A (S)Quad of Good Fellows

Three Indian Quad Fellows use their STEM education to find innovative solutions for social good.

By Paromita Pain

March 2023

A (S)Quad of Good Fellows

The Quad Fellowship is an initiative of the governments of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Pictured here are some members of the first cohort, including Teja Venkatesa Perumal (second from right), at an inaugural event hosted by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo (front row, center), and attended by the ambassadors of the Quad countries. (Photograph courtesy Teja Venkatesa Perumal)

Can clean energy be made more affordable and universally accessible? How can novice users of artificial intelligence (AI) understand it better? Can medical diagnosis be made more efficient? These are some of the questions three Indian Quad Fellows—Teja Venkatesa Perumal, Dhruv Agarwal and Sharicka Zutshi are exploring. They are part of the first cohort of 100 fellows announced in December 2022.

The fellowship

Designed to build ties among the next generation of scientists and technologists, the Quad Fellowship is an initiative of the governments of the four Quad countries—Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The fellows receive $50,000 in funding, which can be used for tuition, research, books or other related academic expenses.

While pursuing their higher studies in the United States, Perumal, Agarwal and Zutshi will participate in the Quad cohort’s networking activities and virtual programming. “The Quad Fellowship not only allows me to fund a part of my graduate school journey,” says Zutshi, “but also allows me to interact with scientists and change-makers from across the Quad countries, which will help me develop as a scientist, innovator, future educator and aspiring entrepreneur.”

Agarwal, too, says he will use the benefits of the fellowship to support his research. “Apart from funding for my field work, the programmatic and networking benefits will help me diversify my research into underserved communities in different countries, something I would not be able to do otherwise,” he says. “As a result of these benefits, I will end up delivering quality STEM research focused on social good.”

Demystifying AI

A first-year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, Agarwal is using his background in computer science and human-computer interaction to design, build and evaluate technologies for underserved communities.

“Currently, my focus is on designing fair and responsible AI for marginalized individuals, especially in the context of health care,” he says. “My research will center on creating AI products that can be easily understood by users with limited resources, allowing them to make informed decisions about when to trust or distrust AI.”

A first-year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, Dhruv Agarwal is using his background in computer science and human-computer interaction to design, build and evaluate technologies for underserved communities. (Photograph courtesy Dhruv Agarwal)

Agarwal’s latest project at Cornell University seeks to understand how community health care workers in India understand the output of an AI-powered health diagnostic application. The project team found that these users place immense trust in the AI output, treating it similarly to output from diagnostic devices like thermometers or X-ray machines. “As technical users, we understand that AI is nebulous and can make mistakes, but users with low levels of AI literacy are unable to fathom uncertainty in a machine’s output,” he says. “We are now using insights from this study to build AI applications that are more interpretable to novice AI users.”

Agarwal, who is from New Delhi, arrived in the United States in the fall of 2022. During his Ph.D. studies over five years, he hopes to build an understanding of the needs and problems faced by underserved communities around the world that may be tackled by technology. “After my Ph.D., I want to continue designing and building technologies that bring social and policy impact, which is why the Quad Fellowship is a great fit for my long-term goals.”

Exploring micro solutions

A fourth-year undergraduate student, Zutshi is studying bioengineering and design innovation at University of California (UC) Berkeley.

She is also working as a research assistant at the Sohn lab in the UC Berkeley Department of Mechanical Engineering. Among other things, she is working on project ideas in early cancer detection and late-stage cancer adjuvant therapy—additional cancer treatment given after the primary treatment to lower the risk that the cancer will come back.

“Throughout my educational journey, my primary academic interests have been science, technology, economics and public policy,” says Zutshi, who was born in Bengaluru and completed school in Mumbai. Starting at an early age, she became interested in bioinspired design and its different applications. “Growing up in a country with a 1:1000 doctor-to-patient ratio, I was determined to make a difference in India’s health care infrastructure. Consequently, I was most intrigued by the applications of bioinspired design in medical science,” she says.

A fourth-year undergraduate student, Sharicka Zutshi is studying bioengineering and design innovation at University of California, Berkeley. (Photograph courtesy Sharicka Zutshi)

One problem she hopes to address is the lack of access to affordable health care in low-resource settings. “Specifically, I hope to work toward creating innovative solutions to improve the efficiency of medical devices used for health care delivery to reduce the burden on doctors and medical care systems,” says Zutshi.

She hopes to do so by exploring the use of microfluidic devices as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool. Also called lab-on-a-chip, microfluidic devices use very small amounts of fluid on a microchip to do certain laboratory tests.

Zutshi believes that health care delivery can be improved through strategic innovation, specifically in diagnostic protocols for conditions such as cancer. “By reducing the time required for diagnosis and subsequently improving treatment access,” she says, “we can save the lives which would be otherwise lost.”

Zutshi, who hopes to explore research, academia and entrepreneurship throughout her career, says her experience of studying in the United States has been incredibly rewarding. “I believe that being academically challenged in an environment that values discussion and debate has helped me grow as a student and an aspiring researcher,” she says. “I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow in such a technology-forward, innovation-oriented country and with an amazing group of talented individuals from diverse backgrounds.”

Clean energy for all

Perumal, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works on the sustainable production of valuable chemicals and fuels. This, in turn, makes clean energy more affordable and will have a direct impact on its accessibility. “I develop new catalytic processes and materials to make this possible,” says Perumal. “Specifically, I look at using renewable electricity to enable the conversion of carbon dioxide and the production of organic chemicals of pharmaceutical value.”

Growing up in Chennai, she realized that a lack of universal access to clean energy has compounded the challenges of climate change and poverty. “Scientific research can serve as a vital remedy,” she says. “Therefore, I was keen to carry out research to make clean energy affordable and universally accessible.”

Perumal, who wants to pursue a career in academia and be involved in public service, says she appreciates the numerous opportunities, as part of her Ph.D., to interact with policymakers and industry partners and to work on interdisciplinary and large-scale collaborations.

“I am excited to interact with a wide range of people through the Quad Fellowship,” she says, “especially those working on crucial governmental policies and also key industry players.”

Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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