By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Field of Dreams
Irvine, May 05, 2016 — Aditi Majumder is demure, professorial and friendly as she welcomes a visitor to her spotless office in Donald Bren Hall. The computer scientist’s scholarly demeanor and easy smile, however, belie a steely determination and a fierce tenacity. And as the soft-spoken, bespectacled researcher has demonstrated on occasion, she is not averse to nudging aside a societal convention or two if they block her way.
Born to middle-class parents in Calcutta, India, in an era when most young career-minded women were expected to marry before pursuing professions, Majumder had other plans. After graduating from Jadavpur University – a five-minute walk from her childhood home – with honors and a degree in computer science and engineering, she enrolled in graduate school on the other side of the world, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“It was not very common to send an unmarried daughter halfway across the world, all alone, to get her Ph.D., Majumder says. “Even very supportive people would say, ‘Oh, get a husband, and then go and continue your career with him.’”
Long accustomed to their daughter’s doggedness, her civil engineer father and her mother, a former high school English teacher, successfully concealed any misgivings and cheered her on. “They were very encouraging,” she recalls. “Later on, I realized how much trauma I caused them.”
Computer science had long mesmerized her. A cousin on the computer science faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) had regaled his much-younger relative throughout her childhood with inspirational stories. He spoke to Majumder of Charles Babbage, who spent his life trying to build the first digital computer, and Alan Turing, the British mathematician whose computer program helped the Allies defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. “I always wanted to study computers, even though computers were not as popular at that time as they are now,” she says. “And fortunately, once I started studying it, I stayed in love with it. So I was lucky.”
Lucky, yes, but also smart. And hard-working. As a first-year undergraduate, Majumder was awarded a prestigious Jagadish Bose National Science Talent Search scholarship – the only woman in the group of finalists that year. The award included the opportunity to attend lectures delivered by world-renown computer scientists, an experience that sealed the deal for the ambitious student. “I got a lot of exposure to people who were really studying these things,” she says. “It was very inspirational and really opened my horizons in terms of research.”
Ultimately Majumder would focus on computer graphics and data visualization, a field she has since distinguished herself in but one that was unfamiliar to her when she arrived in Chapel Hill. She was surprised to learn that UNC had the highest-ranked computer graphics graduate program in the U.S., and it was there that she realized she wasn’t as enthralled with her own area of concentration, distributed systems. “All my friends were in graphics and they were showing me all these really cool things,” she remembers. “And here were my little packets, going at such-and-such a speed. I just couldn’t connect to them. I didn’t feel the passion.”
A couple of years into her program, she knew what she had to do.
Majumder walked into the office of renowned researcher Henry Fuchs, a UNC faculty member widely known as the father of virtual reality, and applied for a research position. She told Fuchs she really wanted to change her focus and she was taking graphics classes to prepare herself. “Welcome aboard,” Fuchs said.
“I’d forgotten that Aditi had no experience in graphics when she joined our group!” says Fuchs, the university’s Federico Gil Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and a National Academy of Engineering member. “What I remember is that she always worked hard, and that she was determined to get results, that she had a positive attitude, and she was always friendly. We’re so proud of all that she’s accomplished.”
Majumder, who serves as the Calit2 Visualization Lab manager, today focuses on spatially augmented reality. She still creates multiprojector displays – software-driven, high-resolution, scalable “plug-and-play” systems – which automatically align images, eliminate color variation and can be projected onto almost any surface. "Professor Majumder's work shows how to use low-cost equipment to produce high-quality displays. It has the potential to have a large impact for data visualization, and training and simulation applications," says Hal Stern, dean of the Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences.
She’s also delving into augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), a specialty she views as a springboard for further exploration.
“I think we are in a great age, where AR/VR is starting to get more accessible to people. So all the research we have done over the last several years now can be applied to different domains,” she says. “I see it as an opportunity to take my work to the next level.”
Calit2 Irvine Director G.P. Li says Majumder’s research provides a much-needed conduit between content developers and domain experts in the rapidly emerging field. “This technology is going to provide a truly immersive, interactive learning experience. It’s important to understand how to really roll it out in an affordable, accessible, portable way,” Li says. “Aditi has done this with projectors; she is clearly a leader in our efforts to ramp up our know-how and bring these same benefits to AR/VR.”
Majumder cherishes her relationship with Calit2, praising the institute’s collaborative approach and the many opportunities it provides to showcase her research. “I love Calit2. It gives me exposure, from the campus level to local industry, that is very valuable. The contacts you build are a path you can take to make sure your research goes out into the world.”
