Q & A
with Dr. Balasubramanian (Subu) Kandaswamy
Ph.D.: Computer Science, Northwestern University
M.S.: Computer Science, University of North Texas
What do you teach?
I like programming and hence, I teach Introduction to programming, Object Oriented Programming and Full Stack Development. In addition, I also teach Artificial Intelligence and Agent Based Modeling, both of which are courses related to my area of research. In my first semester (Spring 2023) at WSU, I will be offering Web Development, Software Testing and the Software Design Project I.
Why do you like teaching?
I always enjoyed breaking up a complex idea and communicating it in a way that anybody can understand. When everything clicks, the listeners’ face brightens up and it’s a very gratifying experience. It is very similar to how a Chef feels when he/she sees someone really enjoy a dish that they prepared.
What does your research consist of? How would you explain it to a class of freshmen?
We use analogies, metaphors, and similes every day to communicate with each other and to learn new things. All of this comes from our ability to recognize something called relational patterns. I want to find new ways to enable computers to recognize, learn, and utilize relational patterns, just like humans. I believe this is essential for making machines smarter.
If you could name one person who inspires you, who would it be?
Dr. Venkataraman ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan is a big inspiration for me. He started from a humble background and became a world-renowned structural biologist. He won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for his contributions. In one of his interviews, he explained the secret of his success. He said that no one should do science for medals, funds, or rewards and doing science is a reward on its own. This idea is always stuck with me and something that I revisit very frequently.
Why would you recommend Washington State University to others?
Washington State University is classified as a R1 (very high research activity) University, owing to their excellent research accomplishments. Nevertheless, through my interaction with them, I realized how much they value teaching. They give a lot of importance to ensure that students gain from every single course. For students who are looking to gain strong fundamentals and then later want to move into research, it is hard to beat WSU. In addition, Pullman is a nice university town where you don’t have to worry about traffic or your morning commute.
What advice do you have for students?
“There is no such thing as a stupid question”. Ask a lot of questions. In my limited experience, I can clearly see a high correlation between students’ willingness to ask questions and how well they do in the class. Don’t let doubts stay dormant, get it clarified when it’s fresh in your mind.
What cool things are happening in your classroom?
I invent simple games to teach some programming concepts. There are a few hits. In my intro to computer programming class, we played a game for understanding the concepts of pointers in C language. The entire class must participate and it was a big hit. I plan to introduce more games in other classes as well.
What obstacles did you experience during your time in school, and how did you overcome them?
I am the first person to finish high school in my family. Initially, I was intimidated by the knowledge of other students, who come from a different (more affluent) background. But I found company in others who are from a similar background. Their friendship helped me overcome the fear and difficulties. Together we spent time studying and helping each other. I always share my story to students to highlight the power of peer learning and support. It should never be underestimated.
If you could go back in time, what if anything would you do differently as a student?
I would pay more attention to Math courses, especially calculus. I would probably not swallow the questions that arose in my head, but instead I would have asked the professor, without any fear. I realize now that the first step towards learning is to ask questions.
What do you like to do when you’re not teaching or researching?
I like science fiction. I consume it both in printed and audiobook formats. My wife is an avid bird watcher. When I get time, I accompany her for bird watching excursions. Luckily, most bird watching spots are beautiful scenic locations. I enjoy the scenery, while she enjoys the birds.
If you hadn’t gone into academia, what do you think you would have done instead?
I like teaching and I like writing code. If I did not go into academia, I might have ended up as a software developer. Outside of computer science, I was always fascinated by aircrafts. When I was a child, I wanted to become a pilot. I seriously considered becoming an aeronautical engineer. I still want to learn to fly. It’s an item in my bucket list.