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#STEMStories: Shanti, Scientist, India

Dr. Shanti Kudchadker

Dr Shanti Kudchadker is a luminous role model for ambitious STEM girls being the first Indian female science PhD from an American University. In a path breaking and pacesetting academic accomplishment, she charged into experimental chemistry at A&M Texas University and secured her PhD in four years. She continued as a post doctoral fellow and then returned to India to join the faculty of IIT Kanpur. She also created an admirable space of excellence for her in entrepreneurship in her circle of competence. Here she shares her insightful perceptions with the new STEM girls generation.

Interviewed by: Interviewer is Lavanya, a High School STEM student in Dhirubhai Ambani International School, Mumbai. She wishes to major in Engineering. She is happy and proud to pursue STEM and is passionate about propagating STEM among girls

1. You are the first woman acquiring a PhD and that too in science from Texas A&M, an American University 51 years ago. What are your reflections today?

It was a fantastic thing to do. My entire journey right from Mumbai, India to College Station, TX, USA was an unforgettable experience. Texas A&M was an all male college for about 100yrs and a few women scientists were admitted first time in 1963.

2. Your PhD guide, Prof. Zwolinski, had concerns about Sari in the lab because of fire hazard. He proposed a theoretical topic for your PhD. How intense was his concern?

Yes, he was very concerned. Sari clad women researchers with overcoat are common sight in labs today. Now everyone is used to women in saris and even at that time not everyone used saris. I personally loved wearing the sari, even at a young age and I didn’t want to change.

As there were no women in labs at that time, the concept of wearing a sari or loose clothing was a concern.

The positive of my continuing to wear a sari was that I got a lot of attention. Faculty, staff and students were very curious about the sari and India in general. It was a positive experience.

3. Your lab life appears different from that of Raman Institute under C.V.Raman for women students. Would you comment on this?

I did theoretical work. They did wet lab work.

4. What are your thoughts on chemical engg PhD which your husband earned and chemistry PhD which you had taken? Would you have taken engg?

Yes, I would have. I was very good in Math and I could have done well in engineering too. I actually did want to do engineering. But being a girl, my family didn’t approve of it. I was the topper in my class, so I could have gotten admission in engineering.

5. With Indian degrees, you completed your PhD in four years at A&M University. How do you feel about this?

Great. I even had a baby in between and within a month’s time I was back to work.

6. What were your reflections on your second visit to A&M University?

I never felt I had been away that long. It was a smooth transition back to working there, now as a scientist and staff of the Thermodynamic Research Center (TRC) with some of my colleagues still there including my PhD mentor and TRC director. They were all very happy to have me back.

7. You are an entrepreneur with technical competence. What advice will you give to girl STEM entrants?

Just concentrate on your work and academic classes. And the research work for those that are in the MS and PhD programs. Sometimes the STEM topics become difficult as one advances in one’s studies, but don’t give up. Follow what you love.

8. Three generations of your family have a great tradition of STEM. Would you encourage this?

Yes, I would encourage my grandkids and beyond to pursue STEM topics. However, what is more important is that my grandkids pursue whatever is of their interest and make a contribution to their society and to the world. They should follow what they love, as long as they push themselves and keep achieving as they grow. In the end it is their decision. I would guess that given our family history (daughters Anjali, BSc, Mumbai Univ; PhD, Chemistry, Purdue Univ & Leena, MBBS, Mumbai; PhD, Immuno-pharmacology, Tufts Univ; MD, USA) there is high chance that they would be mathematical and science-oriented.

9. You took up mathematical and theoretical chemistry. How do you feel about maths in chemistry?

Very good. Not all chemistry needs math. Experimental needs less math. However, having a strong foundation in math greatly helps one with theoretical work in thermodynamics that I pursued. My mind was deeply in it to the extent that I would often dream about formulas and solving some of the problems in my sleep.

10. Thermodynamics is considered a hard subject. What would you advise new generation chemists in the light of your pioneering work in that field?

One doesn’t know how one area can lead to work in another area. Even if thermodynamics is hard but students find it interesting, then go for it. There are many other harder things these days. Don’t say no just because it is hard. I pursued thermo because of my mentor Dr. Zwolinski. I had no idea about thermo and thanks to him I got exposed to a new field and found myself very excited and interested in it, which allowed me to achieve all that I did.

11. Your family consists of accomplished PhDs in science education. When you earned your PhD as a woman what were your thoughts? What would you share with a college ready girl today?

I was never conscious of the fact that I was a girl and different than the boys around me. Choose what you are good at and love. Pursue it. Don’t be afraid. Even the hard subjects, nothing is hard, if you focus you can do it.

If somebody else can do it, why can’t you. Eg. I would have been a failure if I had taken an arts subject. Didn’t enjoy reading books but enjoyed doing mathematical and analytical topics.

One has to constantly adapt to life. For example, I adapted to moving into the topic of thermodynamics for my PhD, even though it was new to me. Similarly, later in life when I had my daughter and moved to India, I had to adapt to being a mother. I used to work in India and send my results to TRC, Texas A&M. One has to learn to adapt to life’s situation and keep pursuing what you love. Its possible to manage different aspects of life like work plus home.

12. We have a glaring deficiency of girls in STEM and most notably in Maths. What can we do about it?

One gets scared to take on difficult things. My advice is ‘Go for it’. Right from early schooling and while children are growing up, it is important that at home and school, kids especially girls are encouraged to explore all subjects particularly Math and STEM subjects. Society still unconsciously differentiates between boys and girls.