As a thought experiment, consider the following hypothetical: a large earthquake that occurs in the developing world kills scores of people and damages dozens of buildings. That same earthquake in the developed world kills tens of thousands of people and devastates the greater portion of a major city. If the force of the shaking is the same, what accounts for the vast and tragic disparity of destruction and death? The answer is simple but the solution is complex. Developed countries enjoy both the wealth to utilize resilient building materials such as reinforced concrete, and they wield the administrative capacity to establish and enforce building codes to ensure that new construction projects adhere to rigorous building standards. In the developing world, where both the building and administrative resources are lacking or non-existent, the common embrace of unreinforced masonry virtually ensures tragic outcomes following a big earthquake.
For Sudhir Jain, it doesn't need to be this way. In the discussions below, Jain relates his early interest in civil engineering, his excellent experiences as a graduate student at Caltech, where he was exposed to the cutting edge in the unique sub-discipline of earthquake engineering, and his determination to return to India to help convey the knowledge in this field to a new cadre of scientists and engineers who could work toward improving the country's response toward earthquake safety. Midway through his career, and as his increasing administrative responsibilities allowed greater access to government officials, Jain embraced the concept of "earthquake activism," which he takes to mean making a concerted effort to call attention to the urgency of earthquake safety, to demonstrate the administrative and economic feasibility of improving building standards, and to couch such goals within the broader framework of India's overall modernization and ambitions to become a fully developed and thriving democracy.
For these efforts, Jain has gained international renown as an academic visionary, an educational trailblazer, and as a humanitarian who efforts have saved a large but inherently unquantifiable number of lives. And crucially, as he points out, these efforts put India in the vitally important position of being able to encourage other developing and in-transition countries to follow India's example. As a matter of political messaging, the imperative to convey the importance of earthquake safety is undeniably received with greater receptivity if the communication comes from a country with a similar historical and socioeconomic background.
As he looks toward retirement, Jain is deeply grateful for his time at Caltech and the connections that he made and has sustained, and he is humbled to have played a role in creating a new approach to earthquake safety.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Monday, January 2, 2023. It's my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Sudhir K. Jain. Sudhir, it is wonderful to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
SUDHIR K. JAIN: Thank you, David. Happy New Year to you and to everybody at Caltech.
ZIERLER: Wonderful. Sudhir, to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
JAIN: I'm currently Vice Chancellor, which is like the president, of a large publicly-funded university in India called Banaras Hindu University.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as the title Vice Chancellor is concerned, since you're the equivalent of a president at a U.S. university, why the title "Vice"? What would the Chancellor be?
JAIN: That's the way Indian universities perhaps followed some British tradition somewhere. In Indian universities, the chancellor is typically a figurehead, some decorated individual. It can be Vice President of India. It can be Governor of the state. It can be some very eminent person, who is just presiding over the commencement type formal activities.
ZIERLER: Is there a board of trustees, or who do you report to?
JAIN: I report to what we call as an Executive Council and I chair that.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, tell me about Banaras Hindu University. What is its history? What is its mission?
JAIN: This is a very, very special university that came about in India more than 100 years back. Remember the British were ruling India and they had created three universities in India, which were not giving education, but which were conducting the exams and giving the degrees. The teaching was done in colleges and the colleges were connected with the university and the university would conduct the exam and give a degree. There was this very enlightened individual in this part of the country who said that we need an Indian university which will be not only teaching the modern science, modern education, modern concepts, but it will also be teaching the Hindu religion and philosophy. This was the time in India when the Indian Sikhs were also saying that they needed a university or college that will teach modern education plus the religion, and the Muslims were saying that they wanted a university that will give a modern education and will teach the Muslim religion.
The idea was that before the British came, the Indian education was fairly well-developed, but with a religious kind of a connection like many American universities, many European universities that had very deep connection with the church. This person's name was Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. He was an absolutely brilliant gentleman who was able to mobilize the British Government to agree to that idea. In 1915, the British passed an act or a law to create this university and it started to function from 1916 which means, as I speak to you, it is about 106-years-old university.
It's a very large publicly-funded university having perhaps the largest residential student population in Asian universities. We have almost all types of studies. We have a medical college, we have management, we have an agriculture college, we have fine arts, dance and music, we have painting, we have sciences, arts, social sciences. You can think about anything, we practically have the whole range. It's a very wide-ranging, very-broad spectrum publicly-funded university.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, is there a Hindu component to the curriculum today? Does it retain some of those historical roots?
JAIN: Very early, when they started the university, they tried to teach the Hindu religion. I don't know if you have heard about Theosophical Society. There was a lady, Annie Besant who was the President of Theosophical Society and she had created a Central Hindu College in Varanasi in this town before this university came actually. She had written a number of textbooks describing Hindu religion, which is little bit simplification, if I may, because Hinduism unlike many other religions, cannot be, "This is true and that is not true," that kind of thing. But in order to teach, she wrote some textbooks. Initially when this university was created, in fact, she gave her college to Pandit Malviya. "You take it over and you move it forward."
Initially they did have prescription of that textbook, but then students didn't take it always. Young people have their own ways of looking at things and the University never insisted on it. Over the years, there is no requirement of any kind to learn about Hinduism. The university is open to all people of all religion from day one. You don't have to be Hindu to become a teacher, you don't have to be Hindu to be a student or a staff of any kind. It is absolutely non-discriminatory both in students and faculty and there's no compulsion of any kind. Of course, we have a faculty which is teaching about Hindu philosophy and religion, things like that. We have a group of faculty members who teach those and there are students who do courses in that, but that's a small number.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, a very big question as it relates to higher education in India. Of course, in the United States, one competitive advantage for places like Caltech and Harvard and Stanford is that the United States still attracts the very top students that come from places like India and China. Perhaps your own experience when you were a graduate student at Caltech is indicative. Do you feel like for your own university, for India in general, there is now a push to hope to retain the best students that the education that they can receive in India is just as good as what they could get in Europe and the United States?
JAIN: We don't look at it that way in most Indian universities. We feel that our students should be free to pursue anything that they wish to do, including going for higher studies within India as well as outside, within the same university or another university. What on the other hand we are pursuing or pushing is to get foreign students to our universities. This university where I am now, it takes pride in having produced prime ministers for Nepal, for example. Our alumni have been prime ministers of Nepal. We get perhaps the largest number of foreign students in this university than any other publicly-funded Indian university. There are private universities which have more foreign students, but not government-funded institutions.
Deep and Current Caltech Connections
ZIERLER: A question that brings us together—you were recently awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award at Caltech. How did you get the news, and what did it feel like when you received that honor?
JAIN: I saw the email and it was an absolute delight. I went to Caltech as a 20-year-old boy, very unsure of myself in many respects, concerned whether I will survive Caltech. I had heard stories about how many students don't go through the comprehensive exam, the Candidacy Exam as it is perhaps called. There were anxieties whether I will qualify there or not, there were anxieties whether I will finish PhD in a timely manner or not, and then there were anxieties as to what will happen to me after I finished my PhD. Then after many years when Caltech says, "We recognize that you have done well," I think it's a great moment of pride and satisfaction and also gratitude to Caltech for what it did for me.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what in your education at Caltech has stayed with you over the years, the way you learned engineering, the way you experienced academic culture at its pinnacle?
JAIN: This is something I have said quite often without even being asked, and that is, the biggest learning I had from Caltech was its values. My guess is that the engineering I was learning at Caltech, I would have learned at many other universities in America and possibly elsewhere, but the values, the trust, the confidence, the sense of security, not feeling insecure about somebody else moving ahead of you, the entire ecosystem inculcated in me a sense of comfort in being who I am and doing whatever I believe in without worrying about whether I will become professor soon or later, whether I will get this fellowship or this award. That sense I got from Caltech to not bother about other things, but just believe in yourself and do what you feel like, that's the biggest thing.
ZIERLER: After you got your degree from Caltech, did you know you wanted to return to India? Did you think about making an academic life in the United States?
JAIN: No, I never looked at the possibility of staying back in America. From day one when I was leaving for United States, I was very clear that I was coming to the United States to study only, but that I wanted to live in India and make a career in India. I was also very clear that I wanted to teach in India. That part was very clear that I didn't want to do anything other than teaching in India. On that there was no confusion.
ZIERLER: Where does that come from? Is that a sense of national pride that you want to be in India?
JAIN: I would say the way it happened was that at a young age of 16 when I went to college to study undergraduate engineering degree in civil engineering, I had made up my mind that I wanted to be a teacher of civil engineering. I was good in studies, so I got very good marks and all that stuff. It was obvious that I needed to do a PhD in order to be a teacher. The question was, where can I get a good PhD in? Therefore, to me, going to Caltech was to do that. It wasn't that I was excited about being in America, it wasn't that America is a great place; it was to get that training and qualification.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, looking at your academic trajectory, when did you start to get involved in academic administration? When do you feel like you were on that leadership path in a university setting?
JAIN: As a teacher, from time to time you are called upon to do some committee work, some service component as you would call it in any academic institution. That started to come to me very early after I went back from the United States to join IIT Kanpur. I started to mingle with people who were older than me, senior to me, and they started to like me, they started to induct me in committees, activities and things like that. I did some of that committee work and I think I did reasonably well.
Then, around January 1995, the director of the institute, which is like equal to president in the American University—in IIT, we call it director—he one day called me and he said he wanted me to handle the placement office, the career development service kind of an office that deals with placement and training for the students. That was quite a serious responsibility, and I was a little hesitant because I had just signed a contract for writing a book with Prentice Hall of the United States and I thought I would devote my time to write that book. But then if the director is asking you for a responsibility, it is very hard to say no to him. I said, "How about I do it only for one year so that I can finish my book, after that?" He said, "Fine, do it for one year." But then I started to get involved with the students' lives, because when you're dealing with placement, the students are insecure about their job, they're worried about their future, and you start to spend time with them and you start to realize that you're making a difference to their lives. After a year when he asked me, "What do you think? You want to continue?" I said, "Yes, I would be happy to continue." I started to get involved in serious administration in 1995. That would put me around 36 years of age. That is how I started to get responsibilities. I did not even in those years think that I would be heading a university or a college. My passion was still earthquake safety. That was like a side dish, not the main dish—the administration.
ZIERLER: Now at this point, are you able to keep up with the literature in civil engineering? Do you keep an active research agenda at all?
JAIN: No, that was a very deliberate decision. I had become a very, very passionate, very committed activist on earthquake safety. I wasn't into just research and teaching. I was into outreach, into teaching professionals, into writing codes, into doing conferences, meetings, and that was all-consuming. When in 2009 I went to IIT Gandhinagar to set up a new institution, it was a ground-up greenfield institution, I understood that I'm not the person who can do half-hearted job. I said, "I will be very unhappy and I'll be very miserable trying to do two things with passion." So I went with a clear conscience that if I were to take this new job, I have to say goodbye to my passion for earthquake safety.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as part of the calculation, had earthquake safety in India reached a level of maturity circa 2009 where you felt like you had done the sufficient job and you could step back from that field?
JAIN: No, I don't think I would feel that way. I still feel that India has a lot more to do and there's lot of work in earthquake safety that needs to be done. But it was like this—that India is a country that needs a lot of good things to be done. Earthquake is one problem, and higher education is another. I felt that if I can contribute to a higher educational enterprise, then there's a chance that I might produce or help produce significantly larger percentage of people who will work for the problem-solving for the country than what I can do alone. If you go to any university, there is a small percentage of people who make an impact, who make a difference. What distinguishes Caltech from its peers is that the ratio of the people who make a difference is much larger. That's what a good institution distinguishes itself with. My mission was to create similarly an institution which will have significantly larger percentage of students who will be problem-solvers, who will be ethical leaders, who will change the society, who will change lives, and that ratio will be much larger. That's what the idea was. Therefore, I thought that if the country loses one person for earthquake safety, there is a very good chance that I might contribute to producing a lot more people who may not necessarily work on earthquake safety; they may work on many other areas.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as a leader of a major research university at the very beginning of 2023, as you look out into the new year, what are the most important strategic objectives for you in this new year?
JAIN: As I mentioned to you, this is a very large university, but very diverse. I'm just about to complete in a few days' time one year here as a Vice Chancellor. Remember, I always went to small colleges. The undergraduate college had like 2,000 students. Caltech was similar size. I came back to Kanpur IIT. At that time, it was 2,000 students. It went maybe to 5,000 or 6,000 by the time I left it. Then I went to IIT Gandhinagar as its first director starting with 90 students, and then I left it at 1,800 students. Now I'm heading a university with about 34,000 students, right? The mission here is to unleash the energy, unleash the internal strength of its people, enable them to do things. Indian universities can be quite often top-down, centrally-controlled by the head of the institution, and what you call as the shared governance is not a concept in Indian universities typically. My effort in the last one year has been to understand the university and to prepare leadership here, to prepare its people for shared governance. I believe that there are two types of leaders, leaders who look at the task that needs to be done and then they find the people who can do the task, and then the other type of leaders who look at the people and say, "How can I benefit from this person and let them do what they can do." I'm the second type. I believe in the power of people. I believe in building up people leadership and letting them do good things. If 100 good things need to be done, it does not matter which 40 things will get done or which 80 things will be done. Just let things happen. There's plenty to do.
Executive Academic Leadership and the Pandemic
ZIERLER: Sudhir, assuming leadership, of course, last year right in the middle of a pandemic, how did that change things for you? How have your attitudes about education and teaching changed as a result of COVID?
