Graduate Student Spotlights

Hari Sivakumar - Ph.D. Student in Controls

photo of hari sivakumar
  • Hometown: Singapore
  • Degrees: B.S. (2009) and M.S. (2010) Electrical Engineering, University of Michigan Ann Arbor
  • Degree sought from UCSB and Progress: Ph.D. Electrical Engineering, 6th year
  • Graduate Study Area: Controls
  • The application of systems theory to the study of complex biological networks
  • Advisor: Professor Joao Hespanha
  • Research Interests: Systems biology, Modularity, Dynamical systems, Bifurcations, Biological oscillators, Gene regulatory networks
  • Important Awards and Honors: UCSB ECE Department Outstanding TA Award, 2011. Doctoral Student Travel Grant, 2015.
  • UCSB Student Organizations: UCSB Agni: Indian Classical Music and Dance (Founder and President, 2011-2014), UCSB Ravaani: South Asian Acapella (Member, 2011-2014), India Association of Santa Barbara (Vice President, 2011-2012)
  • Professional Memberships: Eta Kappa Nu
  • Hobbies and Activities: Indian Classical Percussion, Running, Reading. Interests: Data Science, Cricket, Football, Politics, World religions, Philosophy, Teaching
  • Interesting aside about Hari: I have learned the Tabla and the Mridangam, two Indian Classical Percussion instruments, since I was young. Together with some close friends, I founded a group on campus called UCSB Agni, whose mission was to foster student performers of Indian classical artforms and promote it to students and the Santa Barbara community. I have performed on campus till recently. Now, I'm working hard to graduate!

Favorite things about

  • ECE department: The faculty are all very approachable and genuinely helpful. Graduate students have a good work-life balance. Classes are taught in a way that students learn a lot from them, and are not demoralized at the end of it.
  • UCSB: The UCSB campus is compact and easy to bike around. There are a lot of research collaborations that allow students to see what goes on in many departments other then their own. Of course, it helps that campus is ON the beach, not a few miles away!
  • Santa Barbara: The views and the sunsets. I can never get enough of gazing at the mountains and the ocean.

More about Hari and his research

  • Important Conferences attended: American Control Conference (2013) - Talk. Winter q-bio meeting (2015) - Poster; IMA Biological Systems and Networks Workshop (2015) - Poster; AMS Western Sectional Meeting (2016) - Invited Talk [Upcoming]
  • Most important publications to date: "Towards Modularity in Biological Networks While Avoiding Retroactivity" (ACC, 2013); "Modular Decomposition and Analysis of Biological Networks" (in preparation); "A Modular Approach to Analyzing the Evolution of the p53 Pathway" (in preparation)
  • Dissertation title: "Towards a Modular Approach to Analyzing Biological Networks
  • Types of financial assistance received: Graduate Student Researcher (GSR), Teaching Assistantship (TA)

Tell us about your research

Biological systems are inherently very complex in nature, typically consisting of multiple highly non-linear molecular interactions. As a result, even relatively small networks, such as the lactose regulation network in bacteria, tend to display very complex behaviors.

One such network is the DNA damage response network which plays a major role in tumor suppression. The central hub of this network is the p53 protein; it plays a critical role in guarding against cancer development. In humans, p53 is part of a sophisticated network of proteins that mediate cell fate decisions such as the initiation of cell-cycle arrest, DNA repair and apoptosis. Aside from p53, this network includes a set of core regulation proteins among a host of other upstream, downstream and intermediate species involved in sensing, transduction and regulation.

In collaboration with the Proulx lab in the Evolution, Ecology and Molecular Biology (EEMB) department, we explored the evolutionary history of the DNA damage response network. While the p53 protein’s function seems to have been preserved for over one billion years, this is not the case for the other core regulation proteins in the network.

