A semiconductor wafer is beautiful, it’s like a piece of art.



Early Life

My father was an IAS officer (Karnataka cadre), he joined the service in 1952, soon after inde- pendence. One of his dreams was that in his lifetime, every hut in every village would have at least one electric light bulb. And I think that my mother shared that mindset. She was a housewife but always had something going on in parallel, some kind of volunteer work. Although a mathematics graduate herself, my mom was very keen that one of us become a doc- tor and serve people. It was disappointing for her when that didn’t happen. But I don’t think that we felt pressure to be a particular way. We are four siblings - one brother and three sisters. My older brother and one of my sisters went to IIT Madras. They kind of set the bar quite high! As the youngest in the family, I was, of course, inspired by them to aim high. But also, I truly loved math and science, thanks to my teachers in Sophia High School, Bangalore. Although I was a good student I think I was a bit lazy. Studying for JEE (with the help of Agrawal postal notes) was the first time I really worked hard and long-term for some goal. In 1991, my father was appointed as a Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, which was head- quartered in Bombay. So, I decided to go to IIT Bombay. In the end, I only went home about once every two months, because we had such a close and supportive group in the hostel – but it was nice to know I could get home in a couple of hours if I wanted to.

Life at IIT Bombay

The gender ratio at IIT was quite a shock, coming from an all-girls school. In Chemical Engineering we had more women than in most other branch- es. But I still found it quite forbidding. I remember my three lab partners were passionately discuss- ing a point about a fluid mechanics project. And I was thinking - they’re on the wrong track. But it was hard for me to say it to them. In my 4th year, I became the first girl to stand for Institute Literary Secretary. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my wing in the hostel. Dur- ing the campaign, some folks came up to me and said, “I really admire what you’re doing”. But this one time, in H7 I think, people threw tomatoes at me! Luckily I had a safe space to come back to with the women in my wing. As Lit Sec, I am quite proud of some of the things we did – inventing new styles of cross- words for the Mood Indigo competitions, setting a challenging treasure hunt (which was a much- anticipated annual event), organizing inter-hostel competitions and in one of our magazine editions, challenging some decisions the faculty had made. On the academic front, in my 2nd year we had ‘Intro to Transport Phenomena’ with Prof. Uday Shenoy. He was a new prof, young and very enthusiastic who made math and physics come together in a magical way! I stayed in Fluid Mechanics through my 3rd year and B.Tech. proj- ects with Prof. Karthik Khilar and Prof. Devang Khakhar, and continued in that field in my PhD at MIT.

Professional Journey

I admit I was a bit terrified at MIT at first but I found that my IIT education stood me in good stead and the coursework wasn’t too much for me. What I did find was that unlike in under- grad, in grad school no one tells you what to do. If you spend a week and don’t progress on your research, no one will question it. So the last couple of years of my PhD is when I learnt to be self-driven. I met my partner, Chris, at MIT. He played a lot Nobel prize winners are people too... with Soraa of sports (which I did not, and hence found kind of cool!), but we also read a lot of the same Founder Shuji Nakamura books and were science fiction nerds. Although Irish American, he had the same idea of family being important, so our values are very similar. As our careers progressed together, we both compromised equally to make it work for the other. During my PhD program, I developed finite element methods for modelling complex liquid crystalline polymer flows. In essence, it is about mathematically describing the behavior of liquids (polymer solutions) that flow in odd ways – very differently from water – so that you can predict how they will behave when you process them in a factory to make polymer products. From then on, almost my entire career has been in the semiconductor industry. In my first job at Applied Materials, I led a team of engineers in technology development and customer demon- strations, culminating in the release of the divi- sion’s first 300mm wafer processing platform.

Making Things Better

Eventually, I became interested in the ‘big picture’, and moved to the marketing and busi- ness side. I worked with Novellus and then with Soraa, an LED startup. This stint was very important to me for two reasons. First, LEDs can cut electricity usage by 80% (and I link this back to my father’s wish that one day every village will have a light bulb). LEDs can make it possible. Second, the startup environment is so energizing -there is so much built up from nothing and you develop so many diverse skills. I think I left Soraa as a much more effective leader and change agent, than when I joined. In addition, our founder won the Nobel Prize in Physics – it was truly a thrill to know him and work with such a high caliber of people in my time there. Currently I am with LAM Research, which is one of the largest suppliers of semiconductor equipment. We are like the ‘printing press’ of the semiconductor world. No matter what kind of chip you’re using in a phone or car or toaster, my equipment has participated in that. I love the act of making things and that there’s something physical. I remember, earlier in my career, bringing home semiconductor wafers, just one of them costs millions of dollars. But these were things we’d done in the lab and I find them very beautiful. Like a piece of art. I took one home to my parents and it was such a thrill, to say, “Hey, I made a part of this.”

Work-Life Balance

Before I was a mom, too much of my self-worth was tied up in my work. And that made the stakes very high. So if it came to asking for a promotion, I got way too wound up inside myself. Post-motherhood, I acquired a completely separate area where I was needed. So I found that I was able to sit down and have conversations with my boss about my next career steps. I went through several waves in my career. There were three separate times where I just stayed in a job because I knew it wasn’t the right time to move. My kids were not the right age, or I was going to have my second child, or my daughter needed me because she was having a tough time in elementary school. You see women like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer who, apparently, never slowed down. But for the vast majority of us, it’s important to know that there is a time to be really focused on your career and there is time to prioritize other things. At 52, my kids, my career, my volunteer work -and my parents, all of those are things that really matter to me. I also make time to read, practice yoga, solve crossword puzzles and stay connected to my friends.

Challenges as a Woman

Women don’t have enough role models to learn from. I spent a good bit of my thirties thinking about how I appeared to the world, what it takes to convince people and be effective. Some people find me coming on ‘too strong’ while others see me as assertive. I think it’s important for people to see that women can have different leadership styles. My volunteer work has mainly been around women and education. As part of the MIT Alumni Association in the Bay Area I organized events for women’s professional development. I even ran my daughters’ Girls Scout Troop for about six years, which was super fun. Most recently, here at LAM, I started a mentoring program and affinity group for women.

Advice to Young Women

Success is transient. Tomorrow people will be saying, what’s next? So I think it’s all about having fun getting there. You really have to wake up in the morning wanting to do something. And you don’t have to run after other people’s idea of the ‘plum jobs’. Define your own ‘plum job’, great stuff that the organization is just not doing. That’s where I’ve made my career. It’s also about where people have shone the spotlight in the past. The question is, can you redirect that spotlight?