JAIN: I was at IIT Gandhinagar when COVID happened. That was March 2020. Like any other university, we also had anxieties. At IIT Gandhinagar, I had a slogan which said that we will treat our students as adults. Many Indian universities tend to treat the students as somewhat children, micromanage them, tell them what is right, what is wrong. I always felt that we need to treat our students as adults. They're mature and they're in the process of becoming mature. So let them be, let them make mistakes. My slogan used to be, we will treat you as adults. When COVID happened, there was the anxiety about what to do with the student population in the campus. We were a fully residential campus, hostels, dormitories as you would call it. At that time, I, together with my young colleagues—IIT Gandhinagar did not have my peers; they had primarily younger colleagues because I had built it up from ground zero. I had mostly assistant professors and associate professors. I sat with half a dozen of them and we decided that we will continue to treat our students as adults. What that means is that we will not ask them to leave the dormitory. We said, "This is your home. Just like professors are living in the campus in their own apartments, you will continue to live." So we're one of the rare institutions in India and perhaps worldwide which never asked its students to go home. We had about 40% of the students staying in the dormitory, during the peak of the pandemic, and they were managing themselves. They were very, very responsible. We converted our guest house into a COVID care facility. We had no full-time doctors, we had two nursing staff and we deployed some staff from other units which are closed, and we ran a hospital-like COVID care facility in the campus with the entire community support. What I'm trying to say is that COVID was a phenomenal example of testing the concept that I had believed in, that students can be responsible and young people can do great things and community can do great things. The administrators have to just take themselves less seriously.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what about the distinctions between in-person learning and remote learning?
JAIN: Very big difference. I think there's no doubt in my mind that in-person learning is certainly superior. There are two types of learning. One is, you learn mathematics or you learn physics, you can learn it from books, you can learn it from video lectures, you can learn it remotely, you can learn it many ways, but when you come to the class, you don't learn only that. Just now a few minutes back you asked me, what was it that Caltech taught me? I said it was values, it was the environment, it was the ecosystem. That is what they learn, right? That was a big loss to the students during that time. At IIT Gandhinagar at that time, our effort was how do we minimize the damage that absence from the physical classes will do. That has been a challenge and I don't believe that technology can replace the human contact of teacher versus students.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, I'd like to now switch over to your academic areas of expertise. What would be the broadest academic discipline under which you've worked? Would it be civil engineering? Would it be earthquake engineering? What would you call yourself for your home discipline?
JAIN: I would say that I'm an earthquake engineering person with a focus on structural earthquake engineering. When you talk about earthquake engineering, you could be specializing in geotechnical aspects, the ground aspects, but I was specialized in structural aspects, although I had to learn enough about geotechnical aspects as well because my structures will sit on the ground, and therefore that will be of interest to me. So, yes, you can call me an earthquake engineer.
ZIERLER: Between your education and your interests, how closely involved are you with the basic science behind earthquake engineering—geophysics, seismology, those kinds of things?
JAIN: I learned a bit of that at Caltech and I had to learn a little bit of that over the years because I needed to do work in earthquake engineering, but that's not my subject. I'm not an earthquake scientist per se. I'm not into seismology or geophysics and things like that.
ZIERLER: Now growing up, did you experience earthquakes? Is there a personal origin story to your academic area of expertise?
JAIN: I, as a child, had experience where there will be some shaking and families will say, "Oh, there was an earthquake." Okay, so everybody's coming out kind of thing, but no damage in the nearby area. But I don't think my reason to become earthquake engineer had anything to do with that. The fact is that I was clear as a 16-year-old that I wanted to teach structural engineering. Within civil engineering, I was clear I wanted to teach structural engineering. When I was looking for higher education, one of my mentors told me that if you want to go to United States, go only to the best of the American schools now. Otherwise, study in India for masters and then try for PhD admission in a top American school. He advised me to look at MIT, Urbana-Champaign, and California.
When I went home, it wasn't clear whether he meant California, Berkeley or California, Caltech. I defined it as four: Caltech, Berkeley, Urbana-Champaign, and MIT. I asked for applications from four. In those days, you used to send a letter and they would send you the application form. I got an application form from all four schools, but I did not have GRE exams, I did not have English exam, TOEFL exam. The other three schools asked for some application fee of $20 or $25 or $30, and Caltech was not asking any. I applied to Caltech knowing I will not get admitted and I was very surprised that they gave me admission. They only taught earthquake engineering focus in structural engineering. That is how I ended up becoming earthquake engineering person. Not because I came to Caltech to learn earthquake engineering. I came to Caltech because I wanted to do structural engineering and Caltech offered specialization in earthquake engineering.
Earthquake Engineering for India
ZIERLER: Sudhir, in your professional life in earthquake engineering, what aspects would you say are specific to India either seismically or culturally or economically, and what aspects are global, they're of universal relevance, no matter where structures and earthquakes might meet?
JAIN: When I studied at Caltech, I did not have much understanding of the problems of developing countries. After I came back to India, I still did not have that much understanding. Four years after I joined here, there was an earthquake in India and I went to study that. After that, I started to go to every Indian earthquake-affected area to study what happened. I started to realize that the Indian earthquake problem is different from that of the developed countries. What India should do in 1988, the Americans had done it 40 years back or 50 years back. Therefore, if you were to do in India in 1988 what Americans were doing in 1988, it doesn't work.
Starting my career in late ‘80s, I started to become sensitive to what India needed. In the process, I suppose my work was also relevant to many other developing countries which had not developed such robust systems of earthquake safety. I once in a while would try to have a student work on a problem which would be published in American Society of Civil Engineers or something like that, but that wasn't the most exciting thing for me personally because I felt that those papers are nice papers, but they don't add to value in my community, in my country, in my society.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, for better or worse, is there a legacy of colonialism in India that really influences how earthquake engineering happens?
JAIN: No, I don't think there's anything of that. I think what typically happens is that the educational system in India is not as well developed, and there is always this tendency to learn from the West and we tend to want to be up-to-date. Remember, academia everywhere judges its people based on what kind of publications you have, where you published them. Where are the best journals coming from? They're coming from developed countries. Would they be interested in publishing something that will be limited use for Indian context? Very rarely. If you want to be a celebrated academic, for example, you think you need to be working for the problems that everybody else is working on. Now, in a developing country, very few people are doing very exciting research, very interesting research, and therefore you find that you are somewhat isolated if you try to work on Indian problem. There's not enough peers around you. But if you're working on the problems that everybody else is working on, you have peers in Japan and America and New Zealand and wherever. It's a little harder for younger people to say, "I will work on what excites me." That is where I found much later that I started to get appreciation internationally. My guess is that if I had done what is more fashionable, which is to do work which would have been a lot more frequently published in American journals, I wouldn't be celebrated by Caltech with the Distinguished Alumni Award, right? It so happened that my work in India, for India, for Indian institutions, started to get recognition in recent years, but that confidence that I will do it and I don't care whether it brings me the recognition or not or whether it is adding to my resume or not, that confidence I got from Caltech during my graduate years, and that is where I'm so grateful to Caltech and I'm so fond of Caltech for that.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, I wonder if you can provide an overview both of the seismicity and geological features of India. Where are the areas in India that are prone to earthquakes?
JAIN: As per the geological theory, the Indian Plate as it is called is kind of in a collision with the Asian Plate and due to that collision, the Himalayas had come about. Therefore, most of the earthquakes happen along the Himalayas or the foothill of the Himalayas. Now, the foothill of the Himalayas is where deep ocean was at one point of time and that is now filled up with the sediments brought by the rivers from the Himalayas. What it means is that at the foothill of the Himalayas, the deep alluvial, deep soil deposits, very deep, maybe a kilometer, maybe three kilometers, maybe five kilometers, deep alluvium sites. Then there is a rocky plateau which is the South India, the rest of the India kind of thing. Now what happens is that the earthquakes happen primarily in the Himalayas or the foothills, and then in the Indo-Gangetic Plain it is called, the deep alluvium, that is where the waves get amplified. That is also very fertile area, that is where very large population lives, and that is where the biggest earthquake safety issues are. In summary, the most damaging earthquakes have happened along the Himalayas and most deaths have happened in the Indo-Gangetic Plains at the foothill of the Himalayas.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, India, of course, is the world's largest democracy. The government must be an enormous bureaucracy. In what ways and what are the challenges in working with the government to ensure the kinds of codes that need to be maintained for earthquake safety?
JAIN: There are several types of challenges of a developing country. One is that a developing country has many, many priorities—the hunger, the food, the healthcare, the education, the poverty. Now, when the government, the bureaucrats, the policy makers, when they're working towards providing for the last man or woman the nutrition, the health, the education, it is very hard to push them towards earthquake safety. The best opportunity for that comes after the earthquake. My experience is that if you have prepared yourselves, if you have plans, if you have ideas that you want India to do and you tell them in the peace time, they don't pay attention, but immediately after the earthquake, if you tell them they might pay attention. So, many of the breaks that I was able to get in earthquake safety work in India was after the earthquakes. The second problem that India-type situations create is that there's a relatively poor leadership qualities of collaboration, of teamwork. Even within the experts within the community of earthquake engineers, for example, there may not be a coherent approach and they may be pulling the whole thing in different directions, neutralizing each other. Those are the two types of major problems that come in a country like India which makes it harder to push for changes.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, I wonder if you can explain the chronology. When did India start to develop modern building codes to create buildings that would be resilient during earthquakes?
JAIN: Very interesting question. David, this is a very, very interesting story that I uncovered about more than 20 years back when I was writing an article on the history of Indian earthquake engineering. It turns out that in the early1930s, there was an earthquake in an area called Balochistan which is now in Pakistan where some 100 people died. The chief engineer of the railway system in that area, he asked a young engineer to go and build some houses which are earthquake-proof. This engineer was a young engineer with just three years out of college, had no clue what earthquake safety means, what earthquake-resistant house will be. He tried to read about earthquake safety. He says that in the entire city of Lahore, in any library, there was no book which would have more than half page, at the most one page, about earthquakes. He used a lot of common sense, a lot of engineering sense, and he built six bungalows in a place called Quetta. In 1935, there was a huge earthquake where almost 40% to 50% of people in Quetta died. Every house collapsed except those six bungalows. That became a celebrated event. That is the first time in India modern thinking about earthquake-resistant housing came about.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what was the breakthrough? What did he create that allowed these houses to stand?
JAIN: He put together ground story houses and tied them together like a box using the locally available materials, including the rails as you will call it, things like that. In 1933, he wrote an article describing what he did. Before this earthquake, before the 1935 earthquake, he wrote an article in 1933 making a presentation on what he was called upon to do and what he was doing. Then came the 1935 earthquake where the success of his houses proved as a testimony that it was possible to make earthquake-resistant housing. That is when the engineers in that area applied their mind to say, "Now we have to reconstruct housing for the railway, we have to reconstruct housing for the Indian Army, we have to reconstruct houses for Indian administrators." Things like that. "How should we build?" That is when they wrote the rules, the code or the manuals on how they will build. While this was happening in 1935 in Quetta, the other part of India, Bihar, which is with the Nepal border, in 1934 there was a big earthquake where a lot of people had been killed, but that knowledge did not go to Bihar. Bihar did not build to safety, right? Now, this work in Quetta actually was lost in the sense that it was forgotten.
Then in 1958—I can check later; 1957 or 1958—the vice chancellor of Roorkee, A.N. Khosla, a very enlightened gentleman, happened to come to Caltech and he saw George Housner and Donald Hudson doing earthquake safety work, earthquake engineering work. He was aware of problems in India about earthquakes. He knew that India is an earthquake-prone country. He went to George Housner and Hudson and he said, "I want your help in building earthquake engineering in India." They said, "Fine, we'll help you." So, he went back to India and he sent one of his young faculty to Caltech for several months to work with George Housner and Don Hudson, and they became good friends. When this gentleman—his name was Jai Krishna—when he came back to India, Khosla was still the vice chancellor, he started to put in money and effort to build earthquake engineering in India. Then they invited George Housner and Don Hudson to come to India at Roorkee to teach class, to do a major conference, and to build laboratories. That is how around 1959, 1960 if I remember correctly—because I have been out of touch for many years now, my years may be off by a year or two—that is when they actually started formal earthquake engineering work. That is when Jai Krishna wrote the first Indian earthquake code, which was published in 1962.
ZIERLER: Now, these houses that fell, the six that stood, what was the difference? What are some of the traditional building techniques in India that don't stand the test of time when it comes to earthquakes?
JAIN: Typically, in that area the buildings will be made of masonry, typically stone masonry, and masonry is not good when you shake it, because when you shake it, it develops tension, and masonry is very good in taking compression, but it cannot take tension. That is how masonry causes lot of deaths in case of earthquakes. That is actually one of the major reasons for lot of deaths in developing countries, because traditionally men built houses using stones and later, they learned to make houses with bricks, and bricks also are not a very good material for tension. Now, after the 1935 earthquake, they started to put some amount of steel, some amount of reinforcement in a certain manner so that the walls will be tied together and they will behave together, and the structure will be able to take some tension.
ZIERLER: Over the course of your career, what have been some of the most important advances in materials to make buildings more resilient?
JAIN: I would say that construction-materials-wise, the world doesn't move so fast. It's a very, very slow-moving industry, unlike the more modern electronics or others. What is more important is that you not only use that material wisely, but you train or you create an ecosystem where more people will use it wisely. The real challenge is really not about having that technology or having that methodology or having that knowledge, but about having lots of people having that knowledge and practicing it. Because unlike a car which is built in one factory and it's supplied all over the country, or several factories would build cars, houses are built all over the place and lots of people build those houses. Lots of people build buildings. So, the real challenge in this industry is really more about preparing people, teaching them, and creating systems where they are per force doing the right things.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, looking at building codes, the types of buildings that you've been interested in, is it useful to draw distinctions between residential buildings and commercial buildings, or is a building is a building is a building, it's all the same?
JAIN: A building is a building is a building, but there may be some subtleties in residential buildings, there may be some subtleties in commercial buildings which one has to keep in mind. But generally, a building is a building.
ZIERLER: If there's an ideal in your mind, money is no problem, bureaucracy is no problem, what does the ideal building look like for you? What is the best building if you want to survive an earthquake?
