An Autism Screening Tool Led Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan To Devote Himself to Humanitarian Work

Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan [sixth from left] visiting a power plant in Abuja, Nigeria during the 2019 IEEE Power Africa conference.
Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan [sixth from left] visiting a power plant in Abuja, Nigeria during the 2019 IEEE Power Africa conference.
Photo: Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan

By: Joanna Goodrich

THE INSTITUTE When Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan was an undergraduate at Anna University, in Chennai, India, he met with local families to see how technology could improve their quality of life. Many had children with autism, the IEEE senior member says, but because the parents were poor, the kids didn’t receive the medical care they needed. In some cases, the parents didn’t know much about the developmental disorder.

For his undergraduate dissertation, Veeraraghavan created software that helps screen children for autism.

He completed the early-screening system in 2004. Parents answer a series of questions about their child’s motor skills, and social and language development. Using an inference engine to evaluate the answers, the system determines whether the child is reaching the correct developmental milestones. It then generates a report stating whether the child demonstrates developmental delays. If so, the screening system provides a list of nearby specialists.

The screening tool can detect developmental delays in children as young as 18 months.

The system, which was deployed in more than 20 Indian schools and health care clinics, spearheaded the creation of other early-intervention programs for children with autism in rural areas.

After Veeraraghavan graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering, he launched another technology-based humanitarian program: Brahmam Innovations. In Sanskrit, brahmam equates to knowledge. The program aims to improve the living conditions of underserved communities.

Veeraraghavan does all that while holding down a full-time job as a senior technical program manager for Amazon in Boston.

For his humanitarian work, he is this year’s recipient of the annual IEEE Theodore W. Hissey Outstanding Young Professional Award, which is sponsored by IEEE Young Professionals and the IEEE Photonics and Power & Energy societies.

“This award is special to me because it recognizes both the technical and leadership contributions I’ve made to humanitarian efforts,” Veeraraghavan says.

The award was scheduled to be presented at the annual IEEE Honors Ceremony on 15 May in Vancouver, during the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit, but the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SOLVING PROBLEMS

Veeraraghavan has a long association with IEEE. His undergraduate thesis advisor suggested that by joining IEEE he could improve his system through networking with other engineers.

“Joining the organization helped me find like-minded people who have a passion for developing technology and for humanitarian work,” Veeraraghavan says.

While he was developing his screening system as a student, he presented a paper about it at a conference in 2005. He won best paper and was approached by the chair of the IEEE Madras Section about featuring his screening technology in an article in the section’s newsletter, IEEE MAS Link. Some of the local IEEE members who read the article became his mentors and encouraged him to become more involved with the organization.

Local schools and health care facilities began to use Veeraraghavan’s autism screening technology in 2006. When he visited health care providers who were using it, he was introduced to the children’s families, who expressed their gratitude.

“That was the first time I saw the impact my technology had on the community,” he says. “Families who used the screening system told me that it changed their lives.”

Those interactions inspired Veeraraghavan to found Brahmam Innovations.

Although launching the program wasn’t smooth sailing, he was able to turn to his IEEE network for help.

“Although I could understand how to solve the community’s needs with technology, I didn’t know how to make the application scalable so it could be offered to everyone,” Veeraraghavan says. “I didn’t have a mentor to guide me on how to do this, but I was able to find several through IEEE, specifically the IEEE Madras Section.”

IEEE Members Vedantadesikan Krishnaswamy and Suresh Chander were two mentors who guided Veeraraghavan in his journey, both as founder of the Brahmam program and as an IEEE member. Krishnaswamy, who died in 2007, taught Veeraraghavan about the potential impact technology could have on disabled children. Chander introduced him to IEEE programs available to students and YP members.

To introduce himself to more members, he presented his autism screening system at the 2008 IEEE Region 10 Congress, which brings together students and young engineers from throughout IEEE’s Asia and Pacific region to learn about advances in technology, attend workshops, and meet IEEE leaders.

That opportunity provided the program with visibility, and the connections Veeraraghavan made led to collaborations with other engineering communities, nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, and disability advocacy groups, he says.

The program now is running projects in Uganda and the United States as well. Engineers are working to create self-sufficient villages using artificial intelligence, provide a continuous source of clean water and electricity, and address challenges faced by hospitals that care for neonatal and prenatal patients.

“Brahmam Innovations allows me to build a better tomorrow and to serve society,” Veeraraghavan says.

LEADING IEEE PROGRAMS

After joining IEEE, Veeraraghavan played a large role in many of the organization’s humanitarian efforts in his native country. He led a collaboration between the IEEE Young Professionals committee and the IEEE Women in Engineering Madras affinity group, which established the Sangamam program in India. The initiative teaches science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to women and children in rural areas and aims to create self-supporting communities.

In 2008 he moved to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass.

While there he took on IEEE leadership roles. He was chair of the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (IEEE SIGHT) projects committee from 2015 to 2017. During that time, he doubled the number of projects being funded. He then joined the EPICS in IEEE proposal committee and taught Boston high school students about STEM careers.

“Every IEEE member has a social responsibility to positively influence society through technological innovations and by mentoring students from underrepresented groups,” Veeraraghavan says. “When the community grows, the region grows; when the region grows, the nation grows; and when the nation grows, there will be global growth.”

For the past two years, Veeraraghavan has been a member of the IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee. And he is now the global chair of IEEE SIGHT.

Veeraraghavan has increased the number of new projects being funded by IEEE SIGHT—which now total 21. He also increased the group’s membership by 200 percent, to 10,645. Under his leadership, IEEE SIGHT Celebration Week was held for the first time, in December. The event aims to increase awareness of the program within IEEE and to celebrate the humanitarian efforts volunteers and groups have made. The first IEEE SIGHT Day, a virtual event that was held on 28 April, was intended to foster a spirit of community for the global IEEE SIGHT network.

“Sampath’s exemplary leadership, vision, and pioneering innovations for IEEE humanitarian programs is truly inspiring,” says IEEE Senior Member Darwin Jose Raju, an IEEE SIGHT subcommittee member. “It reflects how IEEE members’ innovations can transcend global boundaries to serve the needs of underserved communities at grassroots levels. His significant contributions to technology-based humanitarian programs perfectly match with IEEE’s core mission in advancing technology to serve humanity.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 11 May 2020.