Thursday, March 3, 2011

Graduate Student of the Month: Ratan Suri

Ratan Suri
March 2011

Doctoral Candidate Ratnadeep Venkata Suri (Ratan) is from Hyderabad, India, and like many of his hometown counterparts, he began his academic career in the sciences. He is lucky, he said, because despite a culture focused on professional sciences and technology, he was able to pursue his interests and become a graduate student at Indiana University in the department of telecommunications.

Hyderabad serves as a major hub for the information technology industry in India, supports a variety of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, and is host to India’s second-largest film industry. It also has the distinction of hosting Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and entrepreneur Bill Gates.

Suri was always a good writer and although he had an interest in television production, he said where he is from in India, good students are expected to go into engineering and medical science programs.

“I think coming from an intellectual environment did help a lot because my parents were very keen to push us to do what we wanted rather than what everyone else around me was doing. So I went to a school in India that had a television production focus and that was a launching point for me to realize that I was better at that than what I had been doing in my undergrad, which was molecular biology—a complete switch.”

At first Suri chose another school for his degree, but soon realized that the breadth of research in the telecommunications department at IU would better support his research vision to examine how communications technologies influence society.

“But my dissertation is quite different from what other researchers in a telecommunications department might do,” he said. “It’s an ethnographic study of what happens when a community of geographers and historians use a particular or unique technology for historical research. For example, how does that community grapple with a new technology and how does it affect historical scholarship?”

For his dissertation, Suri is looking at three major case studies of how GIS influences historical research. The first study looks at the development of railroads in San Francisco and the surrounding areas and how that influenced agricultural practices and movement of people and goods. The second study examines how the dust bowl has been studied historically and how that history changes when seen through the lens of geographical information systems (GIS). The third is a case study on the holocaust.

“It’s a group of researchers from England, New Zealand, and the United States interested in WWII and European history, who got together to study different aspects of holocaust from a geographical perspective. They used GIS for their research. My dissertation is looking at how they study history…How is this scholarship changing historical research?” Suri said.

Essentially, Suri is combining mass media and information science with a new media perspective in order to take an interdisciplinary look at these issues.

The approach may seem very meta, but what Suri is really doing—examining how new technologies and an increasing digital fluency in traditional research fields is changing the way research is done—is a topic of current interest as scholars increasingly embrace technology as a research tool.

For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported ( that the time-honored tradition of peer review in journals has been put into question by younger social scientists, many of whom increasingly prefer to use social-media to distribute content more broadly within their field.

“Traditionally every field has its way of doing things… and traditionally historical researchers have not used high end technology. So when historians picked up that tool [GIS], not only did their method for analyzing historical events change, but what they use for historical evidence, and how they go about teaming up to analyze that data, has changed. That puts a lot of pressure on an existing set of norms that are traditionally part of historical research,” he said.

“The field of history has been a little slow to accept this change, so there is inherent tension between the established norms and the new norms that are emerging. To be able to capture that tension gives us a greater understanding of how we can look at the influence of technology on a social system.”

The case studies used in his dissertation give Suri a particular example of what has been done with a new technology, in this case, GIS. What he is discovering is that Historical GIS is emerging as a field where historians don’t do the historical research. It is other scholars who have picked up a historical perspective.

“There are very few historians who are at the forefront of this [Historical GIS],” he said. “If look at scholarship publications and at the affiliation of the scholars, you will see that most of them are not historians.”

Examples like this show that that particular field is not conducive to a particular technology, Suri said. As a researcher, he would like to further understand how technologies are distributed throughout a society, like how the historians he is studying in his dissertation have embraced or not embraced technology. He believes understanding how technology influences a community can reveal trends in society and this is important to scholars, because the use of technology can be tied with the progress of the field.

“And a field that is steeped in tradition can sometimes be resistant to that kind of change,” he said.

Among his accomplishments, Ratan Suri has taught at Howard University on a Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship, received special mention from the principle investigator of "Holocaust Geographies" at a final presentation of the work at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., and received a College of Arts and Sciences Dissertation Year Research Fellowship for the 2011-12 academic year.

Media Contacts:
Erika Lee, Director of Communications, The University Graduate School,
Angela Jones, The IU Graduate and Professional Student Organization,

The Graduate and Professional Student Organization and the University Graduate School would like to congratulate Ratan Suri on receiving the GPSO/UGS Recognition Award. Students selected for this award were nominated by a faculty member from within their department, and selected by the GPSO and UGS for excellence in their graduate studies at Indiana University.