Last June, uOttawa engineering alumnus Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan (PhD Engineering, ’89), was named director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), a U.S. federal agency that plays a critical role in the world of science and engineering.
Founded by the U.S. Congress in 1950, the NSF funds researchers, giving them the freedom to explore fundamental scientific questions about everything from the forces that govern the Universe to the biological, chemical, and social systems that make us who we are.
Before earning a PhD in electrical and computer engineering at uOttawa, the Indian-born computer scientist obtained degrees from the highly-ranked Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru and the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras.
He spent eight years at uOttawa as a faculty member before leaving for Arizona State University (ASU) in 1997 to teach in their Department of Computer Science. In 2011, he became ASU’s Executive Vice President, Knowledge Enterprise Development and Chief Research and Innovation Officer. During his time there, he also founded the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC), which develops technology for people with disabilities.
“Panch is a real star in the scientific world,” says Professor Emil Petriu of the University of Ottawa’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Their friendship dates back to Panchanathan’s days as a student in the Faculty of Engineering.
“But you shouldn’t think that he was just parachuted into his position at the NSF,” says Petriu. “On the contrary, he paid his dues and climbed the ladder as an excellent scientist with a gift for being tactful. Panch knows how to interact with others without ever offending anyone. His appointment is proof that colleagues and politicians alike, including Republicans, respect him enormously.”
We wanted to learn more about this star alumnus, so we asked Panchanathan a series of questions, to which he graciously replied.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
Tell us about your role at the National Science Foundation.
Basic research will always be NSF’s focus, and I want to help the agency continue that work, looking to get as much scientific impact as possible.
I have identified three pillars for my vision: advancing research into the future, ensuring inclusivity, and continuing global leadership in science and engineering. My vision for the agency can help ensure we have the resources needed to carry out our vital mission.
I’m looking to focus on scale, speed, and more outcomes related to NSF research and programs. I’d like to see NSF’s investments amplified through partnerships with industry, non-profits, other agencies and entities.
I also want to make sure that the scientific enterprise is open to everyone. In the U.S. and around the world, science and engineering must cope with the barriers that keep people out of these fields of study and employment. The best science is shaped by a wide range of perspectives and experiences that are informed by different cultural and racial backgrounds.
What do you foresee will be your greatest challenges in this new role?
NSF’s central focus will always be to advance the frontiers of knowledge by supporting basic research — this is who we are. Our mission of funding basic research has yielded ground-breaking discoveries over the years. I personally believe in seeding bold, large-scale, foundational research with meaningful societal impact. For me, science is extremely important if you want to address societal problems in a constructive and outcome-oriented way.
If we want to remain in the vanguard of scientific achievements, we must accelerate our science and technology progress and investments. I am a strong believer that through partnerships we have the opportunity to accelerate our progress and amplify the benefits of basic research. We’ll need to work with other agencies, with business and industry partners, private foundations and philanthropists, state and local governments, to further our fundamental understanding of the world, to address grand challenges facing science and society, and to imagine new industries of the future.
Is there a strategy at the NSF to fully support science in these critical times?
NSF quickly responded to the pandemic through its Rapid Response Research funding mechanism by funding non-medical research to understand the spread of COVID-19. To date, we have funded more than 1,000 RAPID projects, totaling $150 million. The research community is displaying resilience under tremendous pressure. The job of the NSF and other science agencies right now is to support this community. And that’s what we’re working to do. Basic research will always be the engine of our economy, it will still underpin our national defence, and it will still be the main driver of innovation and technology that enhance every aspect of our lives.
Do you encourage specific fields of research?
This year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a nationwide focus on driving new developments in Industries of the Future (artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, quantum information science, advanced wireless, and synthetic biology). It is imperative that we increasingly focus on stimulating and seeding bold, large-scale, foundational research with meaningful societal impact.
Are you optimistic for the future of scientific research?
We can’t have innovation in science without optimism, hope, and confidence about the future. Yes, we are all facing new and unique challenges as we deal with COVID-19, but this is the greatest time in the history of the human race for innovation and discovery. I am a strong believer that challenges can be turned into opportunities. Science is the key to ending this pandemic. We are seeing people’s talents being connected to new opportunities, we are seeing the commitment of the public to solving grand challenges. It is up to us to innovate and make the best of changing circumstances.
Tell us about your time at uOttawa. What are your fondest memories?
My time at the University of Ottawa was filled with learning and new experiences that have shaped my career trajectory. My thesis advisor, Professor Morris Goldberg, challenged me to think outside the box. He ignited a special STEM spark in me because he taught me to define problems and pursue solutions; it was up to me to figure it out, he would only act as a guide. It was my problem and I needed to own it. That helped me a lot to develop that quality of independence.
I have several fond memories, including skating on the canal, interacting with friends from across the globe, learning French, and exploring some of the most amazing things Nature has to offer.
What are your personal research interests?
My research interests are in the areas of human-centered multimedia computing, haptic user interfaces (devices that enable manual interaction with virtual environments), person-centered tools and ubiquitous computing technologies for enhancing the quality of life for individuals with disabilities, machine learning for multimedia applications, medical image processing, and media processor designs.
When I graduated from uOttawa in 1989, I was so taken by the information and technology revolution taking place at the time and wanted so much to be part of, and to contribute to, this revolution. Throughout my career, my research has been focused on assistive/rehabilitation technologies with the potential to enhance the quality of life for individuals with disabilities. So, I began to explore the symbiotic relationship between man and machine, and its potential to transform human life and experience. Designing technologies and devices for empowering individuals with a range of abilities opened my eyes to the importance of inspiring, motivating, and nurturing talent across the socio-economic spectrum.
What message or advice would you like to give to science and engineering students?
I would encourage the next generation of scientists and engineers to engage their curiosity, to know more about science, and to be explorers. Always ask questions, and then you will find that your natural curiosities will take you down pathways that you never would have imagined. When you let people express their creativity and passion in whatever discipline they want to pursue, no matter what it is, they will make significant contributions to society and be successful.