In an education system obsessed with marks, grades and rankings, there are a few who forge their own path, doing what they do best, driven by curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving, shutting out all the noise and clutter around them !

Vignesh Ravichandran, our 200th pathbreaker, works at the Wearables Biosensing Lab at the University of Rhode Island, building wearables to measure and monitor tremors in patients with Parkinson’s gait over a period of therapy, to track disease progression.

Vignesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his exposure to heart ailments and his work on IOT based projects from school that put him on the path of wearables to track health conditions.

For students, don’t compete just for grades or results, instead take up interesting projects and evaluate your interests through experiences.

Vignesh, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Chennai, Tamil Nadu along with my elder sister who is presently doing her postdoc in Stanford. My dad took up agriculture at our village near Tanjore district. My dad visited us every weekend while my mom took care of us during our schooling in Chennai. Both of them worked hard and sacrificed several things to make us study. I did my schooling in Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, KK Nagar which nurtured talent and gave me the platform to discover my love for innovation and product design. Growing up with Dyslexia and ADHD, I had significant learning difficulties in school and always scored less than my peers in written exams despite acing my practicals and subjects that involved problem solving. My teachers however discovered my love for science experiments and motivated me to innovate. My dad too discovered my interest for problem solving when I was 13 and got me random science experiment components like magnets, speaker coils, laser diodes and so on. He also gave me problem statements to brainstorm and solve with him, one such problem statement led to me coming up with an inexpensive plastic bottle based weevil pest trap for rice. He encouraged me to participate in our school science fair along with seniors. After I won it, I took part in the CBSE National science fair in my 9th grade. I got really interested in the idea of problem solving using technology and went searching for other problem areas. One problem statement I was obsessed with materialized when a dear relative succumbed to a sudden heart attack. I pondered why we couldn’t automatically detect the heart attack? I asked the same question to doctors in my family who taught me about the role ECG plays in diagnosis of heart attacks. I then camped outside an ECG diagnosis lab after school and learnt about ECG and our heart from one of the biomedical technicians there. I was taught about the signal characteristics in ECG that denote myocardial infarction and variations it can take. The question that popped in my head following that experience was why can’t we make recorders and detectors for automatic detection of myocardial infarctions. While the technician explained about Holter monitors, he observed that a lot of his patients did not like wearing ECG electrodes due to skin irritation.

I understood that solving this problem would need to start from increasing the comfort of long-term ECG monitors. I spent a whole month googling and emailing authors asking them to send PDF of their IEEE papers on the topic of dry ECG electrodes. I also regularly went to a M2M company Heterogenous where I worked under Anush Gopalan who taught me about wireless communication and IoT, which could enable connectivity among medical sensing devices.

One of the authors I mailed about their papers is my present advisor at the University of Rhode Island, Dr.Kunal Mankodiya who was working on his doctoral thesis on wearable ECG. I even got some sample textile electrodes from a US startup working on this and stiched the electrodes in a vest and tested it with an ECG machine. I also used google to slowly build up comprehension of the topic by reading about analog to digital converters, filters and Labview. I was able to then reduce the cost of the textile electrodes by using a process similar to making silver zari silk saree. With the backing of my school and parents, I took part in the National Innovation Foundation, IGNITE 2010 competition and won my first award from Dr.APJ.Kalam for my wearable vest design for heart attack detection. I also won a silver medal in the Intel IRIS 2011 science fair. I teamed up with my dear friend Manoj Kumar who collaborated with me all through college, he helped in reaching out to doctors and largely focused on the bioscience part of our project. We also got to work and learn under Dr.Ravi Mehrotra for a month at National Physics Laboratory, Delhi where he worked on building inexpensive 12-lead ECG monitors. We had also been supported by National Instruments who let us share our experiences using labview in our project during their developer event.
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In general, I do think my childhood experiences helped me discover my interest and fueled my ambitions. I had good support in school and home though I wish our higher education system could be more accommodating and accepting of individuals with learning difficulties. I met so many wonderful peers and friends from different parts of India at the science fair events and our conversations inspired me to dream without mental blockers and constraints.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After my schooling in 2013, I pursued my undergraduation in Electrical Engineering at SRM Easwari Engineering College. To be honest, those were the most unproductive years of my life so far and largely had to do with the way Anna University curriculum was designed. I nearly went as far as dropping out due to my learning difficulties. The one thing which kept me going were my college friends and project partners like Manoj. I continued to work on my projects inspite of the course load. But the rote learning assessments took a toll on my productivity. I also found myself becoming increasingly anxious and lethargic during undergrad and felt confined. My grades didn’t help either and I often had to pay exorbitant revaluation fees to get revaluations done due to improper grading due to my handwriting and dyslexia. Seeing low grades in even those subjects for which I had put in efforts to prepare was demotivating and stressful. My projects and startup attempts filled the void of learning left by my undergrad school. My first project at college was our attempt at building a lunar rover for an IIT Madras Shaastra event organized by Team Indus for the now cancelled Google X-prize Lunar Rover Challenge. While our electronics and navigation systems were functional, our mechanical assembly proved to be less than effective for use in rough terrain. I was later challenged by my dad to tackle the problem of nitrogen fertilizer overuse which affected my father. This led to work on FarmCorder with my team to measure the crop nitrogen deficiency using an inexpensive connected spectrometer shaped as a leaf clip. We were awarded the third place in the collegiate Texas Instruments India Design Contest  2015 where we recieved an award from Dr. APJ.Kalam.