JAIN: I would say, money is always a reason. Engineering is not about finding solutions which are insensitive to money. Really, there's a tension between money and safety, right? As an engineer, you want to use reasonable amount of money to get a reasonably good safety. That is what engineering is all about. What I have been saying is that quite often, we tend to copy the West or the developed countries for learning about how to make buildings or how to do civil engineering projects. If we were to just step back a little bit and find solutions that work for us better, we might have a much better chance of success. What I have been pushing for, for some time is, can we think of building typologies, building types that don't require very sophisticated engineering design, very sophisticated engineering construction, very sophisticated engineering supervision, very sophisticated enforcement, so that the chances of building surviving an earthquake are much higher? I believe that there are methods like these which have sometimes been practiced traditionally even before modern earthquake engineering came, because man has been facing these problems of earthquakes forever and they always have ingenuity, they always have innovation, they always have intelligence to think through solutions.
For example, I have been saying that in case of multi-story concrete buildings which are typically designed with concrete columns and beams, if you can have shear walls there, the chances of the building surviving earthquake is much, much higher. Unlike in the developed country where there can be very good engineering design and construction of columns and beams, in India it's very hard to do that. In India, you need a solution where you don't need that much sophistication, and therefore sheer walls become very useful. Similarly, for small housing units, masonry building is the material of choice for various reasons. There is a concept of what is called confined masonry building. In fact, when I was at IIT Gandhinagar as its director, I also had to build the entire campus. I experimented with the confined masonry building for four-story hostels, the dormitories, and three-story faculty apartments. They worked out very well, they saved us money, but I think we built a very safe housing. That was the largest public construction project in confined masonry in India. That is where Indian codes did not have provision for that. We were able to push our architects and engineers to do that even though there were no design codes in India for such buildings.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as India modernizes and there are more and more skyscrapers in its cities, what are some of the unique challenges as it relates to earthquake safety for very tall buildings?
JAIN: Again for tall buildings, the challenges will be similar to what they would be in California or elsewhere. If you're talking about a 40-story building or a 60-story building, they would be exactly similar issues to what those in California would be. There is no escape from good engineering, good construction, good supervision for that.
ZIERLER: In modern cities, are you confident that heaven forbid there is a major earthquake, an 8 or a 9 magnitude, that the tall buildings there are resilient now?
JAIN: Hard for me to say. I did a study a few years back when I was at IIT Gandhinagar where we looked at about a dozen buildings. We obtained the drawings of those buildings from several structural engineers and we looked at the buildings and we found that those buildings were not fully compliant with the codes, but they were far, far better than what the building designs used to be some 20 years earlier. I would say that things are much better, but things are not yet at a level where we can sit back and relax. There's a lot more work to be done.
Learning from Past Earthquakes
ZIERLER: Sudhir, after an earthquake occurs, what can you learn from it? What can you learn from how buildings behave that can teach you better how to build next time?
JAIN: I'll give you an example. In 1997, there was an earthquake in India in a place called Jabalpur in Central India, and that was the first time I saw in an Indian earthquake—modern 4-story, 5-story reinforced concrete frame buildings being shaken by an earthquake. Until that time, I was subscribing to what I had read in textbooks and seen in American literature, the other international literature about masonry infill walls. The concrete beams and columns, and in between there was a masonry infill wall. The developed countries don't allow those infill walls. They consider the infill walls are very bad. They can fall and they can kill people. What I saw in Jabalpur earthquake was that those infill walls are life-savers. The frame was weak and the filler wall was the one that was giving strength to it. I could see that. I wrote my observation. My American colleague responded saying, "Are you sure? This is against the conventional wisdom." I said, "Yes, because your reference is that the concrete beams and columns are so well-designed, the frame is so well-designed that your wall is weak, but in my case, the frame is so weakly performing that my wall is giving me strength." That led me to start to argue that I don't need to see brick and fill masonry as a problem, but as a solution. Now, that started to then get into my research, that started to get into my thinking, and that started to get into solutions. When you go to an earthquake, you get to see at a very, very fundamental level what works, what doesn't work, and what works better than what doesn't work. You also get a little bit of humility to see that something that you thought would behave in this way did not behave in that way.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, beyond the building itself and thinking about earthquake safety, of course there's a whole infrastructure involved. There's emergency response, there's early warning systems. In what other areas of earthquake safety have you been involved in your career?
JAIN: For example, in 1991, I went to an earthquake where there was a key bridge in the border area, the area which is bordering with China which collapsed and which disrupted traffic for several days. That led me into the bridge engineering. That got me interested in safety of bridges. I did some amount of work on bridge safety, bridge codes, and things like that. I looked at the water retaining structures, the overhead structures, the ground supported water retaining structures, things like that. There were several other areas. At one time, I got involved in the hydrocarbon gas pipelines, underground pipelines and their earthquake analysis and safety. There have been a range of infrastructure related activities in which I got drawn into and over the years, I did some work in those areas.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, are tsunamis related in a general sense to earthquake engineers? Are tsunamis something that India needs to contend with?
JAIN: This is very interesting. What happened is that India forgot about tsunamis and the conventional wisdom in India was that India doesn't have a tsunami problem. At the time I was working with Bruce Bolt, a professor of Berkeley, very famous professor of seismology at Berkeley, and I pointed out to him that there was a tsunami in the 1940s that affected Indian areas. He was quite intrigued and interested. He said, "Look, nobody's talking about that." Then, a little bit later, I don't know, maybe one year later or six months later, there was a big tsunami that happened in the Indian Ocean in 2004, if I remember it right. That then changed the perception that India doesn't have tsunami. India has a tsunami problem, but that happens relatively infrequently, and people had forgotten about it.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what about India's civilian nuclear energy program? Have you been involved with earthquake engineering and ensuring safety in that realm?
JAIN: At one time I was part of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, committees that will look at nuclear safety, earthquake safety of nuclear installations. For several years, I was on those committees. I did that. I also did one consulting project for one of the nuclear work. But that was about it. Not very deeply, but yes, there was some involvement.
ZIERLER: On that topic, what were some of the big takeaways for you from the Fukushima disaster in Japan?
JAIN: I would say that many of these episodes, they make you realize that you know less than what you think you know, and there are always surprises and there's always a need to be open to learning and to being a bit conservative. I would say that there are certain things that you cannot afford. Things like nuclear power plant safety is something that you have to be extra conservative in that.
ZIERLER: Did India respond accordingly? Are you satisfied with its preparation regarding civilian nuclear energy?
JAIN: Frankly, by the time this episode happened in Japan, I wasn't actually involved in the nuclear industry in India. India does have civilian nuclear power plants, including some in the earthquake-prone areas. Indians do have the systems in place for designing, for reviewing, and for processes. But how robust they are, I would not be able to say today.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, some questions about computation. Have you used simulation? Has that been an important part of your research?
JAIN: No, no.
ZIERLER: How come?
JAIN: I, at some level, became an earthquake safety activist, right? So, between my time for earthquake engineering research versus earthquake safety activism, I started to get inclined towards more earthquake safety activism, which means capacity building in the country, which means teaching earthquake engineering to lots of people in India, which means mentoring young faculty in other colleges, other institutions, which means writing codes, which means doing seminars, which means teaching professional engineers earthquake engineering, things like that. I did some research, and that was primarily driven by two things. One is that here is a master's student. In order to get his master's degree, this person has to be trained in research, and therefore he should do an interesting problem. That interesting problem should better be something of relevance to India. The second was, once in a while you will come across an interesting problem that India needs to solve or that the Indian situation needs. Then you say, "All right, here is a student; give that problem to him."
So, quite often, I wasn't really looking at getting more and more deep into research, but getting more and more into solving the problems. If today, I find that here is the data on ground motions that India has which nobody has studied, but which can give some useful insights, I would say, "Ah, this is a good problem to solve." Now, what techniques will be needed, how deep it will go, that's secondary. It's a useful data, nobody else is willing to study, nobody has else has thought about studying it, let's study it, let's do it. Here is a problem where we want to study how the brick masonry infill in concrete frame will behave if it has a window opening because buildings will have window openings and those methods are not available. All right, let's study that. This is an interesting problem that India needs to solve. Therefore, what you will see is that I wasn't into pushing the one particular type of problem very deep, but I was asking my students to do a fairly large range of problems. When I got interested in the underground oil pipelines, so I realized that there is an interesting problem here. So here was a master's student, and I said, "Okay, let's study that, let's solve it." It got published in a good journal, in a good American journal and good citations and all that stuff. It became a pretty well-recognized paper. But I wasn't there to become an expert in oil pipelines. I wasn't there to become expert in brick masonry infills. My focus was—the keyword for me was Indian earthquake problem. For that, if I have to do teaching, if I have to do research, if I have to do outreach, if I have to do training, if I have to do activism, if I have to raise money, whatever it takes, I will do that.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, your use of the word activism is interesting to me. Why do you use that word? What does that connote as opposed to doing research and just talking about your work?
JAIN: It means that I will try and go into the Prime Minister's office without an appointment and try to meet a senior bureaucrat after the big earthquake in India and try to persuade him to pay attention to India's earthquake problem. It means I will use my best friend's connections with the policymakers and try to go to them in Delhi and meet them and try to see if I can draw them into it. It means I will raise money and I will invite 30 colleagues from around the country, make them sit in a conference room for three days and say, "Well guys, we have a problem, let's discuss it, what we can do about it," and pay for their tickets, pay for their hospitality, write the summary of what we discussed and build a community of colleagues who now during those three days build connections, build friendships, build trust, so they can do things together. All of that doesn't go into papers. All of that doesn't go into credential building.
ZIERLER: What's the basic message? Is it all about saving lives? Is that what you go there to tell them?
JAIN: That is what it was all about. To me, that was the fundamental thing. To me, if there's an earthquake of comparable size in California, 50 people die, and if a similar earthquake were to happen in India, 20,000 people or 10,000 people or 5,000 people die. It doesn't make sense. Therefore, the question was, "Can we build better housing? Can we build better buildings? Can we build better infrastructure?" We can. But then people who got education, who are privileged to get very high-quality education, it's up to us to help solve those problems. That's what education should be all about. Education should be about being useful.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, beyond new construction, beyond embracing new building techniques for earthquake resilience, what about demolition? What about identifying areas or buildings that are just too dangerous to be allowed to left to stand?
JAIN: There are two types of things that we have. One is, suppose there is a building which is a 100-year-old, 200-year-old, 300-year-old, and India can have more than 300-year-old buildings too, which are about to collapse. Obviously, they have to be taken down. But there's another type of problem. That problem is that, here is a building or here is a housing which is not safe for earthquakes. Now, for a country like India with so much shortage of housing, it is not a realistic expectation to say that a bureaucrat or policymaker, a politician, a community leader would vote for demolishing those house not knowing where he will take these people to. My contention throughout used to be—and that is where the difference again between following the developed countries and India—was, if you go to a developed country, they would have a lot of focus on retrofitting of buildings.
My emphasis was that, look, to retrofit one hospital is so much hard work, in that much work make sure that 10 new hospitals that are being built are safe. Because unlike the West, India is still growing in its population, India is still building its infrastructure, India is still adding more hospitals, more housing, more bridges that we can just focus all our energy to make sure that no new construction will be unsafe because our energies are limited, our time is limited. Whatever effort it takes to fix and retrofit one building, in that much effort, you can make 10 or 100 buildings which are under construction safe. Until you have done a reasonably good job in making sure that most of new constructions is safe, that is when you come back to the fixing the old problems.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, beyond the messaging of saving lives, what aspects of the activism point to India's ambitions to be a modern superpower, one of the great leaders of the 21st century, and that in order to be a great leader, you can't have primitive buildings that fall down in earthquakes?
JAIN: Absolutely. This is exactly what my message used to be when I was an active academic in earthquake engineering. I said, "Look, India is doing tremendous job in so many areas. Our space program is first-class, our nuclear power, for example, our many areas of electronic industry, IT industry, they are top-class. We can't be primitive in our constructions." I took it as a kind of a personal humiliation of some sort that I was not able to move enough to my satisfaction for India to become a safer place from the infrastructure and housing considerations. That is what was driving me, and it was a very intense life I would say. That explains why I had to leave earthquake engineering and earthquake safety activism. If I were to build a new school, I believed in the potential that new school would be at the same level of some of the ancient Indian universities. India had fantastic educational systems, and Indian education attracted people from many countries outside India, 2,000 years back, 1,500 years back, 1,000 years back.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, in your activism work, in your lobbying of government agencies, what government agencies have been most important as partners for you to work with to embrace this vision of earthquake safety?
JAIN: I would say the most satisfying experience for me has been the Government of Gujarat. This is a state in India which had a big earthquake in 2001. After 2001, I started to get involved with Gujarat and they were very, very responsive, very helpful to the mission. Any suggestions I would give, they were very, very receptive and we were able to do fairly good amount of work in Gujarat during those years.
ZIERLER: What about in the industry? What have been some of the most important partners both in supporting your research and embracing the kinds of techniques and codes that you see as necessary for earthquake safety?
JAIN: What happened, David, is that when I came back to India in 1984, in India, earthquake engineering was seen as a super specialty. It was not expected that an average engineer would know about earthquake safety, earthquake engineering. Roorkee. I did my undergraduate study from Roorkee, and that is the one place that had developed earthquake engineering with the help of George Housner and Don Hudson from Caltech. They had built a Department of Earthquake Engineering, and if anybody needed any help in earthquake engineering, they would go to them and Roorkee would do consulting for that project or for that activity. When I came back to India, Roorkee was de-facto not only number one, but perhaps the only substantial institution that was doing any earthquake engineering. I said, "That is not going to meet the needs of the country." My effort was to democratize earthquake engineering by first doing practical, ground level, impactful work at Kanpur IIT and then building a community of people in different institutions who would mutually support each other, who would work together, who would do things. At some point, I actually did a workshop at Kanpur IIT for 30 people where I said, "Let us look at how we can build earthquake engineering education in the country." Because at the time, undergraduate students were not learning anything about earthquake engineering. Master's students at Roorkee were specializing in earthquake engineering but there were far too few and all that stuff. I said, "We need to do that." Those things came in handy when the 2001 earthquake came because then I was able to go into the Prime Minister's office.
