Oral-History:Kavita Bala

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About Kavita Bala[edit | edit source]

Kavita bala.jpg

Kavita Bala is the Dean of Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science at Cornell University. She received her S.M. and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and her B.Tech. from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT, Bombay). She was a post doctoral researcher at the Program of Computer Graphics. She co-founded GrokStyle, a visual recognition AI company, which drew IKEA as a client, and was acquired by Facebook in 2019. Before becoming Dean, she served as the Chair of the Computer Science Department at Cornell University. 

Bala specializes in computer vision and computer graphics, leading research in recognition and visual search; material modeling and acquisition, physically-based rendering; and material perception. Her work on 3D Mandalas was featured at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York. Bala is an ACM Fellow (2019) and was inducted into the SIGGRAPH Academy (2020). She is the recipient of the SIGGRAPH Computer Graphics Achievement Award (2020), and the IIT Bombay Distinguished Alumnus Award (2021). Bala serves on SIGGRAPH's Papers Advisory Group (PAG). Bala has served as the Editor-in-Chief of Transactions on Graphics (TOG), on the Papers Advisory Board for SIGGRAPH and SIGGRAPH Asia, and as Associate Editor for TOG (Transactions on Graphics), TVCG (Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics) and CGF (Computer Graphics Forum). Bala has co-authored the graduate-level textbook "Advanced Global Illumination" (A K Peters publisher, second edition).  Bala has received multiple teaching awards at Cornell.

In this interview, Dr. Bala describes her experiences working as a faculty member and an administrator as well as co-founding a start-up company. She discusses both opportunities and challenges in all these three roles. Topics include: her upbringing in India and educational paths; how she became interested in computer vision and graphics; her enjoyment in learning completely new things and moving up; differences in higher education systems between India and the United States; her effort as a dean to bring and support diverse students; and changing computing culture. She discusses how it was for her to be a female student during her undergraduate study in India and an international female student during her graduate study in the U.S. She talks about enormous opportunities which the field of computing offers to students and society at large.

Copyright statement[edit | edit source]

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE Computer Society. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the IEEE Computer Society.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Kavita Bala, an oral history conducted in 2021 by Roli Varma, IEEE Computer Society

Interview[edit | edit source]

Interviewee: Dr. Kavita Bala

Interviewer: Roli Varma, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Date: 16 January 2021

Location: Virtual, via Zoom

Varma:

Dear Kavita thanks for agreeing to this interview. Currently, you are Dean of the Bowers College of Computer and Information Science (CIS) at Cornell University. Before that, you were faculty and CS department chair at Cornell University. Basically, you have experience in working as a faculty and as an administrator. Can you talk about working in these two different positions? What opportunities and challenges did you have in these positions?

Bala:

Before I was the chair of the CS department, I did a startup for two years. So, I have indeed played various roles over the past few years: I have been a faculty member, an administrator, and I have been a co-founder of a company. It has been incredibly been exciting. I enjoy trying all of these different jobs, they each bring new opportunities and challenges that it is fun to tackle and learn about. Let me give you just a little bit of history about myself. I did my Ph.D. at MIT, then I started as a post-doctoral researcher at Cornell in 1999, after which I was on a straight academic track: assistant, associate, and full professor. I went on leave, started a company, came back, became department chair, and now I am a Dean. Each of these jobs—particularly the transitions from professor to the chair, professor to a start-up founder, professor to Dean—are transitions between very different jobs. I really like the challenge of learning new things. As a professor, you are very focused on research and teaching. When you go into administration, you are thinking much more strategically about the future of the field, how to position your college, the kinds of research agenda we should invest in for the long-term growth of the field. We have amazing students I am proud to educate. In my college, the Cornell Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, we are building foundational computing and information technologies and thinking about how these technologies can contribute constructively to society. So, that is a very different kind of strategic thinking, which I am really enjoying. I continue to run my research group as well, though I don’t teach anymore, and I miss teaching students. So I strongly recommend trying different jobs over your career; they are educational and enjoyable in different ways.

Varma:

You co-founded GrokStyle, and served as its Chief Scientist. Can you tell me about it?

Bala:

Yes, the experience of doing a startup with my PhD student, Sean Bell, was eye-opening and fun. The startup came out of research that was done by Sean and me at Cornell. The two of us worked together on a paper on fine-grained visual recognition for interior design and décor, and said this looks like it might have some interesting commercial impact. So we launched our startup GrokStyle to try to get our technology out to consumers.

