The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras created another first as its upcoming Zanzibar campus, the first-ever offshore IIT campus, is also set to become the first woman director of an IIT.
Dr Preeti Aghalayam, an IIT Madras alumni, has been appointed as the director-in-charge of the Zanzibar campus, where the first academic session is set to begin in October.
She has been brushing up her Swahili language skills and has visited the archipelago of Zanzibar three times in the recent past.
Dr Aghalayam talked about how the new campus came into fruition, preparations for her new assignment, women students in IIT and her efforts to boost women’s participation in the faculty.
Aghalayam traced the beginning of IIT’s collaboration with Zanzibar-Tanzania to November 2022, when the minister of education from the nation visited the IIT-Madras campus.
A temporary campus has already been set up and the academic session is scheduled to begin from October.
The 200-acre campus will offer two programmes — a four-year Bachelor of Science in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, and a two-year Master of Technology in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. With 70 seats up for grabs, admissions are open for both Indian and foreign students.
“The delegation was very impressed with the quality of work done at IIT-Madras and was enthusiastic about the idea of having an offshore campus,” she told ThePrint. “The Indian government and the government of Zanzibar-Tanzania collaborated quickly. We (IIT-Madras) were just the third wheel.”
Speaking about her journey, Aghalayam said she was grateful to IIT Madras for nurturing her career and helping her develop various interests.
"I also come from a family of educators. My grandfather was the founding member of a school a long time ago, my dad was a professor of Chemistry and hard work comes from my mother as I have seen her sit extra hours at night and wake up early to complete her PhD when I was in my high school. Those are the roots that have helped me reach this level, and my husband — whom I met at IIT Madras — has also been a very big support, " she said.
Dr Aghalayam also said that though women are a minority in ththe education field, things are slowly changing.
"It is important for women to be able to stand up in this world of men and be in leadership positions. I am glad for myself, but I know that if we look at our kind at large, it is not enough for a few of us to be given a title or opportunity. It has to broaden the base, both in terms of numbers and the agency that we are given. We are equal to men, but the opportunities we have access to, and in our minds and what is articulated to us in our families in terms of aspirations, there shouldn’t be any holding back. It’s a difficult change, but one that we need," she said.
The faculty at the new campus will feature a strong contingent from Chennai, with senior professors set to lead the effort, and applications are also open to professionals from Zanzibar if they wish to work as a member of the faculty.
"Aghalayam is the first woman to be an IIT director. We will see many more encouraging things. We are following sustainable development goals and one of the important goals suggests that we need to bring in gender balance," IIT Madras director V Kamakoti said at a press conference.
IIT Madras has become the first IIT in the country to launch an international campus, which is coming up in Tanzania's Zanzibar. An MoU was recently signed between India and Tanzania, the final procedural step that paves the way for this campus.
Applications for the first academic session are already open with the institute offering two full-time academic programmes.
"I am an alumnus of IIT Madras and doing something of this magnitude for the institute and for the country is such a big honour. Every time we visited Zanzibar as part of the IIT Madras contingent, we noticed that the representation of women on their side is quite significant. So, it was important that we do this mindfully," Aghalayam said.
Aghalayam completed her BTech in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1995 and her PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2000. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, Cambridge and faculty at IIT Bombay.
Aghalayam joined IIT Madras in 2010, where she is currently a Professor in the Chemical Engineering department. She was recently acknowledged as one of the 75 Women in STEM by the Principal Scientific Advisor's office.