We use the evolutionary analysis as the starting point to partition our dynamical model of the p53 network into smaller sub-units or "modules", such that properties of the network can be inferred from properties of these modules. Using this modular analysis, we attempt to infer the function of each module within the network. Our results show an evolutionary path towards networks with an increasingly complex structure of multi-stability, which we conjecture is associated with cell fate decisions.

How and why did you get into your area of research?

I will never forget that when I first came to UCSB as a PhD student in Controls, I thought I would choose any project other than one that involved Systems Biology! I met Prof. Mustafa Khammash (then at UCSB) casually and he gave me a set of papers to read. One paper that he co-authored changed my entire perspective on the field. It was a paper about calcium homeostasis in cows. The paper went on to mention that two hormones are known to control this homeostasis, although one is thought by Biologists to be redundant. By modeling the network as an integral feedback loop the authors showed that both hormones are actually necessary, otherwise after lactation, the calcium levels would not return to their nominal level. The thought that simple ideas from undergraduate control theory could be so powerful in explaining complex biological phenomena was what lead me to pursue Systems Biology related research.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

Due to the highly interdisciplinary nature of my work, I find it most rewarding when I am able to present my work to both engineers and biologists in a way that they can understand.

Why did you select UCSB and ECE in regards to your research?

UCSB has one of the strongest Control theory groups in the country. To get an opportunity to work and interact with the faculty here is an honor.

Thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor

My advisor Prof. Joao Hespanha has been incredibly supportive throughout my PhD. He has been instrumental in me pursuing Systems Biology research, even though I had very limited prior knowledge in Biology. Whenever I have problems with my research, he is always able to offer a very simple (although incredibly insightful) solution. I'm also thankful to have a great set of lab-mates that I see every day. We have a very diverse lab with students, post-docs and visitors of multiple nationalities. When we're not discussing work, a lot of our conversations center around football (soccer) and world politics!

Where will your research take you next?

I hope to use my quantitative background and interdisciplinary experience in both Engineering and Biology to study and infer the plethora of data that is available about complex biological networks. I believe that this is certainly the future when it comes to studying complex biological networks. I hope to become a Data Scientist in the industry in the short-term future. I also hope to get an opportunity to teach in an academic environment, as teaching is a strong passion of mine.

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Hari's thoughts on the academics at UCSB

Strengths of the graduate program

The greatest strength of the program is how approachable the faculty are. I have taken so many classes and learned so much from them, in no small part thanks to the faculty. I have never felt inadequate, even when asking the most fundamental questions to my Professors in class. Of course, it is worth mentioning that the department is engaged in cutting-edge research.

Favorite course

My favorite courses as a graduate student are ME 215A and B (Dynamical Systems Theory) taught by Profs Igor Mezic and Jeff Moehlis. As a Control Theory student with an ECE background, I somewhat understood the underlying dynamics in systems. However, most of the focus in Control is on the design and analysis of the controllers. Taking Dynamical Systems Theory opened up my mind to how and why systems behave in the way they do, and I highly recommend all Control students with an ECE background to take these two classes.

Experience with the screening exam and the qualifying exam

Screening exam: The screening exam was quite an experience; essentially, 5 Professors ask you any question under the sun about all your relevant undergraduate work. Although I was extremely nervous before the exam, one of my lab mates told me something on the morning of my exam that certainly helped me, and I hope will help others as well. Don't worry, the Professors are there to help you and not to fail you. Just relax and work through the questions with them.

Qualifying exam: The qualifying exam was a less intense experience, since one is talking about one's own work. Preparing for the qualifying exam certainly helped me to organize my thoughts and my findings, which I feel is an extremely important part of the PhD. It also helped to build my presentation skills; speaking out loud in a clear fashion is certainly very different from mulling over thoughts in my head!

I am currently working on my thesis.

