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From alumna to 1st woman to lead an IIT — all about IIT-M’s Zanzibar campus head Preeti Aghalayam

From alumna to 1st woman to lead an IIT — all about IIT-M’s Zanzibar campus head Preeti Aghalayam

Aghalayam, who taught at IIT-Madras for 25 years, has been appointed director in-charge of its Zanzibar-Tanzania campus as well as dean of its School of Science and Engineering.

Preeti Aghalayam has been brushing up her Swahili language skills and has visited the archipelago of Zanzibar three times in the recent past. Having taught at IIT-Madras for 25 years, Aghalayam is preparing to lead its new campus in Zanzibar, Tanzania, this October, as its director in-charge, becoming the first woman to head one of the prestigious IITs.

Aghalayam was this month appointed as the director in-charge of the Zanzibar-Tanzania campus as well as the Dean of its School of Science and Engineering.

In an interaction with ThePrint Wednesday, Aghalayam, who hails from Mysuru in Karnataka, talked about how the new campus came into fruition, preparations for her new assignment, women students in IIT and her efforts to boost women’s participation in the faculty. Aghalayam traced the beginning of IIT’s collaboration with Zanzibar-Tanzania to November 2022, when the minister of education from the nation visited the IIT-Madras campus.

“The delegation was very impressed with the quality of work done at IIT-Madras and was enthusiastic about the idea of having an offshore campus,” she told ThePrint. “The Indian government and the government of Zanzibar-Tanzania collaborated quickly. We (IIT-Madras) were just the third wheel.”

An Memorandum of Understanding for setting up the campus was signed between the Ministry of Education, IIT-Madras and the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training (MoEVT) of Zanzibar-Tanzania on 5 July, in the presence of Zanzibar President Hussein Ali Mwinyi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, an MEA statement said.

A temporary campus has already been set up and the academic session is scheduled to begin from October. The 200-acre campus will offer two programmes — a four-year Bachelor of Science in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, and a two-year Master of Technology in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. With 70 seats up for grabs, admissions are open for both Indian and foreign students.

While Aghalayam will head the international campus, she told ThePrint that all academic decisions will be taken by the IIT Senate. She will be assisted by Ligy Philip, a professor in IIT-Madras’ Department of Civil Engineering, who is instrumental in planning for the infrastructure of the campus. The two are working together to execute the vision for the campus.

“The IIT campus in Zanzibar-Tanzania is envisioned as a world-class higher education and research institution with a broader mission to develop competencies in response to emerging global requirements, deepen ties between the nations, and support research and innovation in the region. It will serve as an example to the world, of the aspirational qualities of Indian higher education and innovation,” the MEA statement added.

The faculty at the new campus will feature a strong contingent from Chennai, with senior professors set to lead the effort, Aghalayam said, adding that applications are also open to professionals from Zanzibar if they wish to work as a member of the faculty.

Speaking about the preparations for the institution of the offshore campus, Aghalayam noted that “diplomacy is a key addition” to the list.

“The team of academics will seek assistance and learn from Indian diplomats such as the Indian high commissioner stationed in Zanzibar-Tanzania in order to pursue the plan in a methodical and humane manner, keeping the interests of both countries in mind,” she said.

IIT-Madras’ international foray comes at a time when it is seeking to improve its score in the QS World University Rankings. The latest rankings show that the institute has fallen to 285th place, its worst since 2016, and 35 paces lower than last year, ThePrint reported.

A stellar career

Aghalayam, 49, an IIT-Madras graduate herself and professor in the chemical engineering department, has numerous accomplishments under her belt. She earned a Bachelor of Technology degree in chemical engineering from IIT-Madras in 1995, following which she went to University of Rochester in New York to pursue an MS in the subject. She did a PhD degree from University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2000. She has also worked as a postdoctoral researcher at MIT and as faculty at IIT-Bombay.

In March 2022, the professor was acknowledged as one of the 75 ‘Indian Women in STEAM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) by the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Indian government. Among her co-workers and students, Aghalayam is known for her incredible passion for her subject as well as research and methodical thinking. Her colleague, Niket Kaisare, from the chemical engineering department, called her an inspiration to students.

“When women students approach me expressing interest in applying for academic positions at IITs, I direct them to Preeti since she’s the best role model,” Kaisare told ThePrint. Aghalayam told ThePrint that she has seen an uptick in women students at IIT-Madras in the time since she was a student till now. “I learnt that I was a minority when I was studying chemical engineering here. At the time, there were just five women among 45 in my class,” she recollected.

On women’s participation in technical education

Aghalayam is also the nodal officer for the ‘Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions’ initiative at IIT-Madras. It seeks to work for advancement of women in the fields of science, technology engineering and mathematics, and to develop and implement policies and address issues relating to the same in a systematic and timely manner.

As part of her efforts, Aghalayam was able to identify the gender disparities at IIT-Madras and propose action plans to mitigate the same. The past 15-20 years had seen a steady increase of women graduates, PhD students and researchers at IIT-Madras, she said.

She added that creating “physical spaces” where men and women could study together comfortably and ensuring that all information and opportunities were available to all parties equally was important. In terms of faculty hiring and recruitment, Aghalayam said the attitude of “sitting and waiting for excellent women candidates just won’t cut it since it fails to account for hidden barriers in society”.

She talked about following the method adopted by countries such as the US — approaching senior women PhD-holders and showing them what working in an institute such as an IIT was like. “It’s important to have a little more proactiveness in faculty hiring so that the applicant pool can be filled with strong women candidates, prompting them to explore us (India), instead of finding something in Europe or the US,” she explained.

As of now, around 12 per cent of IIT-Madras faculty are womenAghalayam said, adding that while few in number, nothing deterred them from stepping up for each other and celebrating each other’s achievements. “Celebrating women research scholars who jump through many hoops — be it the pressures of marriage or pregnancy — is also what we do. We want to mindfully reward excellence and encourage these women to not drop out and stay longer,” she added.

While the issue of gender disparity in technical education still continues, Aghalayam sees a surge in women students after the introduction of a supernumerary quota in the IITs that allows a fifth of seats to be reserved for women students. But no plans are in the works to introduce a similar quota for the Zanzibar-Tanzania campus. The steering committee, that consists of members from IIT-Madras and Zanzibar campuses, has decided not to introduce a quota so early since there is a lack of clarity on where applications will come from, Aghalayam said.

“While we are striving for a modern pedagogy, we do wish to be sensitive to the area and how local laws function here,” she added. According to Aghalayam, the Indian government has offered scholarships to aspiring students in Zanzibar to pursue graduate or PhD courses at IIT-Madras. This will serve as a “catchment pool” from which faculty could also be hired for the offshore campus in the future.

On her new role in Zanzibar-Tanzania, Aghalayam said she has already picked up around 150 words of Swahili using an app, and has been practising them every day. She has also visited Zanzibar three times since the project was given the green light and is filled with enthusiasm. “At least half of all spaces in Zanzibar are inhabited by women. The minister of education and vocational training is a woman, her entire office is fully staffed with women, and it’s encouraging to see high gender proportions,”.


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