That is when I was able to go to the bureaucrats and I was able to get the money from the government of India to bring earthquake engineering to large number of academic institutions in the country. That is when I leveraged the relationships I had built with other IIT professors and we created a consortium team of eight institutions in the country. We said, "Together, eight of us will use this money and train teachers, professors from other colleges, architecture colleges, engineering colleges, give them books for their libraries." Imagine, that is what I mean by activism. I'm sitting there and trying to figure out which books to give to these colleges and how to negotiate a big discount so that I can give more books in the same money. I would be negotiating the publishers on how to get more discount on the books, things like that. Now what it did was that it built a fairly large number of people who understood earthquake engineering. Before that, around 1992, I started to teach earthquake design to a lot of structural engineers in the country. I would collect them in a hotel or a big hall in Delhi or in Bombay or in Kanpur or anywhere, and I would together with my colleague who was also a Caltech PhD in earthquake engineering, C.V.R. Murty—I and Murty would teach for five days how to design buildings for earthquake. We trained large number of professional engineers, we trained large number of teachers. We democratized earthquake engineering in some sense in a very, very substantial way. That was very exciting, that was very fulfilling.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, a geopolitical question. Because so many earthquakes happen around the Indian and Pakistani border, do you see opportunity of scientific collaboration with Pakistani scientists that might in its own small way mitigate these tensions between these two neighbors?
JAIN: The answer is, the first part is, yes. In fact, after the big earthquake happened in 2005 in Kashmir, I was actually invited by Pakistanis to a seminar in Islamabad. That is where a colleague of mine in Pakistan from Peshawar, he actually drove from Peshawar all the way to Islamabad to meet me, spend time with me and he said, "Everything that is there on your website, we have printed it, we are sharing it because the best thing we can get is what you have done in India." He said when he writes to people in America, his professional colleagues, they say, "Well, why don't you look at what Sudhir's website is or what Sudhir does because that may be more relevant." I had a very warm relationship at a colleague's level, but I think geopolitics is much, much bigger and I don't think that we could have ever thought of making an impact on it.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as you look over all of the earthquakes that you've studied, is there one that jumps out in your memory as being the most instructive that has taught you the most?
JAIN: I would say that the first earthquake in India that I went to, Bihar, that was very humbling and that gave me the mission. There was not much learning per se from an engineering point of view, but it was very life-changing in some sense. Then, there was an earthquake in 1997 where I saw modern concrete buildings being held by the masonry infill walls. That was an insightful learning. Then the 2001 Gujarat earthquake was a mega-experience in terms of very large number of modern buildings collapsing, a very large number of deaths in modern buildings taking place, things like that. If you see in terms of overall big impact, perhaps the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj in Gujarat, but in terms of trajectory of your career, I think the 1988 Bihar earthquake.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, in the way that you very interestingly connect your interests in teaching and in earthquake engineering, I wonder if you see these interests as a two-way street. In other words, earthquake engineering has influenced the way you teach and your teaching has influenced the way that you approach earthquake engineering.
JAIN: Yes. The professional courses that we started to do for professional engineers, many, many questions they would ask would be so insightful. There will be so much learning that it does improve your teaching, it does improve your thinking, and it makes you better. I would say it has been a continuum of thought, the teaching and the practice of earthquake engineering, yes.
The Satisfaction of Transmitting Knowledge
ZIERLER: Is there any way to quantify, just for satisfaction's sake, how many lives have been saved in India as a result of earthquake engineering advances?
JAIN: That would be a very hard question to answer. I would say the important thing is not how many lives have been saved already, but I would say how many lives might be saved in the future. Because a building stands for 100 years, for 60 years, and if you built a building 10 years back better than what you would've built because of somebody's intervention, the potential of that building to remain safe for next 50 years, I think that is the potential.
ZIERLER: In that vein, Sudhir, what do you see as your legacy? What have you created in the field of earthquake engineering that has made India safer when earthquakes happen?
JAIN: I think if there is one thing I draw maximum satisfaction, it is that I have been able to take earthquake engineering to lot of people. I can do a finite amount of work, but if I'm able to affect X number of people—
ZIERLER: It's exponential.
JAIN: It's exponential. They can do finite multiplied by X. I would say my largest contribution is to influence people, give them the tools to design buildings safer. If there is a top consulting company in India, and in those years, you can think about the top consulting companies, the best of the best, their engineers would come and learn from us and they would pay for it. They would travel, they would live in a hotel, they would pay for it, and they would tell us that how much they benefited, how much the practice has improved in the process. So not only those people have learned, but their own office practice has improved after that. Now you have written codes which have influenced the practice. You have written codes, you have trained professional engineers, you've also trained lot of teachers who now teach, who are able to guide their students to work on earthquake safety. So, to my mind, that kind of a democratization, if I may, I would consider it as my biggest legacy for earthquake safety. If I have designed a few buildings, if I have done a few research papers, which are very well-cited, yeah, but to me, if I have been able to contribute to a younger colleague who will now write many more papers, to me that has more impact.
ZIERLER: It's about the generational transmission of knowledge. That's what it's really about.
ZIERLER: Finally, Sudhir, last question for today. What remains to be done? What are all of the important things that need to happen in the field of earthquake engineering that have not yet been accomplished? And what gives you confidence, in part because what you have created, that India as a society is up to the task?
JAIN: I would say my biggest regret and biggest concern both today about India is not so much in earthquake engineering, but on earthquake safety, and there's a distinction I make here is that India still does not have two most critical pieces of the puzzle for solving earthquake problems. One, India still does not have competence-based licensing of professional engineers, which means that any college graduate can say, "I'm a structural engineer, I'm designing this building." At the most somebody will say, "Okay, here is a person who has 10 years of experience or 5 years of experience or whatever it is." But how well he or she knows engineering, structural engineering, nobody thinks. Now, I've been pushing for that and I haven't been successful in that. That is one big regret. The second big regret is that India still does not have the local municipalities to enforce the codes. They ask the engineer to give a certificate that this is following all the codes, but they never check to get a sense, imagine now saying, "All of you pay your income tax and you certify that you've paid all the taxes due, but we will never check your taxes." These are two main regrets that I have that India hasn't yet made enough progress on, and I hope in my lifetime to see that. But who knows.
ZIERLER: These are both regulatory and cultural challenges, it sounds like.
JAIN: I do. That is why I said it is not earthquake engineering, but it is earthquake safety, and I consider myself to be an earthquake safety activist rather than earthquake engineering activist, yeah.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, this has been a wonderful introductory conversation. In our next, we'll go all the way back to the beginning, trace your family's origins. We'll go from there.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Tuesday, January 3, 2023. I am delighted to be back with Dr. Sudhir K. Jain. Sudhir, once again, it's a great pleasure to be with you. Thank you for joining me.
JAIN: Good to meet you, David, again.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, today what I want to do after yesterday's discussion, we took a wonderful tour of your approach to research and activism and higher education. Let's go all the way back to the beginning for you. Perhaps we'll start at the most basic level with your name, both your first name and last name. What is either the meaning or the origin of your name?
JAIN: My last name is Jain. Now Jain indicates the religion. My family is follower of Jainism and we are a small minority in India, and some Jains write Jain as a surname, as a family name, but not all. My first name is a fairly common name. It essentially means somebody with good patience. The middle name is a very common name that is just tagged along, that doesn't mean much, the middle name. Yeah.
ZIERLER: Now, your first name, do you think you've lived up to its ideals? Have you exhibited good patience in your life?
JAIN: I don't know. I don't know. I've been too patient sometimes and I regret it, and I've been too impatient sometimes and I regret it.
ZIERLER: Growing up, did your family practice Jainism? Was that a part of your upbringing?
JAIN: Yes. I came from a moderately conservative Jain family. The essential aspects are extreme non-violence of any kind which means that you should not say harsh words, that is also violence, or you should not tell a lie, that is also violence, and that you should not hold more wealth than what you need, that is also some sort of a no-no. I came from a moderate conservative Jain family, but I have not been very religious in the sense of the rituals, going to the temples or standing in front of the picture of the God or the statue of the God and praying, that has not been the case. But philosophically, I try to follow the good things that perhaps most religions teach anyways.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, let's go back and establish your family's origins. Where in India is your family from?
JAIN: We are from the western UP, western Uttar Pradesh, not too far from Delhi. Both my father and my mother, they grew up in small villages. My father came out of the village and studied and joined the government service. He therefore was in a position which means you get transferred from one town to the other town. I went to school in many small towns and therefore, my schooling was done over maybe seven or eight different schools, something like that.
ZIERLER: What level of education did your parents attain?
JAIN: My father did a undergraduate degree and then he got a what in those days used to be called Diploma in Engineering. He was a civil engineer working for the Government. My mother did some basic schooling in the village, not more than that.
ZIERLER: Now, did your father involve you in his work? When you were a boy, did you understand what a civil engineer did?
JAIN: I would sometimes accompany him to the site where a building is under construction or a road is under construction. It was a good time to bond with him, to spend time with him, and to see what he does.
ZIERLER: Were your parents or grandparents affected either by World War II or by partition?
ZIERLER: What did that mean for that region when independence happened in 1947? Nothing really changed?
JAIN: These were rural areas in western UP, so I don't think that there was any significant migration one way or the other as a result of the partition of the independence.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what languages were spoken in your household growing up?
JAIN: Always only Hindi.
ZIERLER: And where did you pick up English? Was that only in school?
JAIN: Yeah, English was only picked up as a second language in school, and up to class 12 I would read math and physics and chemistry in Hindi. It was only when I went to the engineering college that I started to study it in English books for my subject.
ZIERLER: Now when you mentioned you switched many schools, did you move around a lot geographically?
JAIN: Yeah, different towns. My father would get transferred to another town, so I would study in a school for one year or one-and-a-half year and then he'll get transferred to another town. The whole family would move there to the new town and then I'd go to a new school and then another year or two years, you'd again get moved to another town, like that.
ZIERLER: Do you think those experiences served you well in terms of adaptability and meeting new people?
JAIN: I would say those helped me build some resilience. But one of the interesting things that happened was that I happened to be in a particular town for one year where there was a teacher, school teacher who influenced me very deeply. He remained my friend, philosopher, guide, my mentor for very, very long time till he died.
ZIERLER: What was his name?
JAIN: Mueed Ahmad Azmi, a Muslim gentleman, he remained in touch with me for 40 years. That was a very enriching, very valuable mentoring and influence that I had.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, tell me about your education in high school. Did you have a strong curriculum in math and science?
JAIN: The kind of schools I went to were not great schools. They were pretty ordinary schools. I was perhaps reasonably good in studying math and science. I wasn't so good in English or Hindi. The languages was not my strength. Similarly, the social sciences, the geography, the history, that was not my strong point. But I was fairly good in math and science, and that is what carried me through. It took me a while to understand the value of other subjects.
ZIERLER: Between geography and your grades and your family's financial situation, what colleges, what undergraduate schools were available to you when you finished high school?
JAIN: I could have gotten almost any school in India for Engineering. There is a very competitive exam in India to go to IIT. In those days, there were these five IITs, Indian Institutes of Technology, and I had an All-India Rank of 69 which means that I could get to any institution that I wanted to. I also got into Roorkee, and Roorkee is where my father had studied and some of my uncles had studied and with some persuasion from my father, I decided to eventually go to Roorkee and do civil engineering.
ZIERLER: Was your father encouraging of you to pursue civil engineering? Did he have positive experiences in his career?
JAIN: That's right. He thought that is the only engineering worth pursuing.
Early Focus on Civil Engineering
ZIERLER: Now at the time, the University of Roorkee was not part of IIT?
ZIERLER: What was the circumstances of it becoming an IIT school? How does that work?
JAIN: The way it works is that Roorkee was the oldest engineering school, not only in India, but in the entire British Commonwealths set up in 1847 and it was very, very prestigious. There was some discussion apparently at sometime in the 1950s that the Government of India wanted to take it over and make it an IIT and UP Government, the Government of the state, wasn't inclined to part with the prestigious university that it was very proud of. Later, the state of UP itself got bifurcated into two states, and geographically Roorkee went into a state called U Harakhand, which was mountainous area whose economy was not so strong, and they felt that this is a lot of expenditure, and they were very happy to let it go to the Central Government and Central Government then made it an IIT.
ZIERLER: Now Sudhir, in India, is it like the British system where once you enter college, you declare the major right away?
ZIERLER: Did you have a more general education, or it's technical, it's focused right from the beginning?
JAIN: It was practically an engineering college, engineering education. There were very nominal humanities requirement, but very, very nominal, and those were not done with the rigor and those were not taken with seriousness by the students.
ZIERLER: Among the undergraduates in the program, how many do you think had ambitions for academic style jobs as opposed to going into industry?
JAIN: In my class, practically, there were none. The young people of the generation that I was in, teaching was not considered a very glamorous job. Roorkee students like us had not yet understood the potential of going to the United States for higher studies and for settling down. The students from IIT had learned it, especially IIT Kanpur was set up by American financial and technical aid. There was a very large number of students from Kanpur that would go straight to American universities. Then once they study in Americans schools, they would end up staying back, things like that. But in Roorkee, that was not so common.
ZIERLER: Now, were your ambitions when you started to go into industry like your father? Was that the plan?
