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Tech That!

Sukriti Paul says if you leave her with a Sudoku book, a cup of green tea, a chit pad and a box of paints, you might just be surprised at what she comes up with. Green tea or not, she has already ticked off many boxes in style, and she is raring to go. A research assistant at the Indian Institute of Science, she is the co-founder of 'The One Asankhya Project'. Over the last few years, Sukriti has led technical clubs like Women Techmakers Manipal, ACM-W Manipal and IECSE. In recognition of her diversity contributions, she was awarded the GHCI Scholarship, Google WTM Scholarship, and the ACM-W Best Officer Award. In a moving, inspirational piece, Sukriti Paul writes about her work culture and what exactly made her become what she is now. Happy Reading!

How it All Started

My evolving relationship with computers and other tech gadgets dates back to my early school days. Coming from a tech-savvy family, I was always encouraged to tinker with hardware and software. Be it endless system crashes, jammed CD drives or dissembled computer parts- my parents always treated these as prospects for gaining hands-on exposure (the only condition being that I had to figure out how to resolve any issues on my own). While we were being taught to perform well in theoretical subjects at school, I was exposed to a parallel world where practical exposure was as important as logical thinking and having an analytical/critical bent of mind. I still observe this gap in several Indian schools.

The first of many realisations

In the words of Malala Yousafzai, “Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.” In my case, my high school Math and Computer Applications (CA) professor, Mrs. Pratima Rao, was that ‘one teacher.’

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In an all-girl school of 4,000+ individuals, Mrs Rao had assessed my potential and predicted a suitable career option. Her teaching methodologies in our 8th and 9th grade Java classes could be analogised to those in the ‘Dead Poets Society’. Fascinated by the subject, I enrolled myself at a professional Core Java course at Aptech. Subsequently, I was recognised as the youngest Aptech student to have completed the certification with flying colours, in Bangalore.

In high school, I had a consistent track record of being within the top 3 scorers in Math and CA. During this time, Mrs. Rao suggested that I use the lab resources after her class hours, to solve additional advanced Java questions that would later be used for others’ reference. Within the next few weeks, I was glued to the screen, exploring a plethora of topics including Java Exceptions, OOP principles and built-in packages . When I got perfect CA scores over 5 consecutive exams (including my ICSE board exam) in the 10th grade, she told my mother that I should consider the career option of a Computer Scientist. Thanks to my IIT craze, I may have gone against her initial advice of taking up pure science, but I’m confident that my current research pursuits will make her proud.

Things We Don’t Talk About- An Early Turning Point

Like the remaining 13.6 lakh IIT aspirants in 2014, I too undertook the rigour of preparing for the JEE entrance- the only difference being that I had dreamt of getting into a premier engineering institute since my 6th grade. Securing the highest FTRE MAT-IQ aggregate in my city galvanised me into action: I started attending my coaching classes with great fervour. Never had I realised that a life-changing event occurring right before my exams, would flip my course of action by 180. A few weeks before my 12th board exams, an immediate family member (who was a father figure to me) succumbed to cancer, leaving our families shattered. For someone who was accustomed to dreaming big, my self-confidence took a jolt when I couldn’t achieve a decent rank for my desired branch at an IIT. In retrospect, I find myself extremely fortunate to have joined as a Computer and Communication student at MIT Manipal; I could not have asked for a better college in India.

My B.Tech journey viewed through a set of learnings

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1. The Struggle is Real: Embrace Your Own Reality

On several occasions, I chose to let go of certain career opportunities due to financial reasons. I’d like to add that my parents have gone out of their way to support my endeavours and ensure a sound education. As a sophomore, I forwent my first technical conference in Thailand because of the expenses. Similarly, I was unable to attend a GHC conference as the funding sponsors said that they would ‘reimburse’ the amount- instead of a direct payment-which I did not have in my personal savings at that time. Despite ivy admits, if I could choose to postpone my plans of pursuing a Masters, I hope that students who are facing similar circumstances have the courage to embrace changes confidently.

