Tête-à-tête with Himanshu Asnani – IITB Alumnus, and Marconi Society Young Scholar

Himanshu Asnani, a graduate student of IIT Bombay, received the 2014 Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar Award, which recognizes individuals who have, at an early age, demonstrated exceptional scientific and entrepreneurial capabilities with the potential to create significant advances in telecommunications and the Internet. He completed his B.Tech in Electrical Engineering at IIT Bombay in 2009 and M.S. in 2011 at Stanford’s Electrical Engineering School. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Stanford and works as a Systems Engineer at Ericsson Silicon Valley.

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Many students have a very vague understanding of what ‘research’ is. Could you walk us through your experiences as a researcher?

Research, basically, is innovation. It can be an invention or a discovery. An archaeologist, for instance, would discover something of historical importance, say, a relic. A mathematician would invent a new theorem or think of a new proof for an existing result. Somebody else could be involved in the invention of a new device, something that makes human life easier. The possibilities are endless!

My research has been in the area of Information Theory. More specifically, I’ve been involved in two broad aspects of the field – reliable communication and reliable storage. I have also worked in bio-informatics, focussing on Human Genome Compression.*

In essence, I first focussed on developing theoretical concepts, or theoretical limits, and then, on testing them. This was possible through the application of these theoretical results to various related real-life problems.

This transition from ‘theoretical’ to ‘applied’ that you talked of, how did this come about? How did you decide which of these you wanted to pursue?

I believe this choice depends on a lot of personal factors, like your upbringing. It depends on what you want to achieve in life, what provides you with intellectual happiness and satisfaction. For instance, what do you enjoy more, the theoretical proof of a result or its varied applications, that is, a more ‘hands on’ approach.

In my case, I believe a solid theoretical understanding of concepts is needed before one can delve into their applications. During the course of my PhD, I have focussed on picking up skills, regardless of the aspect, theoretical or applied, that I’m involved in.

Did you always envision yourself as working in the field of research, with your stay at IIT Bombay only providing a concrete direction for your endeavors? Or did it play a much larger role?

As a child, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon but my love for Mathematics and Physics eventually led me in a different direction.

As a child, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon but my love for Mathematics and Physics eventually led me in a different direction. From the very beginning, I had wanted to do something related to research, although I had a more concrete understanding of what this would entail only during my undergraduate years at IITB.

The closest thing to ‘research’ that one can achieve in the school environment is a deep appreciation for the pure sciences. In contrast, during my time at IIT Bombay, I was exposed to a much more research oriented atmosphere which helped shape my future choices.
It is largely the responsibility of the student to extract enriching experiences from the environment that the institute provides. If one has a desire to pursue a career in research, his desire would get strengthened during his stay at the institute.

During your time here, were there any people, professors or peers, that left a strong, lasting impression on you?

The list is extremely lengthy.

In particular, I remember Prof. Abhay Karandikar with whom I had worked a lot. I did my UROP (UG Research Opportunity) and my BTech seminar under him. There was also Prof. Prasanna Chaporkar who had newly joined and brought a lot of fresh enthusiasm with him. I deeply admire Prof. V.M. Gadre who was an excellent mentor to all his students.

I was also fortunate to have come in contact with several brilliant post-doctoral students and wonderful friends with similar interests.

What do you think of IIT Bombay’s academic system? How does it compare with other institutes that you have been affiliated with? Also, what changes would you personally like to see, if any?

I have not been keeping up with current changes in the Institute’s academic system.

It is very difficult to compare IIT Bombay and Stanford, where I am currently a PhD candidate, since the two institutions are set in very different environments. IIT Bombay has done a great job, with brilliant students graduating every year.

However, such educational institutes only cater towards developing a problem-solving approach in students. I strongly believe that all educational institutes should focus on a holistic development of individuals by encouraging creativity, competence and most importantly, building character. Producing a bunch of software engineers or academicians should not be the main aim.

IIT Bombay has been successful at producing brilliant engineers and scientists in the past, and should shift its focus to producing responsible citizens.

IIT Bombay has been successful at producing brilliant engineers and scientists in the past, and should shift its focus to producing responsible citizens.
Not being an expert, I don’t know what policy changes would be needed. There are people working in this direction and I believe that the required changes would happen soon.

How have you been associated with IITB after graduating?

I had some amount of communication with IIT Bombay professors but most of my association was due to the large IITB alumni network in Stanford. This kept up the ‘feel’ of IITB.

The Bay Area is home to a lot of IITB graduates and in the future, I hope to attend some of the events that they organize.

Are there any memorable moments of yours at IITB that you’d like to share?

I am grateful for the set of friends that I had during my time here. One needs friendship during the course of any pursuit, be it spiritual or material. Other things that come to mind are electronics club activities like the electrified sessions, technical arena etc. I also remember PAF, the Performing Arts Festival. Dramatic arts are a revolutionary science with their power to inject ideas into the minds of the audience. Hence, there must be a sense of responsibility associated.

Lastly, would you like to give any advice to the current batch of students?

The current batch of graduates must understand that the burden of the future legacy is on their shoulders. Rather than only trying to be professional problem solvers, you must also try to incorporate a sense of responsibility to the society in your personalities. You are the cream of the country and are receiving the highest level of education. The skills that you develop should help combat the problems of the society. Otherwise, the purpose of such an education is lost.

It is my humble message and advice to the students to start thinking in this direction and start giving back to the society.

*A note on Human Genome Compression:
The vast amounts of genomic sequencing data being generated by Next Generation Sequencing technology may occupy tens or even hundreds of gigabytes of disk space, including both the nucleotide sequences and per-base quality scores that account for about half of the required disk space. Asnani and his collaborators found a new way to compress quality scores, resulting in significantly reduced storage requirements and fast analysis and transmission of sequencing data.