“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.” – Michelle Obama, renowned lawyer, author, and the former first lady of USA

ACM India Grad Cohort 2020 was jointly organized by ACM-W (Association for Computing Machinery – Women wing) India and the discipline of Computer Science Engineering at the  Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar from 24th — 26th July. The primary purpose of this pan-India workshop for women in computing was to reach out to the Indian women and provide them expert guidance in various aspects of their careers. This edition featured presentations and interactive sessions by some of the eminent minds as well as one-on-one discussion opportunities with industry and academia leaders in the field of computer science. It had a special focus on dealing with the unusual situation that has arisen due to COVID-19. There were specific panel-sessions about how women can try to effectively adjust to this new normal, maintaining an optimistic attitude. Given the present pandemic crisis, this three-day event was completely online so that women can participate in it from the comfort of their homes.

Day 1

Sunita Sarawagi, a professor at IIT Bombay, delivered the first keynote lecture of this workshop. She is the recipient of the Infosys Prize 2019 in Engineering and Computing for her pioneering work in information extraction techniques for unstructured data. Based on the journey of machine learning models, the session was about their birth and shed some light on how ML is serving the real world in the present times. The next session was given by Manik Gupta, a faculty member in computer science at BITS Pilani (Hyderabad), where she provided her perspectives on how women can think about and progress in their computing careers. In another session, Bhavana Kanukurthi (faculty in Computer and Automation at IISc Bangalore) spoke on choosing a research topic, advisor, and group. Aparna Taneja, a software engineer at Google research, explained the practical aspects of this topic by sharing experiences from her thesis and current job responsibility. 

Giving examples of eminent minds in diverse fields, Jaya Sreevalsan Nair, faculty at IIIT Bangalore, discussed the latest topics of online presence and personal branding. Eventually, the first day of this workshop came to an end with a thought-provoking panel discussion that highlighted some facets of remote working and maintaining a proper work-life balance. Moderated by Dr. Meenakshi D’Souza, the panelists of this session were Tulika Mitra (Provost’s Chair Professor of Computer Science in the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore), Hemangee Kapoor (faculty, IIT Guwahati), Joycee Mekie (faculty, IITGN), Akanksha Agrawal (postdoctoral researcher in the Computer Science Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel) and Rekha Singhal (senior research scientist, TCS Research and Innovation).

Day 2

The second keynote lecture of this workshop was delivered by Meena Mahajan, a professor at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. She has made numerous contributions in Discrete Algorithms, Combinatorics, Complexity Theory, Matching Theory, and Proof Complexity. Recounting some interesting experiences from her professional life, she stated that she barely noticed theoretical computing in her Bachelor’s and Master’s but grew increasingly fond of it with time and hence, proceeded to pursue her Ph.D. in this domain. She moved on to describe some facets of this field. For her, every unknown in complexity theory is like a puzzle yet to be solved. Finding solutions is a creative activity, and there is a place for everyone to work in this exciting field. The next session was given by Prajakta Nimbhorkar, faculty at the Chennai Mathematical Institute, during which she talked about the background preparation (breadth and depth) for Ph.D.

Ranjita Bhagwan, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft, expressed her views on confidence and motivation by giving some examples from her own life to the participants. She said that failures are our ladders to success as they teach us how to believe in ourselves and live positively. Akanksha Agrawal gave a session on quality versus quantity in publishing, and Tulika Mitra talked about this topic with a focus on the early career researcher level giving instances from systems research. A captivating panel discussion moderated by Lipika Dey, a principal scientist at the TCS Research and Innovation Labs, included Meena Mahajan, Arpita Korwar (IIT Goa), and Uttama Lahiri (IIT Gandhinagar) as panelists. Sharing their life-experiences, they provided quality guidance to the participants on how to cope up with uncertainty and other related challenges effectively. The second day wrapped up with all the participants enjoying the virtual screening of an inspirational documentary movie. The film is made on the life works of Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman and the first Iranian to win the highest prize in mathematics – the Fields Medal!

Day 3

The final day of this event opened with an interactive session by Sushmita Gupta, faculty in the School of Computer Sciences at the National Institute of Science Education and Research. Based on her own experiences in theoretical computing, she discussed whether pursuing a post-doctorate is a hit or a miss. It was followed by a process-oriented talk by Arpita Korwar, a faculty member at IIT Goa. She spoke on the process of managing a job hunt and elaborated that it is all about always being in the game. After this, Richa Singh (faculty at IIT Jodhpur) and Anasua Bhowmik (Fellow Design Engineer at AMD Bangalore) provided valuable advice and suggestions on post-Ph.D. career options in academia and industry respectively.

Other than these stellar sessions, Grad Cohort 2020 offered a perfect place for women in computing to connect with one another via several platforms. After each session, participants were free to ask questions and have discussions with the speakers, through audio and messaging options available on zoom. Everyone was encouraged to take part in the informal sessions during breaks on gather.town, which is an online space that promotes meaningful social interactions among people. There was also a WhatsApp group where participants could contact the organizers and volunteers and seek required information related to this three-day virtual event. Not only this, but there are also three major contests with a chance to win exciting prizes for women participants. The last date of the submission of entries is 31st July 2020, with the goodies being sponsored by Tata Consultancy Services. The results will be announced on the website, over email, and social media platforms by 10th August 2020.

Finally, the workshop concluded on an optimistic note. The participants voiced their views on how great and enriching it was to meet several women role-models. The next edition of this Grad Cohort will be organized by Dr. Richa Singh at IIT Jodhpur. Everyone bid adieu with the promise of staying connected to each other, as a strong women community in computer science education, research, and industry.

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