There are some events in our lives that shake our core values and beliefs, and in the process, give us a mission to pursue.

Krishna Bairavi Soundararajan, our next pathbreaker, Machine learning Engineer, works for a Tech Startup that builds voice solutions specific to the dental industry by automating dental procedures through natural language processing, speech processing and machine learning.

Krishna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about being significantly impacted by a personal tragedy that made him realise the importance of the role of technology in early diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

For students, explore how healthcare technology is evolving and what role you can play in applying technology in the fight against life threatening diseases.

Krishna, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Chennai, India and did my schooling at Padma Seshadri. I come from a normal middle class family, and grew up seeing my parents sacrifice a lot of things to provide me quality education. Post schooling, I went on to pursue my Bachelor’s in Biomedical engineering at SSN College of Engineering. Honestly, I didn’t put much thought into choosing my major, say about future prospects etc.  During school, I developed interest towards subjects like mathematics, physics, computer science and biology and I have always wanted to do something that could have a great impact on society. Biomedical Engineering came in handy that way- I had the opportunity to take up a lot of interdisciplinary courses aligning and research projects.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

During my senior year of undergrad, I slowly started to develop interest in Artificial Intelligence and its impact on healthcare. After completion of my undergrad, I was working as a researcher at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, where I was involved in projects at the intersection of machine learning, medical imaging and bio-signal processing. I moved to the US in Fall 2018 to pursue my Masters in Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University where I was focusing on coursework and projects  in machine learning and medical imaging. 

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

My cousin and mentor (Late Mr. Arvind Kumar, CEO of Attune Technologies) who was a healthcare entrepreneur himself, was a great inspiration to me in choosing my path in computational healthcare. During my senior year of undergrad, he passed away due to pancreatic cancer and I had visibly seen him suffer. It created a huge impact on me and made me realise the importance of technology and the role it could play in early diagnosis and treatment of diseases. I specifically got interested in topics such as machine learning, medical imaging and bio signal processing and I started to work on projects at this intersection that could be of direct help in early diagnosis. 

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

As much as I realised the importance of AI in healthcare, I also came to a strong realization of being a non- CS major and how much I needed to work for the transition. My sister, friends and seniors from CS background who helped me in bridging the gap,I was fortunate to have them by my side. During my senior year, I got the opportunity to work with the Govt of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), at the Brain Computer Interface lab, where I got my first hand experience of working with brain (EEG) signals and classification of cognitive workload. Later, I worked on classification of emotions of kids with neurodevelopmental disorders (like Autism and ADHD) using a wearable EEG device along with a PhD scholar and we presented our work at an International Conference held at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Post my undergrad, I was craving for a research opportunity and I was writing to professors across India. I got the opportunity to work in the healthcare technology innovation center of  IIT Madras and at Cognition lab ( PI: Dr Sridharan Devarajan) in IISc Bangalore in my areas of interest- machine learning in healthcare.

Before heading to CMU for my masters, I was on the lookout for an experience from a profitable organization to get more ideas about the healthcare market and improve my skill set. I started to work with the data science team of Scriplogix Analytics in Chennai- a company focusing on health predictive analytics. My work there involved interacting with the physicians and creating a rule based algorithm that could quantify the health condition of a patient ( with a score) which was inturn used to send health nudges to patients! I got the opportunity to work with Electronic Health Records and Claims Datasets of USA patients that gave me a good overview about the market.

After moving to the US for Masters, I started to take specific courses like machine learning, deep learning, computer vision, medical image analysis and I started to work on interdisciplinary research projects. I did my summer internship with the Clinical NLP group of Mayo Clinic  where I was working towards creating a chatbot for Alzheimer’s patients and family support with state of the art Deep learning models. During my last semester at CMU, I was working with Dr. John Galeotti from the School of Computer science along with a fellow student in the areas of deep learning and retinal imaging. Our work involved segmentation of retinal vasculature from images of poor quality ( which is most likely to happen in a hospital setting) that could be used for glaucoma prediction and recently published at  the IEEE International Symposium on Biomedical Imaging 2020.   

How did you get your first break?

First break happened right when I decided to go out of my comfort zone and start approaching people, and not just apply for summer research fellowships offered by a few governmental organisations. I made it a point to write to at least five professors a day, seeking for a summer research opportunity and I did it for over a month or two before I found one at DRDO. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenges mostly involved overcoming the non-CS background. There are many promising online courses, research papers and tech blogs open sourced that I use for understanding. I talk to people who have previous experience ( professor’s, coursework peers, and friends) if I have any questions. Thanks to everyone!

Where do you work now? 

I work for a tech startup called Bola AI based in Boston as a Machine learning Engineer. We build voice solutions specific to the dental industry by automating dental procedures and we provide features like voice perio charting, restorative charting and integration with EHR records using voice commands and provide support to the dentists with treatment planning.  My work is at the intersection of applied natural language processing, speech processing and machine learning. My everyday work involves reading research papers specific to NLP and Speech, brainstorming, and implementation of the same for our product.

How does your work benefit society?

Healthcare is a very impactful sector and I firmly believe that advancements made here can percolate into many lives. I get my happiness by contributing to the ongoing research, even in the smallest way possible 

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

It was the research project that I worked on along with a PhD scholar, which involved classification of emotions of kids with neurodevelopmental disorders who have communication issues. I went to an autistic school in my neighborhood in Chennai and interacted with the kids, who despite having several  problems, turn up to school and stick to a routine and it gave me a great perspective about life. We also learnt a lot during the course of our research

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Stay focused and stay humble. Don’t think twice to approach people for an opportunity or for any questions. You would be surprised to see where all you can get support from 🙂  We all rise by lifting others, don’t we?  🙂

Future Plans?

I have just started my career and I haven’t thought much about the future. I like the industry and I wish to work on meaningful projects and contribute to the ongoing research