Lakshmi Reddi’s childhood may not have been rich in the way of material things, but the New Mexico State University College of Engineering dean’s early years were enriched with two seemingly incongruent life-lasting passions. He is inspired by his first love of language as well as the field of engineering.
“There are commonalities between language and engineering,” said Reddi. “A poet creates an expression of beauty with words, and an engineer does the same, creating a physical object, like a bridge or a building.”
Reddi came to NMSU in summer 2016 from Florida International University where he was dean of the Graduate School. He has more than 25 years of academic experience as educator and researcher in interdisciplinary themes related to civil and environmental engineering. His career of academic publishing has been prolific – authoring, co-authoring and editing eight books and writing more than 120 technical articles on interdisciplinary themes in engineering. But there’s more to what is reflected on his vita: his experience of writing poetry spans even longer, dating back to his childhood.
Growing up in a small farming town in Southern India, Reddi’s formal educational opportunities were limited to the one-teacher school that went only to the fifth grade. Though his parents had little formal education, their passion for learning led him to become the first generation in his family to graduate from high school and the first Ph.D. and engineer from his town.
“My father valued education quite a bit,” said Reddi. “He was a self-taught, prolific reader and he told beautiful poems and stories. One of my first experiences was memorizing those poems and stories and telling them back to him. My father showed me a world of ideas through those beautiful stories. He’s 93 years old and still gravitates to books rather than people.”
His mother, too, had a great influence on his gravitation toward the humanities. “She is a nature lover who also is self-taught and reads a lot. I got a poetic sense from her and an appreciation for beauty.
“My parents gave me something that my formal education did not,” said Reddi.
The native dialect of his hometown is Telugu, “a very beautiful language in its own way,” said Reddi, who still frequently writes in that language. He was introduced to English when he was 12 after his teacher, recognizing his ability with language, recommended that he go to a school where he could learn English. At great sacrifice, his father moved the family to a nearby community that had such a school. Reddi still refers to his English as an “acquired” language.
“My father also taught me that I needed to do something useful to impact the lives of many people.”
His father is a farmer in possession of one-acre of land. In 1852, during British occupation, English engineer Sir Arthur Cotton designed the delta system in southern India and is still regarded as a god by the people there for making the land fertile.
“I thought, wow, I can help many people as an engineer,” said Reddi. “Today we encourage people to become engineers because they are good at math. We don’t present it as a people serving profession. I think that’s a mistake.”
Reddi earned a bachelor of technology in civil engineering from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in India, and came to Ohio State University in 1982 where he earned a Master of Science in and a Doctor of Philosophy, both in civil engineering.
“I had no money in my pocket when I came here. I had to get a loan to pay for my flight. I received a monthly stipend of $480 and I couldn’t believe I was being paid to be a student,” he said.
Throughout his successful career in engineering academia as teacher, researcher and administrator, he always had an appreciation for the humanities: reading, mostly biographies and autobiographies (Abraham Lincoln is a favorite); philosophy, particularly Pythagoras and Socrates; and music of all kinds. And he always made time for personal writing.
“Writing takes me away from the mundane tasks and brings me back fully replenished.”
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