Describe your experience as a Teaching Assistant (TA) and Graduate Student Researcher (GSR)

TA – In my first year, I taught ECE 130A, 130B and 139. Every week, I would plan a 1.5 hour lecture to deliver during the discussion section (for all 3 classes), and of course hold office hours as well. Teaching is my greatest passion, and I really enjoy being able to simplify concepts to teach students. I think it is key to bring oneself down to the level of the students. As someone who struggled with these 3 (very mathematical) classes as an undergrad myself, I was able to identify the concepts that confused me and therefore what would probably confuse other students. Graphical convolution is certainly one of the most confounding things when one first learns about it, only to realize that one will never have to use it again!

GSR – Research on its own is very interesting, which is why I pursued a graduate degree. I think the key thing I didn't realize as an undergraduate student was how challenging it can be to define a research problem, and communicate the idea behind this problem effectively. It is almost like designing your own product. What is it? Why is it useful? Why is it novel? Moreover,as time passed during my PhD and I became more familiar with the research area, the problem definition itself (along with the solution) morphed a little bit. It was unexpected at first, but I slowly got the hang of it.

Life as a graduate student

Quality of life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life

I have a time table which I try to follow. I make sure I reserve time on the weekends to take care of myself (cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning), be involved in music and speak to my wife (who is a PhD student in the East Coast). I think it is also very important to stay mentally relaxed, so I do actively have to disconnect my mind from research on most nights. I also ensure that I run in the evenings a few times a week.

Social life and living in Santa Barbara

Till the Fall of 2014, on nights and weekends, I was actively involved in 2 student groups on campus. With some close friends, I founded UCSB Agni, an Indian Classical music and dance group that fosters student artists and organizes performances on campus for students and the community. I was also part of UCSB Ravaani, the university's South Asian Acapella team. Going for Acapella practices, making music with my friends and preparing for performances used to take up most of my evenings and weekends. I also made some great friends in the process, many of whom have graduated but are still in touch. Since then I have gotten busier with my research, but still perform sporadically around campus. I hope to be more active in music once I graduate!

What will you do over Summer break?

Fingers crossed, I am looking to graduate by the end of this summer. So I'll definitely be here!

Advice to prospective graduate students

My advice is as follows:

1) Be patient. If positive results came quickly, we would all be done with our PhDs in a year! We are all swimming in unknown territory, but if we keep at it, results will certainly come.
2) Stay calm. Unlike in undergrad when stress levels elevate before exams and then drop, the stress slowly and gradually builds up in the PhD. I did not even realize the stress levels building up until others pointed it out to me! It helps to actively engage in research when you are at work, and actively disengage when you are relaxing. Set aside time to relax, and try to focus better when you are doing work. It also helps to exercise regularly, even if it is for a short while.
3) Avoid competition. It is very easy to get caught up in comparing the number of publications, citations and time to graduation against others. However, I think that time is better spent focusing on one's own research problem. Remember, everyone's PhD is different. The PhD is a journey in academic maturity, and avoiding unnecessary competition and barometers for success helps make it much more pleasurable.

Tanya Das - M.S./Ph.D. Student in Electronics & Photonics


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  • Hometown: Rochester Hills, MI
  • B.S. and M.S. Degree: B.S. in Electrical Engineering from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • Degree sought from UCSB: M.S./Ph.D. 5th year
  • Graduate Study Area: Electronics & Photonics
  • Main Area of Research: Nano-optics
  • Advisor and Lab: Jon Schuller / Schuller Lab
  • Research Interests: Metamaterials, Mie Theory, Plasmonics
  • Professional Memberships: International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Materials Research Society (MRS)
  • UCSB Organizations: Beyond Academia
  • Hobbies: Reading, writing, creating and consuming fantastic culinary delights
  • Interesting aside about Tanya: I have interned at NASA 3 times. The last time, I got to sneak into JPL's Mission Control days after the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars.

