In Memoriam: Malathi Veeraraghavan, Champion of Ideas and Experiences – UVA Today

Veeraraghavan earned her Bachelor of Technology from the world-renowned IIT Madras in 1984, one of only four women in her electrical engineering class. She came to the United States and earned her Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees from Duke University in 1985 and 1988, respectively. She then joined Bell Laboratories, where she worked for 10 years, starting as a member of the technical staff and quickly rising to become a distinguished member.

As an inventor at Bell Labs, Veeraraghavan created an efficient call-processing architecture that enabled delivery of voice communications and multimedia sessions over the Internet. This innovation greatly reduced the cost of using telephone networks and lowered barriers to entering the telecommunications market.

Sidiropoulos remembers Veeraraghavan as an outside-the-box thinker. Veeraraghavan knew her idea for the network architecture would be a tough sell. The new type of packet switch she envisioned would jeopardize AT&T’s market share in equipment manufacturing, but she was undeterred. Veeraraghavan commended colleagues at Bell Labs and AT&T for seeing the big picture to advance the industry as a whole.

“Malathi lived her life with an incredible and constructive spirit, and stayed true to her convictions,” Sidiropoulos said.

Veeraraghavan’s distributed call-processing architecture fostered new products for 3G, 4G and software-defined networks that underpin today’s dynamic configuration and monitoring of network performance. From this foundation, Veeraraghavan extended the innovative call-processing architecture to wireless networks. This move spurred development of novel mobility management techniques, to hand off calls from one cell tower to the next.

Veeraraghavan was gratified by her research at Bell Labs, but she also understood that a rise through the corporate structure would pull her away from research questions that she was passionate to pursue.

“Malathi was so passionate and inquisitive,” recalled Maite Brandt-Pearce, professor of electrical engineering and UVA vice provost for faculty affairs. “I will miss our fervent disagreements about the future of optical networks. We have lost a great thinker and colleague who dedicated her life to her science and her students.”

Transitioning from industry to higher education, Veeraraghavan started as an adjunct professor at Polytechnic University in New York City, and would parlay that experience into an appointment as associate professor. With her graduate student Haobo Wang and colleague Ramesh Karri, Veeraraghavan designed and demonstrated a revolutionary approach to implement signaling protocols to autonomously set up and release network connections as mobile devices move in and out of range of call towers or wireless routers.

Veeraraghavan’s next and related invention, direct signaling, was a precursor to today’s web-based telephony services. Thanks to this innovation, consumers are no longer tied to their network service provider in their search for add-on services or “apps.”

The rapid and global expansion of the telecommunications industry generated a data tsunami and set the conditions from which large-scale datacenters and their cloud-based services would emerge. These developments exponentially increased network complexities. To help condition, process and store information within and across enterprise networks, Veeraraghavan designed a network traffic engineering system that could detect and reroute large-sized flows for efficient transit and processing, reducing real-time delays or buffering. Her solutions paved the way for distributed storage and processing of big data, in which many computers work together to solve problems involving massive amounts of data and computation.

Shortly after joining UVA, Veeraraghavan served as principal investigator of a $3.5 million multi-university grant awarded by the National Science Foundation. With partners from North Carolina State University, City University of New York and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Veeraraghavan built an experimental, wide-area network that extended from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh, North Carolina, and on to Atlanta, with high-speed transport and signaling protocols for fast movement of large datasets and remote visualization.

More recently, Veeraraghavan led a multidisciplinary research group of graduate students, research scientists and faculty members dedicated to network security and intrusion detection, supported by a $9 million investment from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Veeraraghavan credited two computer engineering Ph.D. students, Yizhe Zhang and Hongying Dong, for the team’s success in presenting their research findings to their federal program managers.

Veeraraghavan welcomed Zhang and Dong to the team even though they had little background knowledge in cybersecurity. “I appreciated Professor Veeraraghavan for giving me this great opportunity to be part of the DARPA project. She guided my broader thinking on research goals and helped me deeply analyze research findings with my collaborators,” Dong said.

Although it may be hard for faculty and students to fathom, Veeraraghavan initially had a hard time adjusting to the classroom at UVA. “My first crop of students at UVA helped me understand that teaching is all about high touch. If you start focusing on students, teaching is a lot of fun,” Veeraraghavan once said.

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