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Ms. Neha Tarigopula, currently a Research Assistant at Idiap and Alumna of IIITB. Ms. Neha Tarigopula adorns a beaming smile when interviewed by her guide and mentor, Prof. Dinesh Babu Jayagopi. For him, there was nothing more rewarding than interviewing his once student, Neha who is pursuing research in computer Vision, specifically in developing sign language technologies for recognition and assessment.

In a freewheeling conversation with Prof. Dinesh she talks about how IIITB played an important role in choosing a career path. She finds IIITB a conducive, safe and motivating atmosphere for female students. Here is a snippet of the conversation:

How do you recall your journey at IIITB?
The sense of belongingness at IIITB started right from the first day. Being the first batch of IMtech, everyone was looking out for us and made sure we felt comfortable at the campus.

On the academic side, we were offered a very flexible curriculum and innovative approaches to our learning philosophy. For the first two years, the curriculum helped me to build a strong foundation. Later on, we were given the freedom to choose courses across specializations, which gave an opportunity for students to explore different fields before nailing down on one. Now when I look back, I think that I have made an informed decision then. The curriculum was up-to-date and it truly prepares you for the outer world.
IIITB also provides project/research electives apart from the regular curriculum, which gave me a platform to develop interest in research at an early stage. These electives gave me a tremendous opportunity to learn and present interesting research work at the end of the semesters.

Talking about extracurricular interests, indulging in a hobby can bring its share of benefits. In my final year, I combined my interest of playing table tennis with academics and opted to do a thesis with Prof. Dinesh and Prof. Ram towards analysing table tennis strokes from videos. IIITB always encouraged students to have their autonomy in what they do and encouraged its students no matter what. 

The life on campus was also quite a lot of fun! Every year we had a 3 day sports fest, Spandan. The entire campus would be bustling with activities. Since it was open to the alumni, it gave us a chance to interact with seniors and bond with them over some games. 

I have made a bunch of really good friends over my stay at IIITB, we are still a very closely knit group. We all come from different cultural backgrounds, it was fun to celebrate festivals and events together. 

How do you think career assistance at IIITB has helped you?
Offering holistic support to its students is in-built in the culture of IIITB. 

In the final year, the Placement Committee was extremely receptive and helpful; they were keen to know my interests and the kind of companies I was interested in. The professors being extremely approachable also helped to discuss career choices. 

Three years after working, I wanted to get back to research and when I decided to pursue my PhD, help poured in. I was a bit concerned about my chances, but it was with the immense help and support of the professors at IIITB I was able to move ahead. It is really wonderful how they support me even years after graduating, feels like I am still a part of the institute.

Can you brief us about your work at Mercedes?
Even though I wanted to pursue a PhD right after IIITB, I found a role as Research Engineer at Mercedes. It was too compelling to take up the job as it was research oriented and the team was quite interesting. I had a memorable work experience for three years.

At Mercedes, I was a part of the algorithm team that was working on intelligent interior assist. The goal of the project was to analyze the movement of people inside the car, activate certain functions depending on the location and shape of the hand. I also worked on human pose estimation during my master’s thesis so that sort of continued into my work at Mercedes, where I worked on human pose in terms of joint localization and then hand shape recognition. Industrial research is very different from academic research, everything is aligned with production deadlines. We were always on the move trying to fix and solve things. In the three years, I gained experience in deploying deep learning models on end devices, it was quite a journey!

What is your current doctoral research about?
My interest to pursue a PhD was strong and I had the drive to push myself towards it. Finally, I reached my destination with an offer from Idiap Research Institute, one of the research labs associated with École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

My current research involves recognition and assessment of Swiss-German Sign Language. The goal of the project is to assess and give active feedback to users learning sign language.

We collaborate with other universities that bring in domain expertise in linguistics (University of Zurich), sign language learning (HfH Zurich), and computer vision (University of Surrey). I also find it really interesting that there are members of the Swiss Deaf Association involved in the project, which makes it wholesome. 

What is the advice you would like to give for aspiring iMtech students?

Computer science is evolving at a great speed, especially AI. It is important to keep your skills up to date. It is definitely important to have a strong will to pursue your passion and stay focused in whatever you do. A lot of learning happens with changes in environment, actively seeking out for industrial/research internship opportunities. It is never a bad thing to ask for help, be it your professors or mentors. Perseverance is one of the traits I acquired over time, things do tend to work out after all!

Why do you think IIITB is a conducive environment for women students?
IIITB is one the colleges that provides equal opportunities to both male and female students. We did not have a curfew time to enter the hostel or academic block in the campus. Even if there were any restrictions, they applied to both men and women. Most of the knowledge transfer sessions and assignment discussion would happen in the academic block late in the night, so not having a curfew time really did help a lot. Another advantage comes through IIITB being in Bangalore, it is a relatively safe city. Bangalore being a tech-hub, a lot of us would end up getting internships in the city and there were no restrictions on staying back on the campus during summer/winter breaks. All of this was possible because of the security measures in place, I never felt unsafe on the campus.

Taking cues from your own life, what would you advise women students to succeed and to come out of their comfort zones and pursue careers of their interest?

It is natural for women to hold themselves back when their potential is undermined just based on gender. When I was about to start my PhD at the age of 26, all I heard was ‘When are you going to get married then?’, like that is the only thing that mattered. It is always good to ignore all the negativity and move on with assertiveness. Never hesitate to say no and express your opinion in any situation, it works wonders.  It is never easy to get out of your comfort zone, it helps to have a bit of clarity in what you want to achieve and actively direct your actions towards it.