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Sensory setback expands horizons for ASU PhD engineering grad

December 10, 2020

Bryan Duarte will put his computer science and haptics skills to use for national defense and to find new ways to aid people with blindness or low vision

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Soon after Bryan Duarte completes work for a doctoral degree in computer science, he will start working for the U.S. Department of Defense. That’s all he is authorized to say about what he will be doing on the job.

If Duarte’s role requires expertise in a wide range of technical and strategic endeavors, the broad scope of his education in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering almost certainly prepared him for endeavors demanding a versatile skill set.

Those learning opportunities were provided not only by the various courses he took but also by the challenges his own perceptual disability presented him in traditional learning environments.

Duarte had intended to enter the job market after earning a bachelor’s degree in software engineering in 2016. But in large part due to his productive efforts to overcome those challenges, Fulton Schools Assistant Professor Troy McDaniel strongly suggested Duarte consider an alternative path: getting a doctoral degree.

McDaniel is the director of the HAPT-X Laboratory and director of the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, or CUbiC, where researchers apply human-centered multimedia computing to the development of assistive and rehabilitative technologies for people with disabilities.

McDaniel saw Duarte as perfectly suited for work to advance the field of haptics. Haptics technologies use combinations of force, vibration and motion in feedback loops designed to guide or manipulate movements that enable or augment a user’s physical and sensory capabilities.

Duarte has a keen understanding of the value of those technologies and how they can help people. He became blind as a result of a motorcycle accident in 2004 in his hometown of Casa Grande, Arizona, shortly after he had graduated high school.

Bryan Duarte standing in front of young children

Bryan Duarte visited the STEM & Sports Summer Camp at the Ahwatukee Swim and Tennis Center during the camp’s iRobot week. Duarte and Abhik Chowdhury talked to the students about CUbiC’s assistive technologies for individuals with disabilities — and about the importance of inclusion and helping people. Photo courtesy of Ahwatukee Swim and Tennis Center.

By 2007, he had moved to Colorado to live at a residential training center that taught independent living skills. Then, in 2008, he became a stay-at-home father of three children for almost four years.

In 2012, eight years after the accident, Duarte was able to begin his college education at ASU and pursue an aspiration to be an engineer.

Despite his ardent ambitions, Duarte says the nature of his blindness still presented numerous obstacles to accessing complex course materials — particularly the materials needed to learn the advanced math, calculus, design and visual elements essential to engineering. Duarte overcame those challenges and by the time he had completed his undergraduate studies in 2016 he had job offers from major technology companies.

“Getting a PhD wasn’t even on my radar,” he said. “I wrestled with it. I prayed about it. I talked to my pastor about it. I talked to friends about it.”

At the same time, again with McDaniel’s urging, Duarte applied for the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, or IGERT, a National Science Foundation program that supports the education of promising doctoral scientists and engineers.

His acceptance into the traineeship provided the incentive he needed to decide he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help find ways to serve the unmet needs of people who are blind or have low vision.

Duarte’s work to help students overcome accessibility challenges began during his undergraduate years and included starting two clubs for students with disabilities. The goal, he says, was getting disabled students to more fully engage in the social, educational or athletic opportunities the university experience has to offer. The focus was on uniting students with a disability with their peers around common interests to help facilitate community engagement and break down social barriers.

Duarte also did his share to improve his fellow ASU students’ experiences. He was involved for three years in both ASU’s undergraduate student government and its social change community organization, Changemaker Central, and mentored students through the Fulton Schools Career Center.

Those who have worked with Duarte throughout the journey to achieve his educational goals say he has done much to help shape the way services are provided for students at ASU who have disabilities.

“Whenever Bryan had difficulty with access to information in a class or a lab, it was never just about him having a problem,” said Chad Price, director of education development and disability resources for ASU’s Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services.

“Bryan always wanted us to work with him to find ways to solve those problems for everyone,” Price said. “And for us to bring faculty and staff together to come up with ways to do it for students who for whatever reasons needed better accessibility.”

Duarte’s mission at ASU the past few years “wasn’t just to get a PhD. He is very altruistic. He wants to impact people’s lives,” said Christina Sebring, a Fulton Schools academic advising coordinator who helped to guide Duarte through his doctoral studies.

Duarte didn’t ask that courses better accommodate those with impairments only to make it easier on himself, Sebring adds.

