Last week Priya Radhakrishnan successfully defended her PhD thesis and earned her degree. What makes this news-worthy is the fact that she is a young mother of two, who took a mid-career break to raise her child, signed up for courses at IIIT-Hyderabad and has never looked back since!
They say inspiration can strike at the most unexpected of times. For Priya, it couldn’t have been more opportune. She was a software engineer, an overwhelmed new mother, exhausted and on the verge of giving up her technical aspirations. That was when she saw an image of Kim Clijsters with the 2009 US Open trophy in one hand and her daughter Jada cradling the other. She says, “(that image)…went a long way in motivating me”. While she was contemplating her future course of action in terms of a higher education, she got introduced to and inspired about engineering research by Dr. Anoop Namboodiri, Associate Prof at the Centre for Visual Information Technology, IIIT-Hyderabad.
For Hyderabad-based professionals looking to acquire new skills without committing to a formal degree programme, IIITH provides an opportunity “to benefit from the advanced courses offered at the institute” in the form of a Post Graduate Student Status Programme (PGSSP). In 2010, when Priya Radhakrishnan signed up for this programme, she was killing two birds with one stone. She took a career break after 10 years as a software engineer to raise her infant son and wanted to catch up on the ever-evolving world of Computer Science. “After 10 years of leaving college, many of the topics being taught in IIIT-H, like Cloud Computing for instance, were not even there when I graduated, ” she exclaims. Speaking of her time as a PGSSP candidate, Priya says that the lectures were so good that she overcame her initial inhibitions of competing with fresh undergrads. “The professors were very supportive of a senior-newbie and I got my act together, completing the course reasonably well,” she says.
Interested PGSSP students are given an option of continuing their foray into academia. They are invited to participate in a part-time or full-time degree programme based on their performance. And the courses that they opt for under PGSSP are typically counted towards their formal degree. Her appetite for research in Engineering being whetted, Priya signed up for a full-time M.S by Research programme in 2012. She even got a fully funded RA position. This is a 2-year course where a student gets to specialize in research for a year or more and culminates in a thesis defense. Typically, interested PhD students plan out their dissertation work in consultation with the programme chair. Since Priya was keen on following up and continuing research in her area, at the end of her MS course, in 2014, it was converted to a Phd. Under the guidance of her advisor Prof. Vasudeva Varma and co-guide Dr. Manish Gupta at the Information Retrieval and Extraction Lab (IREL), Priya’s inspiring journey at IIIT-H successfully culminated with the defense of her thesis on Named Entity Extraction for Knowledge Base Enhancement. No mean achievement this.
All full-time courses warrant a compulsory presence on campus and students are required to stay in hostels. However, an exception was made in Priya’s case. “IIITH exempted me from staying in hostel considering my family status. Further my home was at a walkable distance from the college,” says Priya. After all initial coursework was complete and the comprehensive assessments were over, she had to move into the hostel for focusing on research. According to Priya, hostel-stay is inevitable when “research is the lone pursuit of life”. This was when (2015) her family comprising of in-laws, husband, and two sons moved to Bangalore too. Looking back, Priya admits, “It was a slightly tough time.”
Within a year, Priya successfully defended her PhD proposal and IIITH allowed her to continue her work out of IISc, Bangalore. She worked the last year of her PhD out of the MALL lab in IISc under the guidance of Prof. Partha Talukdar. Likening her journey to a long-distance run, she says, “…the finishing lap is run with the least energy, but is the most watched lap of the race.” And she credits Dr. Talukdar for helping her finish in style.
It was because of Dr. Namboodiri that she even began her journey at IIITH, Priya says simply. According to her, he truly epitomizes the attitude and spirit that the group of professors at IIITH displays. That of returning and giving back to India, despite having earned their PhDs from some of the finest academic institutions across the world. Priya received immense support and encouragement from the IIITH family. “My thanks goes to one and all. The list is never-ending…(for) support for getting back to studies after a break, support for women in STEM, support for a classmate who is a mom…it goes on, “ she says. She is grateful to Dr. Vasudeva Varma or VV Sir as she calls him, “for showing belief in STEM abilities of girls especially when the candidate in question is married and a mother of two!”
Priya is quick to acknowledge that all this wouldn’t have been possible without equal support at the home front and mentions in her thesis, “The attitude to do everything one can do to help someone learn and gain knowledge …as epitomized by my husband, Hari and ably shared by my in-laws, mother and sons, is the reason this research exists”.
Priya hopes that her story will inspire others like her and act like a motivator for those with her background. On asked if she would recommend a break from academics, with an industry stint or a no-break policy for other young women, she says, “Both”, with a smile. “Each has its own advantage and disadvantage. While no-break-in-academics might help with ‘young energy’, study-after-an-industry-stint helps appreciate the CSE concepts in the background of industry experience. Plus, you have your family to console you when you go through the paper rejections and Phd-related lows”.
While Priya lets her newly-acquired degree status sink in, she already has her future steps mapped out. She plans on joining the industry as a research scientist in the area of Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning. Good Luck Priya!