Q&A with Sethuraman Panchanathan
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by Kelsey Wharton
November 20, 2017
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The value of science in society: Q&A with Sethuraman Panchanathan

As he approached his 40th birthday, ASU chief research and innovation officer Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan asked himself a question: “How do I want to spend the rest of my life?”

His recent election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science clearly illustrates the answer he came up with — advancing science for the benefit of society and empowering students to design the solutions they want to see in the world. Here, he shares the importance of science in everyday life, his advice for students and his thoughts about the future.

Why is science important to society?

If you look at any of the grand challenge problems that we need to solve for society — from providing clean water and addressing poverty to thinking about the kind of planet that we want to leave for future generations — all these solutions necessitate a scientific approach. And by that I mean, the broadest form of science, how we understand the world around us. In other words, for me science is exceedingly important if you want to address societal problems in a constructive and an outcome-oriented way.

Is advancing science and innovation in society something you set out to do, or did it evolve over your career?

Initially I was very curious about basic science and I wanted to equip myself with the knowledge, mind-set, thought process and the tools to be able to work in a scientific domain. Personally, I started with an undergraduate degree in physics and then went on to pursue electrical engineering, computer engineering and computer science. I have found that this journey of learning has been extremely valuable to me.

You know when people say midlife crisis? For me it was a midlife opportunity, not a crisis.

But then at some point in time you also have to ask the question, “Of all of these things that you have explored, how can it benefit humanity?” And so that question was what motivated me to build tools and technologies, devices, solutions and environments for assisting individuals with disabilities. This pivot happened at a particular time, but the thought process was probably an evolution.

Can you tell me when that pivot was in your career?

It was when I was 39 years old, I was entering my 40th year, and I said, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” And that was the moment. You know when people say midlife crisis? For me it was a midlife opportunity, not a crisis.

What do you see as the most pressing scientific challenge of the future? 

To me the grand challenge is contextualizing science and its importance to all of society. It is enabling people to see science as exceedingly important in everyday life and that it relates to them; it's not something external to them. An associated challenge, therefore, is maintaining an interest in science beyond STEM. Because if you see that science matters to you on a daily basis, that it is a tool that enables you to better humanity with, then you will want to know more.

What role do you want to have in addressing those challenges?

First, I want to do my own scientific work to keep me inspired and continue to be curious. Next I want to enable the advancement of science, which is the current role that I have at ASU, encouraging the scientific spirit to permeate, prosper and advance. I love this role that I have, which allows me to do that. And then I would love to go out and talk about science to inspire young minds. Finally, I want to be engaged in venues like the National Science Board where you can contribute to policies that advance science. All of this is important to me.

Has there been an accomplishment that you are particularly proud of, either individually or as part of your lab or an initiative at ASU?

The thing that I'm most proud of is being able to work with students with disabilities and see them achieve like any other student, or more in fact. My former student David Hayden, who created the Note-Taker technology, is a good illustration of this. It is most exciting when you are able to unleash the potential in people, despite whatever challenges they may face, whether it is because of family situation, physical disabilities or other kinds of impediments that they might face. And that's why being in a university like ASU is exciting.

Technology is really changing the nature of work that people do and how we do work. How do the challenges that you are working on address that future of work?

What I have found is that we have come to a point where people feel worried or threatened by technology. With my own work at the interface of technology and humans working together in a symbiotic manner, I see that technology actually can enhance the human experience. And to me that is a very powerful thing. I therefore see the future of work is promising at the interface of the human and technology.

And this gets back to communicating and demonstrating the importance of science in people’s everyday lives. When something is “other” it can be scary and fearful.

Correct. It's got to be part of what they see and experience and even be a part of their everyday life — understood and relatable. When this happens, then they will feel more excited to be part of this transformation.

What advice would you give to today’s STEM students?

Keep an open mind. Engage your curiosity to know more about science. Keep an open mind. Engage your curiosity to know more about science. You might still decide to pursue something else, but you will not feel that science is unapproachable. What I want all students to feel is empowered and excited to pursue science or have an appreciation for the scientific spirit. In order to get to that point you have to engage. You have to experiment and you have to experience. If you stay out of it, you'll never get that spark ignited.

It sounds like you're saying STEM isn't just for a particular set of students — that it's something that can be accessible to everyone. Even if STEM doesn't happen to be your career path you can still have interest or knowledge of it.

Yes. What people might not understand is that even if you're a lawyer or a philosopher, the fact that you have a scientific spirit will allow you to contribute to society one way or the other. A scientific mind-set, when cultivated, will manifest itself in different forms. Whether or not you are a scientist is not the point.

How important is it that researchers have a transdisciplinary approach to problems?

It is important to have a transdisciplinary mind-set to solve grand-challenge problems. Whether transdisciplinary research is at the core of what you do or you simply have an appreciation for the transdisciplinary mind-set, you will still contribute to finding real solutions.

That seems to mirror how ASU has been designed. We still have the traditional disciplines, English for example, but it's very open.

Correct. It's very open. You can engage with and gain a sense of appreciation for other disciplines. At ASU, you are not constrained by the barriers, but you are empowered by the opportunity.

What was your reaction upon receiving news of your election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science?

I am very grateful for the award. Along the way, in your career you are recognized for accomplishments. I believe that these are not just a manifestation of what you have done alone but recognition of the collective spirit that has contributed. You never do anything individually. You stand on the shoulders of so many people that have lifted you up. By this I mean mentors, colleagues, students and the environment who have made this all possible.

Header image: Panchanathan (background) is director of ASU's Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC). Here, he works with CUbiC Associate Director Troy McDaniel, one of his former students.