Lydia Manikonda – Seeking a Moral Compass in the Digital Age

Like millions of youngsters her age in India, IIT was the ultimate goal for Lydia. But goalposts have a strange way of shifting willy-nilly. For Lydia Manikonda, it was a chance comment by her brother’s lecturer that her AIEEE rank would fetch her a seat in a great school like IIIT-Hyderabad, that set her career path. Now an Assistant Prof at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI ), Troy, New York, we caught up with Lydia to know what makes her tick.

Setting sail from Tenali

Hailing from Vijayawada, Lydia did her early schooling in neighboring Tenali where her mother taught Nutrition and Dietetics in a women’s college. The family stayed in Tenali and her father, a senior advocate, commuted daily by train to Vijayawada to work, to save her mother the travel. Thus, the youngster grew up, “appreciating the value of hard work” and “following your passion”. Coming from an extended family of medical doctors, Lydia initially thought of becoming a surgeon, but when the toss up came between Math or Biology, she chose Math!  My high school Math teacher inspired me and that’s how I started looking at the STEM field”, remarked Lydia.  Lydia excelled in the talent exams at the Guntur district level and was swamped by career guidance from several quarters. Lydia completed her IIT coaching from Nellore Narayana and secured a good rank in AIEEE.

Such was her confidence in the advice of her elders that Lydia joined the 4 yr. B. Tech program at IIIT-H after attending the counselling session at Warangal, without even checking out the campus. The institution was still very new back then, but was already creating a name for itself for its vision, faculty and focus on electronics and Computer Science engineering. “I sometimes think back about where I started and where I ultimately landed up”, muses the young mother of a two-year-old. “Opportunities came up one after another and I acted promptly”.

The winning IIITH blueprint

“It’s not just me but all my friends love the fact that we were lucky to have a pretty holistic education at IIITH. I got a strong sense of ethics along with a solid base in everything a computer scientist would need. I found passion and integrity; basic building blocks to an individual’s character at IIITH and I am truly grateful for that”.

One of her favourite memories was working with Prof. Vikram Pudi on her honours thesis in the 4th year for which she created an AI program to build a bot for Arimaa  – a 2-player board game that could be played on an 8X8 board with 4 trap squares and a few other contrasts to Chess. Her Master’s thesis was on her pet subject of Uncertainty in classification of images. At the time, social media was in its nascent stages and she was fascinated by the subject of images, their classification and clustering.

The young bookworm who spent a good bit of time in the campus library, enjoyed Prof. Jawahar’s coding class in first year and remembers that the most fun part were the assignments! “Govindrajulu sir is who I would call Mahanabhavalu”, she says. “Every faculty member played a part in shaping us; be it Dr. Kamal Karlapalem, Dr. Vikram Pudi, Dr. P J Narayanan, Dr. Vasudeva Varma and even our Yoga Acharya. “IIITH also gave me strong and meaningful friendships and those friends are like a family. In fact, in my experience, wherever you go in the world,, you will discover IIITH connections there!” said Lydia with a chuckle.

A Winding Path to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York

“I always wanted to pursue research with a focus on how data shapes our society”, said Lydia. “I finished my Master’s and worked at University of Minnesota for a year before I defended my master’s thesis.

Lydia applied for a PhD program but was unable to get into any college of her choice. “I always believed that when something unexpected happens, use it as a challenge. Never waste a good crisis.” It was at that point that her mother encouraged her to apply for one last time. Lydia was visiting her grandparents in Kakinada, when a professor who is also an AI pioneer from Arizona State University (ASU) emailed her one fine day.  He also hailed from Kakinada, was a friend of Prof. P J Narayanan and was recruiting doctoral students. Lydia completed her PhD from ASU. “I thought I’d finish in four years but I had a baby in-between and my priorities changed”, she said. “I took one more year to work on my thesis and raising my son, Willy. I guess it all worked out”. Opportunities are given to everybody at some stage but the way you choose to push through your boundaries is what defines you, believes Lydia.

After her PhD, Lydia joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York as an Assistant Professor in the School of Management. “To be honest, I never dreamed that I would, someday, become a professor. Even though computer science was my domain, the kind of research work I had done before, aligned well with the kind of research being done here. It’s a small school, like IIITH, with focus mainly on science and technology”, she said.

A matter of Ethics

Lydia’s field of specialization is in the intersections of social computing and automated planning. She works on three different research problems – causal inference (using social media data which is an unstructured messy data), differentiated content sharing and human-in-the-loop systems.

“One of the main domains that I focus on while working on these research problems is health and specifically mental health and chronic diseases like diabetes”, said Lydia. There are millions of informative videos online. What makes information dangerous and how are individuals consuming it? Starting from definition, to identification, detection and finally mitigation is one line of research that she has been working on. Social media platforms are very useful especially for special interest support groups. These are venues where one can share problems and diagnosis on specific health issues. “There is a lot of work that has to be done in this context from a computer science perspective”, said Lydia. “How can we make these systems more accessible and enriching for people who wish to navigate these forums safely and with confidence?” Another line of research is leveraging automated planning within the purview of AI; building automated systems that can actually reason and think like humans while collaborating with them.

Said the bright young data scientist, “We live in a skewed society. We use Alexa or Google in our homes. Where is the data being stored? Who owns it? How are companies using this data? These are some of the ethical questions that we as researchers should be working on, towards safeguarding privacy and using that at an aggregated level to see that safety and privacy of individuals is of utmost importance at the same time giving unbiased results.

On choosing academia over industry

Lydia’s mother taught graduate college students and she saw how her life was, in terms of balancing family vs work and realized that, that was the kind of balance she sought.  Herinternships were at excellent companies like Microsoft Research, Redmond, Washington and IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, New York, but it also made her realize that academia was where she could actually pursue her goals. “Industry has a certain freedom but it is a high pressure, profit-making environment and I thought academia would give me room to pursue research topics of my interest”, said Lydia.  It is important to have independence to pursue your own interests in your career”, she said.

Growing up, Lydia had two strong role models – her mother and maternal grandfather. It was from them that she inherited her strict moral compass. “Whenever I visited my hometown, I would run into girls who would tell  me how my mom influenced them.

On Life, Love and Bibimbap…

Lydia and her husband Mike met at the University of Minnesota. They moved to Troy, in the Capital District area of NY where, Mike works remotely for a company based out of Southern California. The young couple both love the wild outdoors and enjoy hiking, running and outdoor sports. “On my 30th birthday, we section hiked 40 miles of Pacific Crest trail,” said Lydia. The self-taught pianist who once sang in a choir, has no more time for her youthful pursuits. As a young collegian, Lydia was quite a linguist and could speak Telugu, Hindi, Tamil and Korean with different levels of proficiency, She even completed a course in Japanese at IIITH taught by Dr. Kailash Kattalay.  While working for a University in Daegu, South Korea, Lydia was forced to learn conversational Korean to engage with the local Ajumma, after an entire week of eating only Bibimbap – a Korean rice dish with various ingredients.

Lydia has sound advice for women who are considering a career in Tech. “Don’t be scared to take up new things”, she advised. “I regret that I felt intimidated. IIITH gave me multiple opportunities that I took up, but things like taking part in coding competitions was a stereotype that I couldn’t cross over. I wish I had more courage and confidence to participate in those kinds of events. Be proud of who you are. If you have come all this way, it means that you are capable and talented and you can do it.”

 

Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications, 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 changing into a better world.

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