Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Rajalakshmi Nandakumar’s wi-fi tech analysis might assist us sleep simple

Rajalakshmi Nandakumar. (University of Washington Photo / Sarah McQuate)

Rajalakshmi Nandakumar awoke to some good news this week.

Not only is the PhD candidate at University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering our latest Geek of the Week, but Nandakumar’s research into wireless technology and sleep apnea has earned her a distinct honor. Nandakumar has been awarded a 2018 Marconi Society Young Scholar Award.

Nandakumar is a self-professed “geek who is passionate about making a difference in people’s lives.” She’s achieving that with her work in the Mobile and Networks Systems lab with Dr. Shyam Gollakota and the ApneaApp.

Sleep apnea is a common breathing disorder that affects more than 18 million Americans. Diagnosis in a medical clinic is a labor intensive and time-consuming process. Nandakumar found a contactless way to do it using smartphone technology, which she describes below.

Born and brought up in southern India amidst people who love spicy food, cricket and mathematics, Nandakumar was fascinated by new advances in computers around the early 2000’s. She pursued her bachelors in computer science and engineering at College of Engineering Guindy in India.

“The four years taught me the basics of computer science,” Nandakumar said. “At the end, I was offered a unique opportunity to learn to conduct research in computer science at Microsoft Research India.”

Nandakumar worked on using wireless technologies to enable localization of people and devices in indoor spaces. She found a love for research and pursued that passion to the Allen School.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Rajalakshmi Nandakumar:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I use wireless sensors in existing smartphones to develop novel healthcare applications that can improve the quality of people’s lives.

Recently, I developed a wireless technology to diagnose sleep apnea with a smartphone. Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that affects more than 18 million Americans. Today, more than half remain undiagnosed since it requires an expensive test where the patient has to sleep in a special lab wearing 20-30 sensors including one in their nose. Instead, I designed wireless technology that can monitor the breathing of a person in their home using just a smartphone without wearing any sensors on the human body.

Taking inspiration from bats that use active sonar to see in the dark, our system transmits inaudible sound signals from the phone speaker. These signals get reflected off the human body when the person breathes, and we capture these reflections from the microphones to extract the breathing motion. The clinical studies have shown that the technology has accuracies similar to the gold-standard polysomnography test used in clinics. Our active sonar technology has been licensed by ResMed Inc., a major player in the sleep industry, and they have released a sleep tracking app called SleepScore for both iPhone and Android that incorporates our active sonar technology.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Often people associate wireless signals with communication. Though it is the primary purpose, these wireless signals we are surrounded with can also be used to enable novel applications in other domains like healthcare, human computer interaction and security. The technology in “The Dark Knight” movie where Lucius Fox uses all the smartphone signals to visualize the entire city is actually getting closer to being feasible.

Where do you find your inspiration? My dad works in the health industry in India, and growing up I have seen the difficulties people face to gain access to basic healthcare. So, my research focuses on making healthcare readily and continuously accessible by developing technologies that can run on common smartphone devices. Further, our collaboration with UW Medicine has shown multiple ways in which mobile technology can be used to improve the quality of people’s lives.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I cannot live without my smartphone. I need it for both work and fun.

Rajalakshmi Nandakumar surrounds herself with multiple devices at her workstation.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My workspace consists of a laptop, multiple latest smartphones (perks of my work), some medical devices and coffee. This is where I initially design and develop applications. Once I have the prototype my workspace will be in the hospital where we conduct tests with actual people. That is fun as I get to wear scrubs, play doctor and see my work being used by people.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Always have a schedule planned for the day based on the priority of the tasks. If you are a researcher, always plan for things to go wrong and set your schedule to accommodate it.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac definitely. It has the perfect combination of GUI and command line access.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Kirk.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter. I want to travel the world.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Like to work on technology that can detect the onset of cancer using smartphones.

I once waited in line for … There is so many. The most recent one was for my U.S. visa renewal. I started from Seattle, traveled 24 hours to reach India where it was scorching hot and had to wait for 2 more hours to submit my documents. But the visit to my home country was worth it.

Your role models: My dad is my first role model. He is an ambitious man who has always taught me to set my goals high and work hard to achieve them.

Greatest game in history: “Mario.” It’s a classic and I always feel nostalgic playing it.

Best gadget ever: 3D printer. Now we can print our own gadgets.

First computer: Dell Inspiron.

Current phone: I have a Google Pixel. I love the openness of the platform and I get to easily test my technologies in my phone. The Google apps are a bonus.

Favorite app: My current favorites are Google Now and Duolingo.

Favorite cause: One of the cause I strongly feel about is women in technology. We need more women in STEM fields. A little encouragement and effort from each of us can go a long way in making it happen.

Most important technology of 2018: Internet of Things (IoT). We now have multiple smart things, from thermostats to more complex devices, all interconnected and remotely accessible.

Most important technology of 2020: Healthcare in your pocket. Imagine our smartphones acting as our personal physicians monitoring our health continuously.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: As Frost says, take the road less travelled and that will make all the difference.

Website: UW staff profile

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