At 30, Dr. Charu Sharma is the youngest faculty at IIIT Hyderabad’s Machine Learning Lab and frequently gets mistaken for a student. We investigate the motivational journey of the self-confessed average pupil whose academic stops at IIT and IIITH set her apart from the herd.
“Geometric machine learning is in everything and everywhere nowadays”, observes Dr. Charu Sharma, about her research areas in deep learning (point cloud data, graph-structured data) , assignment problems and 3D models. Drones, for instance, are now being utilized for surveillance and city development. A large part of her work is also in omnidirectional images as well as the topology of various kinds of data. How we capture the geometry of data and find the underlying structure, using Graphs and 3D Point Cloud is the gist of what she does. She joined as an Assistant Professor at IIITH in June 2021 with a Ph.D from IIT Hyderabad.
The application side of her inter-disciplinary work in NLP and CV is chiefly related to 3D reconstruction, modeling and knowledge graphs. “Presently, a lot of my work on 3D data is in collaboration with different organizations and other faculties at IIITH on autonomous navigation and 3D reconstruction of drone- captured images”, she explains.
From the research perspective, she is working on several projects with her students and in collaboration on knowledge graphs, advancing 3D point cloud representations, navigation related problems, underwater vehicles and imaging systems. A Point Cloud project is looking at the 3D reconstruction, classification, semantic segmentation, object tracking, etc. for surveillance and autonomous driving. “I’m also working on optimal transport, capturing the geometric structure of the data”, she says.
A self-confessed average student’s inspiring journey
“I pretty much coasted through life till I finished my B.Tech from Jaipur”, observes Prof. Sharma. As a Junior Software Engineer, she worked under Prof. Deepak B. Phatak at IIT Bombay, on a collaborative MOOC project with EdX. Though the project was wildly different from her work today, it was a great learning experience, she recalls.
“I came to Hyderabad 8 years back for my M. Tech in AI from UoH (2014-16), under the guidance of Prof. Arun K. Pujari. Six months into my Master’s program, I decided to pursue my Ph. D” says the professor who opted to remain in India, thanks to an overarching desire to contribute to research here.
Routine as the key to success
As a Ph.D student, Prof. Sharma worked in IIT Hyderabad’s Krama Lab under Dr. Manohar Kaul and defended her thesis in four and a half years. To prep for her doctoral work, she would follow a grueling regimen. “I would wake up at 6am, go for a run, work at the lab for 12 hours and it was lights out by 10 pm. It was my discipline and routine that allowed me to complete my thesis, with months to spare”, she insists. Her Ph.D guide emphasized on quality work and was her chief motivator. “Though topological data analysis (TDA) is not my core area, I worked on some of its interesting topics that includes studying geometric structure of the data and how we apply it to ML problems”, she notes. When she began work in the domain, there was no prior papers in this confluence area of TDA and ML.
IIITH’s campus – Where everybody knows your name
“I knew about IIITH’s culture for a long time, especially its recognition in ML, NLP and computer vision (CV). I applied, got accepted and joined within the time-frame of a week”, says Prof. Sharma. She takes graduate level courses in core CS area such as software systems development and electives such as deep learning with a focus on graphs. She has also taken a few lectures on volumetric, point cloud and 3D deep learning using graphs and meshes in 3D Vision Summer School and DL for molecular graphs in ML for chemistry and drug design course.
Prof. Charu Sharma and her husband Abhimanyu Gupta, a software engineer at Oracle moved into campus accommodation earlier this year. “I love it here because it’s a self-sustained, faculty driven Institute”, she points out. “Earlier this year, I enjoyed being a part of the organizing committee on the R&D showcase and FC Kohli Day, interacting with the committee, faculty members and students.” Along with Prof. Avinash, she oversaw a weeklong program –3D vision summer school that had encouraging participation from IITs, NITs, IIITs, Industry, etc. across India.
Good habits of a late bloomer
“One thing I must point out is that my parents are proud of me”, says the young professor who grew up in Jaipur. “Even though I was average in studies at Kendriya Vidyalaya, I loved science and mathematics”, she observes. When the youngster chose the science stream for high school, her parents would diplomatically ask her how she planned to survive in science, since she refused to study.
Though her father had retired comfortably as assistant commissioner from EPFO, she was still adamant that she would pursue her M. Tech, on a scholarship from a good college. “Earlier, during my B. Tech days, I was teaching high school students in STEM subjects and was quite self-sufficient, at least for the basic stuff”, she smiles. “After my M. Tech, I got campus placement and my parents were happy that I was in a job and were hoping to get me married”. What they didn’t know was that she had applied to IITs for her Ph.D program. She informed them about her plans only when she had to travel to the different colleges for interviews. “What will happen if you get selected? asked the horrified parents. “Let’s get to that later if I am selected”, was the cheeky rebuttal. When she got into IIT Hyderabad first and later joined IIIT Hyderabad as a professor, her parents continued to remain stupefied!
The marathon runner with a zest for life and research
“To maintain my Ph. D work and for my health, I used to do yoga and running”, says the athlete who has completed a few 10-km marathons in Hyderabad. She has participated in many races including IITH’s friendship race that snagged her the third place in the female category and first in a Sprint Duathlon in Hyderabad.
“I had FOMO during my B.Tech days because everybody seemed to be reading novels. I tried reading novels but quickly gave up. If I have to read, I would prefer course books or research papers”, says the young professor with a grin.
Prof. Sharma will soon be serving as Proceedings Chair at CoDS-COMAD 2023 at IIT Bombay. During her Ph.D tenure at IIT Hyderabad, she received several commendations including Excellence in Research Award (2020), Certificate of Appreciation in Research (2019), Financial Assistance Award from NeurIPS 2020 and was selected for both the Microsoft Research and Google travel grants to attend ICML 2018. She was 2nd Prize Winner of ArtInEx, a Tech Fest hosted by NIT Calicut– TCS AI Lab in 2015.
A wide range of extracurricular activities, including singing, dancing and trekking kept the scout guide occupied during most of her school and college life.
Quora and a tale of courtship
The young scholar met her husband Abhimanyu on an unlikely platform. “I was very active on Quora at that point. We came across each other when I responded to a query on the best compliment received”. She would write about the Mall parking guard who had complimented her driving technique; a snippet that got both of them connected and talking. They would be married a few years later, in 2019. About her husband, she says “We have similar views about life and passion for work, lead a disciplined lifestyle, love road trips and are deeply attached to our families”.
In the future, Prof. Charu Sharma hopes to explore more of a 3D domain, and take forward her research in robotics along with working in the emerging domains of biochemistry, healthcare with graph machine learning and related areas.