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Smart Grid, Energy Informatics and Vehicular Networks: Interview with Prof. Sabita Maharjan

Sabita Maharjan is a Senior Research Scientist at the Simula Metropolitan Center for Digital Engineering, Norway, and an Associate Professor at the University of Oslo, Norway. She received her Ph.D. degree in Networks and Distributed Systems from the University of Oslo, and Simula Research Laboratory, Norway, in 2013. She worked as a Research Engineer in Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R), Singapore in 2010. She was a Visiting Scholar at Zhejiang University (ZU), Hangzhou, China in 2011, and a Visiting Research Collaborator in University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) in 2012. Her current research interests include 5G, network security and resilience, smart grid, vehicle-to-grid, internet of things, connected vehicles and software-defined wireless networking.


Sabita Maharjan Website


Sabita Maharjan University of Oslo Profile


Sabita Maharjan Simula Profile


Sabita Maharjan Google Scholar Page

 

Please tell us briefly about your current research. What do you find most exciting about it?

My current work is interdisciplinary: I have been working on smart grid, internet of things and vehicular communication networks, and also a bit on network security and resilience. If I have to provide one name to include all of these, I would like to use the term cyber-physical systems.

How do you define a cyber-physical system then?

Let me start with a very simple example. The mobile phone that we carry is a physical device but it also has an operating system that runs it. When you make a call, browse a page or stream a video from one of your apps, you are getting the content you requested using both wireless communication and through the internet.

Such systems that combine physical and cyber components are called cyber-physical systems. The cyber component can be the software, data, as well as other resources such as computation power, storage capacity and communication resources. The mobile phone is just one example of a cyber-physical system. Its scope is wide: Smart grid, digital health, vehicular networks, all are examples of cyber-physical systems.

I do analytical, simula-based and data driven simulation and modeling of such systems to minimize costs or to optimize certain performance metrics. For example, as end users demand more content and generate more data,  wireless communication networks become major bottlenecks, and the strain on computation and storage resources are growing too. My research is mainly on the resource management part of such systems. I have used economic approaches such as game theory and optimization for optimizing performance metrics such as energy efficiency, reliability and network security.

There are quite a few factors that keep me interested and excited about my work. The first one is the cutting edge research itself, which I am passionate about. The synergy between cutting-edge technologies and paradigms such as network slicing, vehicular edge computing, and deep learning have enabled several real-world applications such as smart vehicles and autonomous driving.  The challenges that come along with such possibilities and opportunities keep renewing my interest in research.

 

What are the recent advancements and breakthroughs coming up in the field of Energy Informatics?

In terms of smart grid research, the distribution network is of particular interest to me. One of the advancements “coming up” is the possibility of exploiting deep learning based techniques for proactive control and maintenance of the distribution network in the smart grid.

This is a research direction that can revolutionize the way distribution networks are monitored and controlled today which is mainly reactive, to a proactive and preventive approach where you focus on discovering potential problems or possible peaks/bottlenecks early on to prevent the undesired consequences or inefficient operation

The next advancement is in autonomous driving. While “autonomous driving” is a huge area encompassing several technologies and disciplines, I would like to talk about the “connected vehicles” paradigm, which means the vehicles can communicate with other vehicles or infrastructure. Today’s vehicles are equipped with advanced safety and stability control systems. Yet, challenging road conditions can lead to a high percentage of accidents. Especially in countries with mountainous landscape and challenging weather, heavy goods vehicles undergo a significantly higher rate of accidents. A proactive approach based on predictive analytics of either (real-time) crowdsourced data, from other vehicles or road side unit (RSU) or data from dedicated sources has the potential to significantly enhance the safety and stability systems of heavy goods vehicles.