“He’s got a lot of passion about enabling everyone to be included in the experience, and he wants to change how engineering education is conducted so it will do that,” she said.

Allison Curran, an assistant director of academic services, also advised Duarte as he pursued his degrees in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the six Fulton Schools.

“Bryan knows how to connect with people and to convincingly explain his perspective to them. He takes a very professional approach in his advocacy,” Curran said. “We now have several students who take the initiative in advocating for changes they think are needed, and I think Bryan laid the groundwork for this.”

Duarte doesn’t take all the credit for his accomplishments. In an e-mail he recently sent to ASU President Michael Crow, Duarte gave details about the ups and downs of his college experience and effusively expressed his gratitude for faculty members, advisers and administrators who have “gone above and beyond the call of duty” and “walked through fire with me” to support his academic work, research and advocacy.

Duarte says he was also motivated by CUbiC’s founding director, Professor Sethuraman Panchanathan, who is on leave from ASU while serving as director of the National Science Foundation.

Four people seated around a table

CUbiC researchers meet to prepare a demonstration of their “social interaction assistant” and other assistive and rehabilitative haptics technologies. Pictured from left are Assistant Professor and CUbiC Director Troy McDaniel, former computer science graduate student Jose Eusebi, “social interaction assistant” Suzie (in background), Bryan Duarte and Assistant Research Professor Hemanth Venkateswara. Photographer: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Even before Duarte joined CUbiC, he and McDaniel had begun talking about accessibility and how to improve it.

“We would brainstorm for hours about the kinds of devices and technology that need to be developed,” Duarte said. “Later, he told me it was then that he knew I would make a good PhD student.”

McDaniel says Duarte “just had this creative way of thinking about these things in a way no one else did, and he was energized by the ideas we were coming up with.”

Through his doctoral student position in CUbiC and support from the IGERT program Alliance for Person-centered Accessible Technologies, or APAcT, Duarte’s research has spanned across the areas of sensory substitution and augmentation, human-computer interaction, haptics and assistive technologies. His main research focus has been on using haptics to augment the way nonvisual travelers are able to access details of their immediate surroundings through the sense of touch.

Through an internship with Lockheed Martin, he also worked on a project to develop systems to enable pilots to navigate aircraft in critical conditions in which there is zero visibility.

McDaniel says Duarte not only became more technically proficient, but also learned how to develop research projects and manage lab teams, and to communicate about the science and engineering involved in his work to those outside of his field.

Duarte’s enthusiasm for his work was on display when government officials visited CUbiC and he struck up a conversation with a Department of Defense senior director, who soon after began prodding Duarte to apply for the government position he now has.

Price, McDaniel and others who have worked with Duarte say the undisclosed nature of the job he will do for the federal government likely indicates that Department of Defense officials see him as sufficiently trustworthy, reliable and skilled to be involved in what are likely crucial aspects of the department’s mission.

At first, Duarte says, he wasn’t interested in a government job and did not want to get involved in anything professionally that he thought could become political.

Now, Duarte sees his role in that job as an opportunity to continue contributing to the well-being of others.

“When I found out about the kinds of things they are doing, I definitely saw ways I could utilize what I’ve learned in school to do some good,” Duarte said. “So, I was like, ‘Yes, I’m in.’ This could be a good career.”

Photo at top: Miss Arizona 2018, Isabel Ticlo (at right), an Arizona State University alumna, met with computer science doctoral student Bryan Duarte (center) and Academic Associate Abhik Chowdhury in the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, or CUbiC, in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Duarte and Chowdhury gave Ticlo a demonstration of the center’s haptics technologies. As part of her efforts to support people with vision disabilities, Ticlo was interested in Duarte’s project to enhance situational awareness to enable nonvisual travel for those who are blind or have low vision. Photographer: Ding Ding Zheng/ASU (All photos in this article are archival images taken before the current pandemic social distancing and face covering requirements went into effect.)

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Dean's Medalist enjoys both the logical and creative aspects of mathematics, dance and languages

December 10, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Swarnalakshmi Janani Lakshmanan is the fall 2020 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Janani Lakshmanan Janani Lakshmanan is the Dean's Medalist for the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Download Full Image

She will graduate from Arizona State University this month with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics. She has an outstanding cumulative GPA of 4.14. 

