Interview w/ Kavita Krishnaswamy, @UMBC Computer Scientist, Ambassador for Disability & STEM

It is my pleasure to be one of the many mentors for Kavita Krishnaswamy, a graduate student in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at UMBC. Kavita’s doctoral advisor is Dr. Tim Oates. (Other stories about Kavita can be found on the CSEE website, here: Kavita has participated in many programs that have been sponsored by the National Science Foundation, including NSF GRFP, ACCESS STEM, LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate, CMU/Pitt Quality of Life Technology Center – Engineering Research Center, and the PROMISE AGEP.

I’ve been working with Kavita for several years, through classes, her proposal, her internship, etc. Kavita is a joy. In a post a few years ago, I wrote, about how Kavita doesn’t let Spinal Muscular Atrophy stop her. She says, “I can, I will.” In Kavita’s world, she doesn’t accept, “I can’t.” Kavita talks about Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and she mentions how she has never walked, nor crawled, but technology such as the Beam Robot from Suitable Technologies allows her to see people at eye-level for the first time.

Kavita CNN

About Spinal Muscular Atrophy:

Spinal muscular atrophy is a genetic disorder that affects the control of muscle movement. It is caused by a loss of specialized nerve cells, called motor neurons, in the spinal cord and the part of the brain that is connected to the spinal cord (the brainstem). The loss of motor neurons leads to weakness and wasting (atrophy) of muscles used for activities such as crawling, walking, sitting up, and controlling head movement. In severe cases of spinal muscular atrophy, the muscles used for breathing and swallowing are affected.


Here is Kavita’s seminar for graduate students, conducted interview-style.

This taping included several graduate students from UMBC. UMBC’s Graduate Dean, Dr. Janet G. Rutledge was also present, along with Kavita’s parents.


The following questions (Qx) and the corresponding answers (Ax) were asked and answered at the seminar. The expanded form is part of the video. The synopsis below gives Kavita’s main points.

Q1) How did you become interested in computer science and what are your plans for the future?
A1a) Computers gave me an ability to become independent and overcome barriers.
A1b) Robotic devices for transferring, repositioning, and personal care and accessible robotic interfaces
A1c) Continue my research in academia or the industry and increase diversity in the STEM fields.

Q2) Name three of the toughest challenges that you’ve faced in graduate school so far.
A2a) Getting into graduate school
A2b) Managing health
A2c) Classes and Research

Q3) How do you overcome adversities, physical and mental?
A3a) Remembering the lives of others that have faced insurmountable obstacles and overcame all of them.
A3b) By taking it one day at a time. If one day is too difficult, one hour at a time..
A3c) Temporary defeat is not permanent failure. Respond to the ups and downs of life positively.
A3d) Strengthen people skills. Ask for help.

Q4) What are three of your proudest successes and how were they accomplished?
A4a) LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate, National Academy of Sciences Ford Foundation, and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Seminars
A4b) NSF’s Engineering Research Center, QOLT center, CMU/University of Pittsburgh Internship
A4c) PhD candidacy

Q5) What advice would you give to current graduate students who are seeking success in their programs?
A5a) Stay focused on your goals. Make progress everyday.
A5b) Treat others as you want them to treat you. Emotional intelligence vs. Technical knowledge
A5c) Adaptability. These are my conditions so I cannot do it. Given these conditions, what can I do?
A5d) Create backup plans: when plan A doesn’t work out, have plans B and C ready-Dr. Tull’s blog.
A5e) Go the extra mile. Volunteer
A5f) Always seek feedback, suggestions, and approval of your higher officials and authorities (advisor).
A5g) Enjoy life! Spend time with family and friends and thank them.

Kavita wrote to extend her thanks to:
i. Mom and Dad
ii. Raj and Vick Krishnaswamy
iii. Natasha Wilson [Chemical Engineering Dept., Part of LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate Cohort]
iv. Dr. Kyla McMullen [Computer Science Colleague, University of Florida]
v. Dr. Patti Ordonez and Dr. Frances Carter-Johnson [UMBC alumnae, PROMISE AGEP Peer Mentors, and former NSF GRFP Fellows, mentors for Kavita’s NSF GRFP process.]
vi. Ceena Mariam Varghese
vii. Manoj KumarK
viii. Dr. Hrabowski [President of UMBC]
ix. Dr. Rutledge [Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education, UMBC]
x. Dr. Tull
xi. Ms. Hill, Ms. Valentine, and Ms. McManus of Student Support Services
xii. Mrs. Susan Bogar Evans
xiii. Mrs. Bonnie Tighe and Dr. Muddappa Gowda of UMBC Math department
xiv. Dr. Ravi Kuber [UMBC Department of Information Systems, Program in Human Centered-Computing]
xv. Dr. Tim Oates, Dr. Dan Ding, Dr. Tim Finin, Dr. Charles Nicholas, Dr. Yelena Yesha [PhD Committee]
xvi. Dr. Richard Ladner and Dr. Brianna Blaser of the AccessSTEM program by NSF
xvii. Andrew Gold from RFSoft
xviii. Dallas Goecker, Erin Rapacki, Christa Cliver, Brianna Lempesis of Suitable Technologies


Kavita and students sharing a moment

Kavita is now a PhD Candidate in Computer Science. We look forward to congratulating her as she continues her journey to become Dr. Krishnaswamy. As a mentor, I acknowledge Kavita’s sources of funding and support from the National Science Foundation through UMBC (LSAMP, LSAMP BD, NSF GRFP, PROMISE AGEP, PROMISE/QoLT ERC grant), her UMBC PhD advisor, Dr. Oates and colleagues in CSEE, my colleagues at the QoLT Engineering Research Center for our collaboration and for their work in rehabilitation engineering which has provided opportunities for Kavita and other UMBC LSAMP BD Fellows (Dr. Dan Ding, Dr. Mary Goldberg, Executive Director Jim “Oz” Osborn), Dr. Derrick Cogburn – American University Institute on Disablity and Public Policy for including Kavita as a guest for his PROMISE SSI presentation, colleagues in the Graduate School at UMBC (Dean Janet Rutledge, Assist. Dean Brian Thompson, Patricia Watson, 2nd floor colleagues), and the PROMISE AGEP at UMBC team for working with Kavita and her family to facilitate the seminar: Yara Medina, Piyush Waradpande, Shawnisha Hester, and Amanda Lo. I also thank the various cohorts of the UMBC LSAMP BD program for supporting Kavita through webinars, “beam robot – human” interaction, etc. It was wonderful to see the wonderful reactions of people who had met Kavita through beam robot interactions at conferences in other states or through webcast from UMBC, who were able to finally meet her in person.

kavita and students 2

(Pictured, Kavita with a subset of UMBC LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate Fellows in Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering)

Finally I thank Kavita herself. She is an inspiration for us all. In addition to her other work, Kavita participated in one of our studies on “STEM Identity” that was presented at the 2015 ABET conference (Engineering Accreditation) to explain that international travel via her Beam Robot allowed her to be more connected to her discipline. This week, Kavita is working on her dissertation, through the Summer 2015 Online Challenge for the The Dissertation House.

More stories about Kavita: 

Kavita FB

Photos from Kavita’s page, reprinted with permission. Used in the 2015 ABET presentation.

Seminar still photos: Shawnisha Hester:

3 replies »

  1. Hello Dr. Tull: What an wonderful and inspirational story about Kavita. She seems like a great person and student. I am so happy you shared this with us. I would love to meet her.


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