People of PathCheck: Rohan Sukumaran

Screen Shot 2022-06-01 at 4.54.08 PMRohan Sukumaran has been with the PathCheck Foundation from the very early days. From driving winning competitions to launching the Data Informatics Center for Epidemiology research center - there isn’t a lot that Rohan hasn’t done. 

Read more below about Rohan’s leadership at PathCheck and what his future plans are! 

Where are you from in India?
I am from Kozhikode, Kerala. This is where the top India institute of management (the Indian Institute of Management) and one of the top enigneering schools  - the National Institute of Technology. I have always been interested in engineering - so I knew I would start with that. I didn’t start getting interested in computer science until my Junior year of high school. It wasn’t introduced to me until then - and I really enjoyed it.

I received my bachelor's degree in CSE from the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Sri City and my interest in data science and AI started in my sophomore year. This happened through interacting with my college mates and taking courses. This was also the time that Coursera launched its popular Machine Learning Course with Andrew Ng. I did the course and a few others so I would continue learning.  

How did you become involved with PathCheck?
Before joining the PathCheck Foundation, I was working in India for a Unicorn food tech company that is similar to Uber Eats. I was working on natural language processing because, in India, there are 50-60 different languages spoken throughout the country. Due to this, it becomes difficult for computers, or off-the-shelf technology, to be able to communicate with populations throughout India. 

So, in 2020 everything began to go remote, and I saw a LinkedIn post from a collegemate who worked with Dr. Raskar mentioning that they were looking for people with skillsets that could help them to launch open source software, and I reached out to see what I could do to help. At the time I started working remotely with PathCheck while continuing my full-time position here in India.  

When you joined, what did you start working on?
When I first joined PathCheck there was still a lot of confusion about how to respond to the pandemic. Should we wear a mask or should we not wear a mask? So we were talking about how to impact health outcomes. 

After a few weeks on the team, a competition sponsored by FaceBook under their Data for Good initiative called the Symptoms Data Challenge. This initiative was focused on collecting survey data to understand what is happening out in the world such as what were people feeling, how was their health, what economic impacts were being seen, symptoms people were experiencing, and what testing and vaccine questions did people have? I joined the team to submit our application and that’s where I really started to get involved. 

We had people from all over the world helping us with this submission. I was working alongside scientists and medical professionals from MIT, the Mayo Clinic, and the UCSF and it was just an exciting time. We built machine learning models that could take the survey data collected and disseminate insights. Insights such as certain symptoms were showing up in geographical areas? What symptoms were people experiencing? How long were they experiencing these symptoms? We wanted to understand these trends and help make predictions.  

I enjoyed this project so much. I took the lead in driving the project by running meetings and pulling the team together. Ultimately, we came in the top three globally for the competition and really was the first time I saw what PathCheck could potentially do. 

As computer scientists, we are fans of hackathons, so while this was going on, we joined a few other competitions, such as the XPrize Pandemic Response Challenge and came in the top ten globally in the first round. In addition, all these competitions served as platforms where we would find other teams who would later become some of our best collaborators!

When did you decide to join PathCheck full-time?
It was in November 2020 when I had a talk with Dr. Raskar about my career. I had become more interested in getting my Ph.D. and Dr. Raskar talked to me about the application process, what should be done and how I can build my profile. It was during that time that Dr. Raskar also reached out to see if I would be interested in joining PathCheck full-time as a Research Manager. As a fresh grad out of undergrad with hardly a year of experience, I knew right away this was an experience I needed to take. It was a huge opportunity. The PathCheck network and all that I had already learned made me really excited to stick around. Regardless of what would happen through the pandemic, I knew this would be an amazing experience. I think I heard someone say, “When someone tells you to get into a spaceship to go to space you don't ask ‘which seat?’ - you just get into the spaceship!” 

Once I joined full-time, my main focus was on building vaccine credentials while continuing my efforts on the data science front. Usability and privacy had been an issue so we set out to as the question: Can we build an app or digital system that decreases the barriers to credentials? We pitched to multiple competitions. The credential we made was called Boost19 - because we knew boosters would be needed after vaccinations. We wanted to make sure privacy was at the forefront; people didn’t need to share all of their information. They just needed to validate it was them and that they were vaccinated. The cool thing is that we were at the forefront of this technology, and now we are building it for the WHO.

You are currently in the Ph.D. application process - how is that going?
It’s a lot! But it has been a great cycle—scouting and finding the right faculty started in August 2021. I applied to 15 schools and have gotten a lot of support from PathCheck in the process. Team members reviewed my SOPs, helped me draft my CV, wrote letters of recommendation and offered to make connections. The amount of time that the community at PathCheck was willing to spend on my process was great and I am really grateful to have this network to support me.

After applying, I did land a bunch of interviews, five total.  

Have you decided where to go yet!?
I have some offers, but I am still making a decision. I am using my PathCheck network again to talk through my options and make sure that I am making the best decision I can for myself. Having input from mentors is really helpful. My family is also being really supportive - but they are going to miss me as well because I will either be in the States or Canada. It’s awesome to have options. 

Before PathCheck did you think you would get your Ph.D.?
During my undergrad, I did some research and so when I did that, I knew I wanted a research-oriented role. I did apply to Ph.D. programs before PathCheck, but the results weren’t that great. PathCheck honed my skills and helped me build a lot of great connections. I learned how to present things in a better way, I was running projects, a speaker series. I gained so much experience. 

Did you think you would ever be working in public health?
When I was in college - I did work on a health AI project to diagnose images. Something doctors could use if they didn’t have resources. They could take a picture and send it off to be diagnosed. So this was my first experience with health. Eventually, this project was shortlisted among the top 20 projects by Google AI India for a Mentorship Bootcamp!

Then COVID hit and I did make the big switch. My job before PathCheck was focused on language. I wouldn’t say working in public health was planned, but it all makes sense now that I am here. I feel like I can make more of a difference working in public health and it's more about saving lives. I had to ask myself, “Do you want to focus on convenience, or do you want to focus on helping people?” I chose to help people. 

What do you enjoy in your spare time? 
I love watching movies! In India, we have 30 states so I watch movies from many of these different places. I watch a lot of anime as well. I like to analyze the movie-making side, as well as study the written side. A lot of effort goes into writing and shooting movies and I think it's pretty cool. 

What has been the most significant part of being part of the PathCheck community?
Creating DICE. I went through the board approval process and now we are growing it. This project has helped me to really understand the entrepreneurial side of things and how I need to look at building something. This has been a huge step in my career; I can’t say many peers of mine are overseeing a research center and having the opportunity to work alongside world-class researchers. I really enjoy getting to know and help grad students and I am always looking to create opportunities through programs such as fellowships. 

It’s really difficult for someone in India to expand their network, so the fact that PathCheck exists and you can join and suddenly be talking to and working with an MIT, University of Montreal or Mayo Clinic researcher is huge. The diversity is amazing as well. Although I have not left India, I know so many people around the globe. I would never have had this type of opportunity if it weren't for PathCheck and the amazing faculty, researchers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who dedicate their time.