Alumni Snapshot: Poornima Kaniarasu (CS'13)

  • PSG College of Technology, B.E., electrical and computer engineering, 2010
  • Carnegie Mellon University, M.S., robotics, 2013

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 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.

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.

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.

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.”

She cites Steinfeld and Dias as among her most influential professors, along with robotics professor and CREATE Lab founder Illah Nourbakhsh. From them, she says, “I learned that it’s not enough to make code that works—you also have to make sure that the program you’ve developed has features that the user actually wants.”

Away from the office, Kaniarasu tries to pay her mother’s example forward. Today, she’s part of a team of MathWorks employees that travels to local middle and high schools to encourage young women to explore careers in engineering, computer science and information technology.

For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu