How To Save A Life

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Insight spoke to Prof. Krithi Ramamritham – Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engg.(CSE) & Head, Center for Urban Sc. and Engg. (C-USE) who is conducting a blood cancer awareness and ​Stem Cell​ donor registration drive being organized in our campus.

What is the importance of stem cell donation?

There are different types of blood diseases, some of the diseases are easy to cure and some are not. Diseases like Leukaemia and Thalassemia can be treated only if the blood is removed and replaced. Thus, donors are needed for replacement of blood. The probability for a match from a donor not related to the recipient is disappointingly small. The matching also depends on the ethnicity, for example Keralites would have a higher probability to match with Keralites, and a larger database would improve the chances of a match. During the stem cell donation the receiver’s immune system might reject the donation from a particular donor and a larger database would increase the number of potential donors.
There was a first level match for 7 students out of 1500 students who could not match further tests. Three levels of matches are required for donation. In USA there is much more awareness and there are 10-15 matches while in India there are very few matches.

Could you give some details of the stem cell donation drive?

An information session is being conducted to bring awareness on stem cell donation in hostel messes and then there is a session by doctors on the 17th. First the stem cell donors will register on march 18th and 19th and information like ethnicity, address, phone number, medical history and a 5cc blood sample would be taken. The blood will be tested for blood diseases before the donor can donate. If there is a match the stem cell donor would be called for further tests.

Is the process convenient for the stem cell donor?

In the past stem cells were extracted from the spinal cord. Nowadays donors are given a booster shot which increases the number of stem cells in their veins and the stem cells are extracted from the blood. The process is similar to blood donation with the difference being that all the other components of the blood are returned to the donor’s body and the stem cells are harvested.

Why do you think this is important in an institute like IITB?

Students are important because once they register they would be on the database and be potential donors for more years. Leukaemia will soon become as prevalent as diabetes and blood pressure but unlike these disease, leukaemia is deadlier.

You also head the CUSE. Can you tell us a bit about it?

CUSE was started with the goal of solving urban problems systematically. It was designed carefully so as to approach these problems in an interdisciplinary manner. If you look at the departments at IIT, we have CS, Management, Civil, Environmental Science, etc. They all solve problems centered around a specific domain. Now, if we take a look at the city problems, look at IITB for example, the state of buildings and any facility for that matter, we ask the following questions – is it a humanities problem? Is it a management problem? Is it a technology problem? It is actually all together. The lights which are supposed to turn on automatically don’t work, the people who are supposed to clean are not doing their civic job. Nothing is working perfectly.
So, how to bring all the various silos together to address real world problems is the real question.

It takes a lot of planning to bring the right kind of people into the centre, so we adhere to the policy – Any faculty member who applies to the centre should have passion for at least 2 out of these 4 areas viz. Infrastructure, Planning, Governance and Informatics. We currently have 3 faculty members and 25 PhD students on the team.

Can you shed some light on the major projects that are currently in the pipeline ?

One is in the Energy area which has a common purpose between CS and the Energy dept. In this building (KReSIT) there’s a 4 class complex – a set of 4 classrooms which is completely automated. It follows the mantra – if there’s nobody there, it should not consume energy. There are some sensors with systematically chosen locations which observe if there are people inside and accordingly turn on the lights and fans. We can now save about 50% energy.

We also have a lab called SEIL (Smart energy Informatics Lab) in which we walk through a smart door which will tell you who you are just by measuring your height and weight. We’re also working on a Smart Building Manager for facilities. For example if you have an emergency, how do you tell people which path to take? We have a disaster management algorithm which we are going to implement. One of the projects which students are working on is about smart cycle pooling. The idea is that if you wanna go from point A to point B, you should be able to find a cycle closest to wherever you are and you should be able to leave it wherever you’re going. And this entire process has to be efficient. There’s also a project on smart-toilets which tackles one of the major problems in Mumbai. There is also work going on on how you can provide ambulance and fire-trucks at the right places in time.

Mostly resource related problems are tackled and we have stakeholders for all of these who give us the data required and also take the solutions back once we’re done.

What is your take on the current RnD scene in the institute? And how do you feel about the fact that a lot of UGs end up working in the non-core sectors after graduation ?

Firstly, UGs are opening up to doing research while they are here which is a good thing. And we faculty members have to realize that they have the potential to become good researchers right here before they get out and we can make use of their caliber. I have used some UGs in the past, I don’t have any now except the ones in my class and they have been extremely smart. The only problem with them is that their attention span is low, so they focus on something for a week or two but then Mood-I, or something else comes, and hence I can’t depend on them to produce the results for my longer term needs.

What are the major differences between the students here and students abroad ?

Let’s talk about UGs, PGs and PhD students separately. UGs here are definitely better than anywhere else except for the problem that they don’t really know what they want to do because of which they while away some time and miss the opportunity to get better at research. Even if they don’t intend to do research later on, what we don’t realize is that every moment of UG time is more precious than every moment of PhD time. Because this is the time when we can absorb anything that comes in the way. I tell my students whatever be the age, if you don’t learn one thing new everyday, you’re wasting your time. Because of that I think students are missing out on some learning chances here. We’re not going to teach them everything but you can still learn by just absorbing things that come in the way, translating them in your own way and applying it elsewhere. The fact that they don’t come to classes should not be the issue, the issue is – are they doing something useful during the time that they’re not coming to the classes? I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t know what you guys do but I hope you’re spending it somewhere where you don’t misuse the time.

PhD in the US are remarkably better than PhD students here. The reason for that is most of our IITs and second tier colleges send students abroad for PhD and so they come with passion and an urge to show that they’re capable of doing something and hence they are better prepared to do research.

So, if I am to train a student from abroad for 1 year, I’ll get the benefit of him/her for 3-4 years and because of that productivity of the faculty, student and the department collectively increases. On the other hand, here if you develop one PhD student with care and diligence and if they go to a good place, the multiplication factor could be larger than for the same thing happening in the US.