Mr. Sikhar Patranabis

What do we expect in life? A happy family, a luxury car, a colossal home, well-settled life? Basically, it all jots down to one most crucial need – a well-paying job! Who wouldn’t be in a dream of a lucrative offer from a dream company? Well, you may say nobody, right?


But for some people, passion is everything! Presenting to you, in continuation with our article series “Jewels of KGP”, Mr. Sikhar Patranabis, the one who followed his dream!


Rejecting an offer from one of the world’s technical giant, Microsoft, when you were one of the worthiest to be offered a job, seems like the toughest decision of one’s life, but in front of passion stood nothing, in the eyes of Mr. Patranabis.


Currently positioned at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, as Research Assistant Intern, Mr. Patranabis has many feats in his arsenal of accolades. Being the Institute Topper and President of India Gold Medallist for the year 2015, he had the opportunity to work with one of the world’s biggest IT companies, Microsoft which he rejected to carry on his path of academics and research.

Securing the highest, 9.87 CGPA in the curriculum is not so easy and most of the high scorers in the institute go for a well-paid corporate job. However, being interested in research, Mr. Patranabis continued to contribute to research and academics at IIT Kharagpur, continuing currently as Junior Research Fellow at Secured Embedded Architecture Laboratory, IIT Kharagpur which he joined in the year 2014 and pursuing his Ph.D. from the Institute. He also did his internships in prestigious organizations like Microsoft India Development Centre and IBM India Research Laboratory (IRL). In addition to being the highest CGPA scorer, he was actively participating in extracurricular and co-curricular activities like dramatics, elocution, music, etc.


We, Awaaz, IIT Kharagpur, got a chance to interact with him and know a bit about his ideals which motivated him to pursue his dreams. 


Awaaz: Getting into IIT KGP in the CSE department, was that exactly what you aimed for?  How did you feel after getting into IIT KGP?


Mr. Sikhar: Well, no to be honest. I did not know for sure that I was getting into this very department, and my JEE rank did afford other options, including CSE at other IITs. Having said that, I feel lucky that I chose CSE at KGP.


Awaaz: Achieving a Cumulative Grade Point Average of 9.87 is not everyone’s cup of tea. How did you manage it? Did you get time for any extra activities?

Mr. Sikhar: I am not sure about the CGPA. Attending classes helped perhaps. We had a lot of assignment-based courses and labs in CSE. I guess I just tried to finish them off on time. I am thankful to some friends in the department with whom I had study and discussion sessions.  I was really serious about my BTP through….it was perhaps the only academic aspect of my final year that I enjoyed.


I was a member of the Bengali Technology Dramatics Society (BTDS) during my undergraduate years, and I was the Governor of the Society in my Final year. I had a wonderful time learning the finer points of acting and organizing productions. The society was the cornerstone of my friend circle at IIT Kharagpur.


I was also an active member of the Bengali Dramatics and Bengali Elocution Teams at Azad Hall of Residence and was a Dramatics Captain in my final year. I was also a member of the ent team where I was a percussionist. So yes, I was a fairly active participant in the Social-Cultural Events. One of my finest moments was in my 3rd year when we won a gold in Bong drams and Azad clinched the Soc-Cult cup. I was honored to receive the Hall blue for my extra-curricular involvement, and it remains one of the finest phases of my life.

Awaaz: During your course of study, did you feel anything that needed to be changed in the teaching system or in any other aspect?

Mr. Sikhar: I felt and still feel that there is a dearth of good postgraduate courses in the department, particularly when taking electives. Rather than taking a lot of introductory courses, a student should have the option to take a lot of courses on a specific topic with increasing rigor. This is particularly essential for a dual degree, M. Tech, and Ph.D. students. There are a number of technical changes that I feel should be incorporated in the CSE curriculum, to help the students gain a stronger foundation in computational theory. 


Awaaz: How was your internship experience at IBM IRL and Microsoft India Development Center? Please tell us something about the work you did there.

Mr. Sikhar: They were two very different internship experiences. MSIDC is one of Microsoft’s largest development centers with a lot of emphasis on product development, deployment, and shipping. I was lucky to be part of a project that had a direct deployment goal from the outset, and we worked on a fairly tight deadline. I learned a lot about virtual storage and a bunch of technical stuff. Overall, it was a very good exposure to life as a developer in the software industry.


IBM IRL was, on the other hand, a purely research-oriented internship, where I worked on encrypted analytics. The approach there was to try and come up with innovative ideas to solve one of the toughest problems around that pushed the limits of secure cloud-based services. It is an ongoing collaboration during the course of my Ph.D. I am currently an IBM fellow, and it offers me a great opportunity to work with one of the industrial giants working on data security.


Awaaz: Rejecting job offer from a corporate giant like Microsoft is a big deal. What was going through your mind at that time? How supportive were your family, friends, and teachers in taking this decision?

Mr. Sikhar: I was very clear about the choice I was making. While life at IDC had its share of perks and attractions, I was drawn towards research in cryptography and hardware security during my BTP. This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to take their BTP seriously because it potentially exposes you to a much wider range of research than any amount of course-work or internships can. It was during my BTP that I found my path forward, and I have never regretted following the path I chose.


My family has supported my decision right through. My parents, my uncle, and my girlfriend are people I am hugely indebted to for helping me make the right choices with clarity of thought and purpose. I was and am still lucky to have them consistently backing my decision to stay back at KGP and actively pursuing my passion for research.


