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Alumni Spotlight: Meera Sampath

Meera Sampath

Meera Sampath, Ph.D. Electrical Engineering, VP, Innovation and Business Transformation, Xerox Services, Barbour Scholarship, Distinguished Dissertation Award

Meera was drawn to U-M even while completing her master’s degree in Control Systems in India. She was studying the research of Professor Semyon Meerkov, a renowned U-M faculty member, for her masters’ thesis; she found his work and the whole domain of controls fascinating, and she wanted to continue this line of study for her doctoral research. She was highly encouraged by her professor in India who told her that if she wanted to learn control systems, U-M was a great place to go.

She flew to America and landed in Chicago for a few months, but it was a bus ride that was the biggest, most important leg of her journey. She recalls, “I took a Greyhound bus to Ann Arbor and knocked on doors. This was all before the internet was so ubiquitous and access to anyone and anything was a touch away; I didn’t have any appointments, I just got on the bus, came over, and met faculty in EECS one beautiful summer afternoon.” It was a good call. Professor Stephane Lafortune, who subsequently became her thesis advisor, not only said that he would love to have her as a student, but also found funding through the newly formed transportation research program to make it possible for her to come to U-M.  She says, “I was definitely in the right place at the right time. That was one of the luckiest days of my life.”

Her grad school years were, like they are for many, exciting and life changing. As the end of her graduate studies rapidly approached, Meera started exploring options in and outside of academia. Her path was quickly determined one Friday afternoon at the EECS Control seminar, a monthly tradition that continues today: “The seminar was given by two distinguished scientists from Xerox who gave an exciting talk on controls and diagnostics. At end of the talk, I walked up to them and told them that I would like to apply for a research scientist position at Xerox. The next thing I knew I was in their lab and it is twenty years at Xerox for me now! It was another example of right place, right time. Xerox was looking for a person to help establish a diagnostics competency; they were looking for someone with exactly the background I had.”

As a graduate student, Meera was selected to be a Barbour Scholar, a prestigious award given to highly deserving female scholars from Asia. After she finished her dissertation, her work was selected to receive the University of Michigan Distinguished Dissertation Award, given annually to only ten newly minted alumni across all schools and departments at U-M. Her dissertation is considered a seminal body of work in her field and continues to be highly ranked in major citation indexes such as Google Scholar. Of these awards, she says, “It is a real honor and privilege and I consider myself fortunate to have received them. I think it is wonderful that U-M has such scholarships as the one Levi Barbour created a century ago. It is a great tradition, and continues to encourage and inspire students.”

Since the program’s inception almost 100 years ago, a key tenet of the Barbour Scholarship is that scholars ideally return to their home country with their U-M education and make a lasting impact around the world. It took Meera a decade to go back, but she did. She recalls, “I didn’t go back immediately, and that sense of obligation remained with me. I am very happy that I was able to fulfil that requirement in a very different manner.” She has made a lasting impact in India and for Xerox, by founding a research center there in 2010. She explains, “We proposed the idea to Xerox’s CEO to create a research center in India at a time when all of its labs where in the Western Hemisphere. We thought differently about how we should we set it up, and we created what is now a thriving research center that I had the privilege to run for about four years.”

Meera currently serves as Xerox’ Vice President for Innovation and Business Transformation, managing the research project portfolio for business services and focusing on building a strong innovation culture within the services business at Xerox. “I started as an individual researcher, moved to technical project leader, then research program manager, to head of a research center, all within the research division. This current position gives me the opportunity to look at things from a different angle, from the business side. Whereas my earlier jobs were focused on creating and helping create the most innovative ideas, I now focus on how best to turn the great ideas coming from the labs into commercially viable, successful products and offerings.”

Meera finds her way back to Ann Arbor regularly. She comes to attend meetings of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Council to which she lends her leadership and expertise. She also comes to see her son, a second year student at the College of Engineering. She asserts of her son’s decision, “We were absolutely thrilled he wanted to attend U-M. We didn’t visit the campus until he got in, but when we did come, it took him no time to say, ‘Oh, I’m coming here!’” Meera’s faculty advisors, Professor Lafortune and Professor Demos Teneketzis, with whom she continues to be in close touch, served as counsel to her son as well, helping him in his decision to choose his major at U-M, which has turned out to be computer science.

On visiting campus today, Meera exclaims, “It is much fancier inside and out, there are more buildings, but feels very much the same. The vibrancy is the same. It is great to see so many enthusiastic students from around the world just as before. Every visit makes me so excited.”