CHIEF, DIVISION OF ARTIFICIAL MEDICAL INTELLIGENCE,
DEPARTMENT OF OPHTHALMOLOGY,UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO ANSCHUTZ MEDICAL CAMPUS
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF RADIOLOGY AT THE MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
I am an only child. My father was a director at E.Merck, a pharmaceutical company. I attended St. Anthony’s in Chembur. I think people would say that I was a good student. I was generally quiet and shy and a bookworm. My mother was a physics professor at SIES college in Bombay and from very early on, she made me feel that women can do anything they want. I was fortunate to be born in such a home and have a great role model in the family. My mother was often grading papers at home or preparing for her lectures. I asked her lots of questions about science and physics. I remember learning about atoms and circuits, well before I was exposed to those concepts at school or college. So, from a young age, I was really excited excited about what opportunities there were in physics and engineering. I prepared for JEE by studying at home by myself. I did attend one short course at Agrawal classes.
I think for most of us it was the first time we were living away from home. So the hostel and campus became a new home, new family in a sense. In terms of activities, I was introduced to rock climbing in IIT due to ‘Himankan’, the mountaineering club. That developed into a lifelong love of climbing. I also participated in inter-IIT (badminton). We were 11 girls in a batch of roughly 300, so you could say the gender ratio was quite unbalanced! Regardless of that, we had to get used to working a lot harder than ever before. And it was very challenging, very rigorous work but you got the hang of it. In terms of the education itself, IIT was fabulous. It gave me a very strong foundation which allowed you to do whatever you want in life, not just the field you actually studied. Prof. Vasi was a phenomenal mentor. Due to his influence, I not only developed an interest in semiconductors but I got exposed to the world of books and literature.
I did my PhD at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY and that’s also where I met my husband. He was working on his mathematics PhD when we met. After working in the semiconductor industry for a decade and a half, I pivoted to a career in health informatics and radiology. In fact, in 2010, I went back to school and did a Master’s in Biomedical Informatics through Oregon Health and Science University. It was a multidisciplinary program with a very international cohort which included clinicians, doctors and computer scientists. All my life, I’ve been in the data analysis field in some way. My background from IIT and core engineering principles have been really helpful both in semiconductors and in healthcare. The work that we do is the application of machine learning and AI for a variety of health care applications, specifically in medical imaging. We have a lot of existing data from patients. Are there patterns in this data that can be used to treat patients in the future, to improve health care, to reduce the cost, to make it more efficient? In short, our goal is to develop algorithms that might be useful for diagnosis and treatment- It’s a real intersection of computer science, mathematics and medical imaging.
The work we’ve done in ophthalmology and oncology has the potential to be truly impactful. We work in a disease called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which is a condition of premature or low birth weight babies. Due to advances in health care, such babies have a much higher rate of survival. But if they’re in a neonatal ICU and not managed properly, they can develop blindness. ROP can be treated but needs to be diagnosed early. So we’ve developed an algorithm that can be used in remote settings in conjunction with clinicians, so that they can identify the population that needs to be screened the most. We are hoping that this algorithm With my husband (Alan Cramer) and son (Avilash Cramer), 1993 will get deployed worldwide, including India. The other problem we are working on is screening for cervical cancer using low-cost approaches in low-resource settings. Again, we are partnering with leading experts to develop algorithms that can be used in large screening programs where AI can help improve the consistency and the diagnostic process. Hopefully, what is a fairly qualitative process becomes much more quantitative. I find my work to be both exciting and satisfying! Recently, I was selected to lead the new Artificial Medical Intelligence Division at the CU Department of Ophthalmology.
I think that there were definitely some challenges of being in a minority at IIT. But most of the engineering conferences that I go to today are hardly different. I mean, there are very, very few women. I think that life at IIT prepared me well and allowed me to be comfortable in situations where I am the only woman at the table.
That’s a tricky one and there’s no one right answer. I was pregnant during the last part of my PhD and I hoped to finish before my son was born. But he came a little early. So what should have taken a month to finish took six months. And then I took a couple years off because it was important to me that I spent time with him. I have had a lot of family support throughout my life. My husband has always been very involved - he does a lot of work around the house, is a phenomenal cook and a great father. I was often travelling for work so he was the one who went to the parent- teacher meetings when my son was young. My parents also helped out tremendously. We could not have managed without their help. The first two years when I stayed home with my son were really rich and very highly rewarding years, 100% worth it. But it probably set my career back in a sense. On the other hand, we were empty nesters much earlier than our peers Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, 2019 and I could spend a lot of time on my career later in life. Similarly, I was working in the semiconductor industry and it was going great but I decided that it was time to try something else. And then we had this opportunity to go abroad with my husband’s job and again, it was a work-life balance moment. I took the time off and reset my career. So there’s definitely been sort of fits and starts to my career, but I think all of it has been helpful.
When you think you are stuck remember, you are capable of a lot more than you imagine. Step back and reflect on what is really meaningful to you.