Urbashi Mitra

Current Position: Professor at USC Viterbi School of Engineering
Urbashi Mitra
Highlight Believe in yourself and believe in the potential that engineering has to truly improve everything that touches our lives, a future that you will be a part of: Engineering and medicine, engineering and energy, engineering to enable science, engineering and well-being...
December 24, 2010Her job: Professor, USC Viterbi School of Engineering
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I am a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California. My research and teaching are both in the Communications area – this is the study of the transmission of information. My research these days focuses on many varied aspects of communications: how to communicate underwater, the design of body area sensing networks which employ wireless communications with a focus on health applications such as obesity, and developing methods for the next generation of cellular systems.
Why did you choose engineering? When I was a child, I wanted to be a firefighter and a detective. I can’t speak to putting out too many fires, but I certainly do a lot of detective work which is basically research -- trying to figure out how to solve problems that have real-world implications. There is a lot of cool mathematics and the cracking of puzzles. My father is an electrical engineer and I think his love for the field was a major influence on my decision to become an electrical engineer.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? B.S. and the M.S. degrees from the University of California at Berkeley in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, Princeton University, Priceton, NJ.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? One thing I love about being a professor is that every day is different. There is teaching, research meetings with colleagues and students, meeting with students in my classes, writing and reading papers, proving theorems, university service work, going to conferences (often in exotic places!), etc. My research group does predominantly theoretical work, but we have some joint projects that have experimental components, so I might also be going to a lab, looking at equipment, watching students demonstrate a communication system at one of the USC swimming pools, seeing data collection in a sophisticated motion capture laboratory for our body sensing research, etc.
What do you like best about being an engineer? There is nothing like the “a-ha” moment of solving an engineering problem. There is an element of basic science which seeks to understand the real world, but we also “engineer” in order to improve or repair… ubiquitous wireless communication, artificial eyes or new materials for prosthetics. It is incredibly exciting.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? Right now, my proudest moments stem from watching my small children be “engineers” – the Lego construction that my three year old daughter made which had imaginary pulleys to put teddy bears back on their benches when they fell off; the crazy Rube Goldberg contraptions that my five year old son draws. There was also the recent epiphany: recognizing that all of the complicated sewing projects I had engaged in as a teenager had taught me a lot about spatial reasoning and engineering design.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? A challenge for any woman in engineering is figuring out how to manage the double-edged sword of being a visible minority: both your mistakes and your successes are noticed by everyone. A wonderful challenge of being a professor, in particular, is determining what problems to work on; I get to re-invent myself and my research program on a regular basis, so it never gets dull.
Please tell us a little about your family. I have an amazing family, inspiring and tremendously supportive. My brother is an industrial designer, my father is an electrical engineer, my mother is an elementary school teacher and my husband is an experimental physicist. They are also all babysitters, bed-time story readers, peanut-butter sandwich makers, and very creative.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? I would like to see how communication theory and information theory can help us understand how biological systems communicate and interact with each other. I also think we can learn a lot from nature to understand how to build better communication systems.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My model for an electrical engineer has always been my father. I’ve actually followed very closely in his footsteps. Education and teaching runs deep in my entire family – my father is a professor, my mother a former elementary school teacher and my brother teaches courses in design off and on again; my husband also used to teach. I remember learning about Ada Lovelace as an undergraduate and being so impressed that a gentlewoman of the 1800s could have written the first computer program for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? Believe in yourself and believe in the potential that engineering has to truly improve everything that touches our lives, a future that you will be a part of: Engineering and medicine, engineering and energy, engineering to enable science, engineering and wellbeing …
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. With two small children, my hobbies are pretty basic: reading novels, running as often as I can, and various sewing projects for the house and the children. Someday, I’d like to run a marathon and knit a sweater!