Success Stories: Dharini Chandrasekaran

Berlin Buzzwords Success Stories is our brand new blog series where we ask people in the bbuzz network to share their own story.

Part of ensuring a wide range of opinions and ideas can be shared at Berlin Buzzwords is ensuring that people from underrepresented groups within the Berlin Buzzwords community can attend and engage with the discussions.

Historically Berlin Buzzwords, like the tech scene at large, has been a pretty white and male dominated space. One way we want to change this is to highlight some of the voices of people in our network from underrepresented groups. We want to share their stories and learn what drove them in their careers.

Today, we hear from Dharini Chandrasekaran who is going to open day 3 of this year's Berlin Buzzwords. Together with her co-speaker Sherin Thomas, they will give a keynote titled: Democratizing climate science: Searching through NASA’s earth data with AI at scale

Welcome, Dharini!

My first memories of being on a computer were from my fourth grade, making single slide Powerpoint presentations about interesting things I learned from browsing Encarta Encyclopedia (yes, I was a nerd, and I also had no idea about the actual utility of powerpoint), and rifling through the PCWorld magazines that my dad had subscribed to. Right before high school, I vividly remember traipsing to the computer lab along with my friend to chat with the teachers before choosing Computer Science as an elective. Stepping into the classroom in eleventh grade, I recognized the skewed gender ratios for the first time, which had been roughly equal in my classrooms until then. In the computer science division, I was one of 9 girls, in a class of 40! Little did I know that the ratio would only get worse as I continued my education.

I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged us all, regardless of gender, and I scored the top marks in my school in my senior year of high school. To my utter disbelief, I was chosen to be part of an Indian National Olympiad in Informatics (conducted by the Indian Association for Research in Computer Science) due to my performance in Zonal Informatics Olympiad where I solved programming problems in the only language I was familiar with at that point, C++. Being taught complicated computer science algorithms during the day and putting them to practice every evening as part of the camp bolstered my love for the subject, but I had already picked out my major for my bachelors degree as electrical engineering, since I loved physics as well.

During my undergrad, I was once again part of a skewed gender-ratio classroom where there were 7 girls in a cohort of over 70. Most of my male peers only paid attention to me after I got the top GPA in the class in the first semester, but this didn’t faze me much since I had grown accustomed to the environment by this point. By my fourth year though, I had come to a realization. The field of electrical engineering had lost its appeal and I was not looking forward to any of my job prospects. Having taken additional courses in AI and advanced mathematics, I decided to pursue my masters at Carnegie Mellon University and make a switch to computer science.

At one of the top computer science schools in the United States, I struggled to catch up with my peers who had 4 years of undergraduate study on me, but I really enjoyed the courses and the challenge. Two years of study at Carnegie Mellon were invaluable, and each challenging class I took validated my decision to move to computer science. Having an internship at NVIDIA under my belt, I moved to Silicon Valley to start my professional career. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have worked with multiple talented people in top tier companies including Amazon and Twitter. I still love diving into new areas, and I try to work across different layers of the technology stack every chance I get, from device drivers to distributed systems. And that’s my journey in a nutshell - always learning, always exploring.

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