Favorite things about

  • ECE department: The people here, faculty and grad students alike, are very passionate about what they do, both in research and in their personal lives. This makes for very interesting friends and conversations.
  • UCSB: The graduate student community here is very close. I know several students in departments outside ECE, which I don't think is typical of all schools.
  • Santa Barbara: The beach, the breeze, and the views

More about Tanya and her research

  • Types of financial assistance received: Graduate Student Researcher and Teaching Assistantship

Tell us about your research

Typical light-matter interactions have size scales in which the wavelength of light and the size of the object it is interacting with are very different. When light interacts with objects that have sizes similar to the wavelength of light, then interesting things start happening and we can actually start to control the way light behaves. In this size regime, objects exhibit a series of resonances at certain wavelengths, known as multipolar resonances. By manipulating these resonances, researchers have created new materials with very interesting optical properties beyond those of naturally occurring materials, known as metamaterials. Typically, researchers manipulate these multipolar resonances by changing the physical properties of the objects (e.g., size, shape, material, etc.). Instead, my research focuses on manipulating the properties of the light. This enables a completely different way of manipulating multipolar phenomena.

How and why did you get into your area of research?

When I started college I wanted to be an engineer, but didn't know what kind. I initially wanted to be any kind of engineer except an Electrical Engineer, because that's what my father is and I wanted to do something different. But after I started taking college classes, I realized EE is actually what I really like. I enjoyed physics in high school but never wanted to be a physicist, and EE is a happy medium between physics and engineering.

Why did you select UCSB and ECE in regards to your research?

I selected the ECE department at UCSB because it has a fantastic reputation and because I had lived in Michigan my whole life before then, and I wanted to experience living somewhere different. I had applied to the Master's program at first as I wasn't sure I wanted to do a PhD, but that quickly changed after I arrived at UCSB.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

When things go right in research, it's one of the most satisfying feelings in the world!

UCSB prides itself on its collaborative atmosphere, give some examples of how you collaborate

Although our research group is the only one at UCSB that works on metamaterials, we collaborate with other groups for a variety of purposes. One of my labmates is working on building a specialized measurement setup, and he gets his samples from a group in the Materials department. Another labmate of mine is working on a reconfigurable metamaterial that requires a lot of semiconductor device design, and he collaborates with the Mishra and Palmstrom groups to figure out his design and to get material to actually fabricate his design. We also have collaborations with Brown University and UCSD.

Thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor

I really enjoy working with my research group. We fit really well together. They are all really interesting people and I enjoy learning from them and being exposed to things I normally wouldn't be exposed to. Many of my labmates possess important research skills that I lack, and it's extremely beneficial to be surrounded by them so I can learn from them. Additionally, when I started out with Jon, my advisor, I didn't have a background in this field. Jumping into something completely new was intimidating, at first, but partly because our research group is so new (Jon joined UCSB in 2012), we were all new to the field and all learning together.

Where will your research take you next?

I plan to transition into a career in which I can more directly see the impacts of the work I do by bridging the gap between science and society. I don't think there are enough scientists in positions where they are regularly interacting with and impacting the public in meaningful ways, which has contributed to a disconnect between the scientific realm and the public. Specifically, I plan to go into a career related to science education or policy.

photo of tanya das

Tanya's thoughts on the academics at UCSB

Strengths of the graduate program

There are many knowledgeable students and professors who excel at a wide variety of research. If there is any question you have about some type of software, or some type of circuit or device you are trying to design, a useful conversation about it is just an email away. Also, many students in ECE research groups are actually from other departments which naturally encourages multidisciplinary projects.

Favorite course

My favorite course at UCSB was Digital Circuit Design taught by Luke Theogarajan. I doubt I would have said that at the time I was taking the course, and even though I learned only half of what was taught, even that half was an incredible amount of information. A lot of my appreciation for that class was because Luke was teaching it. He is one of those rare professors who actually takes a personal interest in the success of the students he encounters.

Experience with the graduate exams

Preparing for the screening exam was pretty stressful at the time. I was preparing for the screening exam over the summer, when I was also doing a full time internship. I was grateful when it was over. The qualifying exam was far less stressful, since it is a presentation about my research, which I already knew. There is less room for the unexpected in a qualifying exam.