Awaaz: In India or even in IITs the culture of Research and Development is not so overwhelming? What steps should the government or autonomous institutes take to change the mindset of students?

Mr. Sikhar: I think making a statement as generic as research in IITs sucks is misleading and not a correct reflection of our current status. There are some fairly established research groups in IIT, and I am lucky to be part of one of them. I think as we have more funding and better infrastructure from government ventures and industry collaborations, we will be able to achieve the excellence in research and technology transfer that we are currently aspiring for.


However, there are definitely certain drawbacks in the system we need to address. For one thing, research needs to be made a more lucrative career prospect, as it is outside India. Ph.D. scholars need to have better compensation and exposure to industrial collaborations. I find a lot of exchange programs for undergraduate students being proposed, which is very important. But I think such exchange programs and collaborative ties with foreign institutes should directly benefit our research scholars with priority. Only then will our research gain exposure and achieve holistic growth. Finally, the quality of research today seems to be judged way too much by publication volumes. Publications are definitely a yardstick, but the focus has to be on work that solves the most challenging problems and offers solutions with societal and financial impact.


Finally, and most importantly, research has to be made our priority at all levels. Most internationally reputed research centers and universities judge faculty and students based on their research output. For too long, IITs have focused purely on undergraduate teaching, and research seems to be an add-on. IITs were never meant to be teaching institutes – they were envisioned to hold the banner of our technological progress. And every member of the IIT community needs to take up their own share of accountability towards making sure that progress is achieved and sustained over time.


Awaaz: Please tell us about your present field of research “Hardware security for embedded systems”.


Mr. Sikhar: I work in the Secured Embedded Architecture Lab (SEAL) in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Our lab is the pioneer in the field of hardware security and embedded security in India. We work on a variety of topics ranging from the design of secure on-chip systems and physically unclonable objects, side-channel and fault attack-resistant design of cryptosystems and its automation, lightweight and hardware-efficient designs for symmetric and public-key cryptography, design of secure cryptosystems for cloud applications, lightweight security protocols for the Internet of Things, micro-architectural security against side channels and malware, as well as some theoretical aspects of cryptography such as the design of new crypto-primitives such as block ciphers and functional encryption systems for encrypted analytics. We have a wide range of industrial collaborations, consultancy projects, and university relations with major players such as DRDO, BHEL, DST, Intel USA, Intel India, Synopsis, IBM IRL, NTT Labs (Japan). Our university collaborators include Telecom Paris Tech, NTU Singapore, IIT Bombay, and ISI Kolkata. We have project and institute positions for MS, Ph.D., and post-doctoral fellows.


I currently am involved in a couple of industrial collaborations – with Intel Labs, Oregon on the design of ultra-lightweight cryptosystems for IoT, and with IBM on encrypted analytics for cloud applications. My own research interests include public-key cryptography for the cloud, encrypted analytics, side-channel and fault attack resistant designs, and lightweight cryptography.


Awaaz: What are the recent developments in this area and how it can be utilized in day to day life? In the future what more can be expected from this area of research?

Mr. Sikhar: Two of the major areas where hardware security is expected to play a major role today is the cloud and the Internet of Things. With the advent of pervasive and embedded technology in almost every device surrounding and connecting us, security-aware designs are the need of the hour. A new direction that we are also looking to venture into is smart-grid security and automotive security. We believe that these ventures will have a significant societal impact in India, and also contribute towards developing a strong foundation for cybersecurity in India.


Awaaz: Please share the experience of being a research assistant at NTU, Singapore.


Mr. Sikhar: I am currently interning with the cybersecurity group at the School of Computer Science and Engineering, NTU, Singapore. My work here deals with malware detection for embedded platforms using hardware performance counters. I am really excited to be working with an international team in one of Asia’s leading universities. I am also collaborating with the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences on the automation of algebraic fault attacks using machine learning. Overall, it has been a great learning curve for me so far. 


Awaaz: How is your research work going presently at IIT KGP? What are your further plans?

Mr. Sikhar: I am presently working on a couple of problems in theoretical cryptography and encrypted analytics that are really fun and challenging. We are interested in reaching out to the undergraduate and postgraduate community for potential participation in our ongoing work in the form of summer internships and short-term projects. It would be great if interested and motivated people reach out to us.


I am not a big fan of planning too far ahead. Right now, my plate is full of problems to solve, and I am trying my best to empty it 🙂  


Awaaz: Could you please share any nostalgic story while being a student at IIT KGP?

Mr. Sikhar : I think my undergraduate life at KGP was marked by beautiful and enriching friendships, society activities and productions at BTDS, and hall activities. One of my finest moments at Kharagpur was being a member of the Gold Winning Bengali Dramatics Teams in consecutive General Championships (2012-13 and 2013-14), the latter being instrumental in Azad Hall of Residence lifting the Social-Cultural Cup. It was a memorable experience. My current life as a Research Scholar is beautiful in a different way altogether, and I have probably become a much more frequent consumer of the Tikka tea than I was before. The fact is that I am still very much a part of KGP, and KGP is still very much a part of me, and when I look back once this phase comes to an end, I will probably have a lifetime of nostalgic moments to choose from.


Awaaz : Finally, any message for the students of IIT Kharagpur?

Mr. Sikhar : Engage in the pursuit of excellence. Break stereotypes. Aim for the best. Help your friends and peers at every possible opportunity. Be passionate about the things you love. Never compromise on your values. And say “NO” to the malady of suicide. It is human to be depressed. It is natural to fail. It is okay to be defeated. What matters is how strongly you lift yourself from such situations.

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