Lakshmanan serves as undergraduate ambassador of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) Student Chapter, and co-hosted several of the chapter’s activities. She was the 2020 recipient of the Ioana Elise Hociota!!! Memorial Mathematics Scholarship. She participated in NASA’s Psyche Inspired internship program, and gave an inspirational Ignite@ASU talk to the general public about the beauty and creativity of mathematical discovery, which drew parallels between math and art. She plans to continue her studies toward a PhD in mathematics.

Lakshmanan was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. When she turned 1, her family moved to Houston, Texas, where she attended elementary school. At age 9, her family moved to India for two years.

"When I lived in Houston, I was the only Indian American person in my class, in my school. I was definitely 'the Indian girl,'" said Lakshmanan. "Then when we went to India, I was 'the American girl' because I spoke slightly differently. I talked about different things."

Being labeled was frustrating for Lakshmanan, as she saw herself as a mix of both cultures. "My parents taught me to value my own culture, traditions and religion, especially. These experiences taught me to be a lot less quick to label people and assess them more holistically than I felt I had been judged by my peers."

Moving around a lot as a child, Lakshmanan discovered major differences amongst education systems. "In India, the schools are much more competitive and you're directly competing against your peers. Whereas in the U.S., it's much more creative and focused on uplifting every student. And it's much more collaborative."

Lakshmanan describes herself as a "quiet social person" or a "loud introvert." She enjoys working in a collaborative environment.

When she started sixth grade, her family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Chandler, Arizona. At the suggestion of a middle school counselor, she signed up for softball and Math Club. Softball didn't stick, but she stayed with Math Club all the way through high school.

She started high school at Arizona College Prep thinking she wanted to be an interpreter. She loved learning languages and they had always been a part of her identity. Her mother tongue is Tamil, one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world. She also speaks fluent English, taught to her by her mother. She signed up for the only languages offered at her high school, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, while also studying others on her own, including French, Latin, Finnish, Esperanto, Sanskrit, and Lojban.

Within the Indian American community, there has always been a bit of a cultural expectation to consider medicine as a career. She grew more interested in her science classes and set her sights on neuroscience. After her sophomore year, she participated in the summer quarter at Stanford University where she took some classes, studied neuroscience and did rather well.

She took a lot of things away from that summer experience, especially liking her new sense of independence. She also figured out that she did not want to pursue neuroscience. To her, it was a process of elimination. Interpretation was fascinating, but doing it meant she would have to focus on one single language, rather than study all the different ones that she could. Being an interpreter was also marked off the list.

All along this path, Lakshmanan began realizing that math had somehow become a constant for her. In her junior year, she found herself considering math much more seriously because she enjoyed her math classes, especially proofs, and this way of thinking about mathematics that had been hinted at, but never really shown. She spent a lot of time with peers in Math Club, who were much better at math than she was.

"I chose math because I was bad at it," said Lakshmanan half-jokingly. "That's why I want to keep doing it. It's because I know it's not going to be something that I could ever get bored doing. There is always something to love about it."

"And when you 'get' math, that rush of realization that you do understand something, there is no high like it."

Lakshmanan's mother was an English professor and her father worked in IT. "I literally am both halves of my parents. I'm a mathematician, but I'm also a dancer and a writer, and I enjoy doing all of those things," she said. "I think math is intrinsically more creative and the humanities are intrinsically more logical than a lot of people give either of them credit for."

Lakshmanan moved to Georgia to attend Oxford College of Emory University as a National Merit Scholar. She was part of a group of 900 really motivated kids who were all trying to stand out in some way. As a result, Lakshmanan found herself blending into the crowd. She decided to take a gap semester and figure things out.

She went to India for a month and was given the opportunity to perform at the Natyanjali Festival of Chidambaram, a prestigious classical dance festival.

She was also taking several online classes, studying things she found interesting, but she hated not being in school. "I need school to feel like myself," she said.

When she moved back to Arizona to attend Arizona State University in the fall, she was definitely motivated. She was invited to be part of The College's Early Start Program, hosted in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Early Start is a free program that brings a small cohort of about 25 students to campus two weeks before the semester begins and fully immerses them in Sun Devil life, working with faculty and peer mentors.

"I really credit the Early Start program for being the reason that I had a remotely successful career here at ASU," said Lakshmanan.

