Gas Pumping, Guitar Strumming and Designing Wearables that Provide an Emotional Connection
One of Intel Engineer Ramune Nagisetty’s first jobs was wearing a blue jumpsuit, cleaning windshields and pumping gas. Now she’s a principal engineer within Intel Labs designing wearables that monitor biometrics as well as provide an emotional connection to others. Oh, and she just started a band, Rocket 3, in her free time, playing gigs almost every weekend for the past couple of years.
Question: Why did you become an engineer?
Ramune Nagisetty: My mother is an engineer. I was born in the former Soviet Union in Moscow and my mother is Lithuanian. My mother has a master’s degree in physics from Moscow State University. She also has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toledo. And her third master’s degree is in computer science, more specifically in artificial intelligence, and she got that while she was working as a full-time engineer at Ford. My mom had two kids, three master’s degrees and a full-time career, and we lived 75 miles away from Detroit so she also commuted 150 miles a day. So if you want to talk about where you can find inspiration for hard work and being super-motivated, it’s not too far. This person, my mother, did all of this.
I think what is important is that in the former Soviet Union, women were considered to be equal in the workforce. Women in engineering, women in construction and women in all sorts of different fields – that have taken longer here for women to break into – in the 1950s, women were already breaking into those areas in the Soviet Union.
My father is a math professor and taught at the University of Toledo. And so between having a mother as an engineer and father who’s a mathematician, it seemed pretty obvious that going into engineering would be a possibility.
I wasn’t that interested in doing what my parents wanted me to do so I was more interested in things like architecture and philosophy. My parents basically said they would not appreciate it that much, and if I wanted to study something besides engineering, I would have to come home and go to community college.
Q: What was your first job?
RN: I pumped gas in high school. I was one of those people wearing the Standard Oil blue jumper, washing your windshield, checking your oil and tires, and pumping your gas.
Q: What turned you on to engineering?
RN: I actually didn’t like the course work for engineering that much. But what I found was that when I got my first summer internship, and I worked as an intern at a company called Chicago Laser Systems, it changed everything.
All of a sudden I was doing real hands-on work, I could see my results. It turned out that getting out of the classroom and into the more hands-on internship situations was a tipping point for me when I realized that I actually really liked engineering. I liked doing hands-on work; I liked seeing results.
I studied general electrical engineering, and that is how I got my first job at IBM in Essex Junction, Vermont. And that was also really eye-opening because having a general purpose engineering degree is one thing, and then going into the workforce, where it’s a very specific type of work, required a lot of learning as well. What I did at IBM was work on device characterization, essentially characterizing transistors – that’s pretty specific – and I didn’t have that much training or theoretical background from college in that area, and so what I found was that after two years at IBM, I wanted to go to graduate school to get a better theoretical understanding of transistors. So I went to UC Berkeley and got my masters in electrical engineering there; my specialization was in transistor device physics.
Q: How did you get your job at Intel?
RN: Intel was recruiting on campus for this thing called the Rotation Engineering Program and I was offered a position, actually, on the spot.
I started in the rotation program in New Mexico, and I worked three different rotations there. And when I took my final placement, my goal was to actually work on the leading- edge transistor technology development and that happens in Hillsboro, Oregon. Hillsboro is the epicenter of world-class technology development in the entire world, as far as I’m concerned.
I actually went to a conference called the IEDM (International Electron Devices Meeting), and I met up, just per chance, with a bunch of folks from Intel in Hillsboro and explained that I was looking for my final placement. And they were really interested in me because of my background in transistor device physics.
Q: How would you describe your time at Intel?
RN: I have had three main phases in my career [at Intel]. The first one was working in logic technology development [LTD] in the Technology and Manufacturing Group [TMG]. In this phase, I did device characterization where I delivered several process technology nodes – 65 nm, 90 nm, 130 nm, 180 nm. For 65 nm, I was the lead technology development engineer. I have patents in the area of high-performance transistors related to strained silicon.
Then I decided I wanted to see what else Intel does, and I wanted to understand more about what makes products compelling and successful. It was actually pretty difficult to leave technology development because I was really an expert in that area…but I really wanted to explore the new frontiers outside of transistor technology development. So I went to Intel Labs in 2006, and I started running strategic technology programs.
These technology programs reported straight up into Intel’s executive management. It was kind of the opposite of transistor technology development because transistors are essentially very small, and you have to be very detail-oriented – the level you are looking at is the atomic level. And then you go to strategic technology programs, and you are essentially on the complete flip side, and you are talking more about things in systems integration and technology roadmaps and the future. You are all of a sudden going from the carpet to the sky. I was exposed more to the long-term strategy, which was a very important phase of my career.
Q: What are you working on currently?
RN: A few years ago, still at Intel Labs, I wanted to get back into doing hands-on engineering work, and so I moved into a different organization within Intel Labs. For the last couple of years, I have been specifically focused on wearable technology. When I say wearable, I’m talking about wrist-worn form factors and also things like rings and badges.
I have three different types of wearable form factors where we develop new usage models, which can be related to things like security and authentication or biometrics use for health and wellness and also biometrics related to emotions and emotional connection between people.
I proposed a seed project in 2011 that had to do with wearables and biometrics. That was actually before things like the FitBit and the Nike Fuel had come out, and the only thing that even remotely looked like what we have today in wearables was Apple’s iPod Nano that you could put onto a wristband.
