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When I was entering the 11th grade, I immigrated to the United States. I was a teenager from a remote village in Kerala. My grandmother had raised me in her home. Until now, the dynamic was such that I only saw my own parents once every two years.
America was a whole brand new experience for me. Our home was in a neighborhood that was all Caucasian, somewhere in suburban New York. I didn’t know the culture. I didn’t know English.
Honestly, I didn’t really know my parents.
I had no friends. Daily, students would make fun of me. They bullied me. I figured I had two options: Run back to India. Or fight.
I chose option #2.
I may not have been a lot of things back then at the tender age of 16 years old. Here I was — a new immigrant with very little English skills. But I knew one thing: I was a fighter.
At 16, I got a job as a waitress in a donut shop. The pace was fast. I was still struggling with my English. I didn’t even know what went into an American breakfast. I pushed myself to learn fast.
Over the years, I sought out different jobs in order to get a grasp on the American system. American culture. American people. And the American language. I worked at the circulation desk of a public library. I worked at the post office, assisting mail dispatchers. I worked in a retail store and supermarket as a cashier. I worked as a data entry clerk at an IT company. I even did door-to-door marketing for a cutlery company.
What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Soon, I was completing my Bachelors in Chemistry from SUNY Purchase. Because I knew something even bigger about me.
I wanted to invent something that could change the world.
Meanwhile, my parents were doing the traditional thing for their oldest daughter. They were busy arranging my trip back to India so I can enter into an arranged marriage.
I fought them. As a commuter student in college, I convinced them to let me stay away from home for two months in order to do a summer internship at the University of Connecticut. Then I convinced them to let me go to graduate school. And then I convinced them to let me get a PhD.
Actually, I got a full scholarship to Wayne State University to do a combined MS + PhD program in Inorganic Materials Chemistry. That meant no financial obligations for them. It was a win-win for everyone. My scholarship covered 5 years. I worked hard and produced enough publishable results that I finished my PhD thesis research inside of four and a half. My graduate work resulted in five research publications, including one in the prestigious journal “Science.”
Can you describe your work?
Over the years, at various jobs in my field, I did work I was proud of. Even before I matriculated from Wayne State, I had lined up a postdoctoral research fellowship with General Motors. In the next job, I wrote and submitted innovative research grant proposals to the Department of Defense. I lectured to 250 students at the University of Tennessee. Talk about overcoming the fear of public speaking!
Today, I am a Project Leader at BASF in Iselin, New Jersey. I invent products that remove harmful pollutants from automobile exhaust. The catalysts I make help lower acid rain and minimize global warming. The catalysts I generate are equipped in several thousand vehicles worldwide. I glean great satisfaction from knowing that I put my stamp on the automotive industry. My contributions mean we all breather cleaner air!
I’m often the only female or one of the only females at a conference or meeting. But I can be equally or more innovative, inventive, and productive as my male counterparts. At BASF, I have ten patent applications filed and two invention records in progress. I regularly engage teams across several disciplines across the world. My work has taken me to Germany, Japan, Korea, China. I feel so proud to be that one female who makes contributions to the STEM field and who is a role model for the next generation of girls.
Any challenges you faced in your career?
In my career, I didn’t face hurdles because I was a South Asian woman. I faced hurdles because I was balancing being a traditional home maker with ambition. I did get married. I am a parent to two beautiful kids, Hari (10) and Veena (5). Good time management skills are the key to my success as a working woman and as a mother. The satisfaction and fulfilment I get from my work is worth all the daily struggle.
Your advice to students?
My advice to parents and teachers of young girls today: Put a STEM profession on an equal footing with any other profession when you describe it. Let her decide. Nurture confidence in your little girl from an early age. Help her make fruitful choices — -instead of fear-driven ones. Teach her how to deal with success. But also remember to teach her how to deal with failure. Empower her by teaching her how to manage money, manage time, and engage in powerful public speaking.
My advice to young girls today: Do your homework so you can understand truly where your career interests lie. Write down your short-term and long term goals, identify the steps to achieve them, and then pursue them even if they appear risky, overwhelming, difficult, and scary. Find mentors who can guide you. Have faith in yourself, have an open mind, and be willing to take risks. And lastly, follow your instinct and love what you do.
With deep determination, you can overcome challenges. I am living proof.
I will continue to succeed professionally. While I’m not sure what job I will have 5–10 years from now, I am sure that I want to be a mentor, a role model, and an inspirational speaker now.
STEM field holds the key to technological advancement, environmental protection, and sustainable energy and food solutions to the growing needs of the planet we live in.