This story is part of a series of profiles on Penn State’s international alumni. This series was created for the Global Penn State Newsletter, which includes updates, information, and stories about Penn State’s global activities.
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Bimal Balakrishnan knows the importance of mentorship.
Balakrishnan, who spent seven years at the university as a master and doctoral degree student from 2001-08, credits the mentorship he received at the university for putting him on his life’s path. He is currently an associate professor and Department Chair in the Department of Architectural Studies, as well as the director of the Immersive Visualization Lab, at the University of Missouri.
“My academic trajectory was interesting,” he said. “Many people do interdisciplinary work, but my path was a little wacky.”
Balakrishnan grew up on the southern tip of India, “where we had two seasons – rain or no rain,” he joked. “Coming to Pennsylvania and seeing snow and the four seasons was a great experience for me.”
While in India, he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the College of Engineering, Trivandrum at the University of Kerala. He worked as an architect until finally, he realized he wanted to do something beyond architecture involving computing.
“I already had a license and a lot of potential for work,” he said. “But I realized I was more interested in research.” Since – at the time, at least – there wasn’t much opportunity for master- or doctoral-level research at Indian universities, Balakrishnan decided to look at international options.
“Penn State stuck out to me for a few reasons,” he said. “It ranked highly in a number of subjects, and I was interested in interdisciplinary work; it offered a master of science program in architecture, which I really wanted to pursue; and, perhaps, subconsciously, I was drawn to the library.” He added: “I saw all the books the library had that I could not access in India. Also, the movies. I think I watched more movies at Penn State than any other time in my life because the library had the criterion collection and so many others.”
Balakrishnan came to the University as a graduate assistant – an assistantship that he looks back on fondly.
“Without that assistantship, I would not have been able to study at Penn State at all,” he said. He also remembers working with undergraduates at the then newly created Immersive Environments Lab, the University’s first foray into the world of virtual reality.
“The lab was open at all hours of the day and night for students,” he said. “It was exciting to be there at one, two o’clock in the morning, just seeing all of the designs and creations the undergraduates came up with.”
This also provided him the opportunity to engage in mentorship from the mentor side.
“As a graduate student, offering undergrads help and guidance was very impactful for me,” he said.
During his time as a graduate student, he also got what he described as an “awe-inspiring” level of attention from his professors. He described times when they would allot 15-30 minutes but end up spending far longer, talking about classes, research, or career trajectories.
He specifically points to four important mentors: Loukas Kalisperis, professor emeritus of architecture; Katsu Muramoto, professor of architecture; S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects in College of Communications; and Michael McNeese, professor emeritus in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.
“Professors Kalisperis and Muramoto were my master thesis advisers and I worked under them as a research assistant in the Immersive Environments Lab and as a teaching assistant,” Balakrishnan explained. “Dr. Sundar was my Ph.D. adviser and I worked under him as a research assistant in the Media Effects Research Lab and also as a research assistant. I took multiple classes in IST with Dr. McNeese and also worked as his research assistant in the MINDS Group and User Science and Engineering Lab in IST.”
This level of support is all the more impressive considering Balakrishnan’s unorthodox trajectory. He earned a master of science in architecture and then a doctorate in mass communications, both at Penn State.
“I was always interested in interdisciplinary work. I used to go to the bookstore and look at the materials to see which classes looked the most interesting or invigorating, and I would register for those,” he said. “I decided to get into communications because I was talking to one of my professors about how the way we handle VR in architecture is just another form of communication. He connected me with a professor in the College of Comm who was thinking along the same lines, and we took it from there.”
“That’s one thing that I think sets Penn State apart from many other institutions,” he added. “I felt as though the faculty truly cared and took an interest in me and my work. I got so much life-changing advice – and food! – from them over the years.”
This level of support from the University expands beyond faculty to staff, as well. Balakrishnan came to Penn State a month before 9/11, which led to a sea change in regulations and immigration laws regarding visas and foreign stays in the United States. Throughout that stressful time, “International Programs (now Global Programs) was very supportive. I always felt like I had a handle on what was going on and I never felt lost or ignored.”
He also credits workshops put on by Career Services and the Graduate Student Alumni Society (GSAS) for helping him in his job search.
“They didn’t only teach how to look for a job, they also talked about interview techniques and salary negotiation,” he said, “both of which proved to be very useful in my first job search.”
Now, as a graduate alumnus himself, Balakrishnan serves on the Board of Directors for the GSAS and co-chairs the Society’s Global Outreach Committee – which runs similar workshops for international students. “The Global Outreach Committee is dedicated to helping international graduate students make the most of their time at Penn State,” he said. The Committee offers seminars, workshops, and connections for international graduate students at Penn State.
Looking back at his time at the University, Balakrishnan feels a sense of pride.
“To me, being a Penn Stater is about being a part of a University that makes such a difference,” he said. “I see what an impact my classmates are having on the world. I am part of a group that is making significant impacts on many different spheres of life. That’s a great feeling.”
When he speaks to international students now, he has a few pieces of advice to give.
“Don’t just be focused on the narrow academic side of things,” he said. “Penn State has so much richness to offer, from the libraries to the incredible speakers, scientists, artists that visit, to workshops held by the various offices on campus. Even within academics, do not limit yourself to your own discipline; it took me a long time to realize that the boundaries between disciplines don’t really exist. There is a great culture at Penn State which allows you to cross and redraw boundaries. Take advantage.”
Balakrishnan credits his mentorship and his interdisciplinary track at Penn State for his current successes. “It really taught me how to come at things from a problem perspective, not from a discipline perspective,” he said. “It has made my collaborations much more fruitful.”