The Journey

Kavita Deshpande
Associate Professor
School of Computing and Data Science.

The exhibits at The Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, left her untouched. But in Math she sees beauty. ‘Once you understand the ‘why’ in Math, you get to see the beautiful picture in the end.’ Meet Kavita Deshpande, Associate Professor in the School of Computing and Data Science.

For one who shudders at the thought of arithmetic and goes into paroxysms of anxiety on hearing of calculus or trigonometry, Kavita’s passion for Math is a little hard to swallow. Kavita however, insists that Math anxiety is owing to the high pressure placed on the subject in India. ‘It has been made into a monster,’ she says, asserting that it need not be so. ‘My way of doing mathematics is to first look at examples, pick out the ideas and gradually move towards the general setting. This gives a strong
foundation for the ideas to be based on and the examples provide a good reference point. From time-to-time one can stand back and take stock of the big picture.’

Kavita’s own interest in Math developed relatively late. In school in Pimpri, Pune, she was indifferent to the subject. Learning to do sums in class and reproducing them in examinations seemed pointless. Her interests lay in Biology and Physics, History and Geography. She finished her schooling with no aim of becoming anything particular in the future. 

Kavita’s father, however, was keen that she pursue a line that would lead to a good career. His choice was engineering. As a first generation graduate, she chose the B.Sc. program in Modern College, Pune, that included study of Electronics and Physics. Math was just an unavoidable part of this combination. Ironically, it became her lasting love soon after. 

Guided by a good teacher and along with a friend, Kavita explored Math. For the first time, she had answers to several questions: What are limits? What are continuous functions? What are derivatives? Why did Newton even think of derivatives? She was struck by the precision of thought involved in these concepts. Knowing the back story led to the many pieces of what seemed a huge
jigsaw puzzle, falling into place. ‘Once the pieces fit, you see the beauty of it,’ she says. 

After graduation, she felt she had only scratched the surface of something incredibly beautiful. Funding her post graduate education by taking tuitions, she stayed on for two years after securing her M Sc degree, as a part-time instructor in the mathematics and computer science department at Fergusson college. The next job as a full-time instructor for the Mathematical Olympiad training programme at Bhaskaracharya Pratishthan, Pune, was an eye-opener. Unlike in school where Math was just a difficult subject to be passed, here Math was fun. And students were those who truly had a passion for it. The enthusiasm and the gleam in her students’ eyes when they really understood a concept strengthened her resolve to continue teaching.

Her experience as a teaching assistant in North-eastern University, Boston, USA, to where she moved a couple of years later for her PhD, was a culture shock. Unlike those who attempted the Mathematical Olympiad, the students she taught were not all passionate about the subject. There were scores of Math-challenged students, who were very accomplished in their own fields, but nevertheless had to clear the subject for different reasons. In her class were students of Business Calculus who cared two hoots about derivatives and established musicians from the Berkeley College, who were indifferent to the subject. The students were at different stages in their lives and grappling with a host of issues. Making Math interesting and motivating them to complete the course called for a rethink of teaching strategies.  The realization that derivatives are not the most important in people’s lives prompted her to reach out to drop-outs, to learn of their difficulties and work together and see them through.

Her varied experiences teaching Math inspired Kavita to create a ‘Math Circle’ with her mathematician husband, in their residential complex. A Russian idea, it is an informal group that ‘speaks’ Math every week. It is not a tuition center, but a fun space to discuss ideas with no strings attached. There are no fees and no examinations and absolutely no judgments. Three students joined the circle and remained part of it for 6 years till they left the city for tertiary education abroad. Math is problem solving and human beings are by nature problem solvers. All that is needed is the right approach to master the subject. 

Kavita has spent a decade working and teaching at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. While her work was focussed on pure math in the early years, her current interests are in the fields of computer vision, scientific computing and data science. She has been associated with the M.Sc. Data Science program in CMI since its inception and continues to be associated with it. She is looking forward to bring her teaching and data science experience to build the B.Tech. program at SaiU.

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