To me, students are the best part of this job, they are so energizing to be around.



Early Life

My father is a mathematician doing research in algebraic geometry while my mother worked as a librarian and translates English books into Tamil. I was privileged to have grown up in the TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) housing colony, where I lived in a building with 99 apartments. I got an early exposure to science there. Dr. Venkataraman and Dr. Naranan, two professors at TIFR, arranged to screen science documentaries for all the kids in the building and Venil Naranan used to run birdwatching outings. Also, my father, a gifted expositor, would often discuss math with me casually, as we ran errands together. I also got introduced to the world of amateur theatre by Mrs. Sundari Seshadri and performed with her in a Tamil play at Shanmukhananda Hall. At school (Cathedral and John Connon High School), I enjoyed my academics and also took part in sports, choir, elocution and debating. My parents emphasized that I should find and follow my passion. In fact, my parents left my choice of career completely up to me, providing advice or input only if I asked for it. So, although I had many interests, in the end, I was most excited by the prospect of research in scientific fields. As my dad took a year’s sabbatical at Harvard I graduated from high school in Cambridge, MA. On returning to India, I studied for the JEE, without taking Agrawal Classes, but working out their practice sheets and reading text books.

Life at IIT Bombay

It was a wonderful time of my life,where I made many wonderful friends. I enjoyed the inter-hostel events, especially lit and music. For example, getting together to give small classical music concerts with other students, like fellow IITian Madhavan, who was a violinist, and Sriganesh who was a mrdangist, or singing Hindi film songs during Surbahar, or jamming and listening to classic rock. I would regularly play basketball in the evenings, often the only girl there, but never made to feel so. I also had an adventurous trip to IIT Delhi for an inter-IIT meet – I remember riding on top of the train to get some fresh air and after our match, accompanying Coach Edwin to a church to attend Christmas Mass. I went for my weekly music classes with Smt. Aruna Sairam to Wadala – it was quite a journey after a full day of classes, taking a bus two trains and finally walking through a fish market to my teacher’s home. But I always came back energized and am grateful for the mess workers and my dear friend Lalita, who made sure that a plate of dinner had been saved for me. In terms of academics, most professors were supportive. Professor Zuvekar was particularly encouraging and acted as advisor for my B.Tech. seminar on ‘Stochastic processes in reaction engineering’. Prof.U.V. Shenoy (UVS)also imparted so much energy and passion for the subjects he taught UVS was my B.Tech. Project (BTP) advisor. I majored in chemical engineering, but found it was too empirical for my taste. Around the end of my third year, I realized that I really liked all the mathematical aspects, the abstraction and the theory behind everything. I didn’t want to just apply a formula, I wanted to know why is this the right formula? So in my final year, I took several math electives.

Finding my Bliss

Close to graduation, I remained unsure about my career path. But I recall having a Eureka moment while in the back of a taxi with my parents, suddenly saying, “I want to do a PhD in Applied Math!” Applied Math was not a well established track in India at that time, but it seemed to combine my interests perfectly. Then I thought, “Oh my God, I haven’t done enough math!’ My BTP advisor cautioned me against the switch, as he felt I could more easily succeed as a chemical engineer. I decided to take the risk anyway. At the very last minute, based on the input that I may not need a Masters to get into a PhD, I applied to Brown University, which lies in Providence, RI, and New York University, as they had excellent applied math programs. To my surprise, I got admitted to both but chose Brown since they also promised a generous fellowship. I guess Providence struck! At Brown, everyone who was admitted in my year had done way more math than me during undergrad. I wondered, am I going to make it? Luckily, I didn’t get tense, just really enjoyed myself and I did fine. After defending my PhD in Jan 1997, I got a post-doctoral fellowship in Israel. I had always intended to become a professor, since the mission and the autonomy that academia provides appealed to me, but when I got a job offer of a permanent position from Bell Labs even before graduation, I decided to get a different perspective of research before heading to academia.

