Many women who wanted to apply to the IITs in the 80s could not because their families thought engineering wasn’t for women, or did not want to send their daughters to live in hostels. My parents also came from conservative backgrounds but never discriminated between my brother and me on the basis of gender. They were supportive of everything I did and always so proud of any successes I had. I was very fortunate to grow up in such an environment. My mom was a school teacher/ principal, then a homemaker, then a cooking teacher, and finally a bonsai artist and teacher. My dad is a paints and chemicals technologist. I attended Rev. C. F. Andrews School (up to 10th) and Jai Hind College for 11th and 12th. Since I liked Physics and Math, and did not like Biology, IIT seemed like the most appropriate option. My parents valued hard work and my dad was a scientist at heart, they both inspired me throughout, to seek the best and do my best. I prepared for JEE by taking Agrawal classes. EE was a popular major that I could get into with my JEE rank, the little about EE we had in school I liked, so I signed up for it.
There were just 11 women in my batch of 300+ students. Since we were such a small fraction, it could have been very isolating. But all the women lived in H10 and we had a very strong sense of community, even though our hostel was at the opposite end of the rest of campus life. Most of the boys really didn’t know how to talk to girls back then! Vikram was an exception – he was also in EE and we were lab partners. We hit it off and started seeing a lot of each other. The rest, as they say, is history. As regards academics, my 3rd year seminar and 4th year project both laid the foundation for the work I went on to do in my PhD. Prof. Rakesh Lal was my seminar advisor while Prof. Revankar was my B.Tech. project advisor. Both got me thinking about shared memory multiprocessors. In the seminar I did a literature survey and then a project, along with two others from H-10 - Sujata and Tanuja. Three women on the same B.Tech. project was highly unusual and fortunate – 5 of us from our batch of 11 were in EE. We built a basic, shared memory multiprocessor for our project, using various off-the shelf parts. There is an iconic photograph of the three of us working on our PCB. That’s what I ended up doing for many years of my life after that (a more advanced version, but that was the starting point). So I’m forever grateful to my advisors and my teammates. Prof. Vasi was also a huge influence. Both he and Prof. Lal would open up their lab, we could go and tinker around and build whatever we wanted to. I wish I had taken more advantage of it. But that spark of research and wanting to do something that one loves, I saw that in these professors. And that was something that stayed with me.
I completed my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1993. After that, I joined Rice University as an assistant professor and then moved to Illinois in 1999. In my early work, with my PhD advisor, Mark Hill, I developed the idea of data-race-free memory consistency models for hardware and software. Based on this work, with Hans Boehm, Bill Pugh, and others, I co-developed the memory models for the Java and C++ programming languages. This body of work forms the foundation of the semantics of shared memory for most hardware and software systems today. My work has always been on the boundary of hardware and software. As another example, with my students and several collaborators, we developed software-driven solutions for dealing with hardware errors. Recently, Google announced that hardware errors have now become a big problem for their data centers and issued calls to action for solutions of the type we pioneered many years ago. What excites me now is that we are entering a new, immersive era of computing. Similar to previous changes in computing modalities such as from mainframe to PCs to Web/ cloud-based to mobile, this new immersive era will also change how we build, program, and use computer systems. Immersive computing includes what we refer to as virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (collectively also referred to as extended reality or XR). My group recently released ILLIXR (Illinois Extended Reality testbed), a fully open source XR system and launched the ILLIXR consortium to democratize XR systems research, development, and benchmarking.
Today virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are largely used for gaming and entertainment but they have the potential to change pretty much everything we do. Surgeons are using VR and they want more realtime immersive technologies in the operating room. AR and VR can transform education, crisis response, retail services, and I am sure there are applications we haven’t even imagined yet. On a more personal note, my dad lives in India and I would love to be able to have us interact with our holograms in our own living spaces, in realtime, with a seamless merge of the physical and the virtual, like we were right next to each other. My research group is building the technologies for immersive systems that deliver on these promises. This requires interdisciplinary work spanning hardware, software, algorithms, and applications and is a long term research agenda for us.
In 2010, I became a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. A friend from IIT Bombay emailed me saying I was the first woman from India to get the recognition. That just blew my mind and changed my outlook in terms of gender issues. Two of my colleagues did a study that quantified the number of women in the computer architecture community who had received awards or been invited to prestigious keynotes, panels, etc. The data showed that the recognition and participation of women was dismal. This was a wake-up call for my community and yet, there was a subsequent highlight event with no invitations to women. This got many of us agitated and led to a major movement in our research community, with a clear call for a more diverse and inclusive environment. During this time and also coinciding with the MeToo movement, colleague wrote a blog quoting direct experiences of women facing discrimination and sexual harassment which shook people up. Although there were policies against such behavior, making a complaint was not easy and such incidents previously had not come to light. We worked with our professional organization to institute a CARES committee consisting of trusted researchers who can be confidentially approached at a time of high vulnerability, and help navigate the process of filing complaints. The CARES movement has now taken off, many research communities have adopted it, and we received a distinguished service award from the Computing Research Association. I recently co-founded and chair a similar Illinois CS CARES committee in my university department and the template is being scaled up for adoption in all college of engineering departments on my campus. I want to add that I’m so proud of my H10 group. Three of us who joined H10 in 1983 - Sharada Srinivasan from my B.Tech. batch, Shobana Narasimhan from M.Sc. Physics, and I, were recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Others are in various successful roles in industry and academia. Each of us, in our own way, has managed multiple challenges, navigated the system and we hope to see many more women walk this path.
Being a dual-career couple where both of us have pretty intense careers is not easy. My kids are awesome - I love them dearly - but the early years were pretty rough. Somehow, we hung in there. I have to acknowledge my husband, of course – we shared all household work - but also my parents and parents-in-law. They have all been absolutely incredible, cheering us all the way and being so supportive. Now, as the kids have grown older, their care is slowly being replaced with the care of parents and old balls to juggle are being replaced with new ones. It is important to remember that life is a marathon and not a sprint. If one focuses too much on a single day, week, or even month or year, that proverbial balance between work and the rest of life may appear elusive. But over the period of this marathon, I believe it is important - and certainly possible - to find that balance and do so in a way that is satisfying on all counts.
This is such a fantastic time. So many women are leading the way as inspiring role models in so many different ways. We still need to see a lot of change, but we are getting there. In computer science, there’s so much going on in terms of technical challenges, so much exciting work to do. We as technologists are building the future and, as women, we have the opportunity to shape this future for our needs, perhaps for the first time in such numbers and positions of power - isn’t that exciting?