Tech-à-Tête—An Interview with Akshatha Kamath

In the “Beat the Pandemic” hackathon conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from April 3-5, 2020, a team consisting of three students from Manipal Institute of Technology – Akshatha Kamath (third year CSE), Shubham Rateria (CCE Batch of 2019) and Adri Rajaraman (ECE Batch of 2019) – secured victory.  The team also comprised three more participants – Melia Watson, Washington DC (respiratory therapist, MBA), Hsiang Wei Hu, Taiwan (Cofounder of Acusense Biomed), and Mariane Melo, U.K. (M.D). They were declared as winners in the track – ‘Who to test and when’ under the category ‘How to protect vulnerable populations from the effects of COVID-19?’.
During the 48-hour hackathon, participants were expected to hone down on the problems, generate solutions, and present a preliminary vision for execution.

We interviewed Akshatha Kamath, a third-year CSE student at MIT, Manipal, who was a part of the winning team. Akshatha had also won the first prize in the “Global Health” domain of the Stanford University’s Health++ Hackathon in December 2019.

Q. About the application itself, what exactly does it do?

The thought behind this was that during the pandemic, it makes so much more sense to have a remote tool with which doctors can monitor your heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen concentration. We followed the hackathon process, and we realised the impact of this project when a doctor told us that since the outbreak had begun, she had been getting many calls from friends and acquaintances with symptoms of the virus asking whether they contracted COVID-19 or not. People don’t want to go to the hospital, and the doctors cannot tell if you have COVID-19 without accessing your heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation– two major factors in the diagnosis of COVID-19. Hence, we tried to build an application based completely on the front-end, to ensure zero data lag, speed, and data privacy.

Q. What, in your opinion, is the scope of this product? Do you see this platform being used by the common public?

I don’t want to say fancy things at this point. We aren’t changing the world here. We are being approached by a lot of companies who want to fund the idea, but there is a long way the idea needs to go, for it to be deployable, especially because it’s a medical idea. Medical ideas need validations and many trials. The plan was to deploy the application in a hospital, like KMC; as soon as a patient comes in, they are put on a pulse oximeter and our application runs simultaneously. We aren’t disrupting the hospital pipeline, that isn’t our intention. We are simply collecting data. We don’t know how much this will help with the pandemic, but this can be a part of a TeleMedicine platform. We aren’t talking about replacing hospital infrastructure. This is just an addition to pre-existing apps that doctors have access to. This will take many iterations and trials to get to the general public.

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the hackathon was almost completely on video call

Q. What challenges did you face during the hackathon?

Our biggest challenge was the fact that we operated on Indian Standard Time, while the hackathon was according to Eastern Time. This implied we needed to stay up all night working. Also, since one of our teammates was from the US and another from the UK, we had to make sure that we coordinated our timings well so that we could work efficiently as a team.
Another major challenge was getting a doctor and a businessperson on our team, which is very important in a hackathon of this scale. As engineers, we might not be able to look at the product from the perspective that a doctor or an entrepreneur would.  They give you the reality check that you need to identify the loopholes in what you have made.
Since it was a virtual hackathon it was also very difficult to get all the team members on the same page. It’s much harder to convey your vision to someone through a video call than it is in person.  We had to attend practice pitch sessions and mentor talks, and also make sure that we made progress with the product, all at the same time.

Q. How different was the experience of participating in a virtual hackathon from that of a live hackathon like the one in Stanford?

Since the MIT hackathon was online and accessible to anyone in the world, the number of participants was far more than the one at Stanford.  We could also reach out to mentors 24/7, while at Stanford, none of the mentors was available during the night.
Another major difference was that at the Stanford Hackathon almost all the participants were students while in this hackathon, most of the people were working full time. In my team, for instance, I was the only student – the two teammates from MIT were working full-time, and one of my other teammates was a respiratory therapist.
However, the best part about a live hackathon is that it is much easier to interact with people. As a result, you end up meeting a lot of people from varied backgrounds, which is something a virtual hackathon cannot offer.

Q. We came to know that you have done a research internship at IISc, Bengaluru. What was the experience like?

The IISc internship shaped me as a person. Once you work with IISc, you know how to set personal deadlines. We used to have ‘Check Meetings’ every Thursday, where we would set weekly deadlines for ourselves. That helps in the case of a hackathon because while working in a team, there are things that one needs to do without being explicitly told to do so. You need to take responsibility. A hackathon, basically is the IISc experience squeezed into 2 days. You learn to assign tasks to yourself and make sure that they get done.

