Ananya Sen Gupta: A Reflection on Mentorship

About the Author:

ananya

Ananya Sen Gupta MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent sometime in the software industry (Microsoft), and recently joined the faculty at University of Iowa, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her active research interests involve signal processing challenges commonly encountered in complex environments, with particular focus on fingerprinting and sparse optimization across a variety of applications. Ananya is a second year mentor for Technovation and shares some thoughts with her mentorship experience with us.

On Technovation Mentorship

I heard about Technovation through my husband from one of his contacts, and that got the ball rolling. When I signed up, I mostly wished to do something for outreach, to help young women reach their full potential in science and engineering. But honestly, I was not sure what role I would really play as a mentor and what it would mean for me. Two years later, after participating in two Technovation Challenges, I am not only deeply involved with the Technovation community, the mentoring experience has helped me to grow as a professional, deepened my commitment to science outreach, and challenged my assumptions on what kids today can achieve with their hard work and creativity.

The biggest takeaway for me as a mentor from Technovation was how vastly creative and driven underrepresented young talents can be when presented with the right opportunity and encouragement. As a mentor, my philosophy is to give guardrails and be a cheerleader, rather than roll out instructions. Therefore, as a Technovation mentor, my goal has always been to lead the team towards a shared vision for the app they wish to build, and enable them with technical guidance and encouragement as appropriate to help them realize their full potential. Both years, the team I worked with went above and beyond my expectations and pursued bold ideas that made me proud.

My first year was a humbling experience when I realized the girls (from a local high school) I was mentoring knew far more about current mobile apps than me. The hard part was to keep their efforts and talent streamlined towards a successful project than let them run wild like kids in a candy shop. I mostly achieved that by letting them splash around the first couple of weeks, and then set deadlines, goals, and individual responsibilities, from technical to project management. It worked. The team, diverse in their abilities and personalities, took on parts of the project and worked together towards a shared vision. They finished third among the ten competing teams, and were delighted that their ideas and hard work had paid off when their app presentation was greeted with ethusiasm.

This year, I was a virtual mentor to a team of four young women at a high school in Brooklyn, NY, all of whom came from different minority backgrounds. I also had a dilemma: I was supposed to mentor this team over Skype while taking care of my infant daughter. So, in absence of precedents, I just decided to skype in with Harriet on our first meeting, and told the girls that I will need to multi-task. They were not only supportive, but enthusiastic to see that it is possible to have a kid and pursue science at the same time. Harriet (my daughter) loved our skype meetings, chirping away at the team during our weekly Google hangout and getting cooed back when the techtalk confounded her. This gave me the courage to start having with-baby meetings with research colleagues in my own professional life, and Harriet is now, quite the Skype-savvy baby. I am currently away at a conference and just got off Skype with her and her daddy, and she really enjoyed babbling to me 🙂

But on a more serious note, what impressed me was the ideas that this team of young women came up with as an app to help their community. They were all from bilingual minority (mostly immigrant) families, and felt that there is a gap in the American public school system to properly educate bilingual minority students. Accordingly, they deisgned a home tutoring app that enables a parent to teach their child science and math bilingually, as well as to supplement their education in other topics such as history, with appropriate wikilinks from their home culture. For example, a lesson on American civil rights history can be supplemented with Wikipedia links to civil disobedience in other parts of the world.

I was moved and amazed. These kids express an issue I had not thought of before, despite being in the education profession and a bilingual minority myself, because I received schooling in India, where I was the majority. They keenly understood how the hurdle is higher for kids who grow up with another language at home to learn math and science in English-only classes. They identified that the root problem might not be talent in science but a language barrier. They also identified that there is a need to bridge the root culture of their immigrant parents to American history and culture they learn in school and live in real life as American kids. I thought the idea of supplementing everyday school education with parent-driven introduction to culturally diverse information from free web-based resources such as Wikipedia was phenomenal. I watched them drive the idea from design to implementation with enthusiasm, and fervently hope they go ahead and try to develop this app for real, as it can truly bridge the education gap for minority immigrant students who attend public schools.

Finally, a personal thought. When I joined Technovation two years ago, I was newly pregnant. I was a little awkward at first of how to sit through mentoring sessions while battling morning sickness, looking tired all the time before energetic teens, etc. But in reality, it was the best prenatal therapy I could receive for free! Everyone was sympathetic, and supportive; I received valuable advice from other mothers, the girls were excited to see that babies and career do not necessarily have to conflict, and finally, I really felt I was making the world a more gender-equal place for my unborn daughter (now 10.5 months) by enabling younger women to pursue science and engineering and lead the technology of tomorrow.