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Simar Tathgir using her computer
March 18, 2024

Inspired by grand challenges, undergrad Simar Tathgir seeks to create positive change

Written By: Jason Daley

Simar Tathgir, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has crammed more into her first two years of school than some students do their entire college careers. Tathgir is a computer engineering and computer sciences double major with a keen interest in and minor in entrepreneurship. Not only is she a tutor with the campus Center for Academic Excellence, she is also a research assistant in two laboratories. Recently, Tathgir was in the first class of engineering students to take part in the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program at UW-Madison, a multi-year program that trains student engineers to think about and address the grand challenges facing society this century. We caught up with Tathgir between classes and research to learn more about her journey so far.

Why did you choose UW-Madison?

I’m from Mumbai, India, and it was my dream to come to the United States for college since I was 13. I wanted an international experience and a well-rounded education, and UW-Madison is such a well-rounded school. Other universities I looked at were usually only good in one thing. I also chose UW-Madison because of its interdisciplinary aspects.

And I noticed that UW-Madison has tons of research opportunities. I have a deep inclination towards research, but had no research experience. Now, two years into college, I’m deeply involved in research and I’m very grateful I chose UW-Madison. The university really encourages students to participate in research through programs like Undergraduate Research Scholars, which I’m a part of.

Tell us about those research projects.

For the last year I’ve been working with G. Nike Gnanateja, an assistant professor in communication sciences and disorders. We’re working on an interdisciplinary project in audiology on how the brain encodes acoustic and linguistic speech features. My job is to implement machine learning into hearing aids to make them better. Right now I’m working on a model which is like an enhanced version of ChatGPT, that only works for speech and audio files. Eventually we’re planning on making this a website so other professors can use it.

I also recently started another research program in the Connected and Autonomous Transportation Systems Laboratory. With a PhD student mentor, we’re going to learn how to make self-driving cars more safe and efficient. I’m really excited about it and I do hope I can apply my sustainability knowledge from the Grand Challenges Program to this research. Because you might be making self-driving cars or automated vehicles safe and efficient, but at what cost?

Why did you join the Grand Challenges Scholars Program?

I kind of got into engineering because of sustainability. Back in high school, my grandfather was talking about the importance of sustainability and solar panels. So I led a project in my high school, creating a solar power plan for our community, putting together a design, presenting a cost-benefit analysis and doing other work. Ultimately, it didn’t get implemented, but I realized that engineering is a pathway to creating positive change. Sustainability is one of the four themes of the program—the others are health, security, and joy of living—so I thought the program would be a good experience for me.

What do you do in the program?

We had weekly discussions and worked through hypothetical solutions to real world problems. We also engaged in interactive sessions with different professors and attended webinars and seminars suggested by our supervisor.

From all our new knowledge from these different seminars we tried to narrow down our perspective on sustainability, since everyone has a different approach. It was based a lot on reflections, and that’s really great. It teaches you to question the orthodox or conventional aspects in science. There were a lot of things I heard in the seminars, and I would be like, no, maybe there’s a better way to do this.

Can you talk about your interest in entrepreneurship?

I chose to double major in computer engineering and computer science because I want to have a diverse skill set. After graduation, I want to be part of a startup at the crossroads of artificial intelligence and sustainability. And if that doesn’t work out, I want to get into research on AI and sustainability, so that’s why I chose my college courses and majors.

Photo of Simar Tathgir by Joel Hallberg