Now I’m starting a new project that has to do with maintaining an emotional connection between people through wearables. Every time technology has evolved, one of the first usages for technology has been for people to communicate with each other. That’s true whether we are talking about people writing letters and sending them across the country using the Pony Express, to sending telegrams, then telephones allowed people to stay in touch and communicate, and then came smartphones, and we can communicate using videos and more than just words. The next step is to actually be able to use wearables to allow people to be continuously connected.
Wearables that are being created for health and fitness can also be used generally for certain types of emotional connection as well because a lot of our emotions actually manifest themselves through different types of biometric signals.
We are just on the brink of a whole new set of usage models related to wearables. In the world of wearables, I don’t expect or want a wrist-worn wearable to do what my phone does, just like I don’t want my phone to do what my laptop does. All of these things have their distinct advantages.
Q: You starting playing music recently, what prompted you to do so?
RN: In February  it will be five years since I got a guitar and four years since I started recording. I put out my first EP about a year and a half after I got my guitar. I’ve always really enjoyed music, my brother is a professional musician, so I have been surrounded by music my whole life, but I never really had a talent or proclivity for it. About five years ago, it was Presidents Day weekend, I was really bored, to tell you the truth, a little bit bored with my life. I felt like I had achieved a lot of things, I had a really wonderful career, a wonderful home life and husband, and had achieved a lot of those things that we strive for in our lives.
On a whim, I went to a guitar store with a friend and picked up an electric guitar. Within a few months, I was writing my own songs.
My first teacher wasn’t the right teacher. What I think that is really important and actually what makes a really good teacher is finding the way to teach that individual. Certain people are going to learn theoretically and other people will want to learn songs and mostly that’s what I do. Some people are much more intuitive, some people will learn by seeing and reading music, some by hearing music. And so I think a really good teacher is actually one that can adjust their teaching style to what the student’s learning style is.
Q: What about women in technology?
RN: I went to university into engineering school and it was always dominated by men and there weren’t very many women, but it never actually bothered me at all. It seems like if you have grown up this way, you don’t feel like you don’t belong because this is how it’s always been.
Until eight years ago, I didn’t really do a lot with women in technology and STEM because I always felt like these programs were for somebody else and that they weren’t really for me. I didn’t really understand the benefit of those programs.
About eight years ago, we had our first Women’s Principal Engineer Forum at Intel, and I was invited to attend this event even though I wasn’t yet a principal engineer. I actually wasn’t planning to go, I just thought “I don’t really need that,” but what happened was that Kelin Kuhn was actually the person who sent me an email and copied tons of people on it saying “these are the people I want speaking for the Women’s Principal Engineers Forum,” and she had this list of speakers and I was one of them.
I think Kelin is the smartest person I’ve ever met, and if she tells me that I’m going to be a speaker at this forum, well I’m going to the forum and I’m going to do what she tells me to do.
I had a chance to present work that I had been doing for a long time that I was really an expert in, but for the most part, it had always been presented at conferences by people other than myself, people who were more senior, people who were recognized as spokespersons for Intel. So I really never had that chance to stand up and talk the data that I had been working on for a long time. So I had this chance to get up and speak and what I found was that it was great! It was great to get that feeling that I actually am more than capable of speaking to this information and that this opportunity gave me some insight into how valuable that is.
So I came back from the Women’s PE [principal engineer] Forum that first year and I thought “you know what, I wonder if I should be a PE.” So I went down the path to become a principal engineer, but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had that opportunity at that forum to present…to kind of step into some bigger shoes and say, “Hey these shoes fit pretty well.” It gives you the courage to take that next step.
What I discovered was that these types of events are actually really important. And the other thing is, it’s really important to establish a network of women that can give you support when things aren’t going so well because a lot of times when things aren’t going so well there aren’t going to be other people who are going to relate to what you are going through.
One of the things I do tell people at these events if you can come away with one new friend…who can relate to the challenges you face because that friend will be someone you can rely on when things get tough.
I have attended every single Women’s Principal Engineer and Fellows Forum since that first year, and I work with anybody who wants to have any type of mentoring in their career.
Q: What advice do you have for people thinking about entering engineering?
RN: There is something there about making connections between technology and engineering and the things that you love that sometimes doesn’t really come through when it is not presented in a way that you can understand. And that same kind of comparison about finding a music teacher who can teach you according to how you would like to learn or how you would best learn is important. That same analogy works when you are trying to connect people with technology and engineering – finding ways to present these concepts is important for those students to grasp.
In my education, the most important thing has always been the teacher, and I can say for a fact that the teachers who resonated with me had the biggest impact on my career and that’s going to be true whether we are talking about teachers or role models, especially nowadays when technology is becoming so personal. When they realize that can create things that are useful and that have a special place in their lives, then you are connecting the technology side with the human side with the emotional side. And when I think you can make those connections, you will appeal to a much larger base of people, including girls and women, in terms of studying engineering.
I do think that having a more diverse group of people, pursuing engineering, will result in more creative uses and solutions. You can have a lifetime career and never get bored. To encourage not just girls and women, but all sorts of people from all sorts of diverse backgrounds, to pursue engineering I think is a good thing.
It’s important to realize that engineering IS a creative outlet. The more that people can realize that it is creative, I think the more interested they’ll be in pursuing engineering.
Q: What’s your favorite song?
RN: I think “Mirror” [by the Velvet Underground] is a great song that I’ll cover some day. And also, it ties into the importance of being able to relate to role models and teachers.
“I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.”