JAIN: No, the plan was that I made a deal with my father that I will not be a professional engineer. I didn't want to be a civil engineer. When I eventually decided, then I said, I would rather be a professor. There was a particular professor at Roorkee who my father and my uncles used to admire, and when I was finishing my high school and there was a big discussion in the house, of should I go to civil engineering in Roorkee versus electrical electronics engineering in one of the IITs, my father took me to meet some people, some eminent people to see if they would answer my questions. During that trip, he took me to this professor in Roorkee. When I met him and the way he handled me, I was quite impressed and I said, "Ah, I would like to be like him. I would like to be a teacher like him one day." I told my father that, "You would not ask me to be a professional engineer" and he said, "Yes, fair enough."
ZIERLER: Did you realize if you had academic ambitions that the best path would be to leave India for graduate school?
JAIN: The thinking at the time was that I want to be a teacher at Roorkee. That was also in the ambition part. In those days, you could get a teaching job with a master's degree and sometimes even with a B. Tech degree, undergraduate degree. But for your career progression, for your growth, you needed a PhD. It was clear that you need to do PhD. There was something inside that said, you want to do a good PhD, you want to go to a good school. This professor at Roorkee, he was my role model. While I was still a student, finished my junior year, he became director, the president of the IIT in Delhi. One day, I went to him in Delhi and I asked him, "I want to study further because I want to be a teacher as I have been telling you, and I want to go to possibly America or somewhere to do a good PhD, and what do you advise?" He said, "Look, America has some very good universities, but also some mediocre universities. Why don't you try only the top universities? And if you get them, fine. If you don't get them, come to IIT Delhi or go to any of the IIT, do your master's degree and then try for these top universities for PhD." So that is how—America was not the high priority. Going to study further anywhere in India or outside was the plan.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, did you excel in your undergraduate studies? Did you do very well in civil engineering as an undergraduate?
JAIN: Yeah. All through four years, I was the highest ranker the entire university, all the branches of engineering.
ZIERLER: Did that help clarify your ambitions that it seemed like going beyond being a teacher of engineering was in the cards for you?
JAIN: I think as a young student, I must have been ambitious. I must have been wanting to do things well. I must have been wanting to be respected by my students. But where that trajectory will be, that was not clear. In fact, I asked this professor, "Am I making a mistake by being a teacher?" He said, "If you are a successful teacher, there is nothing—no career is better than that. But if you are a failed teacher, there's no career which is worse than that." That stuck my mind that if I have to be a teacher, I have to be a good teacher. I have to do justice with my job.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as you emphasized in our conversation yesterday, your interest in education were really central to your research and your activism. What did you learn or what did you come away with in terms of your appreciation for education as an undergraduate yourself?
JAIN: As an undergraduate, I would say it was a fairly narrow outlook that I had at that time. It was to study, to do well, to move on further and to be a teacher. I could say I wasn't looking to the next step, but I was looking at the ultimate step of being a teacher. I was clear that I wanted to do only structural engineering. I would not like to do other branches of civil engineering. I would not want to be an environmental engineer or a geotechnical engineer or a transportation engineer. Those things were very clear in my mind.
ZIERLER: Now, as an undergraduate, if I recall correctly, this sub-discipline of earthquake engineering was unknown to you at the time.
JAIN: That's right.
ZIERLER: When it was time to think about graduate schools, did you focus exclusively in the United States? Did you think about perhaps Cambridge and Oxford also?
JAIN: No, I only applied to four colleges in US to get the application forms and then I eventually sent my application form only to Caltech. While I was doing that, I also sent my application to several IITs in India for master's admission because I wasn't sure that everything will go well with my admission at Caltech, whether I'll get admitted, whether I'll get financial aid, and if so, whether I'll get a visa and things like that. I was being conservative to apply also to Indian schools.
ZIERLER: Now, among the four schools that you considered in the United States, why did you only follow through with Caltech?
JAIN: The other three wanted $25 or $30 or $20 of application fee. I did not have GRE results, I did not have the English test. There is a TOEFL, so I did not have the TOEFL results. I did not have GRE results, and therefore, I was a very poor candidate for admission in that year without those results. I had appeared in those exams around the time that applications were being filled, but when I would apply, my results will not be available. It didn't make sense to spend money on something that is very unlikely to happen.
ZIERLER: But you still had to choose one among four. Why Caltech?
JAIN: Caltech didn't ask for money. Caltech was the only place out of four that didn't ask for money with the application.
ZIERLER: Now, did you have a sense of Caltech's reputation, or was it just a small school in Pasadena that you'd never heard of before?
JAIN: I had heard California from my professor, and then when I went back to Roorkee, I looked at California and I found that there are two very famous schools in California. One is Berkeley and one is Caltech. Now, I wasn't sure whether my professor meant Berkeley or Caltech. I included both because the book in the library that talked about American schools, that said both are very famous schools, both are very good schools. That's how California became two colleges.
Arrival in Pasadena
ZIERLER: Now, when you received the acceptance from Caltech, was it an easy decision? Did you also consider staying at one of the IITs?
JAIN: No. Once I got admission, it was very clear that is what I wanted. The only thing is that I had heard about—you still have to get a visa and what if you don't get visa? When I got admission, I did not have the passport. So now, I apply for passport. I go to passport office in another town. I chase that. Once I get the passport, then I apply for visa and things like that. All those things take time, so I wasn't sure if everything will go well. Therefore, I applied to some
ZIERLER: You had never traveled internationally before?
JAIN: Never, never. I had never sat on an aircraft. The first time I sat on an aircraft was to sit in the aircraft from Delhi to Tokyo and then next day from Tokyo to Los Angeles.
ZIERLER: Wow. Did you have any family in the United States?
JAIN: Nobody. I had nobody. Nobody from my family had gone outside India.
ZIERLER: What year did you arrive in Pasadena? Was it 1979?
ZIERLER: What were your early impressions landing in Los Angeles, getting to campus? What sticks out in your memory?
JAIN: I had no friends. I didn't know anybody. There was a lady at Caltech by the name, Ingrid Gumpel, who was one person, international office. She had written a letter saying that when you reach LAX, there's a shuttle service that will take you to the Hilton or the Sheraton in Pasadena. From there, you'll take a cab, come to Athenaeum and then give me a call. That is exactly what I did. I went to Hilton, took the cab, went to Athenaeum, and I had no idea where I will stay the night. I called her from Athenaeum and she walked up to Athenaeum from her office, and she said, "Oh, so you are here," in the sense that I had not even informed her ahead of time that I'm reaching on that day and I would need accommodation or anything like that. She organized a senior graduate student of Indian origin. His name was Sridhar and he was doing PhD in physics. She said to Sridhar, "Sridhar, take Sudhir to your house, let him sleep there." That's how then Sridhar took me to his house and I slept there.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the curriculum when you started at Caltech. In what areas did you feel well-prepared? Where did you have to catch up?
JAIN: The curriculum was a big surprise to me. George Housner who was a professor in civil engineering had sent me a letter saying that "Unless you have some other ideas, here are the courses I suggest." Now, my original admission was for master's degree and to do master's degree at Caltech, you needed 15 courses to be done over three quarters, five courses per quarter. The list of 15 courses he sent to me were fairly broad. Out of those, three courses were mathematics, three courses were solid mechanics, three courses were vibrations and dynamics, three courses were geotechnical engineering, and three courses were business economics and management. My romantic idea of what structural engineering should be, it should be about concrete, it should be about steel, it should be about making big buildings and big bridges. None of those courses were there. Out of the courses that I listed just now, only three courses, the solid mechanics course came anywhere close to what my idea of structural engineering was. I came here. Also, I realized that they required three courses, 20% of humanities and social science courses, and wisely George Housner had given me suggestion of business economics and management, because it's a bit mathematical, it's something that suits an engineering temperament that I had as compared to a course on history or literature.
When I came here, I was a little worried that, am I short-changing my whole plan to be a holistic structural engineer. After about a month or month-and-a-half, maybe two months, I went to George Housner and I said, "The courses that I'm having here are not applied enough. They're very fundamental courses. Could I request you to write my recommendation letters for other universities?" He said, "Okay." I applied to Stanford, to Berkeley, to Urbana-Champaign, and eventually I got a call from Berkeley. A professor called me from there and he said, "Are you sure you want to come from Caltech to Berkeley? We will be happy to give you the admission, but have you thought it through?" We had some discussion what it will mean to be at Berkeley and all that. Then he said, "All right, take one week to decide and let me know." I thought about it. By the time I had settled here, I had understood what the fundamental courses at Caltech were doing to me, I was learning a lot and I was getting settled. Then I called him ahead of my deadline, I said, "I don't want to carry the burden of this decision over the weekend. I have made up my mind. I would stay at Caltech." So that settled it, and I'm so glad that I stayed back at Caltech.
ZIERLER: Why did you make that decision? What were you considering?
JAIN: I think Caltech, by the time, had become a very nice place for me. When I came to Caltech last June for the Alumni Award and there were some questions that were asked to me in my interview or here and there, I said that Caltech was a very nice place. It does not give you any stress of any kind. You feel very secure, you feel the warmth of people, you are comfortable. I had started to enjoy that, and I had also started to enjoy the fact that the academic work was very deep. It was not covering everything that you needed, but whatever they were teaching, they were teaching it at very deep level.
ZIERLER: What about your concerns that the curriculum was not as applied as you might have wanted?
JAIN: Yeah. There was a compromise, and I felt that I can make up in my own way in due course, but right now, let me enjoy what I'm getting here. In fact, after a while, I started to become very proud of what I was learning at Caltech.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, did you get to know George Housner on a personal level?
JAIN: Not at a very personal level. I would say that as a student, I didn't know what it means to be at personal level in the sense that I was his student. I would learn from him. I would attend his classes. I was his teaching assistant. He was a mentor and a guide, but would I hang out with him? The answer is no.
ZIERLER: I'm sure you know now what a unique person he was, how wide-ranging his interests were. Did you have a sense of that as a graduate student?
JAIN: Yeah. Yeah, we had some idea, but what happened is that my connection with George Housner actually grew after I left Caltech. He would keep me in his thoughts. He would send me a letter, he would send me a book, he would send me a newspaper clipping. Once in a while, I'd ask him some question about some dilemma that I had. I also made a habit at Kanpur when I was a faculty there to try to go to Caltech as often as I could. I would go just for a few days, just sit in the library, just meet everybody, go to Chandler Cafeteria, have food, go to the Burger Continental, have a falafel, and just soak in Pasadena, soak in Caltech. That kept my connection with George Housner active. In later years when he stopped coming to Caltech, I would make sure that if I'm in town, I would always go to his house to meet him, or later when he was into the old-age home, I would go and meet him.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, tell me about the social scene for you as a graduate student. Did you hang out with other international students? Was there an Indian student community that were friends, or did you mix in with American students as well?
JAIN: I lived on 297 South Holliston. There was a big bungalow that Caltech owned, and Caltech had given it to students to live. We were what is called co-op there. There were a couple of Indian students in my first year and several American students. I started out living with the American students, but most of the time my socialization happened more with Indian community.
ZIERLER: Now, at what point when you initially arrived was it the master's program that you were going for, at what point did that simply become incidental on the way to the PhD?
JAIN: From my mind, it was always clear that I have come here to do a PhD. It is just that Caltech's admission process was such that they gave me admission letter for master's and then they must have given me a second letter or something, or I might have filled up a form saying that I want to continue. But in my mind, it was always clear that I was here for the PhD.
ZIERLER: Besides George Housner, were there any other professors that you considered mentors or that you worked with closely?
JAIN: Yeah, Paul Jennings was my thesis supervisor. In addition, I was also influenced by Ron Scott who taught me three courses of soil mechanics. I would say these three people were my first experiences of Caltech teaching and Caltech mentoring. I learned from all three of them a lot. Later of course, there were other professors.
ZIERLER: What was Paul Jennings working on when you interacted with him?
JAIN: When I was working with him, he had become very busy with work outside Caltech. For example, he became President of EERI. He would fly over to Washington DC for lobbying for funding and for various other things. That was a period when he was really going out quite a bit for earthquake engineering community work, if I may. Both George Housner and Paul Jennings had one great quality, that they would tell the students, "Go and do anything you want." They never told us what research problem they wanted us to do. They never gave us the research problem. The message was, "Here is a library, go there, find any problem that interests you, and do a PhD in that." They were very, very hands-off. That was very confusing initially, that was also frustrating initially, but that was the best training that a graduate student can get, if a student can survive that. That became my way of mentoring my students and my young colleagues to let them be, to let them decide for themselves what they want to do.
Introduction to Earthquake Engineering
ZIERLER: Now, do you have a specific recollection of when you became aware of the field or subfield of earthquake engineering?
JAIN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. When I got admission from Caltech, it became clear that Caltech is a place for earthquake engineering. Now, what I mentioned to you yesterday—Roorkee where I was an undergraduate had set up an earthquake engineering program with the help of George Housner and Don Hudson. I was studying in the Civil Engineering Department, but there was another Department of Earthquake Engineering. That Department had two professors who had done their master's at Caltech in the early 1960s. I went to them to ask, "How is Caltech?" Then one of them offered me to work with him in the summer. That is, after I finished my final exams of the undergraduate and before I go to Caltech, I could work with him. I actually got a first job for about couple of months working for this professor in earthquake engineering. I became pretty familiar that when I'm coming to Caltech, I'm coming for earthquake engineering, and that was not a difficulty.
ZIERLER: Do you remember if you thought that this field really spoke to you, that this is where you would focus your interests? Was that immediate for you?
JAIN: No. The thing was very simple, that if you want to be a faculty in structural engineering, you have to do a PhD. Structural engineering has several branches or several specializations within structural engineering. Here, you are getting an opportunity to do specialization in earthquake structural engineering or structural earthquake engineering, and you are getting that opportunity from one of the finest places in the world. That was very exciting, that was very welcome.
ZIERLER: Did you have any interaction with the Seismo Lab or education in geophysics?
JAIN: Yeah. In my second year at Caltech, I did a course on physics of earthquakes from Kanamori.
