'An Inherent Part of My Guru – Teacher Culture'
Ruth Kattumuri on Her Academic Background, Starting Over Mid-Career and What It Means for Her to Impart Knowledge
On May 27, we welcomed Ruth Kattumuri, Founder and Co-Director of the India Observatory and Distinguished Policy Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, at an event in Zurich. Prior to joining LSE, Ruth was Professor of Computer Science and Statistics in Madras (now Chennai), India. Behind the scenes, we took the opportunity to ask Ruth about her academic background, starting over mid-career and her teaching culture.
Désirée Meili: You worked as a professor in computer science in India for more than a decade. It was quite an unusual choice for a young woman in India during the time you went to school. What made you choose that path?
Ruth Kattumuri: As a child I grew up in the Indian air force and getting in and out of defense aircrafts was routine and also nurtured my fascination for space science. My favourite subjects were physics and mathematics and my ambition was to become a space scientist myself. However, it wasn’t easy those days to find opportunities for girls. On the other hand I was told by my family that, my father who had passed away when I was very little, like the majority of parents in India, wanted me to be a medical doctor. So I committed myself to the memory of my father and did my best and came top in Science in my Central Board of Secondary Education School. I also did very well in several medical entrance exams and interviews at some of the top universities. However, the admission processes were not transparent and I was not willing to contribute to unethical practices, so I could not go to medical school. Consequently, I decided to do a totally new course unheard of by most of my peers, and majored in statistics and computer science.
And that obviously played to your strengths? How did the computer science scene look like at that time?
In India the computer science revolution happened in the 1980s, much later than in the rest of the world. When I did my MPhil thesis in artificial intelligence (AI), hardly anyone had heard about it. So it was not fashionable as it has become now (laughs). After graduation, my plan was to work as a software engineer. However, our Head of the Department, who used to be called the grandfather of computer science in India, since he had been working on machine learning since the 1960s and was well connected with the international community, invited me to become a lecturer. He was my guru (teacher) and mentor and I had a lot of respect and admiration for him. I trusted him and valued his faith in me to be a teacher, even though I did not have much confidence in my abilities to take on the vocation of a teacher. This is also partly because in Indian culture, the strongest influences in a person’s life are understood to be mata – mother, pita – father, guru – teacher, dev – god. So as a Master’s graduate, I felt young and unprepared to be capable of taking on the responsibility as a teacher to mentor, mould and nurture young people and enable them to fulfil their potential and help them fly high in life. Despite my nervous doubts, I trusted my professor’s judgement and accepted the position and thereafter became professor of statistics and computer science.
Later you moved on to social sciences. What motivated you for the discipline change?
I had been actively involved in teaching and academic leadership at my university in India and I was notably identified toward becoming the first female Principal of one of the top ten higher education institutions in India. After teaching for just over a decade, I was involved in a neighborhood study on HIV in India and became curious to understand its causes and any methods of prevention for the welfare of the community. So I proposed to research this and applied for a PhD at LSE, was accepted and moved to London and started from the base of the pyramid.
At LSE I tried to understand the socio-economic challenges and possible solutions for prevention of HIV and decided to apply mixed methods involving quantitative and qualitative techniques in order to improve the welfare of people and communities. We live in such a complex world, that we cannot understand things in isolation. Bringing people from multiple disciplines together to collaborate helps us to deepen our understanding of the issue at hand and to try to find better solutions for everyone.
What is one of your most important contributions, both professionally and personally.
Throughout my life, I have been involved in imparting knowledge, education, training, capacity building and mentoring to help and enable people develop their potential. From when I was in primary school, I would teach and guide other children including classmates and it gave me great pleasure to impart knowledge and understanding. Although I was struggling with many economic and social disadvantages in India, it would not occur to me to take any fees for my teaching. I even refused to accept payment for teaching from those who were wealthy and could afford to pay fees. I had faith that my needs would somehow be taken care of. This is an inherent part of my guru – teacher culture for nurturing and enabling the best of people and their welfare and my contribution toward building a better society and world empowered through knowledge and understanding.
If you think about the future and the prospects of India: What do you think will change in the next few years? And what changes would you wish for?
Democracy and demography are currently the two most valuable possessions of the country. India is at its most important stage of development. My wish is: for the best possible development of India’s human capital to enable equal opportunities and attain their potential; for environmentally sustainable development across the country, including through fulfilling the country’s agreement with UNFCCC commitment to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation and adaptation as pledged by India by signing the Paris agreement in 2016; and achieving all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals well before 2030.
Ruth Kattumuri is Founder and Co-Director of the India Observatory and a Distinguished Policy Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to joining the LSE, she was Professor of Computer Science and Statistics in Madras (now Chennai), India. Her transdisciplinary teaching, research and public policy engagement pertains to several aspects of global sustainable and equitable growth-and-development including, human capital development, social entrepreneurship, innovation and technology. Read the Recap of our event with Ruth in Zurich here.
Désirée Meili is Project Manager at Asia Society Switzerland.
For all of our events we have the honor to welcome interesting and fascinating speakers. They are not just experts of a particular field, but often have access to corners of the world most of us don't. As part of our Behind the Scenes series we let them speak about their life stories and experiences.