Life as a graduate student

Quality of life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life

It's a see-saw. Sometimes research is extremely busy and I have a ton of deadlines and there is no balance, and other times I can breathe a little and there is time to have fun. I try to take advantage of that time when it comes.

What is your social life like and where have you lived?

I lived in San Clemente my first year, which was fun as I got to meet many grad students in a variety of departments. However, I have since moved into an off-campus apartment which I also very much enjoy. I am in an apartment complex where plenty of UCSB grad students live. Santa Barbara public transportation is great and it's easy to get around by bus. I also really appreciate the location of Santa Barbara in terms of where it is in the state of California. SB is about equidistant from both Yosemite National Park and Las Vegas. There are so many places to explore in this region of the U.S. and they are all a road trip away, which also makes SB a great place to live.

What did you do over Summer break?

This summer I stayed in SB and did research.

Advice to prospective graduate students

The typical advice is to make sure you and your advisor get along and have a good relationship, but I would say it is equally if not more important to make sure this is true for your labmates as well. They are the people you will see and interact with the most often. Being friends with them and genuinely liking them will make grad school life much more bearable. Also, after you stop taking classes, realize that there is no longer an externally imposed structure on your life. Recognize this and impose your own structure so you make sure you get things done.

Sebastian Siatkowski - Ph.D. Student in Computer Engineering

photo of Sebastian Siatkowski
  • Hometown: Wyszkow, Poland and Los Angeles, California
  • B.S. and M.S. : B.S. in Computer Engineering and M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, UCSB
  • Degree Sought from UCSB and Progress: third year Ph.D. candidate
  • Advisor / Group: Professor Li-C. Wang / Mining Test and Verification (MTV Lab) data for EDA & Test applications
  • Graduate Study Area in CE: Data Mining in Test
  • Research Interests: Adaptive Test, Failure Analysis, Yield Optimization, Big Data
  • Hobbies: soccer, hiking, mixed martial arts, running, video games

Favorite things about

  • ECE department: brilliant and easily approachable professors, ocean view from our lab
  • UCSB: beautiful campus, friendly people, great recreation center
  • Santa Barbara: perfect weather year round, relaxed culture, tons of breathtaking hiking trails

Why Electrical & Computer Engineering and UCSB?

My fascination with computers began at an early age. The more I learned, the more complex and intriguing further learning became. As a high school student, I chose UCSB for the location and its prominent social scene. What got me to stay for grad school were UCSB's excellent academic standings and the beautiful campus which provides a relaxing atmosphere.

More about Sebastian and his research

  • Important Conferences Attended: the International Test Conference (ITC) and the International Conference on Computer-Aided Design (ICCAD)
  • Most important publication to date: "Yield Optimization Using Advanced Statistical Correlation Methods"
  • Master’s Thesis: "Abnormality Search for Predicting the Screenability of Customer Returns "
  • Types of financial assistance received: Graduate Student Researcher (GSR) and Teaching Assistant (TA)

Tell us about your research

Very large amounts of data are produced during manufacture and test of semiconductors, but analysis techniques applied in practice do not utilize all the information available in that data. Our research focuses on applying state-of-the-art approaches from the machine learning field to advance semiconductor testing, as well as developing novel techniques suited for the specific problems at hand. The goal of test data analysis is to find the right balance while attempting to improve quality, reduce test cost, and increase yield.

How and why did you get into your area of research?

I took Professor Li-C. Wang's courses as an undergraduate and was quickly captivated by his way of thinking and approaching problems. I reached out to him to learn about his group's research and was so fascinated by it that I eagerly decided to try to join the group and help move the research forward. I think what persuaded me the most was how clear the application of the research was to real problems.

Why did you select UCSB and the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department in regards to your research?

