Interview: Cibi Pranav (Civil 2015)

Please state your current major and explain the area of research you are currently involved in. Do state past research if any.
I am doing a Ph.D in Civil Engineering from Georgia Tech. My current major is Construction and Infrastructure Systems Engineering (CISE). My research focus is on one of the infrastructure systems, that is transportation, and within it, highway safety. Broadly, it delves into 3D technologies including laser scanners, Lidar, GIS, computer vision etc. to recreate roadways for analysis, simulation and to generate intelligence (like identifying where roads are unsafe). I analyze road geometry, surface properties and driver behavior to prevent roadway departure crashes. My aim is to analyze these and provide a long-term strategy in making roads safer.


What should students know before taking up research? How should they pursue their career in research?
Research, unlike our assignments, does not have predefined variables. It involves one coming up with a unique approach to find a solution to a problem. To tackle the demands of research, students should get used to the systematic and rigorous processes involved in research. It means developing skills in identifying the problem accurately, critically analyzing the subjects, and establishing sound methodologies to carry out the study. If you’re interested in research you could take steps when you’re in NITT. Start your final year project much ahead to involve a research. And of course apply for research internships. After undergrad, pursue master with thesis option or a PhD.


Why are research internships important? How do students hone their skills through these internships?
Research internships are opportunities that let you exercise and learn about research processes.

When you do a research internship, it is essential to look closely and be curious of the processes rather than just completing your assigned tasks.

Ask your advisors to challenge you so that it allows you to gain the skills needed for research. I never did any research internship during my time as undergrad. I enrolled as a Masters non-thesis student and later converted to a PhD. I did an independent study with my advisor for a few credits in my second semester here and realized my liking for the subject. We discussed continuing the study and he graciously accepted me as his PhD student. It was at least a year later that I discovered the essence of research.


What other skills do you think students need to learn before/while pursuing higher studies in engineering and sciences?
Apart from learning research skills, learn to be a good communicator. If you have a novel idea or finding, try to put it across to the team in simple terms. I am not kidding, effective communication in research is a serious skill. Besides, for non-circuital students, be willing to code. Regardless of the domain, everyone needs to process and analyze data and programming is a must. Above all, the key skill is not being afraid to learn something outside your domain. Research these days are becoming interdisciplinary and you need to communicate with people from electronics, biologists, psychologists, public policy and it requires you to quickly assimilate knowledge. It is nearly impossible to be aware of all the domains. So, using your common sense and logic to comprehend other domains is very critical.

As undergrads we are at times stuffed with information that we don’t understand. We pass it off, but you cannot pass off such information in interdisciplinary research.


Would you recommend students to branch out and experiment by learning skills from various fields while in college?
I would totally recommend students to branch out and learn lot of skills in college.

Imagine a ‘T.’ The top line represents the broad knowledge in various fields. And the perpendicular line represents the depth of knowledge in a field. Equip yourself with skills that resembles the ‘T’.

The future is going to be about interdisciplinary work and survival in any career will be hard if you are siloed in one field. We need to be an expert in one area but if we cannot relate to others, we cannot be enterprising nor make significant progress.


What courses helped you most in your area of research? Did any form of self-learning, such as online courses, help you further your knowledge in that field?
For my area of research, domain specific courses like Infrastructure Systems and Management, Pavement Technology, and Engineering Risk analysis were useful. Assistive courses like Geographic Information System (GIS), big data analytics, machine learning added value to my research. However, more than the courses, learning through journals and textbooks are my real source of knowledge. In my experience, if you need to learn a new subject for your research, spending a couple of weeks interacting with the respective profs, students in the field and reading the journals will help you gain 70% of the knowledge you need. The course work will only help you consolidate that knowledge with assignments and projects.

Self-learning is an essential skill in research and is something every prof looks for in a research student. Learning on the go is effective way to gain new skills. For example, I learnt to code, use computer vision and perform image processing through the demands of the research projects. There are hundreds of tutorials in the web to assist you in the process.


How different is the research and academic environment at NITT from Georgia Tech?
The academic experience in NITT was prescriptive compared to Georgia Tech. What I mean is that our curriculum is designed with a set of assignments to complete, few exams to take and one final project. This just forces us to finish requirements like a checklist. In Georgia Tech, learning is obtained through projects in each subject and tests are designed not to reproduce but to exhibit understanding. So, there is a natural tendency to reinforce knowledge and a sense of ownership to the lessons you learn. Disclaimer: This is only the grad school experience and I cannot compare the undergrad environment here.

