Kavita Krishnaswamy

Inventor Kavita Krishnaswamy was named to the Baltimore Sun’s 25 “Women to Watch” list as well as New Mobility’s “5 Women Under 40 to Watch” list. (umbc.edu photo)

Indian American inventor Kavita Krishnaswamy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, was recently named among the “25 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun and among the “5 Women Under 40 to Watch” by New Mobility magazine.

Krishnaswamy, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, is from Baltimore, Maryland. Her passion, according to her New Mobility magazine profile, is autonomy for people with physical disabilities.

“Driven by her personal experience with disability and a passion for learning and innovating, Krishnaswamy dedicates her research to projects that increase independence and quality of life for people with disabilities,” New Mobility said in its report.

Among the many prototypes Krishnaswamy and colleagues have built or proposed are robotic arms that help with repositioning, specialized air mattresses and a motorized commode chair, the magazine said.

Krishnaswamy requires personal care assistants for a large part of her day. Between her mother, who serves as her primary caregiver, and two women who have worked with her for a combined 16 years, she feels lucky to have reliable help, the report said.

At the same time, she knows first-hand how difficult it can be to find competent caregivers who stay for a long time, it added.

“Sometimes I’ve used care.com or word of mouth, but I shouldn’t be constantly stressed to figure out who is going to help me for the day,” she told New Mobility. “I want to lose my stress in that area. I want a good robot that can safely help people with severe physical disabilities and then that wouldn’t be a problem and I would worry less.”

Krishnaswamy told the magazine that her condition prohibits her from traveling, so she takes classes using Skype or Google Hangouts.

“But I wasn’t able to network and form research collaborations,” she added.

Krishnaswamy began to use Beam, a rolling robot that allows users to interactively videoconference with a remote location, to have a telepresence in the classroom and collaborate with classmates from home. She has also been able to use Beam to attend and present at conferences, the report said.

Currently, she is the only woman on a team of six men working on a research collaboration in Switzerland.

Recently, Krishnaswamy found herself on the other side of the mentor relationship, mentoring a nondisabled man at the University of Washington. When they first met, the student was not planning on continuing his education, but after talking with Krishnaswamy, he changed his plans. Today, he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University, New Mobility said. Her long-term goal is to become a faculty researcher, the magazine noted.

The Baltimore Sun piece said that, “Krishnaswamy will eventually lose her physical fight with spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive disorder that has robbed her of movement below the neck other than in one finger. But the illness has inspired her career as a roboticist who specializes in devices that help the severely disabled live more independently.”

Working from home via a telepresence device, she has invented computer interfaces that can be operated by voice command and is working on another that responds to eye movements. Google and Microsoft support her work, the daily publication added.

“Life is always beautiful,” she told the Sun. “Instead of complaining, people should remember to do something to make it better.”

In addition to her being named to the Sun and New Mobility lists, Krishnaswamy, who also holds accolades such as a Google Lime Scholar, Microsoft Research Fellow, Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, was chosen to attend the prestigious Heidelberg Laureate Forum among a worldwide selection, for which the acceptance rate is less than 10 percent. Only 200 students were selected across the world.

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum is a gathering of laureates of some of the most prestigious prizes in mathematics and computer science, namely, the Abel Prize and Fields Medal as well as the Turing Award and Nevanlinna Prize.

As a professional researcher with a physical disability, Krishnaswamy is motivated by a powerful, innate force: autonomy is the soul of independent daily living that is achieved with the advancement of technology, her UMBC profile said.

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