We started off in Ithaca, New York, which is where Cornell is located. Then we moved to San Francisco where the company was for a couple of years. Very early on we were fortunate to have IKEA as a customer. We launched our visual recognition software in IKEA’s Augmented Reality App. So in the app, you can take a picture of a piece of furniture, and we can tell you what it is. It is the Eames lounge chair, or the IKEA MAMMUT chair. After our launch with IKEA we got acquired by Facebook two years ago. GrokNet, Facebook’s AI for visual recognition, which Facebook released last summer, is based on GrokStyle's work. It is really exciting to see our work in use by the entire Facebook user base, and see its adoption by consumers worldwide.

Varma:

What is your current technical field and what made you choose this particular area of interest?

Bala:

I actually moved quite a bit in my fields before I settled into my current research in computer graphics and computer vision. I did my undergraduate in computer science and engineering at IIT Bombay, and I came to America. At MIT, initially I was thinking of working on compilers research. The faculty member I was working with left MIT, so I finished my master's degree, and I was looking for the right project. A new professor came to MIT then, Seth Teller, so I switched to computer graphics and worked with Seth Teller and Julie Dorsey, who were both Professors at MIT then. Now I do research in computer vision and computer graphics. What excites me about visual computing is trying to understand how human beings perceive the world, and using that knowledge to drive better graphics and vision. Combining human perception with visual computing is very interesting to me intellectually.

Varma:

A side comment. my husband also graduated in computer science from MIT. Barbara Liskov was his advisor.

Bala:

What is your husband's name? Which year?

Varma:

Deepak Kapur. I think 1980.

Bala:

Barbara was an inspiring mentor to many of us at MIT.

Varma:

What are the unique qualities or characteristics that you have brought to your career and workplace?

Bala:

I love learning and I love trying new areas. For me to try completely new topics or completely new jobs is intellectually exhilirating. For example, going from being a full-time academic to a founder opened a completely new kind of thinking for me. It is disorienting to start off afresh as a senior person in your field, at the bottom of the ladder in a new field. Not everybody likes that. I actually enjoy starting from zero and learning something completely new and moving up. I also love working with students and mentoring them. Seeing students “grow up” from beginners into full-fledged reseachers is one of the joys of being a University professor.

Varma:

Some background questions. Where did you go to school?

Bala:

I studied computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay (back then it was called Bombay, now the city is called Mumbai). Then I came to MIT for my master's and my Ph.D. I joined the Program of Computer Graphics under Prof. Don Greenberg at Cornell for my post-doctoral research. And I started as an assistant professor in the Computer Science department at Cornell, where I have been since 2002.

Varma:

When you were in elementary and middle schools, what did you want to be?

Bala:

Good question. I did Indian classical dancing and at some point, I thought I could go on to become a classical dancer. I happened to be in a dance school where the people were very good. In fact, one of my close friends then went on to make a career as an Indian classical dancer. So I really thought that there was a possibility that I might choose an artistic career, but I enjoyed math and science too much and got drawn into computer science instead (which I am really glad about).

Varma:

When you were in high school, what profession did you want to pursue? In your own words, what experience was most responsible for your decision to study computer science?

Bala:

In India in high school, if you are doing science you have to choose between biology or a computer science track. And I was not terribly excited about dissecting a frog, which you had to do in biology. So I picked computer science. And once I started in computer science I just loved it. I got hooked on algorithms, programming, architecture, and it was clear to me that was the path that I should take.

Varma:

Did you have a role model for your study in college? What people in your life influenced your decision to study in college? How did they influence you?

Bala:

Not initially. For me, I get excited about ideas. The idea of what computer science could do was more exciting to me than saying “I want to be like that person”. As I have gotten more senior I have had the good fortune of working with many great people in the community whom I really respect. To pick a couple of names, Pat Hanrahan from Stanford, Edward Adelson from MIT are both deep and creative thinkers and it has been an honor to know them and learn from them.

Varma:

Since you did your undergraduate study in India, I am not sure if this question would apply to you, which is rather common in the U.S. Students here work while attending college. So the question is: Were you a full-time or part-time student? Did you have a job in addition to going to school? If you could comment on the economic aspect of being in college at the undergraduate level.