2. Shortcomings and Uncertainties are Essential to Growth

As an undergraduate freshman, I was extremely lucky to get selected as a Working Committee member of the largest CS club at Manipal (IECSE). Under the umbrella of this club, a research initiative called IECSE-X gave me the opportunity to work under a professor on an OCR-based project. Soon enough, I was introduced to the basics of digital image processing. I spent months of my second semester in strengthening my core, only to be faced with ALL internship rejects from the IITs and IISc. Taking this in the positive stride, I reverted to the professors who had rejected me and asked them for relevant study resources. Fast forward a year, I became the first individual in my branch to bag an internship at IISc as a sophomore.

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I was offered the role of a Signal Processing (SP) and Computer Vision intern in the Electrical Department at IISc. Back then, I could not fully assess the consequences arising out of investing in a domain (SP) which was not in the scope of my branch-curriculum. At that time, the idea of exploring interdisciplinary domains as an undergrad was unheard of, at Manipal; I was uncertain about how the dots would connect. Today, my learnings have helped me appreciate Machine Learning and Deep Learning from an SP perspective. As a member of the Spectrum Lab, I have had access to solid mentorship from some of the brightest minds in India. I urge college-going students to explore different areas of their branch in their freshman and sophomore years, before choosing a minor specialisation. If you’re passionate about your subject, you will find it easier to converge your technical skills/interests in a Masters SOP.

3. It is Okay to Take Calculated Risks

Oftentimes, the 7th semester is termed as the ‘placement semester’ for a reason- almost everyone in computer-related branches is competing for corporate internships or full-time roles. I was the only student in these branches who was looking forward to working as a Research Assistant at a premier institute. My well thought-over decision was substantiated by two claims: (1) the role aligned with my future goals (2) I could see myself thriving in the stimulating environment at the lab, especially since the project would challenge my technical skills. For the first time, I had moments of uncertainty regarding my career choices- my decision of not participating in the on-campus hiring process was being questioned by both, family and friends. To top it all, there wasn’t a single college senior who could guide me in this regard (it was an unconventional job option at my college).

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I took it upon myself to follow my instincts- if not anything, I would be a good test case. As of 2019, I’m elated to see some of the CS and I&CT college toppers considering similar career options (internships+RA roles) after gaining inspiration from my journey. You never know, you might just be a trend-setter by paving a path for future batches of students.

4.Derive Value from Each Experience and Give Back to the Community

Alongside my college classes, I was fortunate to spearhead four technical clubs. My tenure at these groups proved to be crucial in understanding and contributing to certain gaps. I’d like to underscore two gaps which I had strived to bridge.

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Prior to my B.Tech, I was surrounded by incredibly supportive family members, and friends at St. Josephs and Baldwins (schools). In addition, I came from a female-dominant family where women had the upper hand. Therefore, I was not accustomed to witnessing any gender bias first-hand, until college. As a sophomore, I was appalled by the lack of participation of females in technical events, group discussions and collaborative projects. While a group of 7-9 males would team up and pull-all nighters for a signature technical event of our club, I couldn’t understand why such transparency, enthusiasm and camaraderie did not exist amongst the females. Didn’t we have the same resources? It dawned upon me that the issue was way deeper than just resources- a systemic and transformative change was required, where females were encouraged to voice their views and exercise their opinions. We needed female mentors, leaders, innovators and change-makers - all of which were in our very own alumni network and yet unspoken of. Most importantly, we needed to encourage each other and have mature male allies who actively contributed in establishing a supportive ecosystem.
I also observed that research was under-valued amongst a lot of students, at that time. This was mostly because interest groups did not have the infrastructure, strong alumni connections, and a successful model to facilitate funded large-scale collaborative research. While students at certain regional colleges were being referred to direct internships at places like MILA, MSR Bangalore, UofT, CMU, etc. , we were desperately searching for one odd alumnus who could mentor us to avail such opportunities. A direct Ph.D. aspirant barely had any seniors who had walked that path before.
With these issues in mind, I led Women Techmakers Manipal and founded ACM-W Manipal. I’m also one of the two POCs for the newly founded International Research Mentorship Forum at Manipal.

