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Sheila-Vadde Didn't Plan on Pittsburgh

January 26, 2010

When Aparna Sheila-Vadde (E'01) walked into the Indian Institute of Science to begin work on her master's degree in optical communication, she planned to remain there until she completed her PhD. What Sheila-Vadde didn't count on was meeting her future husband, Venkatesh Vadde (E'99), whose PhD work eventually led both of them to Pittsburgh and the Data Storage Systems Center at Carnegie Mellon.

So much for planning.

Vadde was admitted to the PhD program in Carnegie Mellon's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, but at that point Carnegie Mellon wasn't even on Sheila-Vadde's radar. "The truth is, I had not heard about Carnegie Mellon before — of course I had never looked up U.S. universities," she said. "He told me he would like to go to this very reputed school. Because he sounded so keen, I thought 'OK, I'd better plan on applying.'"

Vadde graduated from the Indian Institute of Science a year before Sheila-Vadde and journeyed to Pittsburgh, where he worked with ECE Professor Vijayakumar Bhagavatula and became part of the Data Storage Systems Center. His excitement for the center and his research was contagious, and it helped reinforce Sheila-Vadde's plans. She applied to work with University Professor and DSSC founder Mark Kryder, was accepted and moved to Pittsburgh to begin her work in the DSSC. That same year, she also married Vadde.

As a student in the center, Sheila-Vadde worked with three advisers on optical recording. She began working with Kryder initially, but switched advisers when he left the center to found Seagate Research Pittsburgh. She worked with ECE Professor David Lambeth for a year, then finished her research with ECE Professor and now Department Head Ed Schlesinger. And while working with so many advisers might have stymied some students, Sheila-Vadde said she thoroughly appreciated the opportunity.

"I really enjoyed working with these professors. All of them were equally scholarly and nice, besides being very good at explaining things. You could really learn a lot. It was a valuable experience getting to work with three great advisers," she said.

While Sheila-Vadde's research in the DSSC focused primarily on optical recording, she says that her experience in the DSSC provided her with an education that went beyond what she learned from her personal research.

"The best part about the DSSC was that you worked on one problem, but then you got to know about many other areas," she said. "Typically, I would think that if someone does a thesis on optical data storage, he or she will know about just that. But there was so much activity going on in magnetic storage as well ... I was as familiar with magnetic recording as I was with optical by the time I graduated."

That familiarity helped her transition smoothly to her first job with Read-Rite Corporation, where she'd also completed an internship as a student. She channeled all she'd learned about magnetic recording into more than three years at ReadRite/Western Digital, working on giant magnetoresistive head design. "Because I was quite familiar with magnetic recording, it wasn't difficult for me to move to that," she said. "Everything I learned at Carnegie Mellon came in very handy when I took the job."

Sheila-Vadde also attributes her ability to move quickly into a successful career to the DSSC's interaction with industry.

"Right from the beginning, we had a couple of project reviews every year with industry sponsors. We could talk to them freely, find out what they wanted and get their feedback. That was really a great opportunity," she said. "Industry in some sense was the customer at that point in time, and it gave us a feeling that we have to pay attention to the needs of the customer."

Preparing for this interaction with industry also provided practical skills that continue to serve Sheila-Vadde to this day. She learned the art of creating effective Power Point presentations — not overcrowding her slides, and making everything clear and readable. "The basics of making audience-friendly Power Points ... I should say I learned it at the DSSC, thanks to the project reviews!" she said.

In 2005, Sheila-Vadde and her husband decided that they wanted to be closer to home and returned to India, where she took a position as a research engineer at the General Electric Research Center in Bangalore. Most of her work focuses on electromagnetic sensors. "So again, what I learned at Carnegie Mellon continues to help," she said. "Not just the technical education, but also the other skills"

Sheila-Vadde credits the DSSC's interdisciplinary education for the success she's had in industry.

"A lot of times, PhDs are considered to be very narrow in their technical outlook, being specialized in just one field," Sheila-Vadde said. "In the case of the DSSC, at least, I felt like I got exposure to so many subjects. My thesis was on a specific problem, but in the process of solving it, I also learned about so many other fields. I feel like I can relate to different areas easily. ... The total interdisciplinary package we got there was invaluable."

Sheila-Vadde encourages current DSSC students to take advantage of the opportunities the center provides — both in and out of the classroom — so they, too, will have success in their future careers.

"They should stay focused, but at the same time they should try to learn as much as possible about system-level aspects and not just specifics related to their theses — basically develop breadth without sacrificing depth. You will not always get to work on areas related to your thesis for the rest of your life, so it is important to have an open mind — that will also help you adapt to changes easily" she said. "Make use of all the opportunities and the reviews to interact and become better communicators and develop presentation skills, because that helps a lot. And there's always room to improve."



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