Professional Journey

At Bell Labs, I worked on several problems related to what is called large deviations, which is a theory that quantifies probabilities of rare events (for example, call drops in wireless networks, or rare mutations in genetics). In such cases, one wants to not only know or ensure that an event is rare, but also be able to characterize exactly how small that probability is and what is the most likely way in which the event would occur. Using large deviations theory, my colleague and I were able to identify a scheduling discipline that we proved would be optimal. To my own surprise, this scheduling discipline was incorporated into a switch. Seeing maths applied in a real life situation was thrilling. We also got a couple of patents to our names. After several years at Bell Labs, I was fortunate to receive offers from a couple of universities, and I chose the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. After spending seven memorable years there, I returned to Brown in 2010, this time as a professor. I work in the area of probability theory and stochastic processes. Stochastic is just a fancy name for ‘random’. Probability theory is the study of uncertain phenomena. Such phenomena may be uncertain because they’re inherently uncertain like quantum phenomena, or it could be that they appear uncertain because you do not have enough information to predict their outcome. I love research and also enjoy teaching and mentoring. When I see my students solve very challenging problems,and watch them grow and become full-fledged researchers, those are my proudest moments.

Challenges as a Woman

I remember at IIT, some of the fellow students said I (and other women at IIT) were wasting a seat. Finding that a ludicrous statement, since we had earned our place at IIT in the same way as any other male student, I asked, “Why do you say that?” To which they replied, “Oh, you will go get the degree and not work.” I decided that wouldn’t apply to me and moved on. But I know that such comments can have an adverse affect on many women. I’ve heard that IIT Bombay has started a (mandatory pass/ fail, zero-credit self-study) course on gender awareness. I hope this has a positive influence on the environment. . At Brown, this past semester I taught a course on “Race and Gender in the Sciences”, which was created due to demand from students. It is important to create a more welcoming atmosphere to diverse groups. I once invited a young woman PhD graduate from MIT, who had recently given birth to give a talk a Brown. I found funding to enable her husband to come with her to take care of the baby. But her baby fell asleep earlier than planned, and so she gave the talk holding her sleeping baby!

Work-Life Balance

Academia makes a lot of demands on ones’ time, especially in the American system, where you have to be not only a researcher, teacher and mentor, but also a manager, procure funding, etc.. But I do make time to do other things. Indian classical music is one of my more serious hobbies. It nourishes my soul. I also like watching theater and films, travel and hiking. One never completely switches off from work. Sometimes when I’m humming, or in the shower, and I’m sort of thinking about something, I get a flash of insight. What we call a ‘eureka moment’. Overall, I feel like I have considerable flexibility, subject to fulfilling my teaching obligations. If I want to take a break, I can do so. Most importantly, I have a wonderful partner, who helps me maintain a good work-life balance.

Taking Math to the Masses

In January, 2016, I was invited by director Nandan Kudhyadi to be the narrator and script consultant for a documentary called ‘Srinvasa Ramanujan: The Mathematician and his Legacy’. I agreed to do the project because the film was to be shown at high schools across India – and I thought it may inspire more young Indian women to pursue mathematics. I am passionate about math outreach. I lead a group called the ‘Math Co-op’ with the help of students at Brown. We develop open source presentations whose slides are freely accessible to anyone who wants to use them. Due to COVID, we stopped physical presentations, but continued online meetings and design of video presentations. During the pandemic, I also led an initiative called ‘Mathematics sin Fronteras’, which in Spanish or rather Spanglish, means “Mathematics without Borders”. We wanted to make mathematics accessible to a large Spanish speaking population and so invited some wonderful mathematicians - all women - to give virtual bilingual extracurricular lectures. I hope to lead a similar initiative in India in the coming year.

Advice to Young Women

Find your passion, and take your time to find out what you want to do. Passion is what will get you through the rough patches in any job. Stick by your convictions, and don’t be too cautious -don’t hesitate to take risks. If you take up research, you will always be pushing yourself to the boundary of what is the unknown. So you have to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Also, do join us in the ‘march for science’ to spread more rationality in the world.