In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Praneeth Chakravarthula, a newly appointed assistant professor in the department of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA. His research spans the intersection of optics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer graphics and vision, and applied vision science, with broad applications in next-generation imaging, display and wearable computing systems.
Chakravarthula earned his Ph.D. from UNC Chapel Hill and is a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, USA. He is an Optica Senior Member and has been recognized with awards including the IEEE VR Best Dissertation Award, a Mistletoe Research Fellowship, the Timothy L. Quigg Inventor of the Year Award at UNC and multiple best paper and demo awards.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I’m from India, where I feel the pursuit of science and spirituality is deeply ingrained in the culture. In my family, teachers were held in high regard. I was lucky to have exceptional teachers and mentors, especially my physics teacher, who got me really interested in electromagnetism and optics during my college studies.
I’m also part of the generation that went from using postcards and telegrams to now using smartphones. The rapid changes in technology I witnessed while growing up in India had a profound impact on me and made me want to pursue a career in science and technology. The mix of cultural reverence for learning, great mentors and the exciting technological changes has had a big influence on my journey in science.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
I love that there is always something new and exciting to explore. My research journey began with developing near-eye displays for AR/VR applications during my Ph.D., which led me to explore various areas like holography, nanophotonics, machine and human perception and using the latest AI techniques to solve tricky problems in optics and computer vision. Over time, my research has gotten broader, and I’m tremendously enthusiastic about that.
Now, as I’m becoming a professor, I’m discovering how satisfying it is to guide and support students in their own research. This aspect, I believe, is what excites me the most about the years ahead.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
For early-career researchers, instead of networking for the sake of networking, I suggest building close relationships and collaborations with people whose research you genuinely find interesting and inspiring. When I go to conferences, I’m excited about connecting with friends and colleagues. Also, don’t be shy about reaching out to senior professionals. I’ve found that our community of researchers is pretty awesome, and whenever I’ve reached out for guidance, I’ve received great mentorship. I wish I could name and thank everyone here, but instead, I try to pay it forward by being open to conversations with junior students and researchers.
These days, I also find social media to be super helpful. Most research gets shared there, and even though I’m still a bit of a newbie in that space, I’m figuring it out as I go. So my advice is to focus on building real connections with people who genuinely interest you, don’t hesitate to connect with senior professionals and embrace the online world of social media for sharing and discovering research.
How important are leadership roles in career development and how do you hone your leadership skills?
“I believe empathy and perspective are very fundamental to an educator.”
Leading in academia is fascinating because it involves personal growth as well as helping others grow as leaders. Leadership roles are crucial for career growth, and being in a supportive environment is beneficial to taking on these responsibilities. It not only helps you grow but also makes you more visible and recognized and opens up networking opportunities.
I believe empathy and perspective are very fundamental to an educator. Being a professor adds an extra layer of responsibility in terms of understanding and caring for students from diverse backgrounds, and I emphasize the importance of empathy in my interactions. This understanding guides my efforts to collaborate, initiate research projects, explore new areas and support students. Learning from Henry Fuchs, my Ph.D. advisor, I believe in leading by example and strive to set a positive tone for my students.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
As an undergraduate, I decided to do a research internship because it meant I could fly on an airplane, something I had never done before. Looking back, that is perhaps the most important decision that shaped my career. During the internship, I was introduced to AR/VR displays, and I still remember being amazed by a red image floating in the air on a real holographic display—it felt like pure magic.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
In academia, we all know that having technical knowledge, innovative and critical thinking, time management and good communication skills are important. But it is also easy to feel overwhelmed with numerous tasks and end up working too much. I believe one must learn to take breaks to recharge, and celebrate tiny victories. Being patient and understanding that everything, especially research, takes time is also very important. It is even more important for international students and researchers to realize this, as they have to additionally overcome language and cultural barriers, and most times, also homesickness.
“I am still learning and growing, but one skill I have found really useful is knowing when to ask for help.”
I am still learning and growing, but one skill I have found really useful is knowing when to ask for help. I want to reiterate that the research community generally is very supportive, and asking for help can make a significant difference.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
I think feeling discouraged in a science career is perfectly normal—it happens even to the best in the field. If you are feeling discouraged, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you admire for guidance. Honest conversations often reveal that even the most accomplished researchers have faced their fair share of disappointments. In my observation, those who maintained resilience ultimately found success.
As Randy Paush aptly articulated, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. They are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
It is that one research paper, for which I sacrificed my mental and physical health and attached all my self-worth, is not going to decide the course of my career.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
I consider myself very fortunate to have been guided by several outstanding mentors who, whether knowingly or unknowingly, have played a crucial role in shaping my career. In particular, I must highlight my Ph.D. advisor, Henry Fuchs, who had a profound influence on me. I vividly remember a moment when Henry retrieved a Siggraph award plaque from a box on his shelf, which had the words “... for educating the leaders in the field of computer graphics.” This inspired me greatly, motivating me to aspire to be a good researcher, teacher and mentor.
My mentees constantly remind me that success comes with hard work and dedication. Although I have passed through the Ph.D. roller coaster myself, it is always very inspiring to see the creative energy, resilience and hard work of students and junior researchers.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I am super excited to start my own research group at UNC, and I’m looking forward to exploring various areas and the many great collaborations that lie ahead. If you’re a student or a fellow researcher interested in potential collaboration, please feel free to reach out to me.