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Stanford Oral History Collections

Kailath, Thomas.

purl.stanford.edu/zn881hy2689
Title:
Kailath, Thomas.
Author:
Kailath, Thomas and DiPaolo, Andy
Corporate Author:
Stanford Historical Society
Description:
In this oral history interview, Thomas Kailath, Stanford University’s Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, traces his path from the small town of Pune, India, to his appointment to the faculty of the Stanford Department of Electrical Engineering. He discusses his family background, his education in India and at MIT, and aspects of his varied research career in information theory, controls, signal processing, very-large-scale integration, and beyond. He reflects on his approach to working with graduate students, the academic environment at Stanford, and the interrelationship between teaching and research. Kailath begins the interview by speaking about his childhood in India, describing the state of Kerala where his parents were born, and explaining the Syrian Christian derivation of his first name. He describes his parents and the strong influence they had on him and his education at St. Vincent’s, a convent school run by Jesuit missionaries, where he became intrigued by geometry and proofs. He talks about his college education--first at Fergusson College and then in the highly selective Bachelor of Engineering in Telecom program led by Chandrashekhar Aiya at the College of Engineering, Pune. Interestingly, the only textbook he recalls using was the fourth edition of Frederick Terman’s Electronic and Radio Engineering. Kailath relates the story of how he came to attend graduate school at MIT when Dr. Ganugapati Stephen Krishnayya, the Indian educational attaché in Washington, DC and a man his family knew from church, encouraged him to apply to graduate programs and carried his transcript and letters of recommendation to universities in the United States. After Kailath received a research assistantship at MIT, his father’s employer at Pocha Seeds helped him to secure the funding needed to travel there. Kailath describes the late 1950s and early 1960s at MIT as “the golden time” due to the post-Sputnik availability of funding, including block grants from the Joint Services Electronics Program, and a particularly talented group of faculty and graduate students interested in the new field of information theory. Kailath speaks of his advisor, Jack Wozencraft, the MIT Research Lab of Electronics, his thesis research on linear time-variant filters, and jobs at the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Kailath recounts details of his recruitment to Stanford in 1963 and discusses the Information Systems Lab. He credits then provost Frederick Terman with creating a great teaching and research environment at Stanford and describes Terman’s approach to developing “steeples of excellence”--strong departments that attracted academic stars who in turn attracted more stars. Kailath recalls some of the challenges that he and his wife, Sarah, encountered as a newly married couple with young children living far from their families in India, and he reflects on the growth of the Indian community in Silicon Valley since the 1960s. Asked about his efforts on India’s behalf, he relates a story about meeting with officials in India’s defense establishment while on sabbatical at the Indian Institute of Science and encouraging them to set up a system of funding similar to the block grants offered by the Joint Services Electronics Program. Kailath reflects on the relationship between academic research and private industry in Silicon Valley, noting that many of his students went on to start companies. He reflects on the importance of “bridging between disciplines” (or interdisciplinary research) and comments on the difficulties that young faculty members face in developing expertise in multiple disciplines. Kailath describes his approach to working with graduate students and credits his wide professional network for directing excellent students to study with him at Stanford. He compares Stanford’s approach to engineering education to that of MIT and describes his students as his legacy, reflecting on the “multiplier effect” that occurs when one trains students. Kailath concludes his interview by talking about his children, the rationale behind his charitable scholarship donations, and his life since retirement.
Topic:
Thomas Kailath, Stanford Historical Society, oral histories, interviews, higher education, professors, universities and colleges--research, universities and colleges--faculty, and telecommunications
Imprint:
March 19, 2015 - May 14, 2015
Collection:
Stanford Historical Society Oral History Program interviews, 1999-2012