Computer Science Professor Madhu Sudan: All my research and interactions are driven by the goal of learning

Madhu Sudan

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CAMBRIDGE, MA – Prof. Madhu Sudan is best known for his work on probabilistic verification of proofs and on the design of list decoding algorithms for error-correcting codes. His work has a huge impact on the industry.

His current research interests include property testing, which is the study of sublinear temporal algorithms for estimating properties of big data, and communication under uncertainty, a mathematical study of the role of context in communication.

On November 19, 2022, Professor Sudan will receive the New England Choice Awards for Academics 2022 at the Hilton Woburn Hotel in Woburn, MA. He is the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University.

Professor Sudan obtained his bachelor’s degree from IIT Delhi in 1987 and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1992. Between 1992 and 2015, he worked at IBM Research, MIT (Associate Professor 1997-2000, Professor 2000-2011, Fujitsu Chair Professor 2003-2011, CSAIL Associate Director 2007-2009 , Adjunct Professor 2011-2015), and at Microsoft Research (Principal Researcher, 2009-2015).

Here is Q/A with Professor Sudan.

INDIA New England News: Who inspired you the most and how?

Madhu Sudan: It’s hard to tell people apart at this point – there are so many who have acted as mentors throughout my career. In fact, it is even difficult to distinguish a category of people, but let me do it anyway. I am constantly amazed by the genius of the students around me. My current favorite group is the undergraduates who work their way into research and then become part of it. It’s amazing to me that when I was at a comparable stage, I had no idea what research even is; and the students I interact with today have publications in leading journals before they graduate with a bachelor’s degree!

INE: What was the secret of your success?

MRS: I have always been driven by the need to understand new developments in the simplest possible terms. This objective – a need to understand and learn – does not really fit with the general objective of the research – which is to improve societal knowledge. Nevertheless, I was extremely lucky to be able to maintain my aim and use it to his advantage. Many contributions result from the ability to connect disparate research questions, and I attribute my success to my goal of having a simple understanding of basic findings in many different research areas.

INE: If in doubt, what do you do?

MRS: Whenever possible, I try to talk to someone — a collaborator, a colleague, a student — about it. When none of that works, I go to a board and start jotting down my thoughts. A good stroke of pencil and eraser inevitably leads to a clearing of the mind.

INE: Any advice you would give to the person you love?

MRS: To someone I love, I would say I love them even if they ignore my advice. Only then would I feel comfortable sharing real advice – which tends to vary depending on my own moods.

INE: How do you see failure?

MRS: If you haven’t failed, you probably aren’t exploring enough. Each failure is a strong lesson. Some failures happen because the question you asked was wrong. Some because you don’t (yet) have the skills to progress. And some happen when you invest a lot of time, make progress only to realize that someone else has already asked an equivalent question and answered it. Every failure teaches me something – how to adapt your questions, what skills I need to acquire, and how old research can be forgotten in the face of new knowledge.

INE: Your favorite books?

MRS: I’m a big fan of (old) science fiction and I love Isaac Asimov’s long interconnected stories. I love reading the longest versions I can find of the Mahabharata. (I even surprise my mother with my knowledge of Indian mythology.)

INE: Your favorite quotes?

MRS: Draw a blank right now. Here’s one mainly for my mathematical community: “Each theorem is named after the last person who discovered it.” (Translated to the general public “Scientific knowledge is often discovered, forgotten and rediscovered…until it has an impact and we do not forget it.”)

INE: Your three favorite films?

MRS: I’m mostly into western movies now – the pop variety. An all-time favorite that I keep watching (and my students know) is “Lock, stock and two smoking barrels”. Once upon a time I was a big fan of indie Indian movies like Aakrosh, Ardhsatya, Bazaar etc. I always like to think about it…

INE: How concerned or enthusiastic are you about the opinions of others?

MRS: In theory, I’m very concerned about other people’s opinions. The goal of every researcher is to have an impact beyond themselves and the more people appreciate and embrace your advances, the more successful your research. That being said, I try not to dwell on it in the short term and plan my research around it. I focus on issues that I like and try to progress; but if I get positive feedback on a job, it generates positive energy in me that helps me think more! When I receive negative comments, I tend to ignore them.

INE: What really matters to you in the end?

MRS: For me, the most important thing is that I am learning all the time. All of my research and interactions are driven by the goal of learning. As long as I’m learning, I don’t need much else to continue.


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