Monthly Archives: December 2023

A S.T.E.M. Woman from India

A S.T.E.M. Woman from India

By Saroj Pathak, originally from India, now lives in California.

My 50 years of professional life have been a series of challenges, failures, triumphs, and also a few shattered glass ceilings. I would like to share my experiences and describe some of the twists and turns, and the choices I made.

I grew up in Indore, Central India. We were six siblings growing up in a middle-class family. In the 1960s, my high school, St. Raphael H.S., did not offer math major to girls! I was exceptional in Math and wanted to pursue my passion. My father talked to Mrs. Jagdale, who was the head of a small public school nearby. Mrs. Jagdale, an early Women’s Rights pioneer, said, “If our girls want to take math, we have to start math classes.”

Now retired, Saroj Pathak Recently Visited the Historic Site of Mandu, near the city of Indore, Madhya Pradesh (Autumn 2023)

So my sister and I moved to Mrs. Jagdale’s school. In the nurturing environment of this small school, I ranked third in the state’s high school board examinations, an exceptional achievement!

From 1965 to 1969, I attended S.G.S.I.T.S., the only engineering college in Indore (M.P.). There were only five female students in the entire college. We had to fight for a small private bathroom and a tiny women’s room. I excelled in my chosen field of Electronics and Electrical Engineering and held the first rank in all branches of engineering throughout the four years. I was like a sponge; I absorbed everything offered. There was so much to learn from all my professors.

As graduation approached, I started looking for options for further studies. My parents were liberal but still would not send their daughter away for higher education out of state. And, I didn’t have the audacity to argue.

Dr. Dasgupta, the head of the college, recognizing my potential, and created an opportunity for me to pursue higher education in collaboration with the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (I.I.T.) at Bombay (now, Mumbai), while working as a lecturer at G.S.I.T.S. in the Electronics Department. While satisfying my drive to excel, this enabled me to live at home. I taught for three years while completing my Master’s degree in Engineering in Control Systems from I.I.T. Although this experience was challenging, I wanted more.

I reached for a moonshot and applied for and was awarded a Rotary International Scholarship to study abroad. It was an easy decision to select University of California at Berkeley for further studies. I dared to dive head-on into the unknown, knowing only one person in America; a graduate student who had graduated from S.G.S.I.T.S. a few years ahead.

It was shocking for me to realize that I was the ONLY female student in the graduate school of electrical engineering, even at this prestigious university. The students and the professors were friendly and treated me with the utmost respect and kindness.

After graduating from U. C. Berkeley with a Master’s in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, I worked as a semiconductor design and development engineer at American Microsystems in the Silicon Valley of California. When I came in for the job interview, the manager and engineers were shocked to see a female candidate. Women engineers were rare.

The Silicon Valley was full of type-A men, hungry for fame and wealth. It was a norm to “pull all-nighters.” All the engineers were transplants from somewhere else, and without family obligations; we worked hard and played harder. We created a family regardless of skin color or gender. We were on an endorphin high from the success of our innovations.

From 1975 to 1983, I worked with a small group of engineers at Intel Corporation; that’s where we invented and produced the first ‘non-volatile’ memory chips. These were the first chips that retained data (information) after unplugging the power supply. This was revolutionary! We published international papers, had numerous patents, and enjoyed the glory of success. I was a manager by this time and always felt respected and valued. My opinions counted, and I had the center seat at the table.

In 1983, I was offered a job at a Startup company to set up a non-volatile product line. My initial response was NO. I had an eight-month-old son and a three-year-old daughter. I was unwilling to work long hours. Since the company’s CEO wouldn’t take NO for an answer, we negotiated. I agreed to join the company, understanding that I could go home at 5 p.m. every day. The company provided flexibility, and I used my professional judgment to balance work and family needs.

Two years later, the room was packed with engineers from around the world when I presented a research paper on the First High-Speed Non-Volatile Memory at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC). My children sat in the front row. By then, I was confident and assertive enough to invite my children without asking.

When a Vice President position opened up, I did not consider it because I knew it meant working very long hours, and I did not want to sacrifice time with my children. Later, when the children were older and busy with school activities, I accepted a position as Director of a multinational research and development group in a different company. Most often, I was the only woman in the room where the decisions were made. Yet I also attended most of the swim meets, music lessons, cross-country running events and other activities with my children.