Doing my undergrad at UCSB exposed me to our phenomenal faculty. The professors in our ECE department are great mentors and are some of the top experts in their fields. I also looked at PhD program rankings in ECE across the country, and at the time UCSB was ranked 5th so that was a huge plus.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

Since we work closely with industry, we actually get to see our methodologies applied in practice. It's very exciting to see our ideas come to life, and getting praise from engineers for helping them solve critical problems is very rewarding. This close industry partnership is rather unique for academic research groups, which pushes us to do our best to maintain it.

UCSB prides itself on its collaborative atmosphere, give some examples of how you collaborate

From what I've seen so far, collaboration is the single most important element of successful research. The atmosphere in the ECE department is always very encouraging towards collaborating with peers and faculty. I feel very comfortable discussing my research with students from other groups, and I also find it interesting to hear about the research they are working on. Such discussions often lead to exchanges of ideas which help to uncover new perspectives of the problem at hand.

Thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor

The collaborative aspect of research is what truly enables rapid and meaningful progress. I consider every single one of my group mates a good friend. We often spend time together in all kinds of social situations, and new research ideas sometimes spring up at the most unexpected times. Our advisor, Li-C. Wang, is very hands on with all our research. He is always very closely involved with all the little details of our projects and is available for consultation at virtually all times.

Where will your research take you next?

Throughout my research, I've had the privilege of working with companies which are considered technology leaders in semiconductor manufacturing. This experience has opened many doors for jobs in the industry. As of now, I believe after graduation I will go directly into industry, and I will choose the company where I feel I can make the biggest contribution.

photo of sebastian by the campus bike path

Sebastian's thoughts on the academics at UCSB

Strengths of the graduate program

The main strength has to be attributed to the outstanding faculty. The research conducted by all of their groups is cutting edge and they strive to always be the leading researchers in their fields with their continuous involvement in global research communities.

Favorite courses

Having taken most of the offered undergrad and grad courses related to Computer Engineering, it is very difficult to single one out as the favorite. I think an honorable mention definitely has to go to the CE Senior Capstone project (ECE 189B) that I took with Professor Steve Butner. That course really helped tie together a lot of the concepts learned throughout my first four years, but also made me realize how much I still didn't know which contributed to my decision to continue on to grad school.

Experience with the graduate exams

The screening exam sounded very scary at first. The idea of being orally examined by five professors sounded more stressful than any exam I had taken in the past. However, I found that with thorough preparation it was not as bad as I anticipated.

Describe your experience as a Graduate Student Researcher (GSR) and/or Teaching Assistant (TA)

I have been a GSR for almost every quarter, and I was a TA for two courses (Digital Design with VHDL & Synthesis — ECE 156A and Computer-Aided Design of VLSI Circuits — ECE 156B). The GSR experience can sometimes truly push you to your limits. It taught me a lot about self-motivation and organization, both of which are absolutely necessary to make it as a GSR. The TA experience, on the other hand, was less hectic but just as rewarding. Although I did get overwhelmed with questions at times, especially near project deadlines, the experience was always positive. It is a great feeling to have students look up to you and to be able to help them truly grasp the concepts taught in class.

Life as a graduate student

Quality of life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life

Work-life balance does get out of hand at times, but usually only around important deadlines. During those times, it may feel like every waking hour is spent on research. However, when there are no imminent deadlines, even as a grad student I get plenty of time to socialize and take part in fun activities. Getting the most out of life may require slightly better time management skills than back during undergrad, but it's definitely achievable.

Where have you lived while at UCSB?

I lived in IV for a while and enjoyed my stay there, but after becoming a grad student and focusing more on my work I moved to Family Housing, which is probably the best housing deal available in the area.

What will you do this summer?

This summer I will go to Phoenix, AZ for an internship. My advisor's close relationship with industry has made finding internships every summer very easy. This will be my third summer interning for research related work and I did not have to interview for any of them.

