Final year B.Tech (Hons) student Bhaktipriya Sridhar Radharapu maintains a detailed blog page. The listing of her awards and the projects she has been involved with is in itself mighty impressive. And a conversation with her in person is like a breath of fresh air.
It’s hard not to admire this eloquent and confident 21-year-old when she talks animatedly about her journey so far. Back from a semester at MIT as a special student where she learned Cognitive Science and Computation, she’s brimming with ideas and talks of a world where she “..would want AI to augment human intelligence so it can assist us, to make things easier, especially where it can get mechanical…in areas like healthcare, and cyber security.” But wait, let’s pause and rewind a bit.
The Early Years
After high school, what next? When others are confused and seemingly at the crossroads, Bhakti was crystal clear in her academic goals. Having enjoyed her initial exposure to coding in high school, it seemed natural that she wanted to pursue it further. Despite getting accepted at other international universities, some with scholarship too, she chose IIIT-H. “I was hesitant..”, she says, talking about the other academic offers of acceptance. Like most other technological institutes, they too had mandatory institute-level requirements like Physics, Chemistry, among others. “I thought..If I know what I want to major in, why should I spend an entire academic year learning stuff that I’ve already done in high school? And that does not happen in IIIT-Hyderabad. In fact it’s the best part of their curriculum”. She had done her thorough research on the curriculum and academic atmosphere at IIIT-H. It wasn’t a tough decision after that.
Summers at IIITH
Since she was keen on academic research, she signed up for the Honours program where one gets extra 4 credits per semester for research. In the summer of the second year, one that she describes as “crazy”, she juggled between two internships – a full-time one at Google Hyderabad with the Apps for Work team and a remote internship (after work hours and over weekends) at the Linux Kernel. Being passionate about open source (she’s a certified Linux hacker too), she had applied for and been selected out of 5 others in the world for a programming project, under the Outreachy internship program. This program “provides three-month internships for people from groups traditionally underrepresented in tech”. Between the two internships Bhakti had to squeeze in some mandatory courses for the Honours program at CVIT too!
Under the mentorship of Prof. C.V. Jawahar, Bhakti has been instrumental in helping build assistive technologies for the visually impaired and the deaf. For this, she built a smart helmet, with a smart phone mounted on top and cameras on the sides. It can help in guiding the visually impaired for navigation by detecting physical obstacles, “..The device can also take in the video feed of someone doing sign language and convert that into speech”, she explains.
Despite being offered an internship at Google the next summer as well, Bhakti chose to focus more on research. This time, opting for an internship at le CNAM (Centre d’etudes et de recherche en informatique et communications), Paris. Working under Prof. Nicholas Thome on Deep Learning and Semantic Segmentation, she says, “..with Computer Vision and AI techniques, we developed a model whereby looking at 3D scans of patients, one can diagnose and detect the exact location of cancer”. It is this type of practical application of AI that intrigues her.
Driven by the research bug, and having gained enough exposure both at IIITH, as well as at Paris, Bhakti applied for the Undergraduate Special Student Program at MIT. The unique feature about this program is that it is open to undergrads across the world. Selected students get to spend a semester at MIT and take classes like regular MIT students. They also enjoy most of the benefits that all students have which includes access to all of the academic facilities, student support services, recreational activities and student clubs. While she was there from September – December 2017, Bhakti signed up with the largest on-campus laboratory, the CSAIL – Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. And had the great fortune to work with Josh Tenenbaum, professor of Cognitive Science and Computation. “I had just read his paper and then there he was …teaching my class…It was so overwhelming!”, she gushes. Her project was an independent study on “Hierarchical perception of motion” or simplistically, enabling computers to see things in motion the way humans do. Incidentally Prof. Tenenbaum’s new initiative, aimed at producing better AI – ‘MIT Intelligence Quest’ – has been in the recent news. Bhakti also got the opportunity to teach as a teaching assistant (TA) for a Deep Learning course. The courses she opted for were in fact graduate-level courses. No mean feat given that the MIT Special Student Admissions page cautions prospective candidates that the program is extremely independent and that special students receive minimal academic advising.
There has been a conscious movement across industries and other sectors towards gender inclusiveness and equality. Technology especially has seen a significant push in this direction with women and girls being encouraged to participate in and be represented in industry. What led her to become the founder of the Lean In, Hyderabad chapter? She looks back on the Outreachy internship, musing, “the experience helped me a lot, the exposure through conferences where I got to meet so many people, develop contacts and network”. She wanted something similar for the other girls and was surprised to know that a lot of them weren’t aware of such opportunities, that are especially available for women and other underrepresented communities. Feeling the need for a forum where there is regular peer-to-peer encouragement, Bhakti kickstarted the chapter at IIIT and invited her mentors to speak on areas like OpenSource, Industry, Leadership, and Research. They even had a special session where their Seniors were invited to speak on their experiences on industry and academic internships. She says that post the meet, there was a significant spurt in the number of applications from girls towards these avenues.
Getting invited to international conferences is a natural offshoot of being a young, bright spark. One of the most notable conferences Bhakti has participated in includes the LinuxCon 2016 in Toronto, with 15,000 attendees, where she was not only the youngest speaker but also the youngest Outreachy Panel Member. She was also the recipient of The Grace Hopper Scholarship India 2016 and presented a talk about OpenSource at The Grace Hopper conference. More recently, she was a member of a panel at The IEEE Women In Engineering International Leadership Conference (WIE ILC) 2017 in San Jose, California. “Some of my co-speakers at these conferences included Jeff Dean, the current leader of AI at Google, and Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux”, she says matter-of-factly.
Peek Into The Personal Side
Has there been a single person or a book or an idea that is the source of her inspiration? “My mother”, she shoots back. When prodded to reveal more, she relates not without pride of how her mother is a child psychologist by profession. A youth exchange scholar from India to the US herself, Bhakti’s mother has been the recipient of the Presidential Academic Fitness Award by President George Bush. “My mom is my role model. She inspires me to learn, live and lead every day”,
While all her other achievements are in the limelight, Bhakti’s singing prowess is relatively unknown. “I love to sing with Masterra!”, she laughs. In fact, she is currently studying Carnatic music under the accomplished Prof. Saroja of the Humanities department at IIIT. An avid chess player too. Bhakti reveals that she was a national level player in Kuwait and at IIIT in the first year, represented Telangana to win a bronze medal.
“I want to explore the industry a bit more and apply whatever I’ve learned so far..I’m interviewing with some companies that do Applied AI, and some R&D labs..”, she trails off.