After 45 years in business, I decided to follow my lifelong goal of helping the younger generation in STEM field. I am passionate about the accessibility of primary science education to all children. To that end, I have started a non-profit that teaches science fundamentals to children of all socioeconomic statuses. I mentor through Stanford Mentorship Connections and other non-profit organizations. I am also the president of a local Kiwanis club whose mission is the education and well-being of children.

Advice to My Younger Self:

* Enjoy the ride. The trailblazing path is littered with obstacles, but there is no greater joy than facing challenges and finding solutions.

* Discover your core values and be true to them. Define your goals on your terms. Do not let others decide who you should become. Sort through the clutter of cultural baggage and embrace that which gives you joy.

* Be like a river flowing constantly towards the ocean, soft and flexible, but always focused on the destination. Change directions, detour if necessary, or carve a new valley, but keep flowing towards your goal.

* Be confident. You are stronger than you feel, smarter than you think, and braver than you know. Use any fear as motivation to be successful. That fear will then turn into confidence.”

* Educate yourself and acquire indispensable skills.

* Take chances. Inventions are just a step away from failure. Become comfortable with failure and learn from it.

* Dare to shatter glass ceilings, even if that means cuts and bruises. The pain of cuts and bruises is the price you pay to help your daughters and granddaughters.

* Most importantly, find a mentor. Find several mentors. Surround yourself with your cheerleaders. Find inspiration from the life stories of the pioneers who paved the path before you. From mythological women to recent ones, our (Indian) history is full of women who advanced humanity through their ingenuity, courage, and persistence.

* Be a mentor. You are standing on the shoulders of giants. Later, you can offer your shoulders to those following you.

* Be ready to choose. Most successful people have made difficult choices to get there.

* Find a supportive spouse. Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In” and ex-CTO of Facebook, said, “The single most crucial decision you will make in your life is whom you marry, for this will determine the rest of your life.” She was talking to graduates of Harvard Law School.

* “Start the conversation before committing to marriage, not after.” Did you know that the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited her husband for her success?

In Conclusion, as a young adult in STEM fields, I would like you to be brave, explore, and take chances. Show up daily, sit at the table, and speak up in a firm, clear and compassionate voice. Act like the fate of humanity depends on you because it does.

—Saroj Pathak, originally from India, lives in California. She shared this advice with engineering students at her Alma mater in Indore, India, in November 2023.

Photo: Saroj in Indore, Nov. 2023.



“Girl Riding A Horse” by Aadya Agarwal, age 12, New Jersey.          


As the wind weaved through my black hair,
Flying in the golden sunshine,
A sudden gush of independence rushed at me.

On top of my slender caramel horse,
I measured north to south, east to west,
All painted with a rural landscape.

I was on top, on top of my mighty world,
I could have done anything!
Yet, riding along with my jovial spirits, I felt something.
A ball of fear knotting up in my stomach.

Freedom and Independence were new, they were fresh.
Alas, they did not come free!
In front of me, loomed a bridge,
A bridge between Protection and Freedom

While protection offers security,
It’s also a locked cage.
While freedom demands responsibility,
You are the person you choose to be.

And then there is a balance between the two.
As on my slender caramel horse,
I ride free, the gentle strap safely protecting me.

Aadya Agarwal, age 12, New Jersey. She writes: The inspiration for my poem came from a horseback riding adventure I went on while vacationing in India this past summer. The entire experience filled me with a range of emotions of independence, confidence, fear and anxiety and my attempt to balance it all in that moment. It was truly an experience that I will never forget and something that unraveled an important question about freedom and responsibility for me.”



By Richard Siyi HE, 17, P. R. China
It’s the antennae, then the wings, then…flight.

It slowly took off, the blue velvet-like sheen on its wings reflecting onto a large red enchanting flower below it, so intense; the obsidian-like eyes silently gazed at the sky that was inferior to its blue, disdainfully glanced at the flowers below, and slowly swayed in the soothing breeze.

“Hello, I should call you ‘Number 86’… Oh no, let’s call you ‘Flutterby’,” a young girl smiled at it. Her blonde hair and turquoise eyes blended in with the flowers, looking very natural and pretty.

