Pas Pasupathy: Meeting Challenges Head On

Retired professor influenced the careers of students around the world

7 January 2008

A lunch with co-workers and perhaps a fancy watch or a piece of luggage are typical retirement gifts for many people. But those weren’t adequate to mark the career of IEEE Life Fellow Subbarayan “Pas” Pasupathy. Instead, his students and colleagues at the University of Toronto, in Canada, devoted an all-day workshop to honor his contributions as teacher, pioneering researcher, and international authority on wireless digital communications, detection and estimation theory, and biomedical signal processing.

Pasupathy retired last June after 34 years with the university. As a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, he supervised the theses of more than 80 students pursuing graduate degrees. Speakers at the all-day workshop held last May came from universities and companies around the world to talk about how they were applying his teachings to their own research and how he influenced their careers.

“The workshop was a great honor,” Pasupathy says. “It was the first time my department had done something like this for anyone. It was great.”

PASSAGE FROM INDIA Growing up in India, Pasupathy excelled in math and physics, and was fascinated by the telephone and telegraph. He came to value the analytical challenges engineering offered and was intrigued by the new communications technologies of the time.

“In communications, so many things play a role—electronics, control devices, and physics,” he says. “I thought it would be the most challenging field because you must know a little about everything.”

Pasupathy earned a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications from the University of Madras, in India, and a master’s of technology in electronics and circuits from the Indian Institute of Technology, also in Madras. He then enrolled at Yale and earned a master’s and a Ph.D. in communications.

He went on to become a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, where he accepted a faculty position in 1972 and never left. He always wanted to teach, he says, having caught the bug early when his classmates would ask him to explain complex subjects.

“I knew teaching would play a role in my life because I had the skills to be a teacher when I was young,” he says. He took that skill to his engineering classes, where he has proven very popular, in part, as he puts it, because “I can put myself in my students’ shoes and think about the problems they will face when they do their projects.”

His research work has involved developing algorithms and modulation schemes for signal processing and designing advanced transceiver structures for high-capacity radio networks. He has helped develop Canada’s capabilities in all these areas. His is also a familiar name at the IEEE, particularly with readers of IEEE Communications Magazine. For several years, he was editor of the Data Communications column in the IEEE Transactions on Communications.

HUMOR IN ENGLISH He is best known for his humor column, “Light Traffic,” which he unveiled in IEEE Communications Magazine in 1984. For a run of 14 years, before giving it up in 1998, he kept it full of funny articles and poems, entertaining puzzles, and word plays. For someone whose native language was not English, writing the column was not easy, but he took it on as a personal challenge. “There are great scholars from Germany mastering Indian languages, so why can’t I come from India and do some interesting things in English?” he says.

Pasupathy might also be credited with being the first to propose a television channel for the IEEE. He suggested it more than 20 years ago when he floated a rumor in his May 1984 column that the IEEE would launch a television channel called Tele-IEEE as part of its centennial celebration. He proposed several humorous programs for it, quite different from the technical lineup—the Internet station launched last October—now offers. His lineup included “The Man From IEEE,” a series featuring the adventures of an undercover agent trying to save the world from a fiber-optic octopus, and “Mr. Transmission,” a handyman who builds technical projects.

WHAT’S NEXT Pasupathy, who has also become somewhat of an expert on Tamil, writes poems in that language. He is continuing with his research at the university and also studies south Indian classical music and culture. And he continues his involvement with the IEEE.

“It’s a very approachable institution where people from all over the world can gather together and have a very challenging and invigorating discussion about where technology is going and its impact on society,” he says.