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Tell us about yourself
Fewer women than men pursue careers in computer science. The problem is especially acute in developing countries, such as India, where although the number of women studying CS has increased, it’s still relatively small.
“My mom was an electrical engineer, and she introduced me to electronics,” says Poornima Kaniarasu, who was raised in Madurai in southern India’s Tamil Nadu. “Back when she went to school, there were even fewer women in electronics, and after she completed her undergraduate work, she wanted to look for a job outside the home, but her parents didn’t want her to do that.”
She did, however, pass along her knowledge and encouragement to her daughter, who as an undergraduate at PSG College of Technology (ECE) in Coimbatore built her first autonomous vehicle, a line-following robot similar to the “mobots” that compete in front of CMU’s Wean Hall during Carnival weekend. “It didn’t work very well, but I learned a lot from the other contestants,” she says.
Since I was a young girl, my mom has been a constant inspiration and guiding force behind my decision to focus my academic, and later, professional pursuits on STEM. After graduating from university in the 1980s, she pursued a career as an electrical engineer, a remarkable feat for a girl who grew up in the conservative society of southern Tamil Nadu, India. Not surprisingly, her professional ambitions were short-lived due to the social constraints of her community.
But that did little to deter her passion for math and science. For example, she did not hesitate to take apart household electronics if something was wrong with them. As a kid, I would sit by her side and watch with fascination as she debugged the issue. Decades later and encouraged by her example, I set out to accomplish what she had been unable to, and throughout my engineering career, she has always been my pillar of support.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
When I began my undergraduate degree in 2006 at PSG College of Technology in Electronics Engineering at Coimbatore, personal computers were starting to catch on in India. I purchased my first computer during my sophomore year, and was introduced to robotics and embedded systems the year after. In fact, my first robotics project was building a mini robot for an inter-university competition in which robots navigated a virtual city. Points were awarded to robots who successfully made turns, stayed on their specified route, and completed the circuit in the shortest amount of time. We hacked a toy car by adding micro-controllers and a webcam to it, which enabled it to interpret and react to traffic lights and street signs. This learning experience gave me the confidence and enthusiasm to pursue my masters in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
When Kaniarasu decided to pursue a master’s degree in robotics, Carnegie Mellon was at the top of her list, even if life on the Pittsburgh campus was a bit of a culture shock at first. “Back where I came from, it was often considered rude if you challenged professors in class,” she says, but in America students were expected to be able to speak out—and up. Carnegie Mellon’s vibrant Indian community helped ease her transition, as did professors such as RI’s Aaron Steinfeld, who encouraged her to attend her first robotics conference.
Tell us about your experience at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)?
At CMU, Kaniarasu became interested in the work being done by TechBridgeWorld, the university’s program to bring technology to underserved communities around the globe, founded and led by M. Bernardine Dias, associate research professor of robotics. “I saw a project they had done on assistive technology, and I really liked their work,” Kaniarasu says. “They had just developed their Braille Writing Tutor and that summer they were planning to go to India again to add on to it.”
She applied for a summer internship with TechBridgeWorld and was accepted. Kaniarasu helped develop new modules for the Braille Writing Tutor and also researched ways to extend the service to devices such as smart phones. Earlier this year, the team of faculty, students and staff who have worked on the Braille Writing Tutor since 2006 were recognized with a Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation from the Center for Braille Innovation and the Gibney Family Foundation.
My focus at CMU was developing trust in human-robot interactions. I researched how a robot can effectively convey its intention to humans and how humans can foster more trusting relationships with machines that they regularly interact with to accomplish simple tasks. When I worked on the Braille Writing Tutor, I learned the value of feedback, receiving input on how to create a user-centric design from the students and teachers using it on a daily basis. Developing a technology that people actually used and hearing from them directly that it improved their lives was incredibly satisfying.
What was your career path after graduating from CMU?
After completing her degree, Kaniarasu continued her work for TechBridgeWorld, and she recently began a new job at The MathWorks Inc., the Massachusetts-based makers of the ubiquitous MATLAB modeling software, used by mathematicians, physicists and engineers in academia and industry.
“When I worked on the Braille Writing Tutor and saw that it was something people actually used, that was an inspiration to me,” Kaniarasu says. “It was actually one of the things that attracted me to work on MATLAB—I knew my friends back at CMU would be using it.”
Kaniarasu is currently data platform engineer with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG). At ATG, I am a data platform engineer on the Machine Teaching and Interactive Learning team. We are responsible for producing the ground truth data that is used to train various machine learning algorithms across the organization. Autonomous car perception, motion planning, and map building are some of the major consumers of the data we generate, and it can be challenging to generate this data at scale with high accuracy. Still, I find it interesting to work on developing intuitive interfaces that take advantage of the strengths of humans and algorithms, catering to their complementary skill sets.
Tell us about some of your achievements
Working at Uber, I have been able to do this on a much larger scale. Building reliable, accessible transportation options that will improve lives worldwide is a powerful experience.
One of my proudest moments at ATG so far was the day we launched the first self-driving Uber pilot in Pittsburgh. Less than a year later, self-driving Ubers have driven over a million autonomous miles in the U.S.
From my first encounter with the Uber Pittsburgh office to my experience during Uber Technology Day and reaching the million-mile mark, my time at Uber has afforded me the opportunity to be a part of an ever-evolving, increasingly important industry that is shaping the future of transportation.
There is no doubt: I am definitely in the right place.
And you can be, too! If you are interested in engineering solutions to help train machine learning systems, consider applying for a role on our team.