The common thread in both of these possible breakthroughs is the huge amount of resources necessary for storage, computation and the stringent requirements (ultra-reliability and low latency) on communication performance. Resource optimization and management to enable and realize such breakthroughs represent challenging problems themselves. Since such developments are highly interdisciplinary and are essentially the result of synergy between different research areas such as 5G, smart grid, renewable energy technologies and so on, parallel developments in all of these directions will certainly play key roles in the fate and pace of these advancements.

 

Tell us briefly about your career journey. What made you attracted and what keeps you interested in your research-based academic career?

I am from a lower-middle-class family from Kathmandu. I went to a government school where I completed my school level education with full scholarship. We had a roadside vegetable shop where I used to sell vegetables with my mom. I used to finish my homework at the shop. After completing my SLC exam in 1998, I was working in my shop as usual when a gentleman who used to live in the house behind my shop, came to me with a piece of paper in his hand. It was an announcement for the entrance exam at St. Xavier’s College, Kathmandu.
I was always “the first girl” in my class, but I never imagined being good enough to go to St. Xaviers College. But I passed the entrance exam and the interview, and joined St. Xavier’s. That was a big leap. Everybody there was from one of the top schools of Nepal and from an affluent family. I was from a lower middle-class family and from a government school which made quite a difference. It took me a while to really adjust.

After finishing I.Sc., I went to the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus, Nepal, to study for a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering in 2000. I finished my Bachelor’s degree in 2004, and taught in the Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering in Kantipur Engineering College, Nepal, for two years. After that, I received Monbukagakusho- the Japanese Government scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree in Tokyo Institute of Technology (TokyoTech), Japan. I completed my Master’s degree from Antenna and Propagation Lab in TokyoTech in 2008. Then I came to Norway in March 2009 to pursue my PhD degree. I completed my PhD in April 2013 from Networks Department at Simula Research Laboratory and the Department of Informatics at the University of Oslo, Norway. Currently, I am a Senior Research Scientist at Simula Metropolitan Center for Digital Engineering and an Associate Professor at the University of Oslo, Norway.

Life has come a long way. But I still believe that it was when I went to St. Xavier’s that I started seeing a whole new world. The boundaries of my dreams were pushed, the content of my dreams became much broader and bigger. I could see possibilities beyond what I could when I was at school. At Pulchowk Campus, those dreams continued to grow. I started seeing newer and better career possibilities. I must however, admit that I did not have a research background as such and it was not until when I went to TokyoTech that I was truly exposed to doing research.  I did a research based Master’s, and that gave me yet another perspective to look at a yet newer dimension of career, a research-based career.

I had been teaching for a long time, and by the time I finished my Master’s, I was certain that research was my passion in addition to teaching. I did both research and teaching during my PhD, and the four years of my PhD further confirmed my passion. I therefore had a very clear vision to establish and continue a research based academic career after my PhD. Today, after five years since my PhD, I think my intuition has indeed guided me through the right path.

 

You are a senior research scientist and also a professor. How do you manage both?

I have a full-time position as a Senior Research Scientist in Simula Metropolitan Center for Digital Engineering (Simula), Norway and a part-time position at the University of Oslo (In Norway, there is a limit on how much one can work in addition to a full-time position.). I devote most of my time to research, and supervising Master’s and PhD students from Simula and University of Oslo and also from some other universities. I teach a course called Energy Informatics at the University of Oslo with Professor Yan Zhang. In addition, I write proposals for securing funding with the University of Oslo and other partners or collaborators.

With that, I often end up working on weekends as well, as you can imagine. To balance that, we have quite a flexible working environment. You can work from home when necessary, you can take a yearly vacation at your own convenience and you can also take days off if you have worked more during paper or proposal deadlines or during your business trips.

 

Women are underrepresented in the field of engineering. What are your experiences and observations so far?

Well, that’s true. Women are indeed underrepresented in many branches of science and engineering, in particular, in computer science and networking. Gender-equality is a much-discussed term in engineering and science, but the situation is nowhere close to where we would like it to be. It is even more pronounced when it comes to research-oriented career in computer science or communication networks.