She has a long history of shepherding her work to those outside the walls of academia. Majumder has consulted with a variety of companies, including Ostendo Technologies, Disney Imagineering, Cubic Corp. and Vortex Immersion. She and her husband, ICS professor M. Gopi, currently are working to launch a spinoff company that will bring plug-and-play projectors to the consumer marketplace.
She met her husband, whose formal last name is Meenakshisundaram but who uses Gopi (it’s a long story, one involving Indian tradition and U.S. passport requirements), on her first day in Chapel Hill, in 1996. He was a year ahead of her in a doctoral program, and as a member of the Indian Students Association, he was assigned to pick her up at the airport and help her acclimate to campus. Was it love at first sight? Majumder is emphatic. “NO! I didn’t believe in that. I had too much computer science to believe in love at first sight.” She smiles coyly. “Over time … we did start to like each other.”
They married in 1998, and Majumder decided to keep her own last name, a practice that was not exactly widespread. “By that time, I had started publishing, my passport was done and I thought, “I’m not moving into a 17-letter name,” she says with just the tiniest hint of defiance. Their two daughters, Sucheta, age 11, and 2-year-old Sumedha, use the last part of their father’s formal name as their surname. “We are one hell of a confused family,” Majumder laughs. “All of us have different last names.”
When Gopi finished his thesis in 2001 and was offered a job at UCI, Majumder, who still had a couple of years of graduate work left, offered to follow him to Southern California. “Are you crazy?” she says Gopi asked her. “You are in the number one graphics program in the country. You just stay here; we will work this out.” Two years, one doctorate and thousands of airline miles later, she joined him on the UCI faculty.
Like many women, Majumder successfully integrates career and family, but says she couldn’t do it alone. “My husband is such a dear person. He has always been so supportive, whether it’s decision-making, career or [helping out with the kids].”
The door to Majumder’s office opens, and as if on cue, Sucheta (Sue-chay-ta) walks in, carrying a backpack and violin case. Majumder explains that afterschool homework in her mother’s office is a daily ritual for her eldest.
The petite, dark-haired girl declines a snack offered by her mother and begins her homework. She is seemingly oblivious to the conversation around her until Majumder describes herself as very organized, and adds: “Actually I feel like I’m going mad if I’m not organized,” which causes Sucheta to giggle. Adds Majumder, deadpan: “My kids know that too.”
Asked to describe herself further, Majumder calls herself happy, ambitious, caring, loving and responsible. “I’m so responsible, that I can sometimes be a pain.” Sucheta looks up again. “You forgot hardworking,” she tells her mother, and Majumder, who is loath to appear boastful, reluctantly concedes: “She is probably right.”
That sentiment rings particularly true for Behzad Sajadi, Majumder’s former graduate student, who is now a vice president at D.E. Shaw group, a global investment firm. He remembers that when Majumder’s university tenure was approved, he thought about taking a few days off from his graduate research. “It’s common for professors to give themselves a long and well-deserved break after getting tenure,” he says. It didn’t quite turn out that way. “Let’s just say that my vacation turned out to be barely a two-day break.”
The diligent teacher also is intent on creating a new generation of researchers. “Aditi is very passionate about her work, and she cares a great deal about guiding her students to become independent researchers, who come up with their own ideas or even new areas of research,” says Sajadi, who adds that her passion was contagious. “Working with Aditi made me think that maybe I can feel the same way about my work,” he says. “Even more than three years after my graduation, that lesson is with me; I work hard because I enjoy new challenges and I feel good about reaching my full potential.”
Another of Majumder’s recent graduate students, Duy-Quoc Lai, uses the identical words – passionate and caring – to describe his former professor. “She motivates her students to excel beyond their own expectations,” says Lai, who earned his doctorate last year and is now lead developer at Hiperwall, Inc.
For Majumder, her career is the culmination of a lifelong dream that combines two of her passions – education and computer science. “I love teaching,” she says. “The small ways we touch students mean a lot to me. It’s very personal.”
She adds: “My work is very gratifying, very rewarding. I don’t know how many people could say that about their job.”
Ultimately though, for Majumder, her biggest accomplishment is maintaining that often precarious equilibrium among home, family and career. On top of managing a thriving research career and a busy household with two active kids, she helps her aging parents, who live with her for several months each year. “I always try to make sure that everybody is happy and gets a good amount of my time, as they all deserve. I’m fortunate that they all help me and think that I’m a very important part of their lives,” she says. “Maintaining that balance has been the hardest thing to do, and some days are easier than others. But I really pride myself on that.”