. Once you are clear of the many sacrifices involved, see what areas you are interested in to pursue higher education – should this be in line to your work experience or do you want to explore a totally new area. The choice is yours. You could also opt between onsite education versus distance education.

12) What will be your advice to a 3rd/4th year student wishing to go for higher studies?

Same as answer 11. Also see which subject/s interest you and where pursuing higher education gives you the best bet. It is a commitment for years and probably, life. Opting for higher studies can be easier for boys, for women – can be harder. Keep all your options open, think things out and then decide.

13) What fond memories do you have about life in CEC? Did it play a role in your career and higher education?

Fond memories – Good times with batchmates, proxy classes and class bunkings. CEC gave me the B.Tech degree, for sure. This helped. The downside I faced is that on the global and national scale, at least in 2006 (the time when I had applied for Edinburgh), CEC could not compete with names like IITs and NITs. I had a tough time convincing scholarship boards and at various interviews that CEC is also an *authentic* college. What is CEC’s position now, I am not sure but sincerely hope it is better than before.

University of Basel

University of Basel.
Credits: Wikipedia

14) Anything more to share?

Some lessons I learnt on the way: a) As cultural and religious as it can get in India, we are never taught to tell ‘No’ or to voice our opinions, although it is extremely important to inform others of our viewpoints. Abroad, if we hesiate to voice our thoughts, we will lose in the long run and the blame will be that we never opined on anything. So always make your point clear, especially when you are given the chance. b) Somehow, when most Indians go abroad, the need to brag and change their accents become paramount and most of the times unbearable. Non-Indians do make it clear that they cannot stand Indians who are imposters. So, just be who you are, be honest and authentic and comfortable with yourself; if people still do not like you, then that is their problem. c) When in another place, be it another state of India or another country, interact with locals, check out their cuisines, visit their libraries or museums, participate in their festivals, invite them to ours etc. This is the only way to experience different cultures and broaden one’s vision. Do not stay indoors and stay shut from the outside, do not hesitate, instead experiment, experience and get going 🙂


Arunanand T A