ZIERLER: Did you recognize at the time what a special researcher Hiroo Kanamori was?
JAIN: Kanamori was a brilliant person. Very, very, exciting personality, yeah.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, tell me about developing your thesis topic. How did that come about?
JAIN: Oh, that was horrible. Here I am, a graduate student who has come from Roorkee, and most Indian students who used to come to Caltech were from IITs. I'm already a poor cousin, and here I am telling everybody that I'm looking for a thesis topic. While everybody is working in a research group, everybody has some clarity about their research topic or at least broadly, and perhaps, some of the friends of mine from Indian community who came from IITs, they thought that I have no idea what I'm doing. So here I am. I will go to library, sit there with coffee, go through journals, trying to see what is being published, what people are doing, and make notes and see if I can make a research problem out of this or that problem. Can I get some inspiration for an interesting research problem from the topics that people are working on? I used to do this day in and day out for months together.
I think it must have been four or five months that I did not see Paul Jennings. Paul Jennings' office was right next to the library. He would not close his door. His door will be always open. When I'm entering into library, when I'm coming out of library, he can see me. But I wouldn't go to him for months, right? One day he saw me in the corridor and he said, "How are you doing?" I said, "Good." He said, "Come sometime. Let's talk about what you're doing." I said, "Okay." I went to him and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "Here are some interesting things that are coming to my mind that could possibly be a thesis topic." He said, "Okay, tell me." I started telling one, two, three, four, five, six. I remember telling him six ideas. But when I was telling him those six ideas, when I went to his room, I had no idea which out of six will go through. But when I was explaining to him these six ideas, I said, "Out of these six I mentioned to you, these two look more promising than the other four." He said, "Yes, that is what my impression was based on what you said."
ZIERLER: Sudhir, to clarify, these were six topics that each in and of themselves could have been their own thesis topic?
JAIN: I was thinking that. Then I said, "All right, let me think about these two and come back to you." He said, "Okay." I think after a couple of months, I went to him and I said, "Look, out of these two topics, this one doesn't appeal to me, but this one makes sense to me and this is what this problem is all about." He got pretty excited in a way. He stood up. There there was his jacket that was hanging on a hanger. He removed the coat and took the hangar and started to bend it and said, "So this is what you mean, that buildings will behave like that?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Yeah, that looks interesting. Go ahead and study that." That's it. After that I started to crank that problem and it became a fairly fun activity. Every two weeks I would go to him with calculations, with some derivation and said, "This is what I've solved." He's like, "Oh, very nice." I'd make a photocopy of whatever I have done and give him a photocopy. He said, "I'll see it." I said, "Fine." After two weeks again, I'd go with another one, and he'd say, "Oh, I haven't seen the last one. Let me keep this one also." This kept happening for almost three, four, five times. He hadn't seen any one of them. I would tell him what I have solved, and he'd say, "Okay, I'll see it." Then, after four, five times, he said, "I think you've done enough. Start writing." I said, "Are you sure?" He said, "Yeah, yeah, you've done enough. Go ahead, write." I was very weak in writing. I had not done writing courses. I was not privileged to go to good schools where the teachers will teach you writing. Writing took me a bit of time, fairly slow in writing, and that is when he really mentored, he helped me write my thesis better. That's how the thesis happened actually.
ZIERLER: Do you think it was a vote of confidence in you that Paul took such a hands-off approach?
JAIN: I don't know. It is hard to say—what happened is that when I went there to join Caltech, Caltech had given me letter that George Housner is my advisor. Now, I was supposed to get some laboratory assistantship and I was supposed to help in the laboratory work. In my first meeting to George Housner, I said, "What work do you want me to do?" He said, "Oh, you first study and come back to me after a couple of weeks." I went there to him after two, three weeks, and I said, "Have you thought about what I have to do?" He said, "Yeah, study some more. We'll come back, we'll come back." Like that. He wasn't giving me any work for the money that I was supposed to earn. I got a little anxious. I one day went to Paul Jennings and he was what they used to call as the executive officer, of civil engineering or something. I went to Paul Jennings and I said, "You know what? I'm supposed to be doing some work for Professor Housner and I haven't got any work yet and I'm a little worried that I should be doing my work." He said, "Don't worry, we feel in first year you should study more, and it is okay if you do no work or less work, but when you go into third year or fourth year, you'll do much more work, so it'll even out, don't worry." So practically in the first year, even though I was supposed to be a graduate laboratory assistant and I was getting money for being that, I was not asked to do any work whatsoever. It so happened that after I joined Caltech, there was an earthquake in El Centro and Ron Scott was teaching us a soil mechanics course.
One day, he said, "I have a graduate student going to El Centro," and I said, "Can I go with him?" He said, "Sure, I will ask him to take you with him." I went with his student to El Centro—and I was in California hardly two or three weeks, maybe four weeks. There was a building, Imperial County Services building that became famous because of that earthquake. That had certain columns that had buckled and the whole bay had settled. It was very drastic kind of a site. I saw, wow, this is what its reinforcements can do. I went to the County Office and I said, "I'm a structural engineer from Caltech and I want to study this building. Would you give me the drawings?" They said, "Okay, come back at 5 o'clock, we'll make a set of drawings for you." I went back at 5 o'clock, they gave me the drawings. I thought I'll study them. This graduate student must have told Ron Scott, and Ron Scott must have told it to George Housner. I don't know how George Housner came to know. One day, about a week after the trip, George Housner saw me in the library and he said, "I hear you have the drawings of that El Centro building." I said, "Yes." He said, "Come and see me." I said, "Fine." Then I started to do some calculations for that which was not part of the coursework.
I took it that my assistantship was covered by doing those calculations in some sense by studying that building. But Caltech was very, very generous with that. Then, what happened is that after a year, one day I had a meeting with George Housner and Paul Jennings, and George Housner was going into retirement. He said, "I will be available to you, but you'll be formally working with Paul Jennings." Both of them together, they said to me that, "You can do anything you want in earthquake engineering, any topic you choose. Here is a library, go and study and decide what you want." Now, whether it was a confidence in my capabilities, I don't know. But when I look back, if I were in George Housner's position—at that time, I did not realize that my act of going to El Centro when none of my other classmates chose to go to El Centro—I was just a few weeks into Caltech—going to El Centro, then going and getting a set of drawings from—it was a new country for me, new office for me—I think they must have given me some credit for taking that initiative, and it must have formed a good impression in their mind that I was a responsible person.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what was the central question for your thesis? What were you focused on?
JAIN: What happens is that when there is a building and it is subjected to earthquake vibrations, the earthquake vibrations happen in all possible directions, vertical and horizontal. Now, when the ground moves up and down, it essentially means that the weight of the building increases or decreases as the vertical acceleration happens. Suppose the building is 100 kilo, it will become more, it will become 120 kilo or less, or it will become 80 kilo. Since we design it with some factor of safety, it is able to stand that vertical vibration. But what happens in the horizontal vibration, that causes it a horizontal force for which under normal circumstances the building is not designed for, and that horizontal vibration causes it to sometimes get damaged or collapse. Now, that is an essential aspect.
Then what happens is that when you look at a building, suppose it is a multi-story building, or one-story or two story or ten-story, it doesn't matter, it has a concrete floor. Now, that floor, when it is vibrating in a horizontal direction, it moves back and forth as a horizontal plate kind of thing, which means that the columns go with it as if it is one solid rigid plate. My idea at the time, and it was a relatively early years of that idea, was that what if this plate is relatively long and narrow, and therefore, this plate itself is flexible and it is moving in the horizontal direction like a beam—if I could explain to you with a piece of paper, suppose here is a floor, this is a concrete floor, right? Now, what happens is that when I vibrate, it goes like this, which means all the columns that are connected with it with the ground, they will also move back and forth. Which means that the column here and the column here, they will move by the same amount. But if this plate, if it is a floor, if this floor is like this now, like this, it is very long and its width is small, then the floor will also bend like this, it'll go like this. When it does that, then the columns that are connected with that will have a totally different type of behavior. That was the whole idea that, can I study what happens to buildings which have relatively narrow—let me just show you another example of this. Suppose there's a building which is like this. This is the way its plan is, right? It is a school building. Maybe there's classrooms here and there are classrooms here. Now, if the earthquake comes like this, there's a chance that it might tear like this, it might tear at the corners. Those kind of ideas, when I was able to come up with that, this is the problem that I want to possibly look at, this type of behavior. That is what was the central idea.
ZIERLER: What were your conclusions?
JAIN: There are two, three things we learned. One is that we came up with certain analysis which showed that under certain circumstances, this is a possibility. Later when I went back to Kanpur, a couple of my students did an extension for that and said, "If you want to avoid that problem, then how do you design the building? How do you design the stiffness, the beams and the columns and the stiffness so that this effect is minimized?" What we learned was how these buildings behave and how these buildings can be designed so that this effect will not be detrimental for safety.
ZIERLER: Besides Paul, who else was on your thesis committee?
JAIN: There are two exams that you go through. One is the comprehensive exam and one is the thesis defense. For my thesis defense, there was a professor, Charles Babcock in Aerospace, and if I remember it right, Tom Caughey must have been there, Kanamori must have been there, George Housner was there, certainly Paul Jennings. Broadly, I think this might have been my thesis defense committee. My comprehensive committee might have had George Housner, Paul Jennings, Caughey, maybe one person might have been different, but more or less similar names.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what did you see with the thesis as your contributions to the field? What had you added with this work?
JAIN: I thought that I developed an understanding of this kind of phenomenon, because at that time I had not seen this phenomena being discussed. I was able to look at the literature and I was able to say that what I was discovering through the calculations, through the mathematics, through the equations, was actually what was experienced by the buildings in the ground during the earthquakes. I was able to look at the past earthquakes, what happened to buildings of different earthquakes, and I was able to actually get examples where I could correlate with what I was learning mathematically with what was happening in the ground. I felt satisfied that I was doing something to better understand the buildings in some sense and which led to later better understanding of how buildings should be designed better.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, while you were in southern California, did you experience any earthquakes? Was that useful at all for your studies?
JAIN: I told you the first earthquake was in El Centro when I was a student there. Then the second earthquake was a pretty problematic earthquake. What happened is that in 1983, I was very keen to submit my thesis by the last date by which if I submit, I will get the commencement degree, and I will wear the gown and get my degree, because I wanted to go home immediately after my studies and there was no chance that I was coming back for the commencement. I was keen that I should do it well ahead of time. It so happened that a couple of days before the last date, as Paul Jennings was reading possibly my last chapter or second-last chapter—there was a library in Thomas Lab where there was a buzzer; every time there's an earthquake, that buzzer will sound an alarm so that professors would know that there is an earthquake somewhere—I was with Paul Jennings and suddenly that buzzer came and he got up and we both went to the library and he looked at the seismograph and he said, "Ah, there's an earthquake," and then the phone call started coming, and next day he was off to Northridge earthquake. Aha! What that means is that I'm not going to be able to submit my thesis. But Caltech has been a very nice place. I went to the graduate office where there were these secretaries and I went to one of them and I said, "Look, the last date is"—I don't remember the date, let's say 15th of May, whatever date. I said, "Look, 15th May is the last date and Professor Paul Jennings has gone to Northridge and my chapter is stuck. Do you think you can help me?" She said, "Yeah, yeah, we'll give you two days" or one day extra or something like that. I just made it. I made it on the extended time—last hour, I was able to submit the thesis and get my degree. There were two earthquakes that happened during my years at Caltech, one at the beginning and one at the end.
ZIERLER: As you mentioned yesterday, you always knew you'd want to come back, return to India. Did you ever waver, did you ever think that while you were at Caltech you might make a life for yourself in the United States, or you were always focused?
JAIN: I was always focused. There was only one little episode that one day happened. I was in the library and I saw an advertisement from MIT for a position, Structural Engineering Assistant Professor, and I saw that and I went to Paul Jennings and I said, "There is a position at MIT." He said, "So?" I said, "I was thinking that I might apply." He said, "But don't you always say that you want to go back to India?" I said, "Yeah, but what is the chance that MIT will give me a job? Most unlikely. So how does it matter?" He said, "My rule in my own life has been that if you don't want a job, don't ever apply for it because then you get sucked into something that you didn't want your life to go through." Then he gave me his own example of the astronaut program when he was a young person and that there was a temptation for him. He was at the Air Force Academy, to apply for astronaut program and he said, "I decided that's not the career I wanted and I didn't apply." That was very good learning from him for me. These are the small things that happen to young people. They hear from their mentor something and that sticks to them, which will be very hard to stick at an older age. Over the years, I've never tried to even engage with any conversation about any job that I'm not serious about.
Determination to Return to India
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as you were focused then on returning to India, was it specifically earthquake engineering, both as a research profession and also as an area of activism for you to develop? Was that the plan from early on?
JAIN: No. The plan at that time was to somehow survive India. The image at the time was India was still not an open economy. Things were very difficult economically. India was a closed economy, closed country. It was not easy to travel outside. It was not easy to buy a book even from outside. There was these big permits you needed from the Reserve Bank of India to buy a Foreign Exchange to be able to buy a book from foreign country, things like that. India was a very difficult place supposedly. When I was coming to India, practically all my friends and well-wishers, they thought I was going nuts, I was going crazy. They all predicted whether I'll come back to United States in six months or one year or how long I will survive India. When I came back to India, my real concern was not whether I'll do earthquake engineering or not. It was whether I will settle down in India gracefully and make a living here.
As I told you, the earthquake engineering at that time was primarily the monopoly of Roorkee. I had gone to Roorkee to join, but I also had job offers from some of the other IITs and other places. I went to Roorkee and I gave my paper to the head of the department saying, "I'm here to report for duty." After I gave him the paper, I said, "Now, I want one month leave." He said, "What do you mean? You have just given me the paper for joining today and you want a one-month leave? What is that?" I said, "I have these job offers and I want to go to these places and I want to understand what India is all about, what other places are doing. It'll be really helpful to me in my job at Roorkee." He said, "Okay, fine." He returned my paper back to me and he said, "Go first and look at all those places and then come back and join." I said, "Fine."
