Meet Prof. Usha Mohan
Aditi Jain || 14 Dec 2021

While sports and academics may seem poles apart to many but Prof. Usha Mohan, who is a Professor at the eminent IIT Madras and a member of RBCDSAI, believes that her involvement in sports is what has provided her with the much-needed resilience required in research. As she teaches and conducts operation research at IIT Madras, she advises her students to dedicate some time in a day for sports as it helps a person to deal with setbacks in a better manner. Born in an era when women had a choice to either get married or study, she is an excellent example of how a woman can indeed have it all.

Born and brought up in Ramchandrapuram town of state Andhra Pradesh, Prof. Mohan had a rather protected childhood. Though a bright student, she was more passionate about sports than academics in beginning and never gave much thought to her academic career in her teenage days. As time went on, she realized her love for math and physics and therefore chose to do a major in math, physics and electronics at the University College of Women affiliated with Osmania University. Further on, she did a master’s degree in mathematics with a specialization in statistics and operation research at University of Hyderabad. As she was interested in the teaching profession, she further did an M.Phil from University of Hyderabad as it was mandatory to teach in university colleges. However, fate had other plans! She ended up writing an entrance exam, on being pursued by a teacher, and got admitted to the esteemed Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). The academic rigour and the freedom she got at ISI opened up her mind towards research and she got involved in solving a popular yet complex travelling salesman problem there with a focus on polyhedral geometry. Owing to the birth of a baby and some health problems, her PhD took a bit long but turned to be a satisfying experience overall as her research was published in reputed international journals. For the next two years, she decided to put brakes on her career to rear her young one.

She started her new innings with a post-doctoral stint at the Indian School of Business. During this tenure, she met Prof. Sunil Chopra from the North-Western University who agreed to mentor her in Kellogg for 8-9 months. This international experience widened her research horizon as she learned to articulate, define and synthesize problems better. She realized that while in mathematics one can work on abstract notions but in management operations defining problems was of utmost importance.

Once she completed her training there, she was absorbed as a faculty in University of Hyderabad before she finally shifted to IIT Madras in 2010. Apart from teaching management to the students, she also mentors MS and PhD students in solving some complex problems in supply chain management, combinatorial optimization and mathematical programming. 9/11 attacks sparked the interest of the team to study the disruption in supply chains more closely and they got involved in finding out the ways through which the supply chains can be made resilient to such black swan events. Through its research, the team is also helping the resource constraint settings maximally utilize their resources. When the city was struck by floods for two consecutive years, the lab also worked on the shelter location-allocation problem and vulnerability index of various places in disaster relief programs. As sustainability has become a recurring theme due to climate change scenarios, a socially sustainable responsible supply chain has also become a topic of interest for Prof. Mohan. With the field of Data Sciences evolving at a rapid pace, she believes that operation research will be at a benefit as the models will now be based on real-world data rather than the parameters making them more accurate. An ace researcher and a passionate teacher, she feels that sparking the interest of a student in a subject is teacher’s primary job as when they get interested they read and follow the subject on their own.

Like a child of any traditional South Indian family, Prof. Mohan has an acquired taste for classical music. The flute has remained her companion for long and the love continues. In her free time, she loves to solve puzzles and play sports. She considers herself fortunate to be born and married in a family that supported women’s education. As she has seen many potential women giving up their dreams due to unsupportive families she feels that gender discrimination still exists and the change is happening at a slow pace.

To know more about her research visit her webpage.