Interview with Suchi Saria

The product of a warm and happy childhood spent tinkering with computers explains how soft expectations created a personal drive that startled lab colleagues

April 14, 2022
Suchi Saria
Source: Alamy

Suchi Saria is an associate professor of machine learning and healthcare at Johns Hopkins University. She is also the founder, chief executive and chief scientific officer of Bayesian Health. She has won acclaim for working to improve patient health by combining sophisticated computer science with the growing flood of available medical data.

Where and when were you born?
Darjeeling, India, in 1982.

How has this shaped you?
I have a thick accent! I was raised in Siliguri, a town of about 1 million at the foothills of Darjeeling, by a very loving family – a very loud and loving and involved family. I had one sibling and many first cousins and second cousins – we had a very large extended family, and we keep very close to each other.

How did you get into computer science?
In India in the 1990s, people were really into computer science and programming, and I grew up watching my cousins build things, and that was super-exciting for me. We would take weekend classes in computers, where we were given projects to program things. I remember one project to program the image of a clock on a computer.

Did girls get similar opportunities to boys?
India is a very patriarchal society – it’s not common for girls to work and study. But my mum was very ambitious – she wanted to go to become a physician, but she was pulled out, partly so she could marry my dad. I got to learn from her. But there was no real pressure for me to succeed. Other than knowing full well that because there wasn’t a whole lot expected out of me, if I didn't work hard, there was no way anything was going to come out of it.

How did you end up going abroad?
It was very unusual – I think I was the first girl to leave my town and study abroad. I went to a very good, religiously affiliated school through 10th grade, and that set me up really nicely. I’m not Christian, but some of the best schools started under British rule were Christian. I then went to a boarding school, which was where really things started to change. It was super-hard to get into, and I was surrounded by some of the most talented people in India. It was really surprising how smart everyone around me was. That was really when I started to see, oh my God, I was not challenging myself to be who I needed to be. That’s how I ended up getting recruited to come to the US, with a scholarship to go to Mount Holyoke College. There I ended up meeting one of the early roboticists, Claude Fennema. At Stanford University, he had led one of the foundational projects in the field, called Shakey, which was a robot that could navigate automatically through its environment.

Was Mount Holyoke known for robotics?
Professor Fennema came and started the department near his retirement. I ended up there mostly because my “big sister” in the boarding school also went there and loved it. I had looked at eight schools or so, and got into almost all of them. Amusingly, six of the eight were women’s colleges. I didn’t even know they were.

How did that happen?
In India, you have a lot of single-sex educational institutions – people don’t think about it like a choice. My religious school was all-girls. My counsellor gave me the prospectuses for about 50 top schools. It turns out that women’s colleges – without me realising they were women’s colleges – spoke to me because they talked about women’s leadership, and about the amazing things women were doing.

How did that work out?
After I came to Mount Holyoke and started getting more exposed, people asked, why don’t you transfer to MIT? But I was having such a blast working so closely with the faculty at Mount Holyoke that I wouldn’t move. These people were amazing – I got personal attention from leaders in the field. I also spent a ton of time at the nearby University of Massachusetts, which had luminaries in the field. For them, it’s like finding this insane undergrad who’s obsessed, would spend 20 hours in the lab – their dream come true. And it’s the bane of all the other graduate students – they were like: “Can you please go and not make us look bad?”

In the US, we see families from India and perhaps China managing to keep that spirit going into their US-born generations – how do they do that?
Parents tell children: “You need to succeed. If you don’t do this, you’re screwed.” But when you’re intrinsically motivated, it’s like a superpower – it’s a gift that I got completely because of the environment I grew up in, without even realising.

Why should an average citizen care about the work you do?
Health is such an essential component of who we are – having good health and having family members and friends who are healthy. And one of the most exciting movements that’s happening right now is the amount of change that healthcare as a field is going through. In the last century, there was very little measurement of data, and therefore little ability to use data to make decisions. And this next century – in fact, the next decade – is going to be about the massive shift that’s happening now. Data is getting recorded at an unprecedented pace, data is becoming available at our fingertips, to patients, families, physicians and caregivers.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Have more faith in yourself and the people around you.

What advice do you give to your students?
Learn to be failure-resistant. Most things that are worth doing are hard and require many tries.

What do you do for fun?
I’m having the most amount of fun when I’m working. I also love spending time over wine with family and friends, playing board games, reading, travelling and, occasionally, painting.


2000-04 bachelor's degree, Mount Holyoke College, with full scholarship from Microsoft

2008 master of science degree, Stanford University

2011 doctor of philosophy degree, Stanford University

2011-12 NSF Computing Innovation Fellow, Harvard University

2011 National Science Foundation Computing Innovation Fellowship

2013 Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation Research award

2014 Google Research Award

2014 National Science Foundation Smart and Connected Health Research Grant award

2014 Annual Scientific Award, Society of Critical Care

2015 Two Discovery Awards, Johns Hopkins University

2015 AI’s 10 to Watch, by IEEE Intelligent Systems

2016 Early Career Spotlight, International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence

2016 Darpa Young Faculty Award

2016 Brilliant 10 of 2016, Popular Science

2017 35 Innovators under 35, MIT Technology Review

2018 Sloan Research Fellowship

2018 founded Bayesian Health


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Reader's comments (1)

Such joy to read this. How inspirational!