I am a Ph.D. researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi in India. I work on hardware acceleration of artificial intelligence algorithms to develop low-power intelligent edge devices like smartwatches, smartphones, IoT devices, etc. I was always curious about how devices like television, mobile phones, remote controllers worked, which motivated me to do my bachelor’s in Electronics Engineering. I worked for three years at Qualcomm India to design interconnects in mobile systems. But, I always wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and work on new exciting problems. Since it is a big commitment, I decided to work as an associate researcher to understand how the community works. I worked for a year at the National University of Singapore, where I met artificial intelligence. I worked on several deep learning algorithms to design energy-efficient hardware. I later joined IIT Delhi in India to continue my research in this domain.
Many people ask me why I did not move to the States or continued my Ph.D. in Singapore. While it’s perfectly normal to pursue higher studies abroad, my experience with research showed me that it is more individual and is mostly independent of geography. My country is a developing country, and I would instead grow here than abroad since I have the freedom to contribute in so many other ways. Currently, I am volunteering as a facilitator for the “SHE CODES FOUNDATION” in India, where I teach coding to girls in Class 7 studying in Delhi Government Schools. It has been a rewarding ♥ experience, and I am glad to have helped these otherwise unprivileged girls, who now have started dreaming about being software engineers and scientists.
What is a typical day like for you?
My typical day consists of waking up (not early) between 8-9 am, have a cup of tea along with some news, and then sitting down to do a quick plan of my whole day until I have some pending work from the previous day. I work for around 8-9 hours a day according to the task list I prepare in the morning. It helps me stay organized and focused during the day. Research can otherwise be very overwhelming. A researcher needs to take care of the depth while covering the breadth. I read a book before going to sleep (almost daily until and unless I am exhausted). I don’t fret a lot about finishing the book. I enjoy every page, think about it for some time, and fall asleep. I also exercise and meditate a few times a week. I am trying to be more regular in these activities (it is hard to find the time, but I will get there).
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
Every scientist sometime in their life would have felt the devil called the imposter syndrome. And I am no different. It troubles me almost every week when I have unaccomplished goals in my journal or when I give a bad presentation, or when I struggle to keep up with the literature or when I think I am not progrssing in my research. I have been an active part of the Ph.D. community on twitter. Forums like these helped me realize that it is a common thing. One has to power through this by celebrating small accomplishments like completing an unfinished article, reading a paper, writing down small ideas – it shows me that I am doing better than the day before. A fellow Ph.D. (whom I met on one such forum) suggested me to keep a daily journal where I write my small accomplishments and look at it when I am feeling doubtful about my capabilities, and it has undoubtedly helped me a lot. Go on twitter, talk to people with similar interests. We are in this together!
Do you come from an academic family and how do they regard your career choice?
I don’t come from an academic family; my father is a businessman, and my mother homemaker. For a woman, not coming from an academic background is a lot difficult in my country than it might be elsewhere. People look at you differently, and you are someone who should be married by the time you turn 22. Luckily, my parents have been nothing but supportive of my career choices. They have given me the choice of being ferocious and brave and take risks in life. My mom, in particular, always inspired me to have high aspirations. She taught me to be independent. My dad always had my back when others questioned my life choices with serious condemnation. Pursuing a doctorate is a long commitment. It is as difficult for my parents as it is for me, personally, as they have to face the brunt of societal comments and derogatory remarks.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I read a lot. I try to read a few pages every night before I go to sleep. It helps me relax and put my brain to rest from the chaos of the day. I read non-fiction books, and I am currently reading “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I have also started writing a lot, and I try to write for half an hour daily. I write about social issues and my own life; excerpts inspired by my conversation with friends and my family. I enjoy intellectual conversations with my family. They actively participate and discuss my opinions about feminism and other gender-bias issues in society and how we can contribute to change. I also enjoy doing crafts, and in the past, I have been popular amongst my friends and family for giving handmade gifts. I love traveling and meeting new people. I love adventurous activities and like to try out new challenging things. I am a big foodie too.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Ask questions: Don’t shy away from asking questions. If you figured out a better way to solve an equation, tell it to the professor instead of thinking that you are probably wrong, not being an expert like him. Be confident and remind yourself that there are no silly questions.
Travel more: You love it, so travel more and take those weekends off, which you spend working hard – I did not travel a lot during my undergraduate education, and I kind of regret it. I started traveling after I started working, but I did not do it enough at the cost of saving money for higher education. But, I would like to advise my younger self that you will never be able to save enough for taking risks in life. You do what you have to do in the present. Go, take that trip!
Be prepared to accept defeat: You would one-day face defeat, or failure in some or the other way and so be prepared to deal with it. You will not always be successful in cracking all the interviews and all the scholarships. Have perseverance and don’t give up. Be resilient and keep going.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were a man?
One of the biggest obstacles that I had to overcome was to convince my parents to let me marry late after I got my bachelor’s degree and started working. In India, the parents usually arrange a marriage for their kids. The “right” age for a woman in my country to get married is, at the most, 25 years. Convincing my parents for a late marriage was very difficult for me as well as for them. It took a while, but it happened once they understood how important it is for me to pursue a doctorate.
I think it is easier for men in my country to pursue higher studies and marry late. A single man in his late twenties is deemed courageous, but a single woman in her late twenties is pitiable and shamed in our culture. A man can marry a younger woman, but a woman cannot marry a younger man. This societal gender-based differentiation makes it a lot harder for women in our country to follow their dreams of doing science.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
A lot of gender based prejudices do affect women more than men. Every where you look, you will see this huge gender gap in technology. The higher you go, the lesser the number of women. Being a minority is quite challenging sometimes. The fixed gender roles in my country is the biggest reason for this gap and why we see less and less women in science. Most women leave their jobs after 35 years to support their families. It has been challenging but there would always be people who would have to go out of the way to bring change in the society and its ways. It is very important that we voice these issues and so instead of being angry about it, I write about these issues and stand up for what I believe.
Get in touch with me:
You can find me on Twitter (@ayushiagg17; https://twitter.com/ayushiagg17) or contact me via my professional profile on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ayushiagarwal17/). You can also visit my website and contact me via email: agarwal-ayushi.github.io