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Journey into the world of AI

From school days, Aiswarya Subramanian was determined to try her best at whatever she does – irrespective of the result. The harder she tried, the better were the results. In school, she was the rank-holder and that was just a beginning. From joining BITS Pilani Goa campus where she took a dual degree in Math and CS to interning as a research scholar at Columbia University in the City of New York, IIT Madras and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, her story has been truly inspirational.

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"Everything under the sun can be achieved and the only ingredient one would need is sheer mental strength" - this is the motto I believe in. This motto became a part of my life during class X. In our board syllabus, we had to learn 'Bharata Paryadanam' which are lessons from the epic Mahabharata. One of them was the story of Arjuna fighting against Lord Shiva (who was in disguise) and this fight was to attain a great weapon. It was written that Arjuna was almost losing and his defeat would be embarrassing, but he did not think about that. The only thing he cared about was to see that he fought well, with all his might.

That taught a lesson. Any work we do, the preparation matters and we should prepare without thinking what would happen if we fail, as success is not what we do, but is just a consequence of what we did. If we work with full vigor and determination, success is just our thing. I followed that lesson and worked hard and did not think of how much percentage I would like to get. Guess what, I became a rank holder in my school! This one incident changed me as a person.

I am from a family where both my father and my mother are engineers and have been rank-holders in their respective colleges. So naturally, I also aspired to become an engineer. I prepared for JEE exams like any other engineering aspiring student. I always liked two subjects, Maths and Computer Science and so I joined BITS Pilani Goa Campus and took dual degree in Math and CS.

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At the end of my second year, we had to complete a compulsory internship as part of our curriculum. I went to CDIT, in Trivandrum where I did a small project in computer vision. This is where I heard about this niche field called 'Machine Learning'. I saw that this field is pretty interesting and so I started with every machine learning students' first course on ML, by Andrew N.G. Then I took up some projects in ML in my college. I also took up other related courses in my college like Neural Networks and Fuzzy Logic, Artificial Intelligence, etc. As mathematics is an integral part of ML, the courses I studied as part of my Maths curriculum helped me a lot. At the end of the third year, I planned to do an internship on ML. I went to ISI Kolkata for three months and did an internship there. I could work hands on an ongoing project there which improved my knowledge in the field. I did a lot more projects after the internship to get a stronghold in the field.

As per my curriculum, we are allowed to do two semester-long internships in our final year. So for my penultimate semester, I started applying to different universities worldwide for a six-month-long research thesis. I was lucky to be accepted by Prof. Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, at Zuckerman Brain Institute, Columbia University, in New York. I worked on Autoencoder Architectures for understanding the role of recurrent connections in image recognition. This work helped me improve my knowledge in the field and I became even more passionate about this field. The experience of living alone in a new country (that too, New York!) and managing myself in every aspect alone was an enriching experience. It taught me invaluable lessons not just at my skill level, but at the personal level as well.

Currently, I am a research intern at Center for Computational Brain Research, IIT Madras, under the supervision of Dr.Partha Mitra and Jaikishan, trying to develop a novel algorithm for nuclei segmentation.

Doing such projects alongside normal coursework actually helped me in improving my skill set. It is very important to work on our skills in our fields, as everyone else would have worked on the same courses and the extra learning gives an advantage over many others.

Now during this lockdown, we are getting so much time without any pressure from anywhere. This is the time to charge ourselves up. We should use this time to work on ourselves and our skills also. I am doing all the five courses of the deep learning specialization from Coursera (deeplearning.ai by Andrew NG) in order to fine-tune my concepts. I am also spending time reading non-fiction books, ranging from books on AI to books on spirituality, as it's rightly said, to be the smartest person in a room, you should read as much as you can.

Teaching others is the best way to learn ourselves. So I am always open to help. Do reach out to me and I shall definitely help if I can.

If interested, please click on the links below.

Partha Mitra
Kriegeskorte
DeepLearning Specialization

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Though you had an excellent academic record, how tough was to crack BITS-PILANI? What are the advantages of you opt for a dual degree in Maths and Science? Also, what are the prospects?

I was already preparing for IIT JEE Advanced, so it wasn't tough for me. BITSAT is easier than IIT entrance exam, but it requires a lot more accuracy as we have to solve 150 questions in 120 minutes. The dual degree is a unique opportunity to earn two degrees in five years. In my case, I opted for a B.E.(Hons) in Computer Science and M.Sc.(Hons) in Mathematics. This is a wonderful combination, especially for students who would like to pursue a research career in Machine Learning/ AI. Many mathematical concepts are needed for understanding algorithms and coming up with new models. Many companies recruit students with Masters only to data science roles. So a Masters in Math has many advantages.

You have been bowled over by ML, perhaps the future. How did you get drawn into that and what made you fall in love with it?

In my second year, two of my friends (one of whom knew what ML is, and I was clueless about it) and I went to a Prof for a project which was related to Machine Learning. We all started working together and that's how I got introduced to this new field. I started looking through the different advancements and found it pretty interesting. My base in Math and CS helped me a lot. That's how I decided to plan my career in this field. I took my first internship in ML at ISI, Kolkata. I learnt so many new concepts and worked hands-on. I also took two theses on more advanced topics in ML, one at Columbia University, NY and the other at IIT Madras.

How was the New York experience? Tell us about those days.

New York experience was a wonderful and unique one. I went alone from India, I was the only one from my college who was going to Columbia University. It took immense courage to go, as I had almost no one to ask help from. That is why this experience taught me so many things! I could spend so much time with myself, learn how to go around and manage alone, learn how to survive alone in an unknown land.

Tell us about your research at the Center for Computational Brain Research, IIT Madras?

I am currently working with Partha Mitra on image segmentation of brain nuclei. I am developing a new algorithm to segment the Brain cells with maximum accuracy (as in biology, accuracy is most important unlike other areas). You have said about online courses that can be learnt during the lockdown. Can you suggest a few courses, preferably free, for aspiring students?
● Deep learning specialization - 5 courses
● Learning how to Learn: click here
● Mindshift: Breaking through obstacles to learning and discover your inner potential : click here
There are many courses in various fields on Coursera. Doing MOOCs is a wonderful thing. The courses Learning to learn and Mindshift (By Dr. Barbara Oakley) are most popular on Coursera.
Regarding free courses, most courses are charged for a certificate. Anyone can audit the courses without paying, but to get a certificate, you will have to pay. But, for students who can't afford, they can apply for financial aid.

What next? What are your career plans?

As of now, I have a placement offer from Mathworks. It has been a dream company for me to work at, owing to its amazing work culture and product quality. I plan to work and improve my skills.

Finally, tell us five of your habits of which you are proud of?

  • Punctuality
  • Reading
  • I never give up
  • Fitness is my priority
  • I try to learn from my mistakes

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