Thursday, June 28, 2012

R. E. Bedford, Professor Emeritus, IIT Bombay

Professor Bedford made a big impact on my life, because he had those qualities that great teachers have. He was a professor and a gentleman! From him I learnt that a teacher is one who does not merely impart some knowledge and skills; a real teacher goes beyond that, serving as a role model inspiring his students.

I had specialized in heavy current engineering for my university degree in electrical engineering. Over the next fifty years, a lot of work on alternative sources of energy would be done by people with such a background; it is an exciting area for research.

However, when I applied for admission as an M Tech student at IIT Bombay, my heart was in computers. I turned up for the admission test, but a stern official would not let me take the paper meant for the candidates applying for work in electronics. So, I took the one meant for heavy current engineers and managed to get to the selection committee for an interview. Prof Bedford was, I think, the Chairman of the Committee. He greeted me with his characteristic good humour, saying "We hear that you don't want to work with us!" I described the ruling the official had given. "So, what do you want us to do?" he asked. I said that I would like to be interviewed in the area of interest to the Committee. Subsequently, if they thought I merited some consideration, they could perhaps pass me on to the other Committee with a recommendation. Luckily, I passed the hurdle of the first interview. Prof Bedford personally took me to the other Committee and said something like "This chap doesn't want to work with us! See if you want him to work with you". Despite the light-hearted remark, he had somehow conveyed that I deserved a second interview in his opinion.

Prof Isaac and Prof Pradhan were in this other Committee. After another interview, they selected me. I had come out of old-fashioned educational institutions where rigid hierarchy prevailed. That an IIT could be flexible enough to admit for an M Tech in electronics a bloke who had taken only one paper in that subject was amazing to me. Inter-disciplinary barriers had been worse than caste barriers, but they did not exist in the mind of IIT professors; at least in the minds of some of them! I suddenly saw how IIT's differed from the institutions left over from the Jurassic period!

Bedford and Isaac belonged to the new breed of academics, who treated students as humans and interpreted rules without forcing narrow minded interpretations into them. This modern approach to academic decision-making went a lot further. Later, I graduated from the IIT Bombay and went on to work at a reputed research institute pioneering in the computer field. What about working for a PhD? IITs had no rules to enable even researchers working in the same city to enrol for a PhD. Should institutional barriers be water tight and exclude collaboration and sharing of ideas beyond the walls of the institution? Bedford and Isaac worked with other like-minded professors to get the senate to approve "external registration". I became a student at IITB again and completed my PhD work under the joint supervision of Prof R Narasimhan and Prof Isaac.

I have served as a professor later in life, and hope that I have given my students in some small measure the same support and encouragement I had received from Prof Bedford. His passing away on Monday, June 25, was a major blow to all of us whose lives had been influenced by him.

Srinivasan Ramani
June 28, 2012

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