First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:P. R. Kumar
P. R. Kumar
What Award did you receive from IEEE?
Alexander Graham Bell Medal
Place of Birth
Where did you grow up
In India, till the age of 21. Then came to US after my bachelor's degree for graduate studies.
Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession
- Father P. B. Murthy, M.Sc. in Geology. His job was prospecting for Uranium all over India.
- Mother P. Kamala Murthy, B.A. (now deceased).
- Brother P. Vijay Kumar, B. Tech. in EE from IIT Kharagpur, M.Tech from IIT Kanpur, then Ph.D. from Univ. of Southern California, faculty member in EE at University of Southern California, then in ECE at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
- Brother P. Srinivas, B. Tech. in EE from IIT Kharagpur, M.S. VPI&SU
What did you want to do when you grew up?
Was pretty open. Engineering, the Army (yes!), management.
What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?
My father used to spend 8 months continuously in the field (called the field season), living in a tent, and walking 10 miles each prospecting for Uranium. In the initial years (1950s to about 1964) he would be posted to a different cities for the four-month non-field season. The result was that my mother had no city to set up a home in. I started school only in second grade, as I remember, because of this. Subsequently, till 7-th grade, I grew up with my grandparents. My mother protested to the government, going all the way up to the Prime Minister, and got them to change their practice and post Geologists to a fixed place for the four mont non-field season.So from 8th grade onwards, my mother set up a home in Bangalore, and us three brothers grew up there. My father used to come home four months in a year.
Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)
All kinds of sports: Cricket, Table Tennis, Badminton. Also Chess, reading books. Gardening too for a while.
Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?
I started playing Table Tennis in high school, and still do to this day. Except of course for the last two years.
Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?
No. That was not common in India in those days.
Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips? Favorite holiday/family gathering?
We would visit family, typically my grandparents. We also visited my father in the field a few times and stayed in tents.
EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?
Math, Science. Had a great teacher in Math who would basically just pose problems for the class to work out. I went to IIT Madras and majored in Electronics Engineering.
Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?
Geography I guess in high school. In IIT it was definitely Organic Chemistry. The subject in which I received the lowest score of all my courses.
Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?
The IITs were considered very prestigious, and there was a a very competitive nationwide exam for entry. I had little expectation that I would make it, but was fortunate that I did. Electronics was considered a very exciting field in those days. Still is I think. After my bachelor's degree, my goal was to join one of the two very prestigious management institutions that had been set up. I was not at all interested in going to graduate school in the US. But one of my table tennis partners received a form to apply to Washington University in St. Louis from another friend who had graduated a couple of years earlier. He gave it to me, and I filled it out with no real intention of going. In the very same mail I received offers from IIM Calcutta as well as Wash U, the latter in the area of Control Systems Engineering. I wanted to go to IIM, but my friends said it would be good to see the world, and I decide that I would go to Wash U, get a MS, and come right back to India to again pursue management. Well, events have their own momentum, and I am still here. It was serendipity all the way.
Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job
When I graduated with a doctorate from Wash U, the job makes was down, following some layoffs from Boeing, etc., as I remember. My thesis was nothing to speak of. I applied to lots of companies and never heard back. I got only two interviews. One was an aerospace consulting outfit in Dayton, and the other was in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I was fortunate to get an offer from UMBC and said yes on the phone itself. I had to learn rigorous mathematics by teaching it, the best way to learn. Also, I learnt to do rigorous research there. Subsequently I moved to the Univ. of Illinois, again serendipity. I had presented a paper and a senior professor from there asked me if I would consider moving, and I said yes. After 26 years there I moved to tha warmer climes of Texas A&M University. All my three jobs are my favorite jobs!
Has your career turned out as you expected?
Not at all. It has been a very nonlinear path, with a lot of chance encounters, etc. But then the straight line may not be the most interesting path in a life.
Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?
IEEE played path since grad school, when our professors encouraged us to join IEEE as student members. We got a certain special issue on control, as I remember. It has been a continuous association since then. The IEEE journals played a big role. The IEEE Transactions on Automatic Control, and later in life, the IEEE Transactions on Information theory.
You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?
This is a complete surprise, most unexpected. It is great honor, and one which I will cherish. After starting college majoring in electronics, life sees to have completed a full circle with the Bell Medal.
What other associations have helped you in your career?
One of the great rewards of this career is the large number of inspiring great researchers, and great human beings, I have had the pleasure of meeting over the years. People from all over the world, and I would never have dreamt of such possibilities.
Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?
I would say be flexible, since that allows you to take advantage of serendipitous opportunities when they come your way. Develop a firm foundation in your field, early in your graduate student life. In your research, remember that research is mostly about formulating problems, recognizing problems, recognizing what is a problem that would be liable to have a solution, etc. Life is so rich, that practically in any direction one looks, one will find interesting problems.
Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?
I am not sure. I was flexible and was fortunate to have opportunities come my way. I was not really big on planning the steps of my career.
Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?
Several. In many cases I was stubborn. In some cases, finally a breakthrough came, and in many others, it did not. Two that come to my mind, where light finally shone at the end of the tunnel, were a way of analyzing simulating annealing, and a way of establishing the stability of a queueing system modeling a semiconductor manufacturing systems. The far more numerous failures, one tends to forget!
What career achievement are you most proud of?
I would say I have been very fortunate. Fortunate to meet som many great people. And, fortunate to have had wonderful students. I am very proud of each and every one of them.
Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?
I love to meet up with friends. Old friends from my IIT days, and until Covid came, we would meet every year with our spouses. And friends of more recent years. I love to play Table Tennis. For many years I ran the Illinois Table Tennis Club. When we get back a semblance of normality, I look forward to playing again. I also love to read. Anything and everything!
What personal achievement are you most proud of?
I am first of all proud of our daughter and son. They are both admirable, accomplished, and talented people in so many ways. I am proud of all my Ph.D. students. Would not ever have imagined being so fortunate as to be able to interact with such a group. I am also very fortunate to have met so many admirable people over the course of my winding career.
Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?
All home food!
Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?
I like hearing all kinds of music. Though of course if I mention names, it would date me!
Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.
I am not that attached to physical possessions.
What are three things people may not know about you?
I think by and large, people know me pretty well. Maybe they would be shocked if they knew that I never really specifically try to do "research." Rather I just try to understand something well, and explain it to myself. Maybe the students in my classes would be surprised if they found out that many times I am learning a subject as I am teaching it, and that I am often only a lecture or two ahead of them. Also, maybe my colleagues would be surprised if they knew how unrigid is my schedule. I don't really plan my day, but go with the flow. Sometimes, when I am working on something, everything else gets neglected.
Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)
My maternal grandfather was a great role model, both with respect to life in general, as well as math, where he was very creative in solving geometry ryders for us when we were in school. My mother was also a great role model, for her understanding, wisdom, nurturing and hard work of raising three children. In my career, I have been influenced most by Prof. Pravin Varaiya who is inspiring along many dimensions.
What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?
Nowadays, a computer! In the old days, it was physical access to research papers and books.