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Dronamraju Directs Gift to the Professor and Mentor Who Helped Bridge His Most Meaningful Transition

4/23/2021 9:59:38 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

For years, Ravi Dronamraju has wanted to find a way to return a favor to Fulton Watson Copp Chair in Computer Science David A. Forsyth.

The generous gift he just made directly to Forsyth’s research efforts in computer vision isn’t the end of the road. Rather, Dronamraju sees it as a new beginning. A chance to once again establish a meaningful relationship with the mentor who helped shape perhaps the most significant moments of his life.

Donor Ravi Dronamraju and his daughter Haasini
Ravi Dronamraju, pictured here with his daughter Haasini, directed a recent gift to the research efforts of David A. Forsyth, Fulton Watson Copp Chair in Computer Science. Dronamraju studied under Forsyth in graduate school at the University of Iowa starting in 1991.

In a professional path filled with successes and challenges overcome, nothing compares to the personal tragedy Dronamraju faced at an unexpected moment.

As a teenager in India studying computer science and engineering at Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Dronamraju learned that his father and older brother passed away in an automobile accident.

Suddenly, the concerns of a somewhat carefree undergraduate student transformed into the financial and patriarchal matters that people do not typically face for many more years.

Dronamraju looked toward the United States for a graduate school experience that could better prepare him for a career in the tech sector – which was still in a fairly fundamental stage in 1991. He chose the University of Iowa to study computer science, where he wanted to focus on computer vision because of a fascination with the way computers could identify images.

As he travelled from his home in India to the Midwest, Dronamraju didn’t quite know what to expect.

“Lo and behold, the first thing that I came across when I started at Iowa was the news that an NSF grant recipient – a young, award-winning investigator interested in computer vision was joining the faculty,” Dronamraju said. “I immediately felt as though I fell into an opportunity that could be amazing, so I sought him out right away.”

The two synched up and the connection resulted in a research assistantship for the student. Dronamraju said he immediately understood that this was the person he wanted to learn from.

“Once you get to know David, he is very nurturing and kind. At first, though, he can be an immense presence – both in stature and, more importantly, in science,” Dronamraju said. “The level of processing his mind produces quickly was impressive to witness and learn from. Still, what really stands out is the kind way he interacts with his students.”

One lesson learned included a brand-new way for the pupil to look at a problem while coding. Forsyth immediately confronted any problem with math.

Dronamraju never worked this way before. Over time, he grasped the science in a new way. That led him to feel confident as a problem-solver, not only as a software developer.

When two years came and went, Dronamraju earned his master’s degree. Rather than continuing with Forsyth toward his PhD, he had to inform his instructor that his academic path was ending.

Due to the financial concerns of his family overseas in India, it wasn’t feasible to stay in school as a PhD student – although the option seemed interesting to the student. Despite the news, Dronamraju said Forsyth once again showed his grace.

David Forsyth
David A. Forsyth

By understanding the student’s concern, Forsyth didn’t focus on the relationship ending. Instead, he provided his knowledge of the industry and offered to support any way possible. Dronamraju entered the workforce before the dotcom boom of the mid-1990s. He spent the bulk that portion of his career with Yahoo! after joining the company as an early engineer.

Thinking back on his entry into computer science, Dronamraju recalled how he didn’t even know what a computer was when he tested into engineering before starting his undergraduate work.

Fast-forward six years, and he had a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the field. Dronamraju then embarked on a successful career, exploring new areas that combined his love for tech with an interest in the financial sector. He currently serves as the founder and chief investment officer of his own hedge fund called Dhruva Fund.

Now, Dronamraju looks back at a successful professional life and a personal dedication to his family that he fulfilled.

He traces the beginning of this achievement to meeting Forsyth.

“David’s Lab and the collaborative team environment was a sanctuary for me,” Dronamraju said. “Working there transported me to a different world, where none of the other pressures I faced really existed. Those two years I spent in Iowa working with David were incredibly important for me, in that sense.”

He seeks to honor Forsyth with this gift and hopes that other young students can benefit from the experience under the professor’s wing.

Forsyth hopes to use the gift to support a student, likely an undergraduate, in a speculative project where the work provides a chance to solidify his or her vision.

He appreciates the opportunity ahead and acknowledged the meaningful nature of Dronamraju’s graduate experience.

“I’m always very happy to hear that I’ve been helpful. It’s harder to achieve than one would hope,” Forsyth said. “Most people are, or try to be, important in the lives of others. What is odd about being a professor is that it is actually part of your job — professors should have impact on students.

“To, me that’s also one of the most appealing features of the job. You’re supposed to help others to succeed. Simply listening and responding sensibly can be of spectacular value.”