B.TECH, COMPUTER SCIENCE, 1992
PROFESSOR, CORNELL UNIVERSITY AND THE DEAN OF THE CORNELL ANN BOWERS COLLEGE OF COMPUTING AND INFORMATION SCIENCE
I am a Tamilian who grew up in a middle class home in Mumbai. We were a large family - my parents, brother, sister, uncle and me - living in a small apartment in Pali Hill, Bandra. My father and my uncle were initially in the Indian Air Force, and later, airline pilots with Air India. My mother was a homemaker who never got a chance to go to college. As a child, I learnt Bharatnatyam and at some point, I thought I could go on to become a classical dancer. But I also enjoyed math and science and my older brother Krishna was a big influence in my life. He was studying Electrical Engineering at VJTI and encouraged me to think of engineering as a career. At that time, it was an unusual career path for a girl. I studied with a group of friends at Ruparel college who were also working hard to get in. I did not think I would qualify at all, far less did I expect to get a high enough rank to qualify for computer science. I was definitely very surprised. I think my JEE rank was 131 (but not sure).
The IIT experience was a culture shock. I found it intensely competitive and, as you know, that can be stressful. But, looking back, I just remember the good times, the deep friendships I formed. 30 years later, we can still pick up a conversation with each other, where we left off. What else? Mood Indigo, walks to Powai lake, professors teaching us amazing, deep stuff in class. The computer lab - gosh, it was always freezing! - so many nights spent working there. And after an all-nighter we’d go to this unhygienic noodle place (wonder if it still exists!) or go to watch the sunrise. The year I was involved with Mood Indigo we were incredibly lucky to watch Naseerudin Shah in ‘Waiting for Godot’. I got to see him up close, from the floor in front of the stage. It was an astounding performance. It is a tough play and was not a crowd pleaser, but his every movement (subtle or large) was so perfect, he was mesmerizing to watch. I was transfixed. We had about 15 women in my batch, I was the only one in computer science. H10 was at one end of the campus and we had one dial-up phone in the hostel foyer. I couldn’t just drop into the guys hostel in the middle of the night, which is when you work on assignments. So I had to learn to do things by myself, become self-reliant. When I went to do my PhD at MIT, I joined a study group with two other women and I was thrilled. When they were complaining bitterly about how MIT didn’t have enough women I said, look, you have it good here, there are three of us! The professors at IIT who had a big influence on me: Prof. A. A. Diwan (AAD) who was an amazing teacher and opened our eyes to knowledge and the excitement of open- ended problems in computer science. DMD (Prof. Dhamdhere) held us to high standards of excellence, I enjoyed working with him on my Bachelor’s project. DBP (Prof. Phatak) was energizing.
At MIT, initially I was thinking of working on compilers research. When the faculty member I was working with left, I had to look for another project. At that time, Prof. Seth Teller and Prof. Julie Dorsey joined MIT and I was excited by the work they were doing. I switched to computer graphics and did my PhD thesis in the area of visual computing. I came to Cornell as a post-doctoral researcher and have spent almost my entire working life here. What excites me about this area is trying to understand how human beings perceive the world, and using that knowledge to drive better graphics and vision. Digital prototyping tools, architectural visualizations, movies and games are all applications that use computer generated imagery that looks real. To produce that realism, you need to make an image that represents reality by simulating the physics, by getting shapes right, by making things look right. For example, a recent body of work that my group has done is understanding why silk looks like silk or velvet looks like velvet. It turns out that you, a human being, can immediately differentiate silk from velvet. But for an algorithm to get that right, you need to simulate the structure of these materials, the physics of the light interacting with the material to produce the characteristic highlights and reflections that make them look the way they do. On the computer vision side. I’ve been fascinated by how people understand images. You look at me, you immediately recognize me. You see a cup on a table, you immediately know what it is. But for a computer algorithm to do it has been hard until recently; there’s a big area of research called ‘scene understanding’ that studies this.
When I started in computer science, it was a purely academic discipline. What’s changed now is the real world impact of the work that we are doing. In 2015, I had the crazy, exciting opportunity to co-found a startup - GrokStyle - with my PhD student Sean Bell. The company was born out of visual recognition research we did together. We decided to focus on home décor. So, you could take a picture of any piece of furniture and the AI would tell you exactly what make it is. You say, “Oh, that’s great. That’s exactly what I wanted” and you can potentially buy it. When we launched, we rolled out GrokStyle’s recognition capability as a part of IKEA’s augmented reality app. Then in 2018, we got acquired by Facebook and now our core technology is in Facebook’s visual recognition software called GrokNet. So it’s being used by millions of people and that’s incredibly exciting for us. I came back to Cornell to be chair of the computer science department and then the dean of the College of Computing and Information Science, which was recently named the Cornell Bowers College of Computing and Information Science. I realized that my heart lies in academia. I want to educate the next generation.
At Cornell, we have about 2000+ majors in computing and information science, of which 43% are women. The national average is 20%. What we find is that women and men are equally good but it’s important to create the right community so that the learning environment isn’t unnecessarily hostile and cutthroat. Once you do that, all students thrive. I have had the good fortune of having great mentors, and now I am a mentor for a lot of women in computer graphics. I strongly recommend that no matter what stage of life you are in, find somebody junior to you whom you can be a mentor to. Give forward. After all, we are all standing on the shoulders of those who believed in us and supported us. My mother is from a very educated family, but for various reasons, she only finished high school. Yet she has supported me my entire life, every step of the way. When IITB conferred the Distinguished Alumnus Award, I could not travel due to Covid. I asked my mother to receive it on my behalf. For her, it was deeply meaningful to be there.
Well, it is a tightrope. My husband, Andrew Myers, is also a professor at Cornell and we decided early on that having children was important for us. In fact, we knew that we wanted to have three children. And we couldn’t wait till both of us had tenure, we felt like we had to live our life now and balance having kids with our careers. I had my first child as a postdoctoral researcher which was really tough. Luckily by then, Andrew was a tenure track professor. When we had our second child, we were both tenure track professors. So juggling two careers, two kids and everything related to kids like falling sick, picking them up, dropping them off, all that stuff, was challenging. One thing we did to keep our sanity a little bit is we spaced them out. I have a 21-year-old, a 17-year- old and a 12-year-old. Also, we had an incredibly supportive family, who helped us tremendously: my mother, my uncle, my father. I would say we lead a demanding life which is more like a kind of ‘managed chaos’. Typically, I get up at 4 am and between 4-8 am is when I can get a lot of concentrated work done. At about 8 am, my meetings start and go on until about 6 pm.
First, you won’t know what you like till you try it. And second, I really think we are in a very fortunate time. You can try different things. You can take risks. If you do a startup, it could succeed. It could fail. That’s fine. If it doesn’t work out, it’s not life or death in terms of your career. You can bounce back and still find a path to success.