It has been some journey for Prof Preeti Aghalayam — from balmy Mysore, where she grew up; BTech at IIT Madras; on to University of Rochester for an MS and then University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for her PhD; MIT, Cambridge, for post-doctoral research; then faculty at IIT Bombay and from 2010, faculty at her alma mater, IIT-M, in the chemical engineering department and now on an African odyssey to Zanzibar as the Dean of the School of Science and Engineering and Director-in-Charge for the new IIT-M campus there.

She has broken some glass ceilings getting there: the first woman director of an IIT as well as the director of the first ever overseas campus of an IIT. But, as she says with a smile, “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity and am so glad that people have put their faith in me to lead the team. But, most importantly, the ecosystem at IIT-M, especially in the past couple of decades, has grown so well and it’s fantastic that doing something like this, almost outrageous, is possible. And so, I’m grateful; it’s not about being the first. For us as an institution, it’s great and the support is wonderful.”

Bringing IIT quality to Zanzibar

We are meeting for coffee and conversation in the verdant environs of the venerable Madras Club. Ask her why Africa and Zanzibar and not anywhere else, Preeti says IIT-M has been getting students from abroad for a while now and that sparked interest in looking overseas for a campus. “The outreach from Zanzibar was so positive and strong. Of course, there are several other components like it makes sense to bring our kind of educational offering to that region, especially as Zanzibar is located very strategically in the ocean and connects well to West Asia as well.”

Also, as she explains, they expect huge interest from students across the East African coast. “We’re expecting that this campus will be attractive not only for students but also for research and innovation,” she adds. And, of course, the fruition of a Zanzibar campus came about because of the push of both the Indian and Tanzanian governments. “When we walked into the room (for the first meeting), we were so glad that we didn’t do the typical IIT way of only men,” she says with a laugh. Half the room were women, and the minister of education a woman too, while they were two women from IIT-M. In fact, as she says, she was happy to see a gender-balanced society all round.

The planned 200-acre Zanzibar campus will start with a four-year UG programme in data science and AI and a two-year M.Tech in data science and AI this October with 70 students. “Next year we will have more; three to four UG and at least three interdisciplinary PG courses. We will also get a business plan in place that talks about what happens next. We have funding for the first year locked in from the Govt of Zanzibar,” she explains.

Engineering innovations

Preeti has been professor in the chemical engineering department and her area of interest is reaction engineering, “essentially looking at chemical reactions and the myriad ways in which you can play with them.” In her research, she’s worked in the automotive industry as well as on coal gasification and on clean coal technology; “Of course, people scoff and say there’s no such thing as clean coal tech!” she says. “I work with industry as well and I worked with General Motors when they used to be here. I worked with Daimler more recently, GE Aviation as well, looking intrinsically at fuel-related emissions,” she adds. Preeti is also on the board of IN-SPACe, chaired by Pawan Goenka, and oversees private sector participation in the space activities. This is a position she will continue to hold.

Apart from chemical engineering, her other passion is running – a marathoner, she’s done countless half-marathons, and seven full marathons, round the world, including a few times in London and Chicago. But, now, she says, she runs for fun and fitness as there’s no time to train for marathons. With the Zanzibar assignment, her plate is full.