5. The Importance of Having a Supportive Ecosystem

We tend to attract people whose frequency matches ours. It is best to surround yourself with people who respect your ambitions and will uplift you. When I served as a leader at Women Techmakers and ACM-W Manipal, I faced a considerable amount of resistance from certain peers and juniors. This lead to toxic misogynistic groupism and personal attacks on certain female students, including me. What’s worse was that a subset of individuals who directly benefitted by the 1-1 mentorship from such diversity groups, kept diplomatically mum. My female peers and I have countless stories to tell. Although these incidents enraged me at that point, I have learned to take them constructively and respect views of people whose outlooks don’t resonate with mine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

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Diversity is a sensitive issue, more so because a lot of individuals cannot fathom the gender gap at the college-level. What kept me going was a couple of close friends, faculty, seniors/mentors and 400+ female technologists (across India and in my college) who stood up for the cause relentlessly. I didn’t have second thoughts on diversity ventures when my faculty started supporting the cause too. I’m always indebted to professors like Mrs. Nisha Shetty, Dr. Preetham Kumar, Dr. Balachandra and Dr. Sanjay Singh.

6. Have Unwavering Faith and Conviction in What YOU BELIEVE in

When you strongly believe in something that is morally right, your grit and passion are like an epidemic. Back in 2017, I was invited to represent the Women Techmakers Community at the Google Developers Day which garnered a participation of 4000+ tech enthusiasts across the globe. What many individuals didn’t know is that a few days before the event, my grandad was in the Critical Care Unit- proudly showing the nurses and doctors the GDD website, and talking about my diversity ventures at college. Soon after, he slipped into a state of comatose, was on a ventilator and passed away. If my 83-year-old broad-minded grandpa appreciated and believed so strongly in the cause (i.e. proliferation of women in tech)- even in his most critical days- I knew that absolutely nothing could come in my way of driving change.

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Over the course of time, I started mixing with like-minded individuals. Unsurprisingly, the stats improved exponentially- our diversity groups have held 80+ tech events and we have over 250 members at Manipal. We’ve successfully established a rich female alumni network. 92% of my juniors got placed in top-tier companies within the first 3 weeks of college, and we have 11 GHCI’19 attendees from our campus. Also, the WTM Manipal and ACM-W Manipal chapters are globally recognised by Google and ACM respectively, thanks to the efforts of a group of individuals who collectively believed in a cause.

Future Plans

I’m quite excited about the intersection of AI, Data-Science and Healthcare. Over the past 1.5 years, I have been contributing to architecting and deploying automated solutions for screening endoscopic pathologies at IISc. My project also entails a considerable amount of fieldwork - in short, you may find me spending most of my weekends at a hospital. As of now, I wish to work on impactful and stimulating technical projects. In the future, I aim to pursue a research-based Masters programme.

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5 Habits

  • Taking periodic breaks from social media: According to me, social media detox breaks boost my productivity. There are times when I leverage such platforms to spread awareness or celebrate the success of individuals. However, I wouldn’t want the tech giants to sell my attention and tamper with my deadlines.
  • Allotting time for recreational activities: I’m faced with intense high-focus phases during the launch of an event or a paper/project deadline; these could eventually lead to a mental burn-out for days together. I make it a point to invest in extra-curricular activities like yoga, swimming, painting, reading blogs, gardening, writing and on-site volunteering when I’m free. I also enjoy taking my dog for walks. These are healthy unwinding mechanisms.
  • Note-taking: Thanks to my professor at IISc, I have inculcated the habit of carrying a small notepad wherever I go. I actively pen down my observations and take-aways from interactions, for future retrospection.
  • Interacting with people from diverse domains: Most of us limit our interactions to close friends or individuals in familiar fields. On the contrary, I absolutely enjoy conversing with peers from different career backgrounds and walks of life, to gain multiple perspectives on common topics.
  • Revising content : When I prepare a technical presentation or manuscript, I have the habit of revising my content over multiple days and simultaneously getting it reviewed by immediate seniors. You’ll be surprised at how different a topic can look, if you revisit your content after a few days!
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