Dr. Sujatha Srinivasan is a professor at IIT-Madras in Mechanical Engineering department.  She graduated with her B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT-Madras in 1992, earned her MSME from the University Of Toledo, USA in 1994, and her PhD from the Ohio State University in 2007.

Dr. Sujatha’s work is in the areas of Prosthetics and Orthotics, Biomechanics and Mechanisms. She and her students have won awards at prestigious national competitions for their projects in assistive devices for the differently abled and they hold several Indian patents for assistive device designs.  The following is an excerpt from the interview we had with her for Women’s Day special:

What do you like best about being a professor?

It keeps me young! I enjoy interacting with students, being able to influence them to make a difference, and just being in the presence of young, enthusiastic minds. Being a parent myself, it gives me a window into things that matter to the younger generation. Mostly, I like the academic freedom to work on problems that interest me and the flexibility of the job helps me maintain a work-life balance.

Has the department changed since you were a student? If so, how?

It is hard to comment on this since my perspective as a student is different from my perspective as a faculty member. When I was a student, I was constantly confronted with the question of why I chose ME (and it was a choice I made) because it was considered unsuitable for girls. I think those ideas, thankfully, are passe. I would definitely like to see more girls in my classes but am at least heartened by the fact that the interaction between the girls and boys seems healthier these days.

Can you describe how the academic culture has changed over time and what are your opinions on it?

In my time, most of the students saw IIT as a stepping stone to go abroad for higher studies. So, they were more motivated to maintain a good CGPA. On the other hand, entrepreneurship is a driving force for many students these days, and I find they have better hands-on skills than we did. The one trap we tend to fall into is that we forget what it was like to be a student just as when we become parents, we forget what it was like to be a kid or a teen!

If you would have chosen a different profession, what would it be? What is the reason for your choice?

I did choose a different profession for the first decade of my professional life. Towards the end of my B.Tech at IITM, I realized that I wanted to work in some area where I could see tangible benefits for my efforts. I found the field of design of artificial limbs fascinating. Right after my Masters, I decided to work in industry instead of pursuing a PhD. The work that I did in designing prosthetic devices gave me immense satisfaction because I saw things that I designed being directly used by people. Teaching was also something that I cared about, so after I had my children, I decided to make a career change to better balance my work and family life. That goal led me to start a PhD after all those years in industry and led me back to IITM as a faculty member 15 years after I graduated with my B.Tech. I have no regrets about the path I took.

Comparing the times when you were a student and now, are there any changes worth noticing about women in science and engineering?

I think women now are far surer about what they want out of their careers and are willing to take more risks. I admire the confidence and maturity the students of today have!

Did you experience any adversities while you were a student of the institute? If so, how did you deal with it?

When I was a student, I was the only girl in my class of 60 in ME (just as some of the other girls in my batch were loners in their branches). It was not easy. All my classmates were in one hostel while I was in the girls’ hostel. They had access to the books from the Book Bank, to others’ notes if they missed classes and the opportunity to discuss material with their peers. I was treated as an outsider and felt pretty much ignored and isolated. I really had to dig in deep to find my inner strength. I credit working in the US for really giving me the confidence in my career. As an engineer there, I was not treated differently because of my gender, only my skills on the job mattered. Although I was the only woman R&D engineer at the company, there were women working on the shop floor, in the workshop, in maintenance, and it was a very liberating experience overall. I am happy that these days, even when there are only one or two girls in class, they don’t seem isolated and there is better interaction with their classmates.

What skills do you think would help women to better handle adversity in the workplace? Do you have any particular experiences in this regard?

Self-confidence and a high emotional quotient (EQ) are absolutely essential. Niceness can be mistaken for weakness, so it is important to be respectful and firm in your dealings with others. If your co-workers show disrespect, you need to act on it at the first instance and let them know what the boundaries are.

Do you still face any obstacles on the basis of gender stereotypes in your career?

Much as I’d like to say no, I’d have to say yes. The whole concept of men being the superior gender has not completely been washed away from the fabric of society. While expressions of gender stereotypes may not be overt, subtler expressions still remain. That said, it is nice to see the lines disappearing in the traditional roles of men and women. Men today are more willing to be take on their share of the housework and parenting duties so that women can pursue their careers more freely.

Do you have any message to students interested in pursuing careers in science and engineering?

First of all, I’d like to say that science and engineering are not the only careers worth pursuing! The opportunities are tremendous these days. No matter what you choose, follow your passion, but be open-minded about change. You’ll find that when you do so, things have a way of magically falling into place.