#50over50: Ramesh Rao
The Person Behind Personality in my #50over50 series today leads a well-rounded life and is one of the most fascinating people I've had the privilege of knowing personally. Meet Dr. Ramesh Rao!
Through my entire career, I met some of the most fascinating people. Some sweep you off their feet with their brilliance while others slowly reveal their stimulating minds; some, jump from job to job to seek varied experiences while others stay in the same job and reinvent themselves; some want to be in the limelight while others are happy to find that light within themselves; some are big-picture dreamers while others are diligent doers. And every person I ever met, has some passion other than what they do for a profession and it usually comes out when you visit them at home or after multiple conversations beyond office hours. I am fascinated that no matter how long I have known someone, there is always another layer waiting to be looked into, another surprise awaits. It is this aspect of any human that fascinates me.
When we started the INK Conference in India in 2010, I wanted to bring some of the most interesting thinkers from across the globe. I reached into the worlds of art, tech, business, and academia and contacted people I knew and people who may have an interest in India. I knew Dr. Ramesh Rao of UCSD but not too well. I approached him to get to know him. Of all the characteristics of people I mentioned above, Ramesh is someone whom you will get to know only over time, he is a man of in-depth thinking as well as capable of incredible detail. Over the last decade that I have known him, I have learned something new about him every time I met him. While his quiet demeanor may fool you, an in-depth conversation with him will lead you to some fascinating discussions and insights.
On the professional front, he has been a one-job man. After completing his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland, he joined the University of San Diego and he has been there ever since. He is the Director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UCSD. The division he leads brings together some of the most diverse disciplines together. They have one of the best theaters where students of art, drama, and tech work together; they have a robotics lab where cutting edge research is conducted; they have an incubator that gives space to entrepreneurs with new ideas and opens up all resources of the university without taking a stake in the company. When I first spoke to him more than a decade ago, his division was looking at archiving all of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s concerts so that they can create a 3D avatar of the great musician at a location near you. As an academic, he has been pushing the boundaries of our thinking in the technology space.
For the last decade or so, his interest has been in the area of quantified self – how do we learn more about ourselves and measure our health. He has made himself to be the subject in experimenting with food, fat measurement, nutritional value, etc. He has taken up running and keeps himself healthy by all counts. As an electrical engineer, he spends his time looking at the sensors that are naturally steeped inside our bodies. He uses technology to measure what the heart is already telling us. This is not a passing phase but a journey that he has been on for the last decade.
When I visited him in October 2019, I got to witness the length to which he goes to delve into this discussion about our own bodies. He set up his personal space in a way that helps his health needs. Since food is a key component of having a healthy life, he invested in redesigning his kitchen to match his food habits. He has even a food weighing scale that tells him how much he is consuming so that he can measure each intake. There are measuring cups and spoons cleanly stacked up that aid you in this journey as well. His kitchen is so organized that as a newcomer to their home, I could find everything I needed in the most logical way. The kitchen is a self-contained rectangle with drawers and cupboards that are cleanly lined with everything you need from pulses to flour to rice to spices. He cooks every day and still, the kitchen looks spankingly new. He spared no expense to get the best kitchen set-up and yet nothing is overstocked. Just enough of everything is available ensuring the fresh supply comes at regular intervals. His wife Malati admitted gladly that she was not in charge of the kitchen and surrendered the details to Ramesh. Having married a man who is a better cook than me, I can vouch for the bliss of surrendering the kitchen. He makes food that is healthy as well as tasty. There was a jar of cookies made of almond flour that was so yummy that I took them with me on my train journey to Los Angeles from San Diego. It was wonderful to peel another layer of his persona through his kitchen. (See photos of his kitchen at http://www.lakshmislounge.com/2019/10/the-kitchen-lab.html)
Life in an American university is a balance of extra-ordinary privilege, excruciating detail of ethical behavior, and an ever energizing atmosphere. It gives great opportunities for the faculty to travel the world, meet great people, and also own the responsibility to build an economically sustainable institution. A professor is a part entrepreneur because they have to raise the money needed for their research, part venture-capitalist because they fund students and research ideas, part provocateur, by opening the young minds to new ideas, part thought-leader to inspire the larger community to donate and part curious to continuously ask why and why not. In the US, faculty especially the director of an institute like Ramesh, need to be super diligent in following the rigid guidelines while loosening the rules to accommodate new thought. So, the one key aspect is the personal moral compass of the leader that needs to stay unswerving and UCSD is really lucky to have someone like Ramesh to be one of its torchbearers.
You can listen to his talk at http://inktalks.com/discover/729/ramesh-rao-listening-to-the-dancing-heart