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STEM Story: Uma Chandrashekhar

Uma Chandrashekhar's interest in science began with her curious spirit and love of problem solving. As one of the only women in her Electrical Engineering major, she knew she wanted to eventually be a source of inspiration and support to young women in STEM. "Things have changed for the better, but we can always do more to support women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences," she says. "I want people to know that anyone can make an impact." And she has made a tremendous impact in many fields: currently she leads the Global Information Product Security function at Alcon. Previously she ran Global Information Security at Edwards Lifesciences and has led reliability, privacy, and operations teams at Bell Labs / Nokia. Uma has represented the U.S. delegation in several world standards meetings and was an invited council member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC).

How did you become involved in the STEM area? Tell us a little more about your career journey.

I was very interested in fixing devices and I realized I was very practical with my hands. My father was an engineer and I saw how passionate he was about his job. When I was in 7th grade and my teacher wanted us to name 600 ways to use math. That got me thinking about how math can be used in so many applications. Ever since then, I loved the subject and I wanted to enter into a field that utilizes this skill. During college, I did my masters in electrical engineering and I never looked back. Engineering involves a lot of innovation and using creativity to drive solutions. It can be applicable to numerous fields and is not just limited to tech.

What advice would you give for young girls out there who want to be engineers or have a profession in cyber security?

An important lesson is to be flexible. The industry is so huge and there is so much rapid change occurring. As engineers, we have to adapt to these changes and create solutions to solve these problems. For example, there is a new eco sustainable engineering industry to see how to design items that can help the environment. By keeping your eyes and ears open, you are able to find what excites you. I personally never stayed in one industry because I kept an open mind and discovered what I found interesting. Sometimes I would experiment and even if I did not enjoy the projects as much, I gained valuable experiences and insight from it.

What is one of the most amazing projects you have worked on?

I have a lot of favorite projects. I especially enjoy being able to create things that never existed. For example, I created a few cybersecurity standards which enhance cultural globalization. By creating these standards, it helps us to understand why cybersecurity is important, what each person’s job contributes, and how to take small steps in order to create a bigger impact. To do this job, it requires innovative ideas and creativity. Personally, I never thought of my job as work, I was so excited with my job that I see it as something I am extremely passionate about.

What mistakes have you made in your career that you wish you could have done differently?

I would say not speaking up and being silent when I do not agree with something. By keeping quiet, you are never able to express your ideas but if you are able to convey your thoughts in a courageous and respectful way, it can go a long way. Especially as a woman and a minority, I sometimes felt overpowered in a meeting with all men and it took me many years to learn that speaking up is a crucial skill. Of course this process takes time and you want to do your homework before going into a meeting. When you feel comfortable, definitely speak your mind when it’s right.

How did you transition from the telecom industry to a life science industry?

I was always open and flexible. It is very important to have a core competency, so you can apply your skills to multiple industries. I did a lot of partnering and volunteering with a lot of organizations to find out more about them. Through this, I discovered patient health which truly interested me; I found improving patient outcomes so inspiring and after hearing the story, mission, and interacting with the people, I decided to go down the life sciences path. It is a very exciting career path and I wake up every morning looking forward to work. Bioinformatics and data analysis also applies to all industries and even though the data may be different, everything else works together. You should think “Hey do I like that?”, and if you do, go for it. Building new skill sets makes your core competency even better.

Many times I see that people are afraid of failure and I think that definitely holds you back. Being afraid of what you don't know gives more of an opportunity to learn.

Tell us a little more about yourself. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love creating new things, doing research and development, and thinking how to improve outcomes. In my free time I enjoy reading, hiking, and coloring. Especially since I live in a sunny area, I love seeing nature and walking outside. Coloring is extremely stress relieving to me.

Especially during this time of COVID-19, it is crucial to understand when you have to switch to your off button. Many people have their on button all the time, which gives no time for breaks or to step back from work. Before this time, you had an opportunity to take a break while driving home but now there is none of that relaxation period. It is a challenge to find that balance working from home, especially for working mothers. Everyone should make sure to have a few break times to not get stressed and truly enjoy what they are doing.

One of the key challenges for women scientists and engineers is to balance career development and family life. Do you have any advice for young women professionals?

Family life is extremely important since you don’t get to experience that time again in your life. Many times your spouse works so you have to evaluate your priorities and pull some strings. It is important to evaluate what is important to you. Family or work? Do you do work because of the paycheck or because you enjoy doing it? There is no one size fits all but having a partner who supports your career and knowing that the partner values your career as much as their own is important. In addition, both people may not be able to travel at the same time, so it requires a balance between both of you. Sometimes you will have to sacrifice some of your work for your family life and vice versa. Many women also want to be a “superwoman”, where they can perfectly manage their family life and work life. As women sometimes we must work twice as hard and even three times as hard to be as successful as a man and it does tend to play against us from a balanced life. It is a decision making process of giving and taking; it is a marathon, not a sprint.

Interview by: Anita Osuri

Graphic by: Buse Koldas

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