Sister Act and the Banyan Tree

We follow the story of the shy but ambitious Chandu sisters and how IIIT Hyderabad helped them become go-getters and published authors in their spheres of research.

Tale of two sisters
The 12 km ride from home seemed too short for 16-year-old Khyathi, who quivered with anxiety as her parents drove her to IIITH’s gates. This was the usual pattern for the young engineering aspirant, a hostelite during the week, who counted days to the weekend, when she would be home with her family. Her younger sister by 18 months, the less introverted Sharvani, would join IIITH the next year, much to her relief.

Fast forward a decade to 2022. Today, Khyathi Raghavi Chandu is a Research Scientist at Meta AI in Conversational AI Research in California. Prior to this, she completed her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), working on controllable text generation and multimodality. The goal of her research is to enable seamless communication between humans and machines with multiple modalities and languages. The much-awarded multi-talented researcher has done an array of work in code-switching and biomedical text summarization and published papers in top conferences.

Sharvani, her younger sibling works as a software development engineer at Amazon Go in Seattle and is affiliated with the Just Walk Out division, building a seamless digital shopping experience. She graduated from IIITH with a B. Tech in ECE in 2016 and went on to complete her Masters in Computer Vision (MSCV) at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon.  “I have research and work experience in implementing computer vision and machine learning algorithms in medical and satellite image domains and also natural language processing applications”, she explains.

How IIITH shaped Khyathi’s tender life
Like most youngsters her age, Khyathi was extremely uninformed and unsure whether to pursue medicine or engineering after Class 10. “I was adamant about pursuing avionics because I had grown up watching my father, who works at the National Remote Sensing Center at ISRO and also did a Ph.D. in satellite image processing. I took computer science by trusting my father’s instinct about my personality and blossomed under the professors at IIITH who sensed my inclination towards NLP”, she observes.

Khyathi joined IIITH in 2011 and would explore all the departments, working with Prof. Dipti Misra Sharma in her first year, speech processing with Prof. Kishore Prahlad and later with Prof. Manish Shrivastava. She was always intrigued by interdisciplinary works which undoubtedly is a specialty at IIITH. In pursuit for the same cross-disciplined areas, a graphics course by Prof. PJ Narayanan would have a big impact in shaping her interest in multi-modality.

Blossoming under the wise ole Banyan tree
“I was an extremely shy kid to speak up although passionate about well-rounded activities when I joined the university”, recalls Khyathi. “I am thankful to my professors who teased, cajoled and   created opportunities for me to speak up to pursue my interests.” She has fond memories of the sports events and cultural fests on campus. In her very first semester, participating in dance events during Felicity would help the youngster to get out of her shell. “Our seniors would drag us into all these cultural dance events and those late night practices are some of my favorite memories”, she muses.

Khyathi observes that IIITH stands apart for its research-focused course material, the encouragement to publish papers and early exposure to coding and advanced syllabus which is not available in most universities. “The most gratifying experience for me and my batch mate was when our first paper got published with Prof. Dipti Misra. I think that primed me towards exploring research, and the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. germinated at that point”.

The accidental author and her muses
“Mom, anytime during my PhD, if I say that I want to quit, please don’t let me. Just tell me to take a couple of days off!”, were Khyathi’s uncompromising instructions to her mother before she flew to CMU to join the Language Technologies Institute. Thankfully, her mother was never called upon to enforce the diktat, owing to her grounded attitude in an aggressive journey!

There was a juncture during her Ph.D. when she and her advisor Prof. Alan Black, whom she warmly refers to as Prof. Dumbledore, were confused if her thesis should be on code switching or multi-modality.  “A lot of my research involved multi-modality and code switching, which I picked up in IIITH. I was more passionate about multi-modality at the time and ended up doing my thesis in that direction”, she explains. Since a large body of the completed work would not feature in her thesis, they decided to write a book in collaboration with professor Eric Nyberg and Sunayana Sitaram. The book is tentatively titled ‘NLP Pipeline for Codeswitching’. Apart from her parents, Prof. Alan Black ranks high among her list of favorite people. “He is super fun loving, empathetic and charmingly sarcastic, with a marked Scottish accent”, she observes impishly.

Awards and hobbies that fired Khyathi’s spirit
Khyathi has a string of awards and recognition to her credit including being the winner of Rising Stars EECS @UC Berkeley 2020. Earlier at IIITH, she won the S.N. Bose Scholarship to spend a summer at the University of Pennsylvania as a research intern and also won the sixth edition of BioAsq challenge while at CMU. The all-rounder featured consistently on the Dean’s Merit list at IIITH, adjudged the Best All-Rounder Student of her undergraduate batch, Best Sports-woman for three consecutive years at IIITH and the Best Outgoing student in High school. The young go-getter has organized several workshops at ACL conferences, co-chaired Diversity, Equity and Inclusion(DEI) initiatives at NLP conferences for multiple years and WiNLP workshops and was an editor for the Machine Learning Blog at CMU. Being an enthusiast of DEI initiatives, she chaired inclusivity activities and forums in NLP conferences and volunteers for Eklavya education plan at WinStep Forward.