I believe gender imbalance in such fields in general, and in my area in particular, has a lot to do with many factors including education culture. We start believing from quite an early age in stereotypes. Most boys with good grades go into science or engineering; most girls with good grades study medicine. So, you start seeing interest-categorization between boys and girls before they even go to college. This bias certainly has its roots in the culture.

I also believe that parents’ guidance and belief play a big role in their children’s choice of career. Improving gender equality for research-oriented careers in computer science or networking demands efforts from different levels and different players, and we all need to invest our efforts on it.

 

Tell us about a time you made an exciting breakthrough — or any other highlight in your academic and career journey.

Well, I have seen the word “breakthrough” being used from different perspectives to mean different things. For me, “breakthrough” is a very big word and I consider it as a relatively long-term goal. I would certainly like to share some highlights and achievements in my career though.

By 2017 (within four years after my PhD, out of which too, I had taken about a year long maternity leave), I had three “ESI Highly Cited Papers”, which means these papers are placed in the top 1% of its academic field, according to ThomsonReuter’s Web of Science. I have two “Best Paper Awards” from renowned IEEE conferences ( IEEE Scalcom 2015, and IEEE CSCLOUD 2016). Most of my papers are published in top-tier journals and conferences in the field. In addition, I have been sought to be in the Technical Program Committees of Top level conferences in our field such as IEEE INFOCOM and IEEE IWQoS. I have also given a number of tutorials, invited talks and guest lectures in different conferences and universities. You can check my website for the full list of publications, talks and other related information. Besides these achievements in my research career, even in my college days, I have had several occasions of little or big achievements.

I would like to share one such incident: It was back in 2003 when I was in my third year of Bachelor’s program. One of the Sundays I was a bit late. I walked into my classroom and suddenly some of the girls came running to me and said that the HOD (Head of Department) was looking for me and that he had instructed to send me to his office as soon as I enter the classroom. When I went to the HOD, he was frustrated and he asked me: “In which planet do you live? We have been trying to contact you from Thursday: You seem to be nowhere. There is an Essay Competition for representing Nepal in ITU Telecom World 2003. The toppers from all Universities in Nepal are competing for the event. A girl and a boy will be selected from Nepal to represent the country in Geneva in October.” It turns out that the HOD had received an email for sending in the applications along with an Essay entitled “If you were the head of state of your country what role would you make young people play in advancing ICT as a means for economic and social development in your country” from the toppers from each discipline. He conveyed this message to other candidates either by physically meeting them on campus or by calling them. I was sick that week. At that time very few people had mobile phones. I did not have one. Most of my friends had the landline phone at home. I did not have the landline phone either. I did not have a computer nor internet connection at home. Had I not appeared that day, the deadline would have passed. He asked me to write the essay in a word file and give it to him immediately before 12:00 noon so that he can send in my application as well by the deadline. I immediately said ok to him as an obedient student and left. I rushed to the library thinking that I will scan through some books quickly, but I had less than an hour. I could not look at a single book. I did not know what to write. I actually did not know what to look for even. On top of that, I had to type. I was terribly slow at typing. I just did not know what to do. I closed my eyes for a minute. Then I took out my notebook and started writing. The good thing was that I could write really fast. I don’t know what guided me but I went to the classroom and asked a friend of mine to come out. He did not want to because there was a lecture going on. But I forced him to and asked him to type what I had written in my notebook. I had not managed to read through what I had written but there was no time for that. He, of course, did not understand much either and asked me a lot of questions. I said, “Just type for now”. It was about half an hour left. He typed my essay in the lab, and I gave a copy of it to our HOD on a floppy disk. In a couple of days, the result came out. I was selected from the toppers to represent Nepal in ITU Telecom World 2003. The essay was published in ITU Essay Book the same year. And, the person who typed it for me was Santosh, now my husband :).