Then, I went on a trip to India, different places that I had job offers, including Kanpur. I fell in love with Kanpur. It was an American setup where people had an American way of doing things. Very informal, very friendly, very flat, no hierarchy. I just liked it and I ended up joining at Kanpur. Now, when I was joining at Kanpur, it was clear that Kanpur didn't have any earthquake engineering. There were no colleagues doing earthquake engineering at the time. It was clear that the chance of my being able to do good earthquake engineering at Kanpur was very, very remote. I figured that I had learned at Caltech the structural dynamics, the dynamics of structures, the vibrations of structures, and therefore, I argued to myself that I could do ocean engineering, the structures that are sitting in the ocean, because of the ocean waves, they vibrate. I could do wind engineering or I could do earthquake engineering. All of those would involve vibrations of structures. I was open-minded about it. In fact, the first two research proposals I wrote after joining Kanpur were in ocean engineering actually, and both were funded. When I joined Kanpur, I was very open-minded about what I will do. But then after I went to Kanpur, I started to teach vibrations, I started to teach earthquake engineering, and slowly, I started to get involved in earthquake engineering. Then the 1988 earthquake came four years after I joined Kanpur, and that sealed the deal that there's no going back to anything other than earthquake engineering.
ZIERLER: Tell me why. Why was that event so formative?
JAIN: This earthquake had happened in northern Bihar which is bordering area with Nepal, and it is a fairly underdeveloped area. I felt the pain of the people whose houses are broken or collapsed or who are homeless. I felt that this wasn't necessary, this could have been better. I came back thinking that this was the mission, that people could live better after the earthquakes.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, would you say this is the origins of when you started to think about earthquake safety as something distinct from earthquake engineering?
JAIN: That's right. That's right.
ZIERLER: What did that mean to you at that early moment? What would earthquake safety mean? How would that affect your career going forward?
JAIN: As an earthquake engineering person, what am I thinking? I'm thinking that I am to teach earthquake engineering to students and they might go and solve societal problems. I will also do research work in earthquake engineering which will be published in reputed journals, preferably international journals. I would be considered a very smart guy, very capable guy, very competent guy, very distinguished academic. That is what being an earthquake engineering academic is about. Now, when you look at earthquake safety, you look at it in a totally different way. You want people to not die in earthquakes. You want people to live safely in earthquakes. For that, you need to teach your students, of course, because they will be part of the solution eventually. But now your research problems are driven by what you see on the ground rather than what is published in the journals. In the first scenario, you look at the interesting problem that will be published in a good journal, you're saying, "This is a good problem that will be published in a journal." Now, it may be useful or it may not be useful. In the second case, you're saying, "I want to solve this problem because it is of relevance to India, it is of relevance to my people, and by the way, it might be published, and it might not be published, in American Society of Civil Engineers." It might be published from a journal in Bombay or in Calcutta, which is not having as much of an academic reputation.
Now, when you look at earthquake safety, then you say, "Aha, the people are working with these codes that are stone ages. They're not relevant, they're written wrongly, they're typed wrongly, they're giving incorrect calculation. Let me fix that." You meet somebody who misunderstands the code. You say, "Okay, let me teach him how to follow the code correctly." Now all these things don't give you the academic credit, but they give you satisfaction that you are solving a societal problem. Now as an earthquake engineering academic, you are publishing papers for yourselves, but as an earthquake activist, you are saying, "Can the quality of research in earthquake engineering be better in the country?" I would now do a workshop for graduate students doing a PhD or master's in earthquake engineering, collect them at IIT Kanpur, pay them travel, pay them local hospitality, do a workshop for them how to do research, give them access to all my books, all my journals, so that they can be a little bit better prepared to do their own work. I would collect their teachers in Kanpur, I would pay their travel, I pay their expenses, and I will teach them for a week some interesting stuff, so that they can go back and teach their students better. Now your entire focus is shifted from being an academic who is trying to be good academically, to a person who is trying to solve country's need or society's need. That is where that shift happened over the years.
Building up the Discipline
ZIERLER: Sudhir, to go back to that original realization that there was no one else at IIT Kanpur doing earthquake engineering, was that part of your goal as well, to build up that discipline at IIT Kanpur?
JAIN: Yes. Yes. I was very proactively campaigning to look for people who had good educational experience to bring them to IIT Kanpur. I would proactively push the administration at Kanpur to let IIT Kanpur recruit some good earthquake engineering people. I was instrumental in recruiting somebody who had done a PhD from USC, University of Southern California in earthquake engineering. Later, I was instrumental in recruiting somebody who was a PhD from Caltech in earthquake engineering with John Hall. Then, later I was instrumental in recruiting somebody who had done his PhD from Michigan and was teaching at Roorkee. I brought him from Roorkee. In fact, this Caltech guy came from IIT Delhi. I brought him from Delhi IIT. My effort was to build very strong earthquake engineering and I was a good team player because that's what I had seen, George Housner and colleagues working as a team.
ZIERLER: Did you build the program? Did it reach a level of maturity that you were able to have graduate students in earthquake engineering?
JAIN: Absolutely. In fact, if you see most IITs today, a fair majority of them would have PhDs in earthquake engineering from IIT Kanpur teaching there. We produced people who will go on to become professors in other places, in IIT Madras or in IT Guwahati or in IIT Delhi. That was very satisfying.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, going from being a young faculty member when you decide to become more involved in activism, what were some of your early interactions with government where you had confidence that you were on the right track, that people were amenable to what you had to say?
JAIN: I would say it was generally more frustrating than satisfying because it was a lone battle. To begin with, I was a single-man army. Later, we had a little bit of bigger group, but nothing compared to what the government bureaucrats would expect. It wasn't easy by any stretch of imagination. But the thing was that that was not the only thing that I was doing, which means that even if I don't get a break from the government, it is still okay because I was still helping the students of other colleges to do their thesis better or I was helping the teachers of other colleges do better. For example, I created an information center, the National Information Centre of Earthquake Engineering at Kanpur, where I said any book, any topic, any earthquake engineering literature should be available to anybody who wants, and we will make sure that that happens. When we started in 1997, it was very difficult to buy a $100 book from America or from Europe. We said, "We will buy it and we'll keep it, and we'll give it to anybody who wants to take it." That's how we started actually.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, you mentioned a colleague from the University of Michigan. Is that related to your visiting professorship in Ann Arbor?
JAIN: Yeah. He was a graduate student at that time when I went to Michigan. There was a gentleman who did his PhD with George Housner much before I did, Professor Navin Nigam who was also a Kanpur IIT professor and who had been a director of IIT Delhi also, and he was the vice chancellor at Roorkee. He said to me, "Sudhir, I want to bring some really good people at Roorkee in earthquake engineering. Do you have any recommendation?" I said, "Here is this young man at Michigan, just finished his PhD." He hired him at Roorkee and Durgesh Rai went and joined Roorkee as a young faculty. Then, after a couple of years, I told Nigam that Durgesh perhaps is favorably inclined to move to Kanpur. He said, "Do you really want to close down the earthquake engineering at Roorkee? He's such a bright young man. We need him here." I said, "All right." The next time I met Nigam, I said, "Have you thought about it?" He said, "No, I think his career will be better served at Kanpur with you. I have no objection now." That is how I then was instrumental in bringing Durgesh Rai to Kanpur IIT.
ZIERLER: In building up the program at IIT Kanpur, who were some of the administrators, department heads, deans, vice chancellors, who supported your vision and might have been formative as you developed your own interest in academic administration?
JAIN: At Kanpur?
JAIN: At Kanpur what happens is that we were far too independent as young people. We were very, very American in our approach and we just didn't want any mentors of any kind. I was somewhat rebellious to the heads or to the people who were holding positions, so I was doing things on my own. I typically found that I was much more appreciated by the institute level administration, the director and the dean of Faculty or dean of Research, what you'll call as the vice president of Research or provost, equivalent of that. I was more popular with them or they held me in better esteem than my own head of the department. That was happening, partly because I was somewhat unconventional in whatever I was doing. I would do things that don't fit in, in the standard academic ethos in some sense.
Pathway to Academic Leadership
ZIERLER: As you're looking back at your tenure at IIT Kanpur, when do you feel like you got on a trajectory of academic leadership? When did that start for you?
JAIN: It so happened that around 2000, I was made a very serious offer to become what Americans would call vice president of Alumni Relations and Development. We called it Dean Resource Planning and Generation. I was made that offer, and I said, "No, I can't do that because I've been doing administrative work for five years and I have my earthquake engineering to do. Sorry, I can't do that." After that, I came to Caltech, and Paul Jennings at that time was provost and I went to Paul Jennings and I said, "They made me this offer, I declined, but there is a chance that they might ask me to do it again in future, and I'm curious about fundraising. I'm curious about alumni relations. Since I'm at Caltech, I may as well try to learn what it is all about. Can you arrange for me to meet somebody in the fundraising office to learn how they raise money?" He said, "Yeah, sure." He called up somebody and he said, "We'll go there. I'll also come with you." We both went to this lady and she gave me a one-and-a-half-hour tutorial or one-hour tutorial. I took long notes as she was telling me. After I came back from that trip to US, the director asked me to become head of the department.
I said, "Wait a minute. Just seven, eight months back, you offered me deanship, I declined it. Now you are asking me to become head of the department. Why do you think I will accept it?" Because headship was a very stressful thing. There were certain bickerings, there were certain unpleasant things that a few faculty members were indulging in. I said, "I don't want to be a part of that. I would've done a much more stress-free job as a dean and I declined that, so I don't want to be head now." He was quite persuasive. I talked to a couple of my mentors and after soul-searching for two or three weeks, I said, "All right, I'll accept it." That is how in 2001 January, I became head of the department. Those three years gave me a reasonable level of confidence that I could deal with difficult people, I could deal with difficult situations, but still I didn't think that I would be an academic administrator the way I have become today.
After I finished my headship, almost a year later, I was offered the same job, that deanship that I had declined earlier. Again, I was initially very reluctant, but eventually I accepted and I said, "Fine." The idea in my mind was that I will do my earthquake engineering and deanship will be a side job. I will not need to spend so much time with it. But then during the deanship, I started to understand what excellence in universities means. Because when you are dealing with alumni, when you're dealing with money, when you are asking for donations, your entire perspective changes. Because now people are asking you tough questions. Nobody's going to give you money so easily. People are also giving you examples of what is happening elsewhere. They're also sharing their own experiences. Those three years were very transformative for me to understand what makes a good university, what makes a good institution. It was around that time that I went to my director and I said, "Would you send my name for the directorship of one of the IITs?" He was surprised. He said, "Wait a minute, I always heard from you that you never wanted to be a director or vice chancellor of any university. What makes you interested in it?" I said, "I have found so many ideas during these three years that I find it frustrating that I bring some good ideas, and my colleagues here don't accept them or I'm not able to implement them. But if I were to become the director, maybe I'll find it easier to implement them, and that may be very important contribution I can make." That is how those three years were the ones that I said, "I'm willing to be head of the institution."
ZIERLER: Sudhir, tell me about the development of the National Information Centre of Earthquake Engineering.
JAIN: I was a junkie for books, so I used to buy books. I had a rule that I will never read a book without a pencil in my hand or a marker in my hand. Even today, even if I'm reading a novel, chances are that there's a pencil or a marker in my hand because in that novel, if there is something profound, something very exciting, something very interesting, I will mark it so that in future I can come back to it. While I was coming back from Caltech, I was aware that in India, there will be no books of the kind that I needed. In fact, I used to go to the Lake Avenue, there was a shop where on a low budget I could photocopy a lot of literature. I would have lot of reports and lot of literature that I would photocopy and I brought loads of stuff on earthquake engineering at Kanpur. Every time I would go to Caltech, every time I'll go to Berkeley, I would again photocopy a lot of stuff and ship them in boxes to India. I was some sort of a librarian for earthquake engineering books. I knew how hard it is for me to get those books and I knew that other people are not able to read the books. They're not even aware what is being published.
In 1996, I had done a meeting of 30-odd people in Kanpur where we sat for three days, no presentations, no lectures, and we said, "Let's think about how earthquake engineering can be developed in India." One of the ideas was that we should have this one place in India that will make sure that every book available anywhere in the world, on earthquake engineering, is there. After that, I wrote to Nigam. Nigam was the senior person who had done his PhD with George Housner and he was Vice Chancellor at Roorkee. Roorkee had a big department, while Kanpur had only a couple of people and I didn't have the bandwidth to do it, so I said, "Let us do it at Roorkee." He said, "Yeah, we'll do it at Roorkee." After a year, I wrote to him. I said, "Look, nothing seems to be happening, and now I'm feeling that maybe we should do it at Kanpur. What do you think?" He said, "Yeah, yeah, do it at Kanpur." He gave me a letter, a very nice letter, which said that Kanpur is the right place to do it. Using that letter, I would then go to lot of government offices asking for money, and that's how I collected some money. We started on a very low budget, very low-cost operation.
ZIERLER: Did you see the national program on earthquake engineering education as a natural outgrowth to this project?
JAIN: What happened is that the meeting I did in 1996, that meeting had these ideas that we should have this information center type facility. It also said that we should have some training for teachers because they don't know earthquake engineering. When the 2001 earthquake came, that is when I was able to go to the Prime Minister's office and do a bit of persuasion and then work with the Government of India and get money eventually, mobilize the other IITs and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and together then we were able to operate that earthquake engineering program for almost four years here.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, I wonder in developing really a national program, in what ways the internet, as India was becoming increasingly online, in what ways the internet and remote communication was useful for you in developing these programs?
