Women Scientists in IISc – Dr. Bhavana Kanukurthi

Photo Credits – Mr. Haridasan

Bhavana Kanukurthi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Automation. She completed her PhD at Boston University and postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles, and joined IISc in 2014. Her area of research is cryptography.

  • When did you first realise that you wanted to be a scientist?

 My cousin was pursuing his doctoral degree when I was in high school. That’s when I knew that I wanted to do a PhD. However, to say that I knew I wanted to be a scientist would be untrue. It just happened!

  • Why did you choose this area of research?

I liked the fact that it was mathematically oriented.

  • What are the big unresolved questions in your field?

Cryptography requires computational problems that are “hard to solve” i.e. problems that a computer will not be able to solve in a reasonable amount of time. For example, it is believed (though not proven) that factoring a product of two large prime numbers is hard. Without the existence of such “hard” problems, cryptography, as a field, doesn’t exist. We are yet to resolve whether such hard problems exist. This means that the biggest unresolved question in Cryptography, ironically, is whether Cryptography as a field exists or not!

“Cryptography is a unique – sadly, unique – discipline in that one of its pioneers is a woman researcher, Prof. Shafi Goldwasser, a Turing Award Winner.”

  • What is the most important advice you got that you think has helped you in your career?

 The most important advice I received was the following one from my doctoral advisor, Prof. Leo Reyzin: Always identify your strengths and weaknesses and then exploit your strengths to mitigate your weaknesses. While Leo’s advice was in the context of pursuing research, I believe this makes for fantastic life advice too!

  • If you had any women mentors or role models in science, who were they and what do you think you’ve learned most from them?

 Cryptography is a unique – sadly, unique – discipline in that one of its pioneers is a woman researcher, Prof. Shafi Goldwasser, a Turing Award Winner. While I wasn’t mentored by her, I believe she is one of the reasons why Cryptography is a remarkably gender-neutral field. Shafi and other senior female cryptographers such as Dr Tal Rabin (IBM Research) and Prof Cynthia Dwork (Harvard University) have inspired me with their presence. Seeing their success has taught me to not impose artificial gender-oriented limitations on myself. After joining CSA, I came to know about the late Prof. Priti Shankar, who was a faculty at CSA. I heard that she was a fantastic colleague, teacher, scientist and human being. I also learnt that she was the first female electrical engineer to graduate from IIT Delhi. I never had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Priti Shankar but her life inspires me and I wish I had gotten to know her.

  • What is the most fulfilling thing about a life in science?

I enjoy mentoring students and watching them grow as researchers.

  • What do you like most about working in IISc?

The academic freedom plus the fact that when I come to the campus in the morning, all I see are the pleasant sun rays glistening through the trees and all I hear are the birds chirping in the sky. It is an absolute bliss to chase challenging research questions in an environment as serene as this.

  • If there is one thing you’d like to change about IISc, what would it be?

 The fact that change trickles a bit slowly at IISc!

  • What would be your advice for aspiring women scientists?

 Find yourself great role models, both male and female. There are a lot of fantastic people out there. As you discover your own identity as a scientist, you will do well to draw inspiration from them.


Click here to view about a few of the Other Women in Science