“When I write, I like adding layers of deeper meaning, unravelled with my choice of words on the context”, says the self-taught artist who dabbles in pencil sketching and ‘random writings’ in her free time. She adds, “My parents really appreciated what I did and they would patiently take me for all my practices, whether it was athletics, art competitions or debates”. The quite gratified Khyathi does not remember a time she was discouraged to learn something new. “My dad managed his schedule to make room for me dabbling in my infinite interests. My mom is a remarkably forbearing woman, my first inspiration, who studied all our textbooks along with us. It amazes me that she studied each thrice,” recollects Khyathi affectionately and admiringly.

Sharvani adds, “Our parents always ensured that we got equal amount of attention. I remember when Khyathi started her athletic training, they pushed me to try it. Though I didn’t really enjoy it, that training later helped me at IIITH, where I won a few medals in sports events”.

Sharvani has a rock solid foundation at IIITH
Khyathi’s younger sibling took a similar path to IIITH but by the JEE route. “I had to choose between IIITH and IIT Patna”, says Sharvani who joined the 2012 batch of B. Tech with ECE and went into computer vision, like her father.

“IIITH’s research focus is one of the things that helped me become what I am today”, she explains.  “My friends at CMU would marvel at the diverse range of curriculum that IIITH offered; like the ‘Let the Plant live’ organic farming elective that I took! In my initial semesters, I enjoyed DLP that was taught by Prof. PJ Narayanan. Eventually, it was the signal processing course taught by Prof. Jayanthi Sivaswamy that fired my interest in computer vision”.

Being a smaller institute had its advantages. “It helped a shy person like me to explore the avenues that I would have probably shied away from, in a larger Institute. I never felt alone at IIITH or at CMU because I knew that Khyathi always had my back”, she says. A part time internship in her 3rd year with a shopping-assistant startup and volunteer work at Ashakiran, a non-profit school run by IIITH for the underprivileged would keep her busy on campus.

Sharvani starting running during her first year at IIITH and “I think that routine made me realize the importance of PT for mental and physical health. Even today, when I am extremely stressed, a walk or a run in fresh air usually clears my head”.

Sharvani’s tryst with robotic kitchens and a book
Sharvani experienced corporate life at Pega systems in Bangalore, working in machine learning and later in computer vision domain. While at Pega Systems, she would win a series of awards and commendations within the company. “When I had the opportunity, I applied for my masters in computer vision and was lucky to get into the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon”, she says. Her CMU coursework would include capstone projects for two semesters including one that involved building a robotic kitchen. She worked on building a simulator for cooking in collaboration with Sony, under the guidance of Prof. Katerina.

The lockdown happened just as Sharvani was scheduled to join Amazon Go but fortunately for her, Ashwin Pajankar a IIITH alumnus was looking for a researcher who had experience with MATLAB. Sharvani’s timely help would make her second author on a book on computer vision and image processing titled GNU Octave by Example.

Strong female mentors of the Chandu Sisters
“Our parents are definitely the biggest influence in our lives”, say the sisters. Like Khyathi, Sharvani too credits their Sanghamitra school correspondent Mrs. G. Arundhati as a “most relatable strong female role model. “The quotidian moments are the most accessible to derive inspiration from”, regards Khyathi, affiliating this to her mother, sisters and peers. As Khyathi recognizes “I was fortunate enough to be mentored by super-women like Prof. Dipti and Prof. Devi Parikh”. Sharvani also recalls, “I have had the opportunity to work with strong female mentors like IIITH’s Prof. Jayanthi and, Prof. Katerina Fragkiadaki at CMU”. The women in our life have been a huge influence,” they maintain.

“Gayathri, our youngest sister is a gold medalist from Amrita university who touched base with IIITH briefly, doing her final year internship under Prof. Manish”, says Khyathi fondly. With a Masters in CS from the University of Massachusetts, she works with Goldman Sachs in New York. The Chandu sisters rode out the pandemic together, working from home, watching movies and enjoying random activities like cooking different cuisines over weekends.

In the months ahead, Khyathi will be exploring teaching opportunities at IIIT Hyderabad. “I discussed the idea of becoming a visiting professor, with Prof. Dipti”, she says. The Grand Banyan tree nurtured the aspirations of the three Chandu sisters at different levels and one is now returning to give back to the Institute that supported their ambitions.

Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications; an irreverent blogger, consultant editor and author of two coffee table books. A social entrepreneur who believes that we are the harbingers of the transformation and can bring the change to better our world.

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