Originally from India, Ravikiran (Ravi) Parameshwara and Soujanya Narayana – husband and wife, and PhD candidates – looked to Australia for more opportunities in the field of affective computing. They’ve found that and more at the University of Canberra – connecting with industry leaders within the Human Centred Technology (HCT) Research Centre and being mentored by a scientist at a leading behavioural analysis company.
Ravi and Soujanya started their PhD candidatures back home in India, but both were eager to transfer to an Australian university for more opportunities and exposure in their research field. At the time, Soujanya was already collaborating with Associate Professor Ram Subramanian, from UC’s Human Centred Technology (HCT) Research Centre, who informed her of the PhD opportunities at the University.
After some research into UC and the research centre, they both applied to transfer – hopeful, but not expecting, that they’d both get into the same university and be able to continue studying together.
They completed a year of their PhD from India due to Australia’s border closures, then moved to Canberra in 2022 to continue their studies at the Bruce campus.
“We’re so lucky we got into the same place, it doesn’t happen often,” Ravi says.
“We had no second thoughts about coming here. Canberra is a great city, and the Human Centred Technology Research Centre is fantastic – both the people and the work.”
Understanding human emotions with artificial intelligence
Both Ravi and Soujanya’s PhDs are within the field of affective computing, which involves studying and developing systems and tools that can recognise, interpret, process, and simulate human affects (expressions and emotions).
It’s also referred to as emotion artificial intelligence (AI), and can be used to identify symptoms of depression in people’s micro expressions and bodily gestures to aid mental health diagnoses (check out the UnCover story on Dua’a Ahmad), or monitor drivers for signs of distraction and fatigue on the road, and send alerts as needed.
Soujanya and Ravi are very interested in the technical possibilities of affective computing and working with human behaviours, which is why they are both pursuing their PhDs in the area.
Ravi’s PhD focusses on automatically inferring human emotions through real-time video analysis of facial expressions and body movements. In simpler terms: he’s developing an algorithm that can identify emotions people display (overtly and unconsciously) from a video.
Soujanya’s PhD research focusses on understanding human mood and emotions simultaneously from a computational perspective – how they occur concurrently and impact each other.
“While most people may think they’re similar, psychologists have charted differences between mood and emotion, and their interplay,” Soujanya says.
Psychologist Dr Paul Ekman identified seven emotions (happy, sad, fear, disgust, anger, contempt, and neutral) with unique and universal facial expressions, whereas mood does not have corresponding expressions. Emotions occur for seconds to minutes, compared to hours or days for mood – and it is easy to identify the trigger of an emotion, but mood triggers are difficult to identify.
Both Ravi and Soujanya are keeping their options open regarding the application of their models – focusing more on developing robust approaches that could be later specialised for specific purposes.
A mentor with impact
Access to role models and experts in the field of human centred technology can be challenging, so Ravi and Soujanya both applied for the PhD Plus Mentoring Program: a five-month program pairing UC PhD candidates with an academic or industry professional within the same research area. The mentor provides guidance and advice on industry, career pathways, professional networks, work/life balance and more, to add another level of support for candidates that’s outside their immediate supervisor panel.
“Anything ‘outside the box’ is beneficial for a PhD. The perspective of a third person who is very much aware of this kind of research is always beneficial, and I was on the lookout for such opportunities,” Soujanya says.
As suggested by Dr Ibrahim Radwan and Professor Roland Goecke, Dr Akshay Asthana was invited to mentor them both. Akshay was a perfect match – he is a Principal Scientist at Seeing Machines, a Canberra company that develops AI solutions for the transport, automotive, and aviation industries, and completed his PhD in the same field.
“Akshay was a great fit for me as a mentor, because he lives and works in Canberra, his company does research in my field, his research track record is excellent, and he happens to be one of my supervisor’s past students,” Ravi says.
For Soujanya and Ravi, one of the biggest impacts of Akshay’s mentorship has been the expertise he provides when they run into problems in their research.
“Akshay came on board recently as my mentor as I was finishing the first chapter of my thesis. He’s now involved for my second chapter and can provide more input on my experiments,” Soujanya says.
Akshay’s mentorship of both Soujanya and Ravi was so successful during the program, it has continued and morphed into an ongoing collaboration on their PhDs. He now takes part in meetings with their supervisors and has brought in one of his colleagues, Iman Abbasnejad, to help support Ravi’s research.
“In our case, I think mentorship wasn’t limited to just mentorship – it has gone beyond that,” she says.
“I would call Akshay a collaborator on my PhD, rather than an official mentor or supervisor,” Ravi adds.
Ravi and Soujanya recommend PhD candidates who are clear on what sort of mentorship they’re looking for during their candidature to give the PhD Plus Mentoring Program a go.
“I think it’s a great idea to have a mentor during your PhD, especially for interdisciplinary research,” he says.
“Your mentor could become a collaborator on your research, which could lead to employment opportunities later on,” Soujanya says.
They both agree that there’s just as much for mentors to gain through the program as there is for mentees.
“Many mentors desperately want to connect with PhD students, it’s a matter of matching them well. The PhD Plus team is doing a great job of matching people up,” Ravi says.
"The mentor gets to share their expertise and experience with the mentee, and the mentee gets exposure to new approaches. The relationship can be beneficial for both, and Akshay has mentioned that he's loving the mentoring experience," Ravi says.
Words by Kailey Tonini, photos by Tyler Cherry.
Applications for the Semester One 2023 intake of the PhD Plus Mentoring Program are open until 10 March 2023. UC PhD candidates in their second semester or later, who are on track with their milestones, can participate. They can participate in the program more than once during their candidature.
Anyone interested in mentoring can also submit their expression of interest to participate.