Bala:

I did not have other jobs. We were very immersed in the IIT student life. There is one big difference between India and the U.S. education systems. In India, the education system is very affordable. Going to the best institute in India was almost free in today’s dollars. And that is common in many other countries. But in the U.S. the cost of education is so high, it places a very heavy burden on our students. As you said, students have to work part-time, they have to take out loans, and it weighs on them. It prevents them from going on to academic careers, they often feel compelled to pay off their student debt, and I think it cuts off their sense of freedom to pursue creative careers. Now that I am a dean, fundraising for scholarships for first-generation students who are not from financially advantaged situations is a very high priority for me. It is critical that we bring these students in to the educational system and support them to succeed in their careers in CS and in academia.

Varma:

Some background questions. Who did you live with while growing up?

Bala:

Back in India, I lived with my parents, brother, sister, and my uncle in an apartment in Bombay.

Varma:

Big family.

Bala:

Yeah, big family, small apartment.

Varma:

What was your parents' occupation? What would you say in terms of professional business, public servant, worker or others?  

Bala:

My father and my uncle were in the Indian air force, and then were airline pilots. My mother was a homemaker. My father and uncle got their education as officers in the air force. My mother had a high school degree. So when my brother and I got our PhDs, we were the first generation to get higher education degrees in our immediate family.

Varma:

How would you characterize your family’s socio-economic background: Upper class, Middle class, Lower class, Working class, Other.

Bala:

I would probably say Indian middle class at that time.

Varma:

Some gender and ethnicity-specific questions. In your opinion, what was it like to be a woman at IIT Bombay?

Bala:

I was the only woman in my year in the computer science batch at IIT. In my batch there were about 30 male students and me. It was an interesting experience. Recently, I was visiting (virtually) IIT with students from my batch, and I got a lot of mails from my batchmates saying, “Now I have a daughter, I realize how difficult it is to be in STEM as a woman” . Which is wonderful; I am glad my batch-mates are helping the next generation of women succeed. My experience at IIT was actually quite positive, It was different though since I was the only woman in my batch. An example is, the way the IIT campus is structured is there is the main campus and all the men's hostels or the dorms are on one side of campus and the women's dorm is on the other side of campus. So, I worked alone on many of my projects. The men could work on assignments together in study groups in the middle of the night, but I had to work by myself (this was pre-internet enabled dorm rooms). So that was isolating. You learn a lot by working with colleagues. I missed the sessions where people were brainstorming together. But on the other hand, you learn to be very independent. And that is a useful skill.

Varma:

And also there are restrictions in terms of mobility like you cannot go to men’s hostels at IIT.

Bala:

Yes, exactly. There was a curfew time when you had to be inside the hostel, and the hostel rooms were not connected to the internet. In fact, there was one phone in the whole hostel. So, if you had a question, you have to go downstairs and call your study group partner. So, you were quite isolated. It is very different from now where people are texting each other continuously.

But despite all the advances the population of women in STEM has not grown as well. So, we have a long way to go. At Cornell now I am the Dean of the Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, and we have been making good progress. We have 43% of women across the board, 37% in Computer Science. The national average is at 18%. So it has changed dramatically; even five years ago we were only at 13%. At Cornell we have achieved this by changing our program step-by-step. A big part of our current success has been achieved by creating an undergraduate woman’s organization, WICC, Women in Cornell computing, whose members are just amazing. These are students who provide each other with support, help each other navigate the tech world, for example with practice training for technical interviews, who give back by building the pipeline of women in tech, etc. We also have an organization called Cornell URMC (Underrepresented Minorities in Computing) who are working on increasing the recruitment and retention of URM students in computing. These kinds of support structure I hope we can continue to build up so that we can create an equitable, inclusive and diverse student body.

Varma:

Do any incidents come to mind that was related to being a woman at IIT other than not being able to work in the study group?

Bala:

I would say it was a very intense environment, very competitive, which came with its own stresses. But that was tough on everybody. Overall I enjoyed my time there, and I look back fondly to those years. I learned a lot.

Varma:

How about being an Indian female student at MIT?

Bala:

When I went to MIT, my first study group had two women in it, other than me. And I was so glad that there was more than one woman, it was surprising to me that they were complaining about how few women there were at MIT. I was just glad there was more than one! But being from a different country took some adjusting for me. So in fact being an international student was probably a lot more challenging for me with the culture shock.

Varma:

As an Indian woman at MIT, did you face any challenges from faculty or peers while studying computing?