“Oh, this blue-spangled butterfly turned out to have successfully emerged. I had thought it was a damaged butterfly. Having seen you take care of it day and night, I couldn’t bring myself to tell you.” Her father came to her side, “You know, in order to prevent these butterflies from becoming extinct, we can only evolve them into higher predators. Well, since those despicable interest-driven people have taken their habitat, on which they depend, away. But anyway, hopefully, we didn’t over-evolve them.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing, but we should go home for dinner. Let’s go!” The girl reluctantly followed her father out of the hexahedral simulated breeding greenhouse.

Not long after they left, Flutterby began to fly steadily. Its eyes slowly fixated on a praying mantis, which was also staring at it. As if provoked, the praying mantis pounced over with its sharp scythes waving fiercely. Flutterby took advantage of the airflow created by the scythes with just one slight flap of its seemingly frail and thin wings, dodged the fatal blow, and landed behind the mantis. It then plunged its proboscis into the head of the mantis and began sucking. The praying mantis twitched for a moment before falling to the ground, its scythes still swinging helplessly.

Soon, the first batch of butterflies was ready to be released into an artificially simulated natural environment. They came to a beautiful hillside and brought many newly emerged blue-spangled butterflies in boxes. “Don’t be nervous. This area has been equipped with a well-developed defense system. If the results are not satisfactory, we can easily eliminate them all. But the simulated environment here is no different from their habitat. Come on, let’s get started.”

The little girl nodded and prepared to gently open the lid with both hands, her palms sweating profusely. But just before opening the lid, she asked softly, “If the results are not satisfactory, is killing them all the only choice?”

“Oh, rather than saying we are killing them, let’s say it’s more like natural selection.”

The little girl reluctantly opened the lid, and the blue-spangled butterflies flew out continuously. In the company of sunlight and breeze, they flew towards the forest, lake, hillside, and stream. Up close they looked like slow-moving blue elves and from far away they looked like a large piece of blue silk rippling with the wind, slowly disappearing into the distance. The little girl smoothed her windswept hair and watched them leave.

“Oh, so sorry, I really didn’t expect to have such a massive outbreak of the butterflies. Hmm…Okay, I’ll be right there.” The little girl’s father hung up the phone and anxiously prepared to leave. The little girl asked curiously, “What’s wrong? Need my help?”

“Oh, the experiment results were terrible. They completely disrupted the ecological balance of that area. But it’s okay, you wait at home.” After that, he kissed her and left.

As soon as the little girl’s father arrived at the release site, he pressed the backup restart button. Time began to speed up, and then the butterflies began to reproduce in large numbers. Billions of blue-spangled butterflies densely covered every tree. The meteor shower made up of them in the sky searched for the trace of any prey. Whenever found, they would frantically wrap their prey. Their sharp proboscises pierced the prey’s body like needles and the blood that splattered on their wings made their wings full of blood-red eyes. Their larvae ate almost all of the leaves and dense black-red larvae wriggled together, even cannibalizing each other. But it didn’t take long for the reproduction rate of prey and host plants to slow down and a large number of butterflies starved to death…The blue-spangled butterflies were eliminated by natural selection. And this process only took a few minutes.

The little girl saw that her father’s face was very pale when he came back. Her father said weakly, “I’m sorry, we may have to terminate this experiment.” The little girl’s eyes welled up with tears. “Oh no, why? There must be a solution, right? Right? Please, please!”

“I’m sorry.” Both were silent, “Time to go to bed, okay?”

In the afternoon, when her father went out, the little girl quietly ran into the greenhouse to say a final goodbye to the butterflies. Flutterby gently stopped on her fingertip. It was so beautiful and charming, and then she was shocked to find that Flutterby was pregnant! The little girl bit her lip and took a deep breath, quietly taking it out of the greenhouse. “You can go. Although I don’t know if this is right.” But Flutterby didn’t leave, as if waiting for her to make a final decision, “Before I change my mind.”

Flutterby gently flew up and headed towards the sunset. Through her tearful eyes, the little girl seemed to see the blue light on the butterfly’s wings and the orange light reflected by the sunset meet to create a fireworks-like pattern of brilliant colors, dancing with the wind in search of light.

Underneath the angelic face of Flutterby, a devilish smile loomed.

—Richard Siyi HE, age 17, high school junior, People’s Republic of China. Richard adds: “I am obsessed with biology but also love writing. My favorite places are butterfly gardens all over the world (unfortunately, Beijing’s Colorful Butterfly Garden has gone). I am trying to breed butterflies and their host plants in the hope of protecting endangered butterflies.”