My favorite dialogue from Wuthering Heights is by Caterine Earnshaw: ‘I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind’. I think that in addition to dreams, some people too are capable of achieving similar results; altering the color of one’s mind and all. With this thought, I am starting a new category in my blog titled ‘People’, in which I shall talk about people who have inspired me in some way.
My first entry is about my MS supervisor Dr. Syed Ali Khayam. I have been meaning to write this post for a while, but it did not seem right to write about him when he was still in a position to influence my grades. Now that I have formally finished my MS, there is no harm in doing this post, so here it is.
When I joined the MS program at NUST after graduating from IIUI, it did not take me long to realize that I had a disadvantage in that I was not a NUST graduate. This was somewhat justified in that NUST graduates were clearly more knowledgable, or lets say, ‘trained’. That should not come as a surprise considering that NUST is one of Pakistan’s best schools. What I found disheartening was that majority of the faculty seemed rather reluctant to suprvise students who were non-NUST graduates. In one course, I asked a question from the instructor which did not satisfy his criteria of intelligence. He asked me which university I had graduated from. When I replied “IIUI”, he said “That explains”. It almost seemed to me that teachers were looking for ready-made packages who could generate research papers with the minimum effort. The following is a real example from an anonymized teacher’s web page:
I am biased towards NUST graduates in my signings and prior publications/CGPA/hands-on experience are big turn ons.
In this background, I found out about WiSNet lab and its director, Dr. Syed Ali Khayam. It would not be an exaggeration to say that WiSNet was the university’s elite lab in that it churned out an enviable number of publications in top venues every year without fail. In many cases, it was the first research lab from Pakistan (in others, the first from South Asia) to do so. Keeping in mind the disappointing attitude of the average faculty, I thought that Dr. Khayam would be a supersnob, aging professor.
In our first semester, Dr. Khayam took some of our classes as a guest lecturer. When a flamboyant guy in his early thirties arrived in the class with his backpack on, I thought it was one of the senior students seeking our participation in some random event. Turned out that the guy was Dr. Ali Khayam. He delivered some excellent lectures. However, I kept thinking one thing during all his lectures: ‘This guy has got to be one hell of an actor to pull off his lectures with such enthusiasm and energy, when he must have used the same slides at least 25 (50?) times in the past’.
In the second semester of MS, I started thinking about my thesis. I wrote to a couple of teachers to guide me about how to proceed with things. Some did not reply, others I did not want to work with. Where Dr. Ali was concerned, I was in a dilemma; I was not a NUST graduate, Dr. Ali had never formally taught me a course, and he was not even in Pakistan at that time! I decided to go with one of the fundamental principles I live by: It’s better to have tried and failed than never to try at all.
I wrote to him. He replied very warmly asking me to wait till he comes back to Pakistan or write my queries to him, whichever I preferred. I chose the latter and the rest is history; he gave me a prove-thy-capabilities kind of task which I completed successfully and thus formally became his supervisee. I worked with him for more than one year. During this period, we worked on some very exciting projects and published to two top venues. Though significant in its own right, I don’t put too much value on the academic outcomes of our association. I learnt lessons of a lifetime by watching Dr. Ali work, and that, I believe, is true education! There is a reason why Einstein said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school”.
What really inspired me about Dr. Ali was how utterly devoted he was to his students. He was generally kind to all students regardless of whether or not he taught them; but he really went out of his way to help students whom he supervised. He selected his supervisees on merit and potential only. He did not care one bit about their previous backgrounds. Some students in WiSNet came from areas generally inferred as quite ‘backward’. In his full swing, he supervised about 15 students at any given time and each one of them thought that his attention was exclusively devoted to their work. His work required him to travel abroad frequently, yet distance never came between him and his students. He found time to have discussions with students from the most incovenient timezones. We never needed to update him about our work. He kept mental tabs on all of us and each weekly meeting was a natural continuation of the previous one. For his meetings he had a simple agenda: ‘Do task#1 and lets discuss after one week if it was done or not; in the latter case we will try to find out why it didn’t work out and devise an alternate strategy’. He never said ‘You do this’; it was always ‘*Lets* try this’. He didn’t care whether students worked from lab, home or Timbuktu. He was goal-oriented and did not fuss over other things.