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I also led a team to build Raksh, a 25 dollar ear worn wearable child pneumonia monitor which won the people’s choice award at ASME ISHOW 2017 and was one among 10 finalists in the UNISEF Wearables for good challenge. Shortly after college I tried applying for grad school but was met with rejections citing my low undergrad GPA. I was largely disappointed during that time and considered doing a startup around my FarmCorder idea. I was then contacted by a school mate who informed me about an opening in the Healthcare Technology Innovation Centre at IIT madras for a wearable ECG project. I immediately applied and got in and got to develop a cardiac arrhythmia detection solution using a wearable ECG patch with a wonderful team. I got to collaborate then with my soon to be friend, mentor and teacher Balamurali who was a grad student at IIT Madras. We both collaborated on several research papers over the span of two years on the topic of building 1d deep learning models for biosignal classification and segmentation. We even came up with a network to extract raw respiration signals from optical heart rate sensor signals[RespNet] which can potentially allow smartwatches to measure breathing rhythms for enhanced sleep apnea monitoring. I had an excellent time working on challenging research problems with a diverse technical team. The association with IIT Madras also gave access to a knowledge pool to learn from. The environment also reinforced and motivated collaborative problem solving. My profile had significantly improved with the experience and publications compared to damage my gpa did. Further I enjoyed interacting with physiologists and felt constantly drawn to the inner workings of the human body. Shortly after this I left HTIC to prepare for GRE. I then reconnected with Prof.Kunal Mankodiya over LinkedIn and decided to apply to be a funded grad researcher as part of NSF CPS grant project looking into building wearable sensors solutions for measuring tremor progression of Parkinson’s disease patients. I got accepted and started grad school in Spring 2020 at the University of Rhode Island for my masters in Electrical engineering. One whole semester and 3 months self-quarantine later, I successfully completed my semester while managing to meet our lab’s research targets and getting good grades for my courses. I had learnt a lot about living alone and have been forced to adapt and use digital self-learning strategies using productivity tools like Miro and Notion. I also took part and won an MIT COVID hackathon with a global, multidisciplinary team over Zoom including my lab mate Dylan Kennedy for our group-testing protocol to reopen African villages during COVID-19. Presently, I am working on building a smart e-textile based mask for performing continuous COVID-19 symptom monitoring [cough,resp rate, body temp] assisting front line workers.    

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

In terms of influencers, I was initially inspired to get into the sciences while reading about inventors like Da Vinci, Tesla and Faraday. As for electronics, I was inspired by Forrest Mims’s electronics books which had really fun, comical artwork and mechanical analogues to elegantly explain the concepts involved in the operation of a diode for learners of any reading age. I also consider Prof.Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture and Dr.Kalam’s lectures to be a cornerstone influence on how I set goals to realize my dreams.

I was influenced by a wide range of people who I interacted with and learnt from over the internet. However I only decided to pursue a career in building wearable biomedical sensors while learning from my childhood mentor Anush Gopalan who showed me the value of connected systems. I think attending science fair events and networking with other makers also helped me decide on the career. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Interning and working in a government research institution was not only important in learning valuable skills and acquiring hands on experience but it also gave the chance to conduct and publish research. I am presently being funded through the NSF CPS research grant into building wearables to monitor progression of Parkinson’s disease.