She got to explore the study of mathematics at ASU including the courses, STEM careers and research opportunities available to math majors. It was at Early Start that she first met principal lecturer Rochus Boerner.

"He told it like it was. On the first day of Early Start, he sat down and said, 'So you want to be a mathematician? Here's what that looks like,'" said Lakshmanan.

Boerner explained what you can do with a math degree, and took students through both the applied and pure math side of things, including pursuing academia. "I always knew that academia was what I wanted," added Lakshmanan. "Because like I said, I don't know what to do if I don't have school."

Boerner also introduced some fascinating concepts in mathematics. "We walked through proving that the number one exists," said Lakshmanan. "And that the number two exists." They learned about the Peano axioms, fallacies and common mistakes in math — what to look for and what pitfalls to avoid.

They talked about mathematical thinking as well, which was something she had only had glimpses of previously. "I really enjoyed that, just studying the way mathematics could be thought about," said Lakshmanan. "Looking at that reinforced to me that this was something that I wanted to do."

Boerner became an influential mentor. Lakshmanan has worked as his instructional aide and grader for MAT 243 and 300 since her second semester.

"Janani is a highly mathematically talented student, but that by itself is not particularly unusual among math majors. What really impresses me is her maturity of understanding of and interest in all components of the mathematical enterprise, from pedagogy and outreach to applications and research," said Boerner. "I believe she has the potential to be an outstanding teacher and researcher."

President's Professor Matthias Kawski remembers Lakshmanan being surprised walking into his classroom on the first day of fall semester, seeing so many women in the all too often male-dominated upper division analysis classes. She became an organizer and leader of study groups, making everyone feel like they were part of one team.

"The women took 8 out of 12 A's in a class that started with 34 students," said Kawksi. "We had so much fun."

"Janani bears major responsibility for making that Advanced Calculus my best class ever in 33 years teaching at ASU," said Kawski, who is advising her Barrett honors thesis on Koszul duality of operads.

Although Lakshmanan admits that she could check the boxes next to a few of the underrepresented groups in mathematics, such as women, racial or ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, LGBTQ+, persons with disabilities, etc., she does not identify with labels in that way.

"Even if I do identify as part of those minority groups. I don't know if they have impacted my undergraduate experience — except in that they give me empathy. My undergraduate experience has only cemented this idea that I want to be part of academia," she said.

"I think academia at its best is a place where people of all identities should be able to succeed. Especially being a part of an organization like AWM has shown me that mathematics is for everyone."

We asked Lakshmanan to share a bit more about her journey as a Sun Devil.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: When I was looking to transfer from Emory, ASU was the only choice I considered — being from Chandler, it was right by home and an easy choice.

Q: What do you like most about mathematics (and your area of concentration)?

A: Pure math claims to be abstract, or removed from the prosaic inconsistencies of life, but its acme is the diversity of thought of eons and acres of brilliant thinkers. Some of these thinkers stood in the face of incredible hardship in order to find their way to this human understanding of truth.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Dr. Matthias Kawski — he told me to not be afraid of asking for help. This doesn’t just mean academic help, but also in personal life situations.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Try to think of professors as people, as opposed to figures of authority. Because I promise, what students are thinking is, "This person is looking at me and seeing a number." But I don't think any of my professors have a good enough memory to actually look at me and know whether or not I turned in a homework assignment that week. That's not what they're seeing when they look at you. They're seeing the person who's engaging with them and asking questions, or presenting an idea of their own.

I have never really been a super focused academic student. I would always go off on side tangents, and that's helped me because it means that I have a lot of professors that I've just walked up to and said, "Hi. Can I work with you on a thing that I have an idea for?" And they often respond in a positive way. That is a thing that you can do because professors, presumably, have some interest in learning as well as teaching — and they have just as much to learn from students as students do from them.

I think that's how you see a professor as a person, is realize that you're important to them just like they're important to you.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The roof of PSF is always lovely. Otherwise, I enjoy climbing the olive trees behind Goldwater.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: I love dancing — I’ve been an Indian classical (Bharatanatyam) dancer since I was 4 years old, and I’ve also recently taken up Argentine tango. I also write poetry and enjoy baking.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Education inequality is the problem that, once solved, can solve all the others, I think.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences