Administrative Committee, Chair of Student Poster Competitions, Coordinator of Technology Committees
I have been an active member of IEEE OES for about 15 years, and I am thankful to the Beacon’s editors for giving me this opportunity to share a bit about myself. My career trajectory has been somewhat eclectic, and I believe retracing some of it would make for a good story here. Before that, let’s get some usual suspects out of the way – I like coffee, IPA, peaty single-malt scotch and mezcal; I listen to classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Cream), metal (Tool, Metallica, ACDC), grunge (Pearl Jam, Nirvana) and Carnatic music; I enjoy running, hiking, and I love to travel.
Growing up in land-locked Bengaluru in south India, I couldn’t have, in the wildest of my fantasies, imagined a calling in an ocean-related discipline. In fact, it was only much later, in my thirties, that I even learned to swim. During my high-school years, having discovered that I was good at computer programming, I spent most summers learning new programming languages and developing computer games. It seemed like I was well poised to ride the wave (no pun intended) on the imminent software industry boom in India in the late 90s/early 2000s. After a bachelor’s in computer engineering, goals evolved and I moved to sunny San Diego, California, in 2005 to pursue a master’s in computer science. Within a year, I landed a job in a company that developed automatic speech recognition software. But it soon dawned on me that gigs in software industry weren’t going to be fulfilling in the long run. Also, I didn’t want to see myself surrounded by computer screens and keyboards for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, I did catch a whiff of the “outside world” during my master’s. And that, … was compelling enough! My research thesis involved automating analyses of blue whale vocal activity in passive acoustic recordings from the Pacific. With random luck, I got on a research cruise, on a vessel managed by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). My tryst with IEEE OES began in 2008, when I attended the OCEANS conference in Kobe, Japan, as a candidate in the Student Poster Competition (SPC), where I presented a part of my master’s research. After a second SPC participation, at OCEANS Bremen in 2009, I developed an appreciation for being involved with a professional society. Of course, the natural choice then was the OES. While working fulltime in the software industry, I continued to remain engaged with my master’s supervisor, Marie Roch, and other researchers at SIO. With weekends dedicated to playing cricket, I had to “find” time during weekdays to volunteer for OES. After helping resurrect OES’ San Diego Chapter, I served as its Secretary and Treasurer for two years. I was even involved in the early stages of planning San Diego OCEANS (2013).
My no-turning-back-now moment happened in 2012, when out of the deep blue (again, no pun intended), I received an email from a Christine Erbe – a name unknown to me at the time – with an offer for pursuing a doctoral degree in marine related research. Turned out that my continued engagement in this field did have its dividends, a huge one. Needing to move to Australia and switching disciplines to a profession that I had not much knowledge about, indeed made me anxious. But, needless to say, I went with the flow (sorry, this is the last one, I promise) and grabbed the opportunity. I completed my PhD, in applied physics, from Curtin University in 2016, and have since been very much engaged in ocean-related research.
Whilst in Australia, I was looking to get back into being involved with OES. Along with Malcolm (Mal) Heron and a few others, I was involved in the formation of OES’ Australia Chapter in 2013. I also served as the Secretary of the new Chapter for three years. Following the completion of my PhD, I had a short stint as a research associate at the Centre for Marine Science & Technology, Perth. By this time, I had also gotten into using passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) technology in terrestrial applications. In 2017, after moving back to India, I joined the National Institute of Oceanography as a research associate, where I was engaged in project design and fieldwork planning. It was then that I become more heavily involved with OES. Thanks to Mal, the then VP of Technical Activities (VPTA), who had recognized my volunteer efforts (while in Australia), I was appointed as the Coordinator of Technology Committees, in 2018. Shortly after, in 2019, I was inducted into OES’ inaugural YP-BOOST program for young professionals. And, almost immediately, John Watson, who was then the Chair of SPCs at OCEANS conferences, passed on the baton to me.
It was in 2018, that I returned to USA; this time, to NY, for a postdoc at the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, Cornell University. Originally hired to develop deep learning-based tools for PAM, I have since been engaged in a wide variety of projects – monitoring of endangered baleen whales in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans, developing novel cutting-edge solutions for the effective and efficient automation of analyses of hundreds of terabytes of underwater acoustic recordings, monitoring katydids in Panamanian forests and gibbons in east Asia, helping researchers in central Africa effectively monitor poaching activity, and data collection and assessment of underwater soundscapes around (both in time and space) US Navy’s ship-shock trials. As a scientist involved in multiple aspects of cross-disciplinary projects, I now also hold a document that calls me a ‘certified tree climber.’ I believe in open research, and I actively contribute to the global scientific community. One of my biggest contributions in recent years is the open-sourcing of the toolbox Koogu (https://shyamblast.github.io/Koogu), which facilitates rapid development of machine learning solutions in animal bioacoustics.
At present, I continue to work at Cornell University, and am engaged in multiple projects with global collaborations. Looking back, for someone that wanted to run away from a fulltime desk job, I couldn’t be happier with where I have gotten. If I am not at my desk coding and debugging programs, or volunteering for OES, you could find me either on a tree or on a boat.