How One Professor and His Class Changed My Life as an Engineer

February 25, 2021

By Radhika Bhuckory

In high school, I developed a strong affinity and passion for physics. I saw physics as this incredible-looking glass that allowed me to deeply understand the inner mechanics of the world. My interests in physics, mathematics, and design drew me to Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). After learning about USC Viterbi's uniquely flexible and multidisciplinary engineering programs, I knew that it was the school for me.

And yet, as I began my sophomore year at USC, I started to feel a bit lost in ECE. This major is exceptionally broad and although that’s one of the best things about it, it can be hard to find your place in such a program. At that moment I was fearing that I lacked direction. I just wasn't connecting deeply with anything yet. 

Less than a year later, however, my connection to ECE was flourishing. I was presenting my summer research project PyREM at the national Sigma Xi student research conference, and then winning the Top Undergraduate Poster Award in Engineering. My project PyREM implements a computational model for the airborne respiratory droplet-based virus transmission of COVID-19 in python. It seems almost unreal that within a year, I went from being this aimlessly wandering student to presenting novel research at a national conference. In fact, it was all thanks to one course and the brilliant and compassionate professor who taught it.

To aspiring engineers, your world doesn’t end where engineering ends. Research is what makes engineering boundless. It is a completely challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling experience.

You may be wondering what was this course that completely changed my perspective of Electrical Engineering and opened up the entire major to me in new and exciting ways. The course was EE 250, Distributed Systems for the Internet of Things. Through this class, I began to see all the pieces of the puzzle coming together to form this immensely diverse major. We touched upon IoT devices, Wireless Networking, Signal Processing, AI and machine learning, analog, and digital circuits, control systems, and cybersecurity. 

Because of EE 250, I no longer feel intimidated or lost by the vastness of ECE. Now, the comprehensive nature of electrical engineering only brings me excitement and clarity. The new perspective I have acquired is not only refreshing but is crucial in showing me what I will do out in the world beyond the classroom. 

Radhika and Dr. Krishnamachari discuss their research

However, the real highlight of this course was our teacher. Professor Bhaskar Krishnamachari was so much more than an instructor. He was more like a curator who helped me see the true value and depth of electrical engineering and education. On the first day of class, he shared a quote with us by Mark Twain: “Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education.” I deeply resonated with this philosophy: it is not only important to learn the course material but to adopt the right mindset and attitude when we approach something new. After all, our mindset carries over into anything that we do in life and it is something very important to cultivate at an early stage.

Thinking about education and learning through these lenses led me to this question: why was I limiting myself to only the things I learned in class when I could go beyond course content and explore things that piqued my curiosity? There was an ocean of knowledge just waiting to be explored. And research was one kind of vessel to navigate these uncharted waters. 

As a freshman, I didn’t even know what research truly was. For some reason, I associated it with my dreaded Chemistry labs from freshman year that entailed hours of tedious tasks to try to observe some physical phenomenon I wasn’t particularly excited about. However, this is no longer the case at all. On the contrary, becoming involved in undergraduate research in ECE has been the best choice I’ve made in my educational career so far.

It’s amazing how things work out sometimes. Just as I was opening up to the idea of research, EE 250 was coming to an end. At the same time, a summer internship I had secured was canceled due to COVID-19. I worked up the courage to ask Professor Krishnamachari if he had any openings for undergrads to conduct research in his lab.

Even today, though Krishnamachari Professor isn't formally teaching any of my classes, I continue to learn so many new things from him. It is truly a privilege to have him as my research advisor and to conduct research in his Autonomous Networks Research Group (ANRG)

Researching with Professor Krishnamachari has been an even more incredible journey and experience. He has been instrumental in opening the doors of academic research to me while providing the right combination of mentoring, challenge, and encouragement.

I began my research last Summer with ANRG completely remotely, working on the Python Respiratory Exchange Model (PyREM). PyREM aims to quantify an individual’s accumulated exposure to respiratory droplets containing SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA over a given period of time in Python. The project involved mathematical modeling, physics, and programming to visually simulate the effects of temperature, humidity, proximity, and droplet size, on the total viral concentration of droplets present in the air after a particular duration of time.

Through PyREM I’ve recognized that I enjoy research in ECE because it facilitates my genuine love for self-driven learning. It’s exciting to think creatively while venturing into uncharted waters. Every approach failed or successful, is an opportunity to discover the intricacies of the open-ended problem. To continue my journey in research, I plan on applying to Ph.D. programs in Electrical Engineering.

Radhika's "Best Engineering Poster" Presentation at Sigma Xi

Today I continue to research with Professor Krishnamachari. In our current project, we are looking to explore the benefit of evolving communication in engineered systems. The amazing part of this project is how multidisciplinary it is. Through the research process, I’ve gotten to read different types of literature about Darwinism, communication in nature, Game theory, the Prisoner’s dilemma, and evolutionarily stable strategies. Communication, whether in nature or between artificial agents, can be broken down into a pair of behaviors, namely, a signal and response. This is what enables us to explore behaviors we observe in the natural world into a simulation involving artificial agents.

To aspiring engineers, your world doesn’t end where engineering ends. Research is what allows engineering to not have any boundaries. It is a completely challenging, inspiring, and fulfilling experience.

Radhika is a Junior in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. When she's not doing research, she is singing with USC Asli Baat A Capella or assisting students in her office hours for EE 370. She serves as a project manager for USC Makers, is a member of CAIS++, and IEEE@USC. Radhika recently received the WiSE Aerospace Corporation Research Fellowship where she hopes to spend this summer as a research intern in the Photonics and Quantum Sciences department.

Published on February 25th, 2021

Last updated on February 25th, 2021