Appointed by Obama
By Kyle Bournes
Last June, Sethuraman Panchanathan (PhD ʼ89 [Engineering]) became the first American of Indian origin to be appointed to the 24-member U.S. National Science Board (NSB) by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The appointment was the culmination of more than 25 years as a true champion of harnessing innovation to improve lives. Panchanathan — or “Panch” as he likes to be known by his friends — embodies the “Engineers Serve the World” mantra.
When he reached the position of full professor at Arizona State University (ASU) in 2001, for example, Panchanathan founded the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC). The centre invents devices and technology to help people with disabilities.
Innovations developed by CUbiC made their mark quickly. In 2004, Panchanathan received the State of Arizona Governor’s Innovator of the Year for Academia Award for CUbiC’s iCARE (Information Technology Centric Assistive and Rehabilitative Environments) for individuals who are blind and visually impaired. The CUbiC team also won various awards at the Microsoft Imagine World Cup.
Clearly, being named to the NSB to advise Barack Obama and Congress, thus playing a key role in shaping science and engineering policy in the United States, is high praise indeed for Panchanathan.
As Obama said when he announced the newly appointed NSB members: “Our nation will be greatly served by the talent and expertise these individuals bring to their new roles. I am grateful they have agreed to serve in this administration, and I look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead.”
One year into his six-year NSB term, Panchanathan says it has been an incredible experience. He and his fellow NSB members are helping set the tone for the scientific and technological future of the U.S. The group is quite formidable, including among others Robert J. Zimmer (president of the University of Chicago), Vinton G. Cerf (vice president and chief internet evangelist, Google, Inc.) and G.P. “Bud” Peterson (president, Georgia Institute of Technology). It’s safe to say that he is working with an outstanding team.
“I am honoured to have been selected to serve in the NSB and grateful for the opportunity. It is indeed rewarding to serve the nation by contributing to the advancement of the goals of the National Science Foundation and assisting with national science policy,” said Panchanathan. “It is a privilege and pleasure to work closely with the nation’s leading experts in science and innovation.”
Last October, Panchanathan was also appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, to her National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE) to help develop policies that advance workforce, economic development and entrepreneurship, positioning the U.S. as a global leader in the innovation economy.
For Panchanathan, it all began when he arrived at uOttawa to purse a PhD in electrical and computer engineering in 1986 after earning three degrees in India. It took him just three years to complete and successfully defend his thesis, becoming Dr. Panchanathan in 1989. During his time at uOttawa he fell in love with the city and met his wife, Dr. Sarada “Soumya” Panchanathan, who was completing her pediatric residency program at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Over the next few years the couple would welcome their two children into the world, establish their careers and continue to enjoy life in Ottawa.
In 1997, he seized the opportunity of a tenured associate professorship at ASU. Panch and Soumya packed up the family, said goodbye to friends and cold winters and set up life in Tempe, Arizona. While Panch carved out an academic career, Soumya built an outstanding career in pediatrics in Phoenix. She is currently a practicing pediatrician in the Maricopa Integrated Health System and works as biomedical informatics theme director at the University of Arizona College of Medicine — Phoenix. She is also associate program director of the Phoenix Children’s Hospital/Maricopa Medical Center Residency Program.
Four years ago, Panchanathan was appointed senior vice-president of ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. The office is responsible for the advancement of research, entrepreneurship, innovation and economic development activities. He has thrived in this role and, clearly, his efforts have not gone unnoticed.
It is hard to imagine what might come next for Panchanathan, but it is clear that it will involve innovation and will most certainly serve society extremely well. After all, he is not only a top-flight thinker and leader — he will always be an engineer serving the world.
Sethuraman Panchanathan came to uOttawa to pursue a PhD in electrical and computer engineering in 1986 after earning three degrees in India. Photo: Alexander D. Chapin