People Behind the Science - Dr Nirmala Ramakrishnan
At TUMCREATE, as we prepare to conclude our research in Phase Two – Towards the Ultimate Public Transport System, we would like to highlight our researchers who continue to make significant contributions to the programme. Through our interview series, People behind the Science, we talk to our researchers to discover more about them and their stories.
Dr Nirmala Ramakrishnan from the Sensing and Management for Agile Transport (SMAT) team speaks with us today.
To study for her undergrad in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Nirmala moved from Trivandrum, Kerala in South India to Singapore. She dipped into the work of a software engineer and firmware developer before realising her passion in education and took up teaching at Republic Polytechnic, teaching programming and mathematics, prior to pursuing her PhD and joining the SMAT team. As a career mum, she makes sure to spend quality time with her son by doing activities together and shares that his curiosity keeps her motivated to continue to learn and gain new experiences.
Q: Tell us about yourself and what you do…
I am a Research Fellow with the SMAT team in TUMCREATE. I joined the SMAT team upon submitting my thesis and started to work with my PhD supervisor on the vision of using sensing for traffic surveillance. Our team’s vision is to deploy smart cameras with IoT sensors city-wide to enable intelligent traffic monitoring and management and alleviate traffic congestions. We focus on edge computing for computer vision and develop light-weight computer vision and deep learning algorithm pipelines that can estimate traffic density, trigger intelligent traffic signals and enable traffic law enforcements such as illegal parking in restricted zones. Being able to do all the data processing on the edge also means that our solutions are privacy preserving, which I believe should be an important factor for how surveillance cameras operate.
Q: What made you come to Singapore, and how has it been like living here?
It started with my father coming across an advertisement of the SIA-NOL scholarship and encouraged me to apply for it. With my mum’s history of working at the remote foothills of the Himalayas for her first job, it was quite natural for my parents to let their 17-year-old daughter to go to a foreign country. Having come from a fairly conservative city, I really appreciate the freedom and independence I have in Singapore. I really like how clean and organized the city is and the convenience of being able to fly back to India to visit my parents easily. I am truly grateful for the awesome multicultural spirit of Singapore which has allowed me to grow and evolve into who I am today and to raise our son while maintaining his Indian roots.
Q: Who or what inspired you to be in your field of research?
Someone once said to me, when I was an undergrad, “To make technology realisable and affordable, it is necessary to cut any slack in the entire algorithm pipeline and make optimum use of all the available computing resources, which is essentially what embedded systems is all about”, and that really opened my eyes to edge computing. That person was Prof Thambipillai Srikanthan and years later, when I approached him again to work on my PhD, he was focusing on computer vision on edge computing platforms which has immense potential in a wide variety of use cases. Hence, the challenge of optimising something that is inherently computationally complex for edge computing and the tremendous possibilities in this technology, inspired me to take up this area as my field of research.
Q: What are some of the challenges for you in your field of research?
I think the biggest challenge is staying abreast with the latest in this fast-evolving field. Science and technologies are advancing at such a high speed, both in computer vision, which is now driven by deep learning techniques, as well as edge computing platforms and technologies.
Q: Tell us about your work and journey in TUMCREATE…
I joined the SMAT team in 2017 after completing my PhD. My main focus has been to develop light-weight computer vision and deep learning algorithms for processing traffic surveillance videos on edge computing platforms. For the three years that I have been on this project, it has been like a roller coaster ride! We have come a long way from taking our research in embedded computer vision and AI (artificial intelligence) in the research phase to conducting field trials at the NTU campus, with our smart sensors on the lamp posts operating 24/7.
I share this journey with a fantastic team. My colleagues, who are also researchers, set the highest standards for themselves which pushes me to be better every day. The students who have interned with us also motivated us to refine our work and try out new methods to improve our technology. Having started the field trial, I am no longer just working in the lab but out in the open, debugging our sensors on the NTU lamp post, under the Singapore heat! It’s been a really satisfying and rewarding experience to be a part of this end-to-end process.
Q: What are some of your plans in the future?
AI and ML (machine learning) is changing so fast and there is a lot of hype around the developments. So, while continuing to work on exciting end user applications with computer vision or AI on the edge, I am also very keen on sharing my knowledge with others. I hope to find opportunities to facilitate learning and demystify the technologies so that more people can adopt and innovate in this area too, solving problems they want to solve.
(We wonder if there's anything else we don't know about this super mum...)
Q: What is something about yourself that would surprise most people who know you?
I guess it would be that I actually love to spend my morning just lazing around for hours and reading a book. If not, I would binge on McDonald’s fries or Netflix shows, all while doing them secretly from my son so don’t tell him this! I am also a huge Harry Potter fan and likes to go back to my battered copies as an escape. I believe I am near to mastering a Patronus charm that is able to drive dementors away!
From a successful career to a loving family, Dr Nirmala seems to have it all! Maybe she does have a magic secret that we don’t know about. Although regardless of magic or not, we believe that her passion in science will continue to bring about many exciting innovations and valuable contributions.