The internship I had was during schooling at Heterogenous under my mentor Anush Gopalan where I learnt about IoT communication technologies and how to develop sensors to measure biosignals. The next job was my attempts to found a startup around FarmCorder. While I learnt a lot of technical design and fabrication techniques from the attempt, I lacked the business acumen and capital to lay out a sustainable plan to develop and validate our leaf nutrient analysis sensors.

Networking over LinkedIn and constantly expanding networks has been a key component in my career planning.  

How did you get your first break?

It was through winning the IGNITE 2010 award from Dr.APJ.Kalam, I was encouraged to apply by my 8th Grade Science Teacher.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Difficulty in managing multiple projects

While this does not affect me as much with my newer strategies, this still is a problem particularly exasperated by my short attention span. I’ve found that using project management tools like Notion and using timeboxing has been particularly effective in improving my research output while ensuring a deadline does not sneak up on me suddenly.

Where do you work now?

I work as a graduate research assistant at the Wearable Biosensing Lab at the University of Rhode Island headed by Prof.Kunal Mankodiya.  

What problems do you solve?

Designing pervasive biosignal monitoring wearables leveraging edge learning & inferencing to build ubiquitous clinical monitoring solutions.

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

My work requires me to work with embedded systems and sensor design and I picked that up largely from my prior personal projects and through checking out projects on Hackaday, Instructables and My role in the lab is also to extract value from bio-physiological signals from our clinical data. Data science [Python with SkLearn] and deep learning [PyTorch] have been essential elements of the tool box. Signal processing using Matlab has also been a recent skill I have started to improve so as to better collaborate with my labmates.

What is a typical day like?

Morning meetings with labmates[Mostly virtual now]
Reading previously bookmarked research publications
Brainstorming session with labmates for a certain problem statement
Matlab practice exercises
Feature engineering with Parkinson’s gait signals
Hardware design for the facemask sensors

What is it you love about this job? 

The opportunities to solve problems, I love the freedom you get to work on topics that fascinate me. I have recently been drawn into the idea of respiratory biofeedback and embodied cognition and now get to work on it along my main projects utilizing the tools and knowledge repository in the lab. The environment also promotes potential collaboration with other like minded individuals making equally fascinating inquiries through their research. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Our work with any study population has been driven by feedback and support from individuals from the population. My main grant project is to measure tremors in Parksison’s gait over a period of therapy to track disease progression. Parkinson’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder causing gait difficulty and tremors in movement. This ailment largely affects the elderly, while there is no cure for PD yet, we do have medication that suppresses the motor symptoms. Since Parkinson’s disease affects different individuals in different ways, personalized medication routine is obtained through trial and error. Neurologists grade the patients while performing certain repetitive motor tasks as described by the UPDRS testing protocol. This procedure is time consuming and has large intervals before testing, there is therefore a need to make wearable glove sensors to monitor tremors through in-home automated UPDRS scoring.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

It would have to be OMNI, A collaboration between myself and my former HTIC colleague Sricharan. OMNI was inspired by initiatives like the Glia Project and Embrace baby warmer which seek to democratize access to medical hardware. We saw OMNI aiding these efforts by showing the potential of 1d deep learning in the robust detection of heart rate and breathing rate. Lowering the cost of Single board computing hardware and smartphone edge inference opens the possibility of delivering effective monitoring to isolated communities who might not have internet connectivity. While our project did not win the hackathon event, this project was memorable as I learnt how to effectively collaborate with a remote team despite the initial COVID-19 lockdown.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  1. College grades are not the end all be all, however good grades makes career advancement less taxing.
  2. Use coursework to learn to improve yourself over simply gaming the grading system.
  3. Be mindful of the cognitive & emotional cost of using social networking platforms and apps which seek to exploit your attention. 
  4. Continue to nudge reality towards the utopia you dream of while also respecting others. The recent world events may seem to cloud any dreams you might have had during the start of the year, you are not alone. Hope will give you the resolve to continue improving yourself and the world around you.

Future Plans?

After an eventful first semester, An optimal plan eludes me at this moment. I would like to work on the COVID mask project and hopefully acquire enough data to validate our mask’s symptom monitoring effectiveness. I also hope to realize an ambient breathing biofeedback system for stress management and insomnia. At some point though I want to building engaging and gamified neurofeedback tools to enable individuals with ADHD to better manage their condition.