JAIN: I would say at that point of time—we are talking about 2003 to 2007 if I remember it right—by that time the emails were very common way of communication. We had also started to have websites fairly well-developed by the time. I would not say that at that time we were doing any video conferencing or anything like that, but we were able to communicate faster because of emails. But we still had to do physical meetings, we still had to meet at one place, things like that, yeah.
Seismic Codes for Saving Lives
ZIERLER: Sudhir, in a way of looking at translating your scholarly research to the activism, when did you see your work on seismic codes, on building codes for earthquakes get adopted into municipal, regional, or even national government policy? When does that happen?
JAIN: What happened is that very early, I started to work on Indian code because when I was teaching class at Kanpur, I realized that there were certain mistakes, errors in the publications that were coming out of official sources on Indian codes. I said, "Ah, we need to fix it." That's how we started actually. Then, one thing led to the other, and I started to get drawn into writing codes and all that stuff. But the codes in India at that time were still not legally mandatory everywhere in India to be followed, earthquake codes. It is only after 2001 earthquake in Gujarat where lots of multi-story buildings collapsed, that earthquake codes were made mandatory. I would say that happened quite late and there was not much that I did, but it was the earthquake that did it.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, what were some of the consulting positions you took that you found especially useful, both from a research perspective for you to learn about earthquake safety and an activism perspective where you can really get the word out about the importance of earthquake safety?
JAIN: Very early I was able to get a few projects where I actually did structural design of buildings. It so happened that there was a Egyptian student who had come to us to do a PhD and who was a teacher in Egypt. He came to me and he said he wants to do a PhD with me. I said, "Wait a minute. What do you want to do PhD on?" He said, "PhD on earthquake behavior of concrete buildings." I said, "But I don't know enough about concrete buildings." He said, "Yes, I'm very good in concrete and you're very good in earthquake, so we can work together." He became actually my mentor in consulting projects in initial years. So here I was teaching him earthquake engineering, guiding his PhD thesis, but then when I would get a consulting project to design a building, I would in the evening ask him, "Okay, this is what I'm doing. Am I on the right track?" And he'll say, "No, I think you should do it this way or that way." So, I had an opportunity to design a few buildings with the help or with the guidance of this student of mine.
What it did was it gave me the confidence that I can teach professionals how to design buildings for earthquakes because unless you've done it yourselves, you could not teach it well. Remember I never worked within consulting offices, kind of thing. Similarly, I had the opportunity to do some more consulting assignments, sometimes fixing a building which has already been built but it is unsafe and we are trying to retrofit that building, things like that. There was some nominal amount of consulting that I was able to do, particularly in the early years, that formed a foundation for me to become a better professional. Some of these assignments came to me almost forced. There was an assignment that came to me for major bridges in India and I didn't think I was ready for it, but they said there is nobody else that they have trust in, so they would hope that I will still take it. I took it, I learned a lot about it, and then I grew in the process. There was a fair amount of consulting that I was able to learn from. But to me, consulting was not the main dish. It was only a side dish that came once in a while my way.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, in developing a national education program, beyond traditional-aged undergraduate and graduate students, how important was it to develop a continuing education program for mid-career professionals?
JAIN: Remember, that I did training for professionals before I did the national program on earthquake engineering. The mid-career professional engineers training, I did primarily from 1992 to 2001. In 2001, that big earthquake came and it got me very distracted. Then 2003, that national program came up which went up to 2007. To me, professional engineers' training was very, very important work that we did. Fortunately, we did that work before the 2001 earthquake, because by the time the 2001 earthquake came, there were almost 2,000 people that we had trained in the country on earthquake design of buildings.
ZIERLER: When you were elected to the Indian National Academy of Engineering in 2003, I wonder if you took that as a sign that all the things that you were doing were really registering on a national level, that had really broke through, this was becoming part of both Indian academia and Indian policy?
JAIN: I was a little bit egoistic. I never applied for any awards. I never went to anybody and said, "Hey, would you nominate me for this or that?" Now in India, it is very rare for people to come to you and say, "We would like to nominate you for something." Therefore, I never applied for any fellowships. One day, a very eminent structural engineer asked me to give my nomination papers for academy. I said, "No, it doesn't make sense." He says, "No, leave that to me, I insist on it." I said, "All right." I got elected. But I frankly didn't take it very seriously because I frankly didn't have that much respect for these fellowships the way they were given in India where people asked for it. You see, in 2021, I got elected to National Academy of Engineering in the U.S. and I had no clue. I had no clue who sent my name, who voted for me, how they got my resume, whatever, I had no clue. Similarly, in 2020, I got this India civilian award, Padma Shri, I had no clue. Nobody ever, ever mentioned to me. So actually, that Academy of Engineering election in India, I didn't take it too personally. To me, those awards were not so important as it was my own self-esteem that I could see in the eyes of the people, the people that I was impacting. If they were showing me appreciation, that they were benefiting from me, that gave me the real award.
Creating a New Indian Institute of Technology
ZIERLER: Sudhir, in 2009, when you took the professorship at IIT Gandhinagar, did you retain your affiliation with Kanpur, or was this a new job for you?
JAIN: The way it works in India is that if you are in a government-funded institution and you go to another government-funded institution as its head, as its president, then the previous employer will give you a long leave. When I went to IIT Gandhinagar in 2009, Kanpur gave me five-year leave. When government gave me another five years at Gandhinagar, Kanpur gave me another five-years leave. When they gave me the third five years at IIT Gandhinagar, that is when I told IIT Kanpur that I would like to take my retirement benefits because by the time I had already done 35 years at Kanpur and I didn't see much point in taking another five-year leave from Kanpur.
ZIERLER: What new opportunities did this provide for you, switching IITs?
JAIN: Well, Gandhinagar was a greenfield project starting from zero. I could have my own ideas, my own plans, my own things, and I could do things my own way. I did totally crazy things. The way I ran IIT Gandhinagar was totally different from any peer institutions, including those that were created at the same time that we were created. It was very, very satisfying. It was very enriching. It was very, very exciting.
ZIERLER: Like what? What opportunities did you have to build something from the ground up?
JAIN: How do you treat the students, how do you treat the faculty, how do you treat the staff, what is your curriculum, how do you recruit faculty, how do you promote faculty, how do you incentivize faculty, how do you design the campus, what kind of buildings you want to design, what kind of community you will build depending on how you design the hostel, how do you build the buildings at a reasonable price which will be much better quality. There's so much that you can do in a greenfield project. Remember, it was starting from zero. You are having your imprint in selecting the ground on which the building will be built. When I went there, there was not even land. We were in a rented premises. It took me several years to get the land on which I built the campus. I was hiring the architects, I was getting the land, I was working with the architects, giving them my requirements, my vision of what the campus should be like, what it should have or what it should not have, things like that.
ZIERLER: With so much focus on institute-building and administration and education, was it really in 2009 when you began to pull away from the research and activism?
JAIN: Absolutely. When I took the flight to Ahmedabad in 2009, I went with a very clear conscience that I'm now leaving earthquake engineering behind.
ZIERLER: Except perhaps in one area when you were thinking of new buildings, was it an opportunity to build from the ground up resilient buildings?
JAIN: What happens is that there's always something in you, right? Even those years at Gandhinagar, I still will be participating in International Association of Earthquake Engineering. I will be still Vice President of the International Association, I'll be President of International Association. I will be invited by New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering they will give me some honor. There will be something going on, but your heart is not in it, your passion is not in it. You are not breathing and smelling and drinking and eating earthquake engineering, right? That's what I mean.
ZIERLER: Bringing the conversation closer to the present, did you think that you would finish out your career at Gandhinagar?
JAIN: I was very sure Gandhinagar was my last job. "I don't need anything, I'm done, I'm old enough to now say thank you." I had a good inning. My tenure at Gandhinagar would've gone on up to 2024 and by that time I would've been 65, and I would've been very happy to just say, "Thank you very much."
ZIERLER: When the vice chancellorship came available, your present position, did you feel like you had built up something that was approaching completeness that you could leave this in good hands, you were satisfied with the level of development?
JAIN: I think it's never done, it's never enough. There's always more to do. If you today talk to the president of Caltech or MIT or Stanford, they will still say so much more to do. So, no, I don't think I had that.
ZIERLER: Well, Sudhir, now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk, if I may, a few retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. Let's return first to the research. What do you feel is your most significant contribution to classroom learning of earthquake engineering, what you've done that is really formative for that next generation learning the ins and outs of earthquake engineering?
JAIN: You mean to say, how did I teach earthquake engineering to my students? Is that what you mean?
ZIERLER: No, the research, the papers that you've written, the conferences that you've attended that have really influenced the field, the scholarly aspects of the field of earthquake engineering.
JAIN: I would say that some of the work that I did in masonry infill buildings, some of the work that I did for India-specific situations like what I described just now, I would say it would be valuable in the long term. It has changed the mindset, it has changed the thinking. There are other smaller things that I have done which may not go that far, but I think this understanding of working with the buildings which are brick infill masonry is I would consider the best work that would have long-term impact. The other thing that I think I did well was the study of the post-earthquake scenario. I would go to earthquake areas, I would study them, I would record what was happening, I would publish that material. The learning from earthquakes, I think would be the other second thing. I think I was a pioneer in some sense of bringing in the learning from earthquakes initiatives in India, because when I started to do that there were very few people who were doing that, and later, many more people did that.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, as you survey your educational legacy, all the ways that you've built up the education of earthquake engineering in India, what are some of the metrics that you use? Is it the number of students? Is it the jobs that they go into? How do you quantify your achievements in building up this field in India?
JAIN: When I'm teaching a degree-seeking student, whether he or she's a B. Tech undergraduate student, master's student, PhD student, I'm not seeing him or her as a practitioner of earthquake engineering. I'm seeing him or her as an individual who has a whole life in front of him or her, who may do anything in life. For example, one of my first student who learned earthquake engineering from me, did B. Tech project with me, she went on to the United States, did a master's, and over the years she's working in Washington DC in this road safety organization where they have these dummies sit in a car and they do crashes and things like that. I was very clear from beginning that when I'm teaching a degree-seeking student, I don't see my intervention with that student only from the narrow glass of preparing this person for earthquake engineering or earthquake safety career, but to make this student being able to think, to be able to analyze, to be able to solve problems, and to get a wider perspective, big perspective.
Degree-seeking students to me were always like a clay that eventually will mold into some shape, and can I be a positive influence to them? Which means that more stories about life, more stories about other things that were more influential to them than the concept of earthquake engineering. There are many, many people who have come back to me saying that you taught us, but then very rarely would say that, "That earthquake engineering you taught us was very useful to us." They always say that "those stories you told us are useful to us." That's how I see it. Then, there is a second type of teaching that I did, which is to professional engineers and engineering college teachers. That is where I think the impact of teaching earthquake engineering was, that they were real practitioners.
Conveying Earthquake Safety in the Developing World
ZIERLER: Sudhir, beyond India, as India transitions from a developing to a developed country, does India play a unique role throughout the developing world that might have more of an affinity or an understanding of India's experiences in earthquake safety and engineering than might be available from, say the United States?
JAIN: I agree with you entirely. In fact, during those years at Kanpur, I have done training programs at Nepal, I have done it in Bhutan, I have done it Myanmar. I think that they were better off by learning from Indian experiences than they would from American experiences because as I said yesterday, the America has done 50 years back what India should be doing today. If we learn from America today what they're doing, it will be not appropriate for what we need to do today.
ZIERLER: Finally, Sudhir, looking to the future, as you say, there's always more work to be done. On that note, in the field of earthquake engineering and earthquake safety, what is most important? As you have trained, as you have developed that next generation, what are the things that they need to be focused on well beyond your career, well beyond your generation?
JAIN: I would say that the requirements and needs are huge. India is a very big country, but India is also a very diverse country. You go 200 kilometers and there's a different food, there is a different dialect, there is a different language, there are different clothing, there is a different type of constructions. That makes things very, very challenging. Therefore, what I believe is that earthquake engineering should get assimilated into civil engineering rather than remain outside. That is what my emphasis always was throughout, that earthquake engineering be not seen as a separate family from civil engineering, but it is part of the civil engineering family, which means it should get assimilated. In fact, in some of my talks, I've said that you don't tell a civil engineer that he needs now a rain engineer so that the building will be rain-proof and should not be leaky during rainy seasons. Similarly, you don't ask a civil engineer to go to an earthquake engineer who will help you build safer buildings. It should be part of that. I think that mindset has to be built, in addition to the two things that I mentioned to you yesterday, the competence-based licensing of engineers and enforcement of codes by the municipalities.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, one last question, personal to you. When you do get that happy tap on your shoulder that you can step down from the vice chancellorship, what does the next day look like to you? Do you envision an opportunity to go back to the research, to go back to education, to go back to activism, or are there new projects for you to take on?
JAIN: I would say the first three months will be nothing. Vacuum.
JAIN: I will go to a naturopathy place and I'll say, "I admit myself. You give me whatever treatment and massages and limited food and help me reduce my weight and improve my lifestyle" and things like that. I would like to spend just time away from all of this and maybe read more novels.
ZIERLER: And then after the three months, who knows, you're open.
JAIN: Who knows.
ZIERLER: Sudhir, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I want to thank you so much for doing this. It's a treasure for Caltech history, for the field, and for India. I want to thank you again.
JAIN: Thank you, David.
- Deep and Current Caltech Connections
- Executive Academic Leadership and the Pandemic
- Earthquake Engineering for India
- Learning from Past Earthquakes
- Engineering Activism
- The Satisfaction of Transmitting Knowledge
- Early Focus on Civil Engineering
- Arrival in Pasadena
- Introduction to Earthquake Engineering
- Determination to Return to India
- Building up the Discipline
- Pathway to Academic Leadership
- Seismic Codes for Saving Lives
- Creating a New Indian Institute of Technology
- Conveying Earthquake Safety in the Developing World