PECASE winner Dr. Sumita Pennathur

© Dr. Sumita Pennathur

Dr. Sumita Pennathur, Assistant Professor of medical engineering at University of California, was recently named by President Obama for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE award is the highest national honor bestowed upon science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research careers. She received her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. Professor Pennathur’s research group researches on how to create novel devices for practical applications with fundamental fluidics.

Interview by Stephen Thompson, Ph.D.

Welcome to OpenBeast. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Briefly, I’m a mom, a professor, a mechanical engineer, a jazz alto sax player and a wife. I love everything I do. I am very motivated to make the world a better place. One vision I have is to create a handheld diagnostic device that can be used where sophisticated medical infrastructure isn’t available – in the rural villages in India and Africa, for example – to rapidly and simply diagnose the medical problems of the people. I envision that even an illiterate person could use this device, with pictures for instructions, and wirelessly transmit the data to doctors in more developed areas. With the information from the device, the doctors could diagnose diseases and prescribe treatment for the people in remote communities not directly served by the medical establishment. I love teaching and mentoring students (and kids). In fact, my greatest joy is to see “lightbulbs” go one in students. They are our future, and that is really the greatest impact I could ever make.

Share with us your PECASE award ceremony experience at the White House.

Meeting the president was so cool. I never thought it would be a big deal, especially since there were over 100 people at the ceremony. But being able to hang out in the white house, seeing the Marine 1 helicopter land on these tiny helipads on the backyard of the White House, the nervous anticipation all waiting for the President to walk in, etc. He is so charismatic (and so tall), and really really motivating. It really makes me want to go save the world, and be a role model to those women who are nervous to go into math and science because of the fear of not being able to do it successfully with kids (I have two kids, and the #1 reason more women are not in math and science and STEM disciplines is because of children). I wore a sari – my aunt, Sudha, convinced me to, she said “it’s an award ceremony, you need to be proud of your culture”. I was a little nervous since I knew I would stand out, but it ended up working out in the end, and I did wear it very proudly.

So what is your research about?

My research is in the field of nanofluidics. Nanofluidics is the behavior of fluids at the nanoscale – the study of the transport of liquids and gasses confined in structures generally ranging from one to 100 nanometers in size. (A human hair is roughly 60,000 nanometers in diameter.) I’m really interested in what happens at that scale, because the characteristics and behavior of fluids change quite dramatically at the nanoscale compared to microscale and up. One of my primary goals is to discover the specifics of those differences and their causes, and then to apply that knowledge toward creating useful micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and nano-electro-mechanical systems (NEMS) devices. While I do a lot of fundamental, or “pure,” science in nanofluidics, I’m really an applied person at heart, and I have a passion for combining fundamental nanofluidics with MEMS and NEMS fabrication. I would hope  that all my research could eventually result in devices or applications that can make a real difference in the world.

Talk to us about Medela, Inc’s collaboration with your project.

Medela is a company that I consult for. They are committed to breast milk and health care related solutions, and I really love their vision of just wanting to help mothers and babies. Although the work with them is not related to any of my work at UCSB, or the work that won me the PECASE award, I still am really passionate about helping them. It really came about when I met their VP of Research, Brian Silver, who shared with me his desire to really help people. Now we work together to try and think of new ways to push their current technology forward to solve breast milk and breastfeeding related issues.

What is your typical day like?

There is no real typical day. Although I always hope that I will someday get me and my kids on some sort of schedule, I’m not sure it will ever happen. But, if I had to guess, I generally wake up at 7am, do the whole breakfast-shower-lunch for kids – get kids ready for school by 8am, I leave for work at 8, and usually bring the baby with me (she is 11 months old now, and I was on sabbatical this last quarter). A few days a week I do have a babysitter in the morning. During the morning I meet with students and/or have other meetings (yes, with baby), and go back at 1:30pm to pick up my son from kindergarten. Then in the afternoon I work from home, where I generally work on papers, proposals, reviews, and/or the million other things I need to accomplish, while simultaneously entertaining the kids. I try and give my son 15min of a piano lesson, 15 min of a reading lesson, and 15 min of homework every day. He then gets to play outside with his neighborhood friends, or play with his toys. Generally I take about 1 hour to get dinner ready. My husband comes home anytime between 6-8pm, where we eat dinner and I clean up and put the kids to bed (with my husband), and they are usually asleep by 9pm. Then it’s back to work! The night is when I get most of my work done. Next quarter, when I have to teach class, my parents will be around to help me with the kids. It’s a bit busy, and I have very little sleep, but it’s by choice and I’m happy.

Tell us about your published work, Nanotechnology.

So my o-authors (Ben Rogers and Jesse Adams) and I have published two editions of the undergraduate textbook, and we are now working on a more publically accessible version of the book. This has been a really fun endeavor, and working with Ben and Jesse has been great. They are both really passionate about education, and Ben is not only a great writer but has a real knack at getting concepts across clearly. The book has been adopted in many classrooms, and I myself teach a class based off the book. Students really like the writing style, and the class has been very successful the past few years.

What are your favorite leisure time activities?

Well, in addition to being a professor, I’m a jazz musician -I play the alto saxophone, and I feel like it really balances me. I had an all-female jazz trio, Ambika, in San Francisco when I was doing my Ph.D. at Stanford. We played a fusion of modern jazz improvisation with classical North and South Indian music. The band was a great outlet! I think I may actually have made more as a musician than a graduate student, at least hourly… We even recorded a self-titled CD which I’m really happy with. Sadly, that band broke up due to the demands and locations of our respective careers, but I still play here in Santa Barbara. In fact, our new band, fitz. MINOR, will be playing at SoHO (a music club and restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara) somewhat regularly – perhaps once every other month or so – and we have a Facebook fan page. In addition to playing music, I love cooking and running, which I try and get in between work and watching my kids.

Any quick advice for our want-to-be researchers?

Some tidbits: Do not give up! There will be many ups and downs, but you just got to keep a positive attitude. Also, only work on what you are passionate about, then you will be really successful at it, it is hard to be successful at something you are only marginally interested in. The sooner you know what you want to get out of the research (do you want to start a company? Is it just for the basic and pure knowledge for knowledge sake? Do you want to be a professor?) The better you can tailor your research experience to get there. For woman: We need more women in science, technology, engineering and math! Don’t’ be frightened by the fact you may need to juggle more than the average man (especially with kids), you will be busier, but you can do it. After all, there is that great saying (I forgot by whom) “Women are expected to work twice as hard to be thought to be half as good as men”. Luckily, this  is not difficult.

Would you like to add anything?

I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. Just remember my drive to help more people (women especially) get into STEM disciplines. It is important, America needs innovation, and we can do it.

Dr. Sumita Pennathur’s profile at University of California