Research environment was new to me and it took some time to adapt to it. Understanding the process is the first step. The next is critical thinking. Simply put, critical thinking is all about a series of ‘why’s (’why is it done this way’, ‘why is this happening’). You keep asking questions till you reach a point where there is no longer a ‘why’ to answer. Initially I used to take all the methods, results and conclusions for granted. Later I learnt that questioning such methods and results is a key part of critical thinking.


Where do you think the research scenario in NIT Trichy needs improvement?
Primarily in terms of research attitude. Research is portrayed as an elusive thing only select few can do. To break that, research facilities must be available readily to the students. I can understand the apprehension for not allowing to use these facilities in fear of misuse or damage. But if we cannot make them readily accessible, students will never find interest in research.

Second place of improvement depends on the amount of research our professors do. Profs can give opportunities to students only if they have and do enough research projects. So, making more research projects and funds available is essential for getting better at the research game. It must be addressed at the institute level by making the funding available. It will take a long time for such change. Meanwhile, our profs must aggressively pursue new projects and publish in top international journals regularly to create more opportunities.

No research is insignificant research.

Regardless of the impact, students must constantly look for problems they can solve. It can be academic oriented or anything on campus. Even simple things as ‘how to prevent potholes in our campus roads’ is good research. Solving such problems need passionate guidance and appreciation.

You can make the question you asked me as a research problem and identify solutions. I will be more than happy to guide you on this research.


How do you feel time must be utilized post-admission into college?
Let the heat of undergrad life cool down. Catch up and spend time with friends and family. They will miss you when you go abroad. In addition, learn about the place, its culture by reaching out to alumni, family friends, friends of friends and take help from your profs in NITT if they can connect you with someone in your new place.

If I must answer this formally I would say, if you are an unfunded student after you selected your school, you can look for opportunities for assistantships and scholarships. Generally, in the time around June-July profs prepare for new semester in research and teaching might have open positions. You can capitalize on it. Besides, you can identify the technical skills required in your respective courses and if you find a gap, you can start building on it. If you are admitted into a research group, start getting familiarized with their work.


Do you have any advice on how to secure funding for higher education, by way of scholarships or otherwise?
I did not start my masters with funding. It was in the second semester that I did an independent study for my prof which was his way of evaluating students. He liked my work and attitude and agreed to fund me henceforth. Some students who are sure about pursuing research contact professors a semester or two before starting school to express interest in their research and if positions available, are fortunate to get early funding. So reach out to the profs early. Otherwise, you can do research internships with profs in a summer and secure their funding once you get admit for higher studies.

Some international students are funded by Fullbright Scholarship throughout their program. Additionally, there are many small scholarship opportunities in the respective schools through contests and competitions and international students can take advantage of them.


What are some things about your career path you wish you knew in college, in retrospect?
Frankly, I was not expecting my focus to keep changing. Although I am enveloped in Civil Engineering, I was interested in structural engineering while I was in NITT, I studied Construction Engineering and Management in my M.Sc, and then it turns out my research is on transportation. So, there is no way a ‘hard and fast’ knowledge of my career could have helped me in NITT. Some people may be gifted to have found their passion very early and can build a career right from undergrad years. For many of us, we still need to experiment and explore. However, these experiments must be directed towards a general goal and for me it is enhancing people’s life through public infrastructure.

In retrospect, we must be mindful that it is easy to shift focus, especially when we find something hard and not comprehensible. That is like a rolling stone and you gather no moss. In that context, I seriously recommend sincere effort in every experiment.


You are currently pursuing a doctoral program in transportation engineering, with your research focus being highway safety. What scope does it have and what kind of employment opportunities can one look forward to in transportation engineering?
Many countries are now racing towards Smart Cities and intelligent transportation systems. Also, once we build an infrastructure, it is massively expensive and it occupies huge real estate space. What if we can derive more value out of them such that they can make the travel efficient, smooth and safe. Transportation infrastructure has been very late in catching up with digital age and now it provides whole new level of opportunities ranging from internet of things, smart signals, dynamic routing, connected and autonomous vehicles, infrastructure asset management, etc.

Developed nations are trying to advance the transportation field while in India we have numerous challenges in reaching basic functional requirements in terms of transportation. Given the advances elsewhere and demand for mobility increasing, we have great potential to implement the state-of-the-art transportation advancements in our lifetime. Jobs range from traffic engineers, transportation planners, operations and maintenance engineers, ITS engineers, etc.

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