Aakanksha Chowdhery

Aakanksha ChowdheryThe Marconi Society announced today that Stanford graduate student Aakanksha Chowdhery will receive one of three 2012 Paul Baran Marconi Young Scholar Awards. The awards are given to young researchers (no older than 27 at the time of the award—the same age as Marconi when he completed the first radio transmission) who are on track to become leading innovators contributing to the advancement both of science and humanity. Ms. Chowdhery is the first woman to receive the award since it was created in 2008.

The awards will be presented at the Marconi Society’s annual Awards Dinner on September 6th, 2012, which also honors Dr. Henry Samueli, Broadcom co-founder and 2012 Marconi Prize Winner.

Ms. Chowdhery’s research focuses on high-speed last-mile internet connectivity through the use of Dynamic Spectrum Management (DSM) techniques for next-generation copper-access networks. Her research allows order-of-magnitude improvement in data-rates and stability of digital subscriber lines (DSLs) enabling millions of internet-enabled devices to leverage the benefits through DSL plus wifi connections. Further, her research promises successful co-existence of multi-100 Mbps to Gbps copper-access networks with legacy networks in the next-generation, thus enabling gradual incremental upgrade of DSLs to Gbps backhaul for wifi connections/small wireless cells everywhere.

Ms. Chowdhery, 26, is “a superstar on the rise,” says Stanford Professor Emeritus John Cioffi, her graduate thesis advisor and the 2006 Marconi Prize Winner for his invention of the DSL modem. “Aakanksha solved several difficult mathematical problems instrumental to the practical deployment of the upcoming multi-100Mbps DSL services, preserving the large theoretical gains in numerous practical unbundled deployment scenarios. She has found ways to take traditional theories and find the appropriate combinations of well-defined problems that characterize an actual situation via various optimization principles.”

Ms. Chowdhery grew up in Delhi, where her mother is a college chemistry lecturer and her father is in finance.  “I think science flows in my blood,” she says, describing how she would hang out in her mother’s classroom as a child.  Her father taught her to use a computer and by her early teens she was already using Lotus spreadsheets. Her mathematical talent led her to participate in the annual Mathematics Olympiad  in middle school, and she ranked in the top ten several times.

After graduation from high school, she entered the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi with a rank in the top 150 in IIT-JEE entrance exam from among 200,000 students taking the test. That enabled her to choose electrical engineering, a major of her choice. 

Her fascination with communications started when her father brought home one of the first cell phones available in India—about the size of a brick. To her, the idea of wireless communication seemed like magic, and she wanted to know how it worked.  From the very first year at IIT Delhi, she started pursuing telecommunications research projects every summer trying to satisfy her unending quest for more knowledge about the field.
 
She received her Bachelor of Technology in Electrical Engineering from IIT in 2007 with the top rank in her department–and an acceptance letter to Stanford’s graduate program.  In her second quarter at Stanford, she took a class from Professor John Cioffi. “John Cioffi is the biggest inspiration in my life,” she says, “At the end of the class he asked us to design the equalization schemes for a DSL modem and quantify the performance with several design variations. I absolutely loved the assignment.” The challenge ignited her imagination and thereafter, she asked to join his research group. 

Although he continued to serve as Ms. Chowdhery’s advisor, Professor Cioffi soon left Stanford to manage his latest start-up. She was offered a summer job researching dynamic spectrum management at his company. The problems they were solving were critical to advancing DSL technology, and she offered to become Stanford’s representative to the Standards committee, working on standards development and intellectual property strategies to incorporate dynamic spectrum management techniques for DSL. She has held that post since 2008 and her research has been incorporated in various DSL standards. Meanwhile, Ms. Chowdhery has taken on a wide array of leadership roles at Stanford ranging from chairing Stanford’s student chapter of IEEE to efforts aimed at strengthening and increasing diversity in engineering. One of her goals has been to connect more and more women students to mentors.

Ms. Chowdhery completed Stanford’s Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering with a 4.0 GPA and will receive her Ph.D. in December 2012. A recipient of the Stanford School of Engineering Fellowship for 2007-2008, she also received the Stanford Diversifying Academia and Recruiting Excellence (DARE) Fellowship 2010-2012.
 
“Aakanksha is exceptional, as one of the few women in Electrical Engineering,” says Anika Green, Director of Educational Programs in the Stanford Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. “The paucity of women in this field did not deter her from pursuing a career in Electrical Engineering.  She is a top ranking student with an outstanding academic record, is committed to her work in telecommunications, has won several awards for her research, and has been recognized for her work at international peer-reviewed conferences and journals.  What matters to Aakanksha are her contributions to the field, and using her background to encourage more women to consider Electrical Engineering.”

When she isn’t in the lab or organizing and attending conferences, one of her favorite activities is recreating the culinary experience of new cuisines she has tried. She calls it her personal version of the chemistry experiments she enjoyed watching her mother perform as a child.  She also seeks out new experiences, from reading to travel –or just walking around new neighborhoods, imagining what it would be like to live there.  “I just try to keep my life fresh,” she says. 

Ms. Chowdhery’s father will be traveling to the award ceremony in Irvine next week to see his daughter accept the Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar Award.  “My parents think this is a great achievement at such a young age,” Ms. Chowdhery says. “But they still want me to work hard. That’s the key value they instilled in me.”
 
This marks the fifth year that Young Scholars Awards have been granted by the Marconi Society, which is best known for its annual $100,000 Marconi Award and Fellowship given to living scientists whose scope of work and influence emulate the principle of “creativity in service to humanity."  The scholars program was launched with a generous donation from 2007 Marconi Fellow Ronald L. Rivest, an MIT professor who co-founded RSA encryption, the major encryption system used worldwide to make Internet transactions secure. It was renamed the Paul Baran Marconi Young Scholars Program in 2011 in honor of Baran, a Marconi Fellow famous for helping devise the technical inner-workings of the Arpanet, the government-sponsored precursor to the Internet.

In selecting its scholar recipients, the Marconi Society looks for those who not only have shown extraordinary early promise, but whose research already has been published and made an impact. As Marconi Society Chairman Emeritus Robert Lucky noted, “The selection committee looks for candidates who show the potential to win the Marconi Prize — the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in communications science — at some point in the future. As a point of reference, Marconi Fellows have been at the forefront of every modern advance in telecommunications and the Internet.”