 

Tell us about a time you had serious doubts about your own ability in your job. How did you overcome that?

In the early days, there were times when I was unsure whether I would be able to continue my studies after school due to my family circumstances. In fact, even before that, once it so happened that I had almost given up the hope of continuing my school. I was in my eighth standard then. My mother had been sick for long and my elder sister had quit school. But one person was not sufficient to run both our house and our shop. I am the second born. So, then it was my turn to give up studies so that my younger brother and sister could continue theirs. Yogesh sir- my English teacher from school talked to my mom and convinced her that I should not quit school at any cost. My mother understood that very clearly. I would rather say she knew. So, despite her illness, she decided to continue to send me to school.

In the later years, I did not have doubts about my ability. This may sound a bit exaggerated but I am being honest here. Having said that, I have been through stressful times regarding different aspects of my work. For instance, while writing papers I have had times when I worked continuously for 36 hours, sometimes more, and slept for 24 hours after submitting the paper. Securing fund is another very important but also one of the most challenging parts of my work. So yes, there is stress and there are challenges in this career.

But I would also like to emphasize that there is a difference between stressful times and having doubts about your abilities. The first one is a part of my job, but I am fortunate enough not to have to deal with the latter.

 

Can you recommend resources for people looking to get into your field?

As I mentioned earlier, my research spans a couple of different systems: the resources would be different if one is interested in research on smart grid, or if you are a PhD student who is beginning to work on vehicular communication networks. Similarly, if one would like to have some good reading materials for the tools and techniques that I apply to my work, then, it would be a different set of resources.

But let me recommend the following resources such that each one of them is representative of books or papers in that particular aspect/area of my research:

  • R. Ma, H. H. Chen, Y. R. Huang and W. Meng, “Smart Grid Communication: Its Challenges and Opportunities,” in IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 36-46, March 2013.
  • T. Basar and G. J. Olsder, Dynamic Noncooperative Game Theory, ser. SIAM Series in Classics in Applied Mathmatics, Philadelphia, PA: SIAM 1999.
  • S. Maharjan, Q. Zhu, Y. Zhang, S. Gjessing and T. Basar, “Dependable Demand Response Management in the Smart Grid: A Stackelberg Game Approach,” in IEEE Transactions on Smart Grid, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 120-132, March 2013.
  • E. Ahmed and H. Gharavi, “Cooperative Vehicular Networking: A Survey,” in IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Transportation Systems, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 996-1014, March 2018.
  • Zhang et. al, “Mobile Edge Computing for Vehicular Networks: A Promising Network Paradigm with Predictive Offloading,” IEEE Vehicualr Technology Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 36-44, June 2017

 

What qualities would you look for in a prospective graduate in your field?

I would consider a few things. The first one would be the applicant’s grades together with their statement of purpose. Then, it would be his/her Master’s or PhD thesis depending on the position (s)he is applying for, and publications. For an applicant for a PhD position, I would look at how many papers (s)he has published and how many of them as the first author. These criteria can provide me a good enough overview of the academic performance of the candidate, his/her research interests, and dedication towards research, writing and publishing. I would also look for good communication skills and recommendations from people (s)he has worked earlier with.

The process I described above is standard. Sometimes however, the situation can be slightly difficult where you have to choose between an applicant with excellent grades but without any major publications and an applicant with very good (not excellent) grades but with considerable publications. This is not a situation that happens very often but if this is the case, then I will rely on the presentation from the applicants, their performance during the interviews and recommendation letters. Sometimes, when candidates have comparable grades and publications, I would look at things like where and when those papers were published or how many citations the papers or the applicant has in total.

 

Tell us about the role of mentorship in your professional life. Anybody who played a pivotal role in your career, or any major influences?

My Master’s and PhD supervisors have certainly played key roles in training me to “do research“ and thus in shaping my career.