He never gave up on his students once he decided to supervise them. He embraced them with all their weaknesses and advised them on every aspect of their lives when needed. He put so much trust in his students that they felt obliged to deliver. If a student felt stressed out or overworked, he happily let them take a week or two off. If someone felt demoralized or in low spirits, he made time for a counselling session on priority basis. Generally after each meeting, he used to ask questions like ‘Are you happy?’, ‘Do you find your work exciting?’, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’. He used to cheer for the smallest milestone achieved and took disappointing results in good spirit by saying something like ‘This is all good work, but we could improve this if we …’.
Dr. Ali’s students are distributed all over the world; USA, UK, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong to name a few. He always speaks very affectionately of his ex-students and stays up to date about their lives; academic and otherwise. He has a rule that if he is geographically within 20 miles radius of his students, he meets them (often that entails a lunch/dinner paid by him). I have seen him put important commitments on hold to stick to this rule. The same goes for Dr. Ali’s ex-students; deadlines no longer exist and lectures can be missed if Dr. Ali is in town. The Dr.Ali-student meeting must take place no matter what.
He is an amazingly sharp person, yet he always attributed his achievements to hard work. He has published in very diverse areas concurrently. It is amazing how one person can simultaneously keep so many disparate threads of thought open in their mind. He is never afraid of taking risks and inculcated the same attitude in his students. Whenever he stumbled upon a new idea (which was a frequent occurence), his face flushed red with excitement like a child. Five days before my inhouse defense, he had one such episode. It was a regular meeting once, when he suddenly jumped out of his chair, his eyes started shining 5x more and he went: ‘Why don’t we publish this to ACSAC?’. I was not moved one bit and said, ‘You do realize that I have my inhouse defense in five days and the deadline is one week from now and I don’t have a word written?’. He did not agree and got me to write it eventually by saying ‘You can do it’ a dozen times.
Dr. Ali believes that everything can be achieved with hard work and persistence. He used to say that when he first came to Pakistan after completing his PhD, he was told that the predominantly western academia is biased against publications from ‘small’ countries like Pakistan and that he should forget about it. His counter-argument was simple: ‘In that case we have to work harder than folks from internationally hot-shot universities so that saying no to our work is not an option’. Dr. Ali’s speaking skills are extraordinary. When he speaks, people listen. Once he mentioned that his speaking power was barely strong when he was a student, but he made a conscious effort to improve this shortcoming. He said that one has to be a good actor to be a good speaker, thus confirming my first impression of him.
Dr. Ali has credentials and contacts that will help him land a lucrative, foreign career with minimal effort, something that most people in Pakistan will sell an arm and a leg for. It always intrigued me what forced him to stay in Pakistan when everybody else was dreaming of a foreign yatra, especially when he had had a taste of ‘luxury’ by living in USA for more than 5 years. I once put forth the question to him to which he replied: ‘We cannot do our bit in changing the system unless we are *in* the system. *We* are the system’.
Though this is exactly what my previous discussion implies, Dr. Ali is not an angel. There might be some shortcomings, but they tend to fade into the background when put in the context of his larger person.
I was perhaps the last student Dr. Ali directly supervised. He did not renew his job contract with NUST when it expired in 2011. This was his official remark, but to us students it meant that he had resigned from NUST. Though it was in the air for a while, I was very sad the day the news became official. His resignation did not affect me in any way as we continued to work together, and I was not taking any course from him any way. Yet, I was so very sad. It seemed to me as if Ghani Khan’s Reidi Gul had traded his cherished desert for the gardens of Iran. Dr. Ali had started his own company which was keeping him too busy to conitnue to teach. The last time we met, I categorically asked him why he had stopped teaching, to which he replied: ‘I did not find the kind of research I was pursuing exciting any more; if you do not find something exciting, you should not do it. It was too monotonous, the same cycle of fighting for funds, publishing papers year after year’. I told him that I was not apprehensive about the publication aspect of his decision, my main concern was the opportunity for personal development that students would miss if he leaves. He said that he also misses interacting with students and intends to teach a course as private faculty at some point (when his schedule permits). After that, he went quiet for some time. When he spoke again, he had that familiar shine in his eyes: ‘But you do know that all my plans converge to one final goal. We are getting there, aren’t we?’.
He was right. I know his ‘big goal’ and so do some of his students, but we are not supposed to say so I won’t reveal much about it except that it is related to education. Robert H. Schuller said: ‘You can often measure a person by the size of his dream’. Going by that definition, Dr. Ali is nothing short of a giant for me and all his students. God bless you, Sir, and many thanks.