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“Let Youngsters Choose”: Preeti Aghalayam, Director-In-Charge, IIT Madras Zanzibar

“Let Youngsters Choose”: Preeti Aghalayam, Director-In-Charge, IIT Madras Zanzibar

Preeti Aghalayam, who became the Director-in-Charge of the offshore campus of IIT Madras in Zanzibar, roots for young students making career choices unencumbered by expectations or norms

The question of not a single IIT having a woman director was put to rest when Preeti Aghalayam, a professor of chemical engineering at IIT Madras, became the Director-in-Charge of the newly opened IIT Zanzibar in July 2023. A chemical engineering graduate from IIT Madras, Aghalayam did her PhD from MIT.

As an academic in a leadership role, Aghalayam sees the question of the glass ceiling and women in STEM differently. She grew up in a household where her scientific temper was fostered – her father, a chemistry professor, would ask questions to both her daughters and discuss scientific concepts. That rubbed off on young Aghalayam, who was at the top of the class during her school years.

Science vs. Arts

But while her track record and brilliant science and maths teachers led her to pursue STEM and take up engineering, she says, “I am upset that there is a wall between STEM and non-STEM. Each discipline is served well by concepts of the other discipline. Humanities and social sciences are just as important as physics and chemistry.”

She exemplified this ethos with her extensive literature reading since her school-going days. “All of us in the family have been avid readers and read whatever we could lay our hands on. Because I am an engineer does not mean that that side of my brain should close.”

Discussing women in STEM, she says, “I would like young people to make their choices for themselves. I don’t think we should push girls into STEM because the world needs more women in STEM. It works for some, and it doesn’t work for others.”

Acknowledging the glass ceiling in academia, she puts the debate into perspective, saying, “At the end of the day, it’s not an award. There is a job to do. And everybody is watching how I am performing. In a leadership role, they will judge you but will also be inspired by you.”

With her characteristic humour, she adds, “I don’t personally like the term breaking the glass ceiling. Because there would be pieces of glass around me then.”

Heading IIT Zanzibar

The offshore campus of IIT Madras is a “small but mighty campus,” as Aghalayam puts it. “Our promise is not just giving degrees but making our students global citizens worthy of being employed by top companies of the world or being innovative and entrepreneurial, wanting to create impact through science and research,” says Aghalayam.

Besides putting in place processes that IIT Madras is known for, Aghalayam has strived to develop cultural understanding between students and faculty from India and Zanzibar. Aghalayam and others from India have taken it upon themselves to learn the Swahili language, open to learning from students from Zanzibar.


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