Bala:

There was much more of a “bro culture” in computer science generally. I think there still is, but at least there is awareness and acceptance now that it is toxic. It was a an off-putting culture for a lot of women to continue to stay in that field, and several of my friends quit, which is a real shame. They were smart. When I was coming through the system, definitely it was the case that women faced some challenges which men did not. For example, whether it is nominations for awards, or even people actually listening when you speak. I would say now things are much improved, but we still have a long way to go. There are not yet sustained career paths going all the way to the top. Women need to get to the uppermost echelons. We are not there yet.

Varma:

In your opinion, how are careers with computing-related degrees attractive to women of color? You chose because you did not want to dissect frogs? Just joking.

Bala:

But I stayed in the field because I really enjoy the work. The best reason to do computer science is because you really enjoy the kinds of problems you will solve. And I think right now, in fact, even going forward that are even more important and exciting problems. Back when I started off, computer science was much more of a nerdy thing. Whereas now you can see this huge societal and real-world impact when you change an algorithm that is better, faster, fairer. By doing that you are having an impact on all the consumers that are using it and all the people in society. In fact, in my college, which is very inter-disciplinary, faculty in information science are understanding how information technology is having an impact on society. There are so many interesting questions as we go forward: how to design the right mechanisms, the right algorithms, policies that result in us being able to leverage the best of computing and information technology, and so forth. To me, that is incredibly exciting. So, playing a role in creating technology that is changing society and life as we know it, and that you believe will improve society, is incredibly exciting. I think that is why students should do computer science. And I think that is why this is the best time to get into the field.

Varma:

You mentioned that earlier computer science used to be a lot nerdier. What did you mean?

Bala:

I would say computer science, back in the nineties, was still ramping up on the impact it was going to have on the world. People were starting to have their personal computers. But it is was not like the way it is now. Now you have four or five computers probably that you walk around with: your laptop, your phone, your watch, your ipad, that continuously connect you and the rest of the world every moment. While we, as CS students, saw the promise and potential of computer science, it had not yet ramped up to the full-scale impact that it has now. And because it has this full-scale impact now, there are new kinds of jobs that are getting created in information technology. For example, new questions have arisen on how to approach privacy or change government policy in this computing and information world. You need people who understand law and policy, but you also need people who understand computing because they need to be able to make good decisions. So I feel like the kinds of jobs that are open now are not only programming as in the past.

Varma:

What would be your advice to a woman/minority high school senior thinking about computing?

Bala:

It is an incredibly exciting field to get involved in. If I had to give advice, I would say find a group whose problems you are excited to work on, and with whom you think you can have fun creating new work. When you are picking a group to work with, look at the professor/manager since they play a big role in defining the culture of the group, but also look at the peers that you will be working within that group, They will make a big difference in your career and your career growth because you will learn a lot from your peers.

Get involved in projects that you are really excited about. About a decade ago, everybody would get involved in computer science by doing games. And that is still a great pathway; if that excites you, you should do that. But that is not the only way. At Cornell, we have a University-wide project looking at how to we transform agriculture using digital technologies to feed the 10 billion people of the planet? There is a lot of computer science involved, apart from, of course, agriculture, and you can get involved in that kind of project. If you want to try to come up with apps for healthcare because that excites you, go for it. The best advice I would give is to find projects that you are excited about and dive into them with all your heart.

Varma:

Originally, you are from India, I was born there. Could you comment on the differences in working cultures between the U.S. and India? You already mentioned that you still have a connection.

Bala:

I was a student in India, but I never held a regular job there. One big difference I would say is in the number of women in top academic positions in India. While the numbers need improvement across every country in the world, we are making strides in the US, but there is still much more growth needed in India to get equity for women.

Varma:

Are these the reasons that you decided to stay here in the U.S.?

Bala:

Yes. First, coming to a place like MIT, which was the number one university in computer science was just an incredible opportunity. And the kind of research I wanted to do was possible at that time only in the US.

Varma:

This is my last question. Is there anything you would like to add? Any comment you would like to make?

Bala:

My advice to students is to keep your mind open to learning new areas and diving into completely new domains you do not know. I think there is a tendency for students after graduation to go safe. They get their degrees and get a job as an engineer in a company. They do their work, make steady progress, but they do not branch out. I say try new things. While trying something new might slow you down a bit, it is very important for your long-term intellectual growth. You will end up just being much more successful if you commit to being a life-long learner.