Advice to prospective graduate students

Don't get consumed by research and academics. Try surfing, check out the many hiking trails, see a movie at the drive-in theater, go wine tasting, join an adult sports league, or just try something new. Venturing beyond what you're normally comfortable with can really help with personal development which ultimately reflects back on your research.

Ekta Prashnani - M.S./Ph.D. Student in Communications & Signal Processing


photo of ekta in the lab
  • Hometown: Jabalpur, India
  • B.S. Degree: Bachelor of Technology from the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT), Gandhinagar
  • Degree sought from UCSB and Progress: Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering, 2nd year
  • Important Awards and Honors: patent awards from Nokia (in Sunnyvale) and Ricoh Innovations (in Bangalore, India), Excellence in Internship at Ricoh Innovations (in 2012), Dean's List for Academic Excellence for last two semesters of undergraduate studies
  • Graduate Study Area: Communications & Signal Processing
  • Main Area of Research: Signal Processing
  • Advisor and Lab: Professor Pradeep Sen / UCSB MIRAGE Lab
  • Research Interests: computational photography and imaging, computer vision
  • Professional Memberships: Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) student member
  • Hobbies: running, robotics, photography
  • Interesting aside about Ekta: I was one of the former leaders of the IIT-Gandhinagar student organization called "Sakar" — a group that aims to teach Mathematics and Science in innovative ways to girls in 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th grade at schools located nearby the IIT Gandhinagar campus. This was a part of the social outreach programs of IIT Gandhinagar and an attempt to increase the interest of women in STEM from a young age. I was also Captain of the Women's Athletics team of IIT Gandhinagar for the 46th inter-IIT sports meet.

Favorite things about

  • ECE department: the diversity of the ECE community, excellent and inspiring professors, and the location of the ECE buildings (i have a view of the ocean from the lab!)
  • UCSB: the location, vibrance of the student body and enthusiastic professors
  • Santa Barbara: the downtown looks worthy of a postcard; lots of places to hike and hang out with friends; perfect weather; and there are mountains on one side and the Pacific ocean on the other

More about Ekta and her research

  • Important Conferences you have attended: Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH)
  • What types of Financial Assistance have you received? Graduate Student Researcher (GSR)

Tell us about your research

My research is related to computational photography and computer vision. My aim is to develop algorithms and if possible, hardware, to make smarter cameras with better functionality. Specifically, I have worked on projects related to High Dynamic Range Imaging, Light Field Processing and Image Animation until now. All the projects are in the pipeline for completion and publication. In my latest project on image animation, I worked in collaboration with my advisor and two experienced researchers from the Imaging team at Nokia (in Sunnyvale) to develop an efficient and accurate algorithm that requires minimal effort on the part of the user. I recently submitted a paper on this project to Eurographics Symposiumon Rendering. This project started during my internship at Nokia in Summer of 2014.

How and why did you get into your area of research?

The course on Signal Processing taught during my undergrad came very naturally to me, it was very easy to be the best in class without putting in much effort. I knew the subject was tough because everyone around me was struggling with it. And so it occurred to me that I might be good at this. Image processing, computer vision, computational photography depends heavily on signal processing. In addition these fields seem very cool and impactful to me. So, after the realization of my natural expertise in signal processing, I leaned towards understanding these related fields and decided to choose these for my research.

Why did you select UCSB and ECE in regards to your research?

I interviewed with Professor Pradeep Sen before I received a decision letter from UCSB. During the interview, Pradeep was enthusiastic, encouraging and full of energy. UCSB's ECE department was popular among my fellow undergraduate students and Pradeep seemed like a good person to work with — so I decided to go for UCSB. Plus the location needs a mention as well.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

The ability of cameras to capture the world in a manner that we do as humans and the possibility of computers being able to perceive, understand and learn from pictures just like humans fascinates me. The idea of being able to contribute to this very fascinating and quickly advancing field motivates me. The nature of this field of study also makes it possible to convert research into product-ready technology without years of delay. It is very gratifying for me to be able to foresee that it won't take way too many years for the technology I or anyone in my field creates to reach the hands of consumers. I like the fact that it is possible to have an impact sooner, rather than later, in my field of study.

