Girls Need More Moms as STEM Role Models

A mother shares how her persistence, patience, and tenacity inspired her daughter

3 min read
Photo of a woman and a young girl in front of a laptop and monitor.

Bhuvan Mittal (left) reviewing her dissertation slides while her daughter is working on the laboratory's optical electronic equipment.

Pritha Khurana

Men dominate computer science and a lot of other tech fields—which can discourage girls, as they do not see a lot of female role models. Here is some advice that I hope will inspire anybody.


DREAM BIG

Dreaming inspires the heart, motivating us to overcome the adamantine hurdles that inevitably arise. Seeing my mother’s hard work and success as a physician, I dreamed of being an engineer when I was in high school. I was inspired by the success of my family members who are well-recognized and decorated for their research in the field of medicine.

In the early 1940s, my grandmother was the first woman in the entire Indian state of Jind, India, to earn an undergraduate degree. My parents were awarded the B.C. Roy Award, the highest honor doctors can receive in India, from the country’s president. My father also received the Padma Shri Award, which recognizes citizens’ contributions in various fields including arts, education, science, and others.

After completing my engineering bachelor’s degree at Thapar University in Patiala, India, I started working as a software developer. Despite my 60-hour workweeks, I made it a priority to pursue a postgraduate diploma in finance and information technology, to grow in my career.

I chased an even bigger dream—to become a corporate leader—so I pursued a full-time MBA from Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. Thereafter, I worked in supply-chain management and project management, leveraging my business school–acquired knowledge. Although my lack of career progression baffled me for nearly a decade, I kept going.

GRAB THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITIES

Always looking for opportunities, I applied to several doctoral programs in the United States. I jumped at the opportunity of earning a Ph.D. in computer science last year from the University of North Texas, in Denton.

Before joining the university’s doctoral program, I was conducting research at its Multimedia Information Group laboratory. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and subsequently exploded worldwide, I was already working on solving medical image diagnosis problems using artificial intelligence at the lab. I saw the necessity and potential benefits of research on COVID-19 using artificial intelligence on lung imaging.

CONCENTRATED EFFORTS

For my long hours of concentrated work on groundbreaking science I have received several accolades, awards, and recognitions internationally. I recently won the Best Presentation award for research on using artificial intelligence to assess the severity of COVID-19 in patients to help with diagnosis at the 2021 International Conference on Digital Image Processing and at the 2021 International Conference on Biomedical Imaging, Signal Processing.

I presented and published my work in peer-reviewed journals and conference papers about COVID-19, addressing disease diagnosis, triage, localization, and severity quantification with superior generalizability using machine learning analyses on lung imaging. My pioneering research was carried out at UNT’s Multimedia Information Group laboratory. It employed supervised deep-learning approaches in automated image analysis.

The research is instrumental not just for COVID-19 but for all diseases that manifest in lung imaging. My work can help physicians more efficiently and accurately diagnose the coronavirus and assess its severity.

I completed my Ph.D. in record time—three years—with a perfect 4.0 grade.

THE SECRET SAUCE

Sometimes sheer luck can bring about isolated instances of success, but hard work always prevails to bring about sustained success. Consistent hard work, persistence, forbearance, patience, satisfaction, tenacity, self-faith, self-confidence, and faith in God compose my secret sauce to success.

Such qualities mold our character and help remove hurdles. Three years ago, my 10-year-old daughter was an average student. After seeing me happily working so hard, she became inspired and surprised me. She suddenly became awesome in academics, winning several awards including the school President’s Award, as well as medals in extracurricular activities and a win in the school’s spelling bee.

My tenacity, persistent hard work, graduate studies, and faith in myself fueled my success in becoming a proud single parent and homeowner. I invited several female middle- and high-school students to my graduation celebration in December.

My successful work and research in computer vision and deep-neural networks in school and most recently at CVS Health, where I work as a data scientist, has made a difference and has boosted local, corporate, and national economic growth.

My advice to young people is that if there is something you love and always wanted to do, then go ahead, try it. Do it with your heart and soul. Persevere and reach your dreams.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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