I grew up in Bombay in the suburb of Bandra. My father was a journalist while my mother was a medical practitioner. My parents, younger brother and I lived together with uncles and aunts, speaking multiple languages, given that my parents hailed from Karnataka and Gujarat respectively. I went to Bai Avabai Petit Girls’ High School and I was the studious kind, who always did well in exams. In those days, if you were bright, you picked science and chose either medicine or engineering. My mother happened to be a doctor, in fact, everyone on her side of the family was in the medical profession. So that was the natural path for me. As it happened, I did appear for medical college entrance and did not make it. I was disappointed but also relieved. In my heart, I knew I wasn’t really cut out for it! And then, my friends told me about IIT JEE. I ended up sitting for that exam without much preparation. My rank was 154 (highest amongst girls in the zone). I chose IIT Bombay and electrical engineering without a clue about what lay ahead. It was really a series of accidents that brought me to IIT rather than any strategy or plan!
As a student, I can’t say that I had a good time on campus. There were very few girls so you always tended to stand out, whether it was within class or outside of it. You had to deal with all kinds of isolation and the difficulties of not having a group to help you along. I remained shy and aloof throughout. I did enjoy discovering of the different areas of electrical engineering and even the courses in the humanities. One of the nice experiences, making for great memories, was joining the famous ‘Himankan’ treks on two occasions, organised by IITB’s mountaineering club. Somewhere along the way, I developed an interest in signal processing. Prof. Shankar taught analog signal processing while Prof. Kekre (CS dept) offered digital signal processing as an advanced/ PG elective. This is now all in the core UG EE curriculum. I realize I was privileged to have a very special educational experience but honestly, I was quite happy when the five years ended. It felt like being released from prison, almost. I never thought I’d come back! But life has a way of surprising you.
I completed my PhD in signal processing from the University of Florida, Gainesville and my postdoc research at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. After a brief visiting researcher stint at the Hitachi Central Research Labs in Tokyo, Japan, I joined IIT Kanpur as an Assistant Professor, following my husband Mahesh Patil (also IITB batch of 1984) in the same position. Initially, I was a nervous wreck because I wasn’t sure if I could handle the very competitive group of sharp IIT UG students.I will never forget how he quietly walked with me to the door of my first encounter with my tutorial batch of 3rd year UGs. I was behaving like I was walking into a den of lions. Over time, I became more comfortable in class but I was on the lookout for an industry job. However, there were hardly any opportunities in the corporate sector and no straightforward entry path into government labs. So, when the IITB position came up a few years later, I decided to move closer to home. When I joined, even the classrooms looked exactly like we had left them. All the big changes started happening after that. Today we have more female professors, more female students. There is a conscious effort on the part of IIT to be more balanced and engage with society. So it’s been a completely different and positive experience being here again.
My expertise is in the area of signal processing, which is a bunch of mathematical tools and methods applicable in different domains. Whenever there is information to be extracted, you use a signal. Humans use voice and images, for example. Machines interact with these signals in order to extract information and make sense of it, so that people can interact more naturally with computers. It’s all the more visible now because we talk a lot about IOT. All our little devices interact with the world at large and to do that, they interface through signals. So whether they are sound signals or radio signals or temperature signals, everything is essentially being sensed via signals. In this field, it is quite easy to motivate students because it’s just so highly applied. My interest lies in audio signal processing that involves sound and the human perception of it. I work on research problems in that area. As a professor, one has a chance to influence young minds, infect them with a zest for the subject and see them make excellent contributions. I’ve also had the opportunity to co-found Sensibol Audio Technologies along with some of my students - Vishweshwara Rao, Sachin Pant, Sujeet Kini and Nagesh Nayak. In fact, Vishweshwara was a musician who had the dilemma of choosing a career in music or engineering. At the startup, he was able to combine both. To commercialise a technology you need a problem to solve. We built some neat prototypes and demonstrations of a software that could evaluate a person’s singing skills. When we gave demos at the IIT Alumni celebrations and so on, there was a lot of interest. So we formed a company called Sensibol in 2011. We have had a number of interesting deployments of our singing, scoring and audio-mixing product. With music licensing being such a challenge in India, the company engaged mostly in services for the entertainment industry rather than taking on the challenges and promoting their own products.
My mother was always a working woman so that concept was not new to me. My husband, Mahesh, is also my colleague in the same IIT department, so he could easily understand my need to do certain things, or spend a lot of time in my lab. I have never had to explain to my family why I was poring over my computer all the time. An interesting outcome is that my son Pranay wants to be a professor some day.
There are a lot of opportunities and I think it’s worth taking the time to investigate what’s out there till you find what you really want to do.