Computer Science Professor Madhu Sudan: All My Research and Interactions Are Driven by the Goal of Learning

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Madhu Sudan
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CAMBRIDGE, MA– Prof. Madhu Sudan is best known for his works on probabilistic checking of proofs, and on the design of list-decoding algorithms for error-correcting codes. His work has huge impact on the industry.

His current research interests include property testing, which is the study of sublinear time algorithms to estimate properties of massive data, and communication amid uncertainty, a mathematical study of the role of context in communication.

On Nov. 19, 2022, Prof. Sudan will receive New England Choice Awards for Academics 2022 at Hilton Woburn Hotel in Woburn, MA. He is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.

Prof. Sudan received his Bachelors degree from IIT Delhi in 1987 and his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in 1992. Between 1992 and 2015, he worked at IBM Research, at MIT (Associate Professor 1997-2000, Professor 2000-2011, Fujitsu Chair Professor 2003-2011, CSAIL Associate Director 2007-2009, Adjunct Professor 2011-2015), and at Microsoft Research (Principal Researcher, 2009-2015).

Here is Q/A with Prof. Sudan.

INDIA New England News: Who inspired you the most and how?

Madhu Sudan: It is hard to single out people at this stage – there are so many who have acted as mentors over the span of my career. In fact, it is hard to even single out a category of people, but let me do so anyway. I am constantly awestruck by the brilliance of the students around me. My current favorite group is the undergraduates that blunder their way into research and then become an integral part. It is amazing to me that when I was at a comparable stage, I was clueless as to what research even is; and the students I interact with nowadays have publications in leading journals before the graduate with a bachelors!

INE: What has been the secret of your success?

MS: I have always been driven by a need to understand new developments in the simplest possible terms. This goal – a need to understand and learn – is not really well-aligned with the general goal of research – which is to improve on societal knowledge. Nevertheless, I have been extremely fortunate in being able to keep to my goal and use it to advantage. Many of contributions result from the ability to connect disparate research questions, and I attribute my success to my goal of having a simple understanding of basic results in many different research areas.

INE: When in doubt, what do you do?

MS: When possible I try to talk to somebody — a collaborator, a colleague, a student — about it. When none of this works I go to a board and start scribbling my thoughts. A good of pen and eraser inevitably leads to a clearing of the mind.

INE: One advice you will give to the person you love?

MS: To a person I love I would say I would love them even if they ignore my advice. Only then would I feel comfortable sharing actual advice — which tends to vary based on my own moods.

INE: How do you look at failure?

MS: If you haven’t failed you probably are not exploring enough. Every failure is a strong lesson. Some failures occur because the question you asked was wrong. Some because you don’t have the skills (yet) to make progress. And some occur when you invest a lot of time, make progress only to realize somebody else had already raised an equivalent question and answered it. Each failure teaches me something — how to adapt your questions, what skills I need to acquire, and how old research can be forgotten in the face of new knowledge.

INE: Your favorite books?

MS: I am a big fan of (old) science fiction and love the long interconnected stories of Isaac Asimov. I love reading the longest versions I can find of the Mahabharata. (I surprise even my mother with my knowledge of Indian mythology.)

INE: Your favorite quotes?

MS: Drawing a blank right now. Here’s one mostly for my math community: “Every theorem is named after the last person who discovered it.” (Translated to general audience “Scientific knowledge is often discovered, forgotten and rediscovered … till it makes an impact and then we don’t forget it.”)

INE: Your top three favorite movies?

MS: I am mostly into western movies now – the pop variety. An all-time favorite that I keep watching (and my students know it) is “Lock, stock and two smoking barrels”. Once upon a time I used to be a big fan of indie Indian movies like Aakrosh, Ardhsatya, Bazaar etc. I still like thinking about them …

INE: How concerned or enthused you are by other people’s opinion?

MS: In theory I am very concerned about other people’s opinion. The goal of every researcher is to have impact beyond their own self and the more the people that appreciate and adopt your advances, the more successful your research is. That being said I try to not to dwell on this in the short term and not plan my research around it. I focus on the questions I like and try to make progress; but if I get positive feedback on some work it generates positive energy in me that helps my thinking further! When I get negative feedback I tend to ignore it.

INE: What truly matters to you in the end?

MS: To me the most important thing is that I learn all the time. All my research and interactions are driven by the goal of learning. As long as I am learning I don’t need much else to keep my going.

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