Blooming from the STEM: Exploration in engineering

Pavitra Rengarajan (‘12) pursues machine learning with an open mind

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Provided by Pavitra Rengarajan, illustration by Michelle Liu

“[Computer science] is analytical in its foundation. But it’s artistic in its execution. There is so much nuance and craft that goes into solving a problem and that goes into designing a model and writing code and building a system at scale,” Rengarajan said.

by Sabrina Zhu, STEM editor

Have you ever wondered how the recommendation feeds on social media platforms are so accurate? They always seem to discover your interests, whether those are pet videos, style recommendations, or sports updates, almost immediately after you download the app. These incredible personalization systems are the results of the work of dedicated and creative software engineers, like Pavitra Rengarajan (‘12).

After graduating from the Harker upper school in 2012, Rengarajan studied computer science with a focus in artificial intelligence at Stanford University, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degree. Now, she leads a machine learning team and works with social media platforms. Rengarajan often has to analyze large data sets, and she specifically concentrates on improving efficiency for personalization and recommendation systems.

“What I do on a daily basis is building machine learning algorithms, understanding data, and trying to build really positive experiences for people around the world,” she said.

Before beginning her first job, Rengarajan believed in a misconception that a computer science career would be secluded and repetitive. But she has realized that working in STEM is actually a fusion of technical skills, teamwork and awareness of real world challenges, which she loves.

“[Computer science] is analytical in its foundation,” Rengarajan said. “But it’s artistic in its execution. There is so much nuance and craft that goes into solving a problem and that goes into designing a model and writing code and building a system at scale.”

Although Rengarajan leads a STEM-oriented life now, she held a wide range of interests in high school. Not only did she enjoy learning advanced topic math and computer science, when she was first introduced to STEM, but she also loved her English classes, studied French culture and participated in the journalism program. 

“[Computer science] is analytical in its foundation. But it’s artistic in its execution. There is so much nuance and craft that goes into solving a problem and that goes into designing a model and writing code and building a system at scale.””

— Pavitra Rengarajan ('12)

Even now, besides being a software engineer, Rengarajan plays the flute and has been involved in various volunteer performance groups and gigs. She learned to play in elementary school and frequently traveled to participate in youth orchestras in high school. Rengarajan continues to see music as a creative outlet for her, where she can enter an entirely different world from her STEM life.

Rengarajan eventually realized that she wanted to pursue a software and technology career in college after taking her first computer science course. 

“There were so many artificial intelligence classes [at Stanford], and that was when I was like, ‘Wow, this really feels like such a natural fit for all of my interests,’” she said. “I love building. I love problem solving. I love and am curious about the human brain.”

However, Rengarajan believes much of her inspiration to become a software engineer arose even before her college experience. In fact, she credits the Harker environment and community members for allowing her to deeply explore topics that she was curious about, including those in the STEM field. She found herself frequently visiting teachers’ office hours to learn as much as she could.

“​​Having the type of relationship that we were able to have with teachers, [because of the] much smaller class sizes, I really feel like there are so many teachers who I look back on now. They’ve really shaped my growth and my development into who I am today and the type of work that I’m doing today,” Rengarajan said. “Being able to have those small class sizes and being surrounded by so many amazing students at the same time was really inspiring for me.”

Mahati Kumar, a close friend who has known Rengarajan for over six years, was her roommate during their Facebook internships. After working on similar projects at the company, Mahati realized that Rengarajan is a “go-getter;” she picked up skills quickly, in a range of computer science subfields, and would always try to find new opportunities to learn.

“I really admire that she’s so quick, and she is very sharp with her questions. And she has excellent communication skills, and she’s very bold and expresses her opinions, but in a really nice way,” Mahati said. “That’s a really good combination for an engineer to have: excellent communication skills, as well as excellent design as well as execution skills.”

Although Rengarajan is an avid learner and a hard-worker, Sarah Salameh, another close friend of Rengarajan, also sees her as a responsible manager who can interact well with multiple different dynamics. The two have known each other for nine years, after meeting at Stanford.

“[Rengarajan’s] not only an incredible [machine learning] engineer and one of the top in her field, but she’s also just an incredible leader,” Salameh said. “She really knows how to organize teams and provide leadership that people need for going into work every day.”

Rengarajan advises high school students to follow their interests and not worry if they are uncertain of what they want to pursue in the future. Especially for those who are planning on entering STEM fields, she recommends that they keep open minds about their career paths.

“What I have found is that tech is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary,” Rengarajan said “There’s so much room for a lot of interdisciplinary work in tech and in STEM fields in general. And so as long as you’re leading with what’s interesting to you, leading with your curiosity, and enjoying the process, you will be set up.”