UCSB prides itself on its collaborative atmosphere, give some examples of how you collaborate

In keeping with UCSB's tradition of a collaborative environment, my lab as a whole also enjoys a highly collaborative work process. My advisor, Professor Sen, encourages collaboration among students and with experts from outside the lab as we truly believe that great ideas are not born in isolation. Outside of UCSB, as a part of Nokia-UCSB collaboration, I have worked with experts at Nokia, Sunnyvale, on High Dynamic Range imaging and Image Animation projects. This collaboration has proved very instrumental in helping me mature as a researcher in the past year at UCSB.

Thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor

This is my first ever research environment and the transition from being an undergrad to becoming a Ph.D. student in fall 2013 was difficult. This was in addition to adjusting to a completely new culture in United States. It took time to find my footing, but now I am much more comfortable and productive. Working in a group research environment has been very fulfilling so far, especially because of the weekly lab meetings and discussions. My advisor has been kind and supportive.

Where will your research take you next?

Research is unpredictable. So it is hard to answer where my research will take me next. I would like to work with Computational Imaging and novel camera designs. My personal goal is to be the best and one of the most impactful people in my field of study. This is somewhat vague, because I have not quantitatively defined what I mean by best, but I will know I have become the best when I am convinced.

photo of ekta outside of ESB

Ekta's thoughts on the academics at UCSB

Strengths of the graduate program

Collaboration with industry, very useful graduate coursework, freedom and flexibility for graduate students to find and work on problems that excite them the most.

Favorite course

Pattern Recognition (ECE 277) taught by Professor Kenneth Rose in Winter 2014 was my favorite. I couldn't complete the course due to personal reasons, but I attended almost all the classes. It was so exciting to see a professor always smiling and teaching the subject with so much energy. It never troubled him if someone asked a tough question, on the contrary, he would actually smile, as if grateful to the student for having asked the question. He is the only professor I have met this far who has a knack at teaching some really complicated mathematical concept so very beautifully and simply. If I ever become a professor, I want to be as great a teacher as him.

Experience with the graduate exams

I recently took the Ph.D. screening exam and succeeded in it. It can be a stressful experience, so it is important to be well prepared. I was somewhat nervous throughout the exam, but the professors understand this and they help you out. The aim is not to intimidate the students, but to see if they have the necessary skills and minimum required knowledge to be Ph.D. students. Overall, it helped me realize how much I know and how much I still need to do.

Describe your experience as a Graduate Student Researcher (GSR)

My experience as a GSR has been great so far. I have worked on a variety of projects and also had the chance to collaborate with industry and witness first-hand what it takes to convert a research prototype into a product.

Life as a graduate student

Quality of life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life

It is a little challenging to manage personal life and work, I started to realize that when I came to the US. Sometimes I get too engrossed with work and my personal life suffers and sometimes it is the other way around. Research is not easy, and as young students just beginning to understand this, it is often overwhelming. But I truly feel I have gotten better at it in the past year. So things are going smoother now.

What is your social life like and where have you lived?

I live in Goleta, previously I lived in Isla Vista (in student housing on El Colegio) but I soon realized it is not a very grad-student-friendly environment, especially for grad students who wish to simply enjoy some quiet time after a day's work. So my friends and I moved away from Isla Vista.

What did you do over summer break?

I plan to intern in the Bay Area for the summer, it is a beautiful place to be in summer. Looking forward to it!

Advice to prospective graduate students

Always start from basics and build each concept from ground up. Very few people practise this very effective strategy, since it seems to be slow initially. Personal: It is important to stay in touch with family, especially if the students are coming from very far away countries (like India) and it is not quick and cheap to travel back home. I strongly advise all grad students to be mindful of their health. It is not good to loose your health to your work while you are in your 20s.