Talking about career advice or influence, I have to mention Mr. R.B. Tamrakar again, who advised me to take the entrance exam at St. Xavier’s College. I actually did not want to take the exam because I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it. In fact, it was a hard time for my family, and I did not even think that I would be able to continue my studies at all. However, I passed the exam and got admission at St. Xaviers, and there has been no looking back. I believe St. Xavier’s has played a pivotal role in broadening my thoughts and dreams and in shaping my vision for career and life. I therefore largely owe my career achievements to R.B. Tamrakar Dai for his invaluable advice.

The next person I would like to mention is my English teacher from school- Mr. Yogesh Chandra Vikram Sambahamphe, who is currently the Principal of Loyalty Academy in Kathmandu. He recognized my zeal for studying early on, and he and his wife have always been there to encourage me in my journey. I would like to thank them both for all their love and support.

In addition, my mom has been a great source of inspiration for me. I am deeply influenced by her personality and the principles that she taught us to value. I believe my intuition and all my decisions have been influenced by her independent and strong personality.

 

The career advice you wished you received in your twenties.

None.

My career decisions have served me well. No regrets, no complaints, 🙂

 

Please share your experiences on opportunities and responsibilities of being at the forefront of cutting-edge research as a Nepali national.

Well, I feel fortunate about my career, and am proud to be a Nepali national pursuing her dream of contributing to the world through cutting-edge research in a working environment that is considered among the best in the world.

The opportunities are immense. The best thing about research is that I get to work with young, intelligent minds, who I learn so much from. The second part is teaching, which is my passion. In addition, I get to travel the world to present my work,  and to initiate new collaborations, which further leads to more work and more travel.

On a different note, I have a four-year-old at home and I cannot take him with me every time I travel. So, how much I enjoy business trips nowadays is another story. But, yes, there are numerous opportunities.

As a researcher, I love to share my research and findings with a wider audience and collaborate with more professionals. As a Nepali national, I do feel the responsibility to contribute in establishing a research culture and supporting the existing initiatives to strengthen the research environment in Nepal.

In my recent trip to Nepal, I visited Pulchowk Campus and Kathmandu University. We have been talking about different possible collaborations. With Kathmandu University I have submitted a proposal on mobility for education and research. There are a couple of other things in the pipeline. Lets see.

Having said all this, I would also like to emphasize that I am a small part of this big pool of Nepali professors and scientists around the world that is growing bigger every year, which is something I really feel proud about.

 

Final words of advice for young people who want to pursue a career similar to yours.

If you want to pursue a research-based academic career, I would say that you should go ahead.

If you are not completely sure if you can make it work, I would like to encourage you to believe in yourself, in your passion. The rest will follow. The only thing I would also like to stress is that dedication and hard work are as important as dreaming and believing in yourselves. If this does not help, I recommend you to read “Chicken Soup for the College Soul” by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Kimberly Kirberger and Dan Clark. The book presents short inspiring stories about getting admitted into colleges and universities. The target readers are mainly young students who are about to start University. But I think it is relevant, fun and motivational for others too.

Finally, to all fellow women from Nepal who aspire to be researchers, scientists and professors, I would like to say that nothing should stop or slow you down in your journey as long as you are willing to accept the challenges: not marriage, not children, nothing else. I am saying this because I truly feel that there are a lot of Nepali women who are extremely talented and deserving, but who give up their dreams either for marriage or to start a family. Some choose not to work after marriage and some compromise with jobs that are not their choice. Marriage, family and everything else in life are important, but not at the cost of giving up your own dreams. The good thing is, you can be married, you can have children and you can also shine in the career of your choice. Yes, that’s demanding but possible.
Best wishes for your journey ahead to all aspiring researchers, scientists and professors!

 

Sujhaab Chautaari

Author: Sujhaab Chautaari

One response to “Smart Grid, Energy Informatics and Vehicular Networks: Interview with Prof. Sabita Maharjan”

  1. Great inspiration interview! Thank you for sharing.

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