Q. How do you think Indian and American hackathons differ?

Indian hackathons are more product-oriented, while American hackathons require a package. In Indian hackathons, you present a solution and overemphasise the problem to make the solution sound apt. In the US, almost 1/3rd of the pitch is used to describe the solution, the rest of the pitch is to prove that the solution is coherent. Identification of the problem is key—who it affects, and how this solution will help. Next comes the solution, and finally the working prototype. This structure is something we learnt at the Stanford Hackathon, working with people from all over the world. I feel that because of our previous experience, we could anticipate the questions that the organisers would ask about the product. It helped that Shubham (Rateria, Batch of 2019) had also been to the Stanford Hackathon a year before me. We prepared a supplementary deck of slides with curated information targeted to the questions that they could ask. This deck had answers addressing the shortcomings of the platform. This helps de-clutter the pitch. We were ready for every single question in the 2-minute Question and Answer session. It’s important to look at your product from a critical viewpoint. 90% of the questions they ask can be anticipated. The supplementary deck was loaded with facts, figures and research publications. This was to show the judges that we had done our research.

Q.Given that you work with organisations like ACM-W Manipal, and the GirlScript Foundation which work on encouraging female participation in the tech industry – do you feel that there is a barrier that women face while entering the industry?

Yes, I definitely think it exists. Personally, I’ve noticed that if there’s a technical problem in any event that I’m attending, I am never called to fix the problem – it’s always the men of the family who are called upon.  It’s assumed that men will be able to do the job.
Even when I joined RoboManipal, there were only two girls in the robotics team – and all the guys in the team seemed to know a lot more than I did, and this was extremely demoralizing. What I’ve noticed from my interactions with other women is that we are very critical of our own work because of this conditioning. We often need that external validation to be confident of our own achievements.
I personally try to ensure that this hard wiring does not take place, wherever I can. For instance, I volunteer with the United Nations, and whenever I teach young children under a child awareness program, I make sure that the girls speak out and answer.
Women have come a long way in the sphere of technology but there is still a long way to go.  I believe we need to start exposing girls to technology at a much younger age and encourage them into the field to break this barrier down.

Q. And finally, what advice would you give to first- and second-years who want to explore the research/hackathon route?

I’ve just participated in 2-3 hackathons. I haven’t participated in enough hackathons to give out advice (laughs). I’d, however, tell everyone to explore their options. Hackathons are not for everyone, they involve a lot of non-technical things that not everyone may want to do. Similarly, research isn’t for you if you’re someone who wants to work in a 9-to-5 job. Research has its flexibility. IISc was a very flexible place to work; I could choose not to go to the lab per se, sit at home and get work done, and it would mean the same thing. You’ve got to make sure that research is something you want to do. So, explore your options. A lot of programmes to promote research are available. Do a research internship, at the very least, to figure out what you don’t want to do. Every hackathon has some expectations out of it. Take the judging criteria of any hackathon very seriously. It’s different for every competition. Every single word of the criteria must be read carefully, and every action at the hackathon must be aligned to these criteria. MIT is really pushing people towards research. To sum up, try to get as much exposure to the field you’ve chosen as you can. This exposure, of course, isn’t limited to your programme. Every single experience adds value to the product that is you. You must be a well rounded professional. Be it volunteering or participating in the community, it’s all a beautiful experience. It might take up your time, but it’s worth it. Needless to say, volunteer work gives a healthy boost to your resume.

Many times, we don’t look at the problem before coming up with a solution. For the Stanford Hackathon, we went to hospitals, we spoke to doctors in many departments; some of them offered no support but on the other hand, there were so many people who saw potential in technology changing lives. Prof. Mohammed Zuber (Department of Aeronautical and Automobile Engineering, MIT) really helped shape our thought process. He’d ask us to stop talking in technical terms and start addressing the problem.

One thing that both Stanford and MIT taught us at the information sessions is that you possibly cannot be an Indian, sitting in India and propose to solve problems in Africa. So why not build local solutions? KMC, for example, will come up with an array of problems to solve, you just have to seek them. A particularly blunt advisor at Stanford said, “If you’re going to come with a smartphone application that will work all over the world, you’re wrong”. Hands-on experience of the problem leads to better solutions. For example, if we didn’t have Telehealth CEOs talk to us, we’d have never known what the Telehealth ecosystem is like, and our product at the MIT hackathon wouldn’t have been a success.


—Interviewed by Avaneesh Jai Damaraju and Sudarshan Sivakumar for MTTN

—Edited by Radhika Taneja and Siri Rajanahally for MTTN


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