Women of UI-ASSIST

June of this year marks the 51st anniversary of Title IX’s passing, a statute enacted by the U.S. Department of Education to protect individuals from sex-based discrimination in educational programs and institutions receiving federal funding. Many know Title IX from the discussions and efforts to end sex-based discrimination in athletic programs; however, the statute was passed to increase the accessibility of higher education to women. Since the statute’s passing, women in higher education have increased. However, there is still  a noticeable gap within the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The role of STEM careers defines a country’s capacity to construct and improve. Yet, according to the United States Census Bureau, women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce, despite making up roughly half of the global workforce. The underrepresentation of women is significant in a field fundamental to society’s development.

There are, however, programs where women’s perspectives in STEM are valued and shape the future of society’s fundamental needs. For example, the U.S. – India CollAborative for Smart diStribution System wIth STorage (UI-ASSIST) is a six-year collaboration between 30 United States and India partners. Led by Washington State University in the U.S. and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur in India, UI-ASSIST’s goal is to contribute to the evolving future of energy distribution grids and expand the accessibility to clean energy in both countries. Many women from all walks of life, including researchers, engineers, and leaders, contribute to UI-ASSIST’s mission, bringing diverse experiences and perspectives to the program.

For many graduate students, UI-ASSIST has provided experience, resources and opportunity for them to grow within their fields of research. Among them is Rabab Haider, a multidisciplinary engineer currently working to obtain her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at M.I.T. She has been a part of the UI-ASSIST program for five years. Haider grew up in Toronto, Canada, a diverse city she considers herself fortunate to have grown up in because of the exposure to many different cultures, languages, and food.

“It was a nice experience to be around people from so many different backgrounds and to be able to learn about their cultures,” Haider said.

Haider also said living in Canada gave her access to a good education that helped foster her interests. She had been interested in sustainability at a young age, starting in elementary school. Her interest turned into action during high school when she got involved in efforts to reduce waste and promote recycling campaigns. Then, after high school, she attended the University of Toronto, where she studied in the Engineering Science program, which gives students two years to build foundational knowledge in different engineering disciplines, then has students specialize in their third year.

“It’s this nice ability to be exposed to so many different aspects of engineering. So, when I was applying from high school, I didn’t know what kind of engineer I wanted to be or where I had my deepest interest,” Haider said.

Haider says the program’s exploratory approach to education and her interest in sustainability helped her decide on her specialization in energy systems.

 “I really did want to have an impact on clean energy systems and clean energy design. So I decided to specialize at that point. ,” Haider said.    

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Haider applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) graduate program, a college with a 4.1% acceptance rate. Haider did not expect to be able to attend M.I.T, but got the acceptance letter in the mail. She says it took her a couple days to really internalize the acceptance letter

At M.I.T., Haider said she first heard about the UI-ASSIST Program while interviewing professors working on energy technology projects. She found the program appealing because it was a new approach toward electricity systems and energy decarbonization. Additionally, Haider said the program aligned with her interest in sustainability because it allowed her to understand what energy transition and decarbonization pathways were for the future of energy systems. 

“I’m really interested in looking at what technologies currently exist, or are in the technology pipeline, that we can integrate today and start making an impact on our carbon emission and our energy transition today,” Haider said.

Since joining UI-ASSIST, Haider has participated in multiple projects for the program. Her role as a graduate student researcher is to research and communicate the findings to the community. Haider says it’s hard to say what she learned from being a part of UI-ASSIST because the program has been a core part of her graduate journey. She says one of the best qualities of the UI-ASSIST is the large number of institutions and partners within the program and their willingness to collaborate.

“It’s created this really nice group of, I think, researchers and collaborators where we can move towards improving the research that we do, and also translate into the industry as well,” Haider says.

The collaboration of UI-ASSIST provided Haider one of the biggest learning pieces for her, which was working on technology transfer from its research stage to being used within the industry. She says getting technology transferred is quite difficult but having partners in UI-ASSIST who work in the industry has made the process easier in making forward thinking technologies.Being part a project the size of UI-ASSIST, there are many areas and fields to learn about, from teamwork to grid functions, to research and much more.

Srayashi Konar is a power engineer who has been a part of UI-ASSIST for roughly four years as a student researcher working towards her Ph.D., on the program’s Washington State University team.

Konar grew up in India with a family who raised three engineers; Konar being the youngest of the three. Her path in STEM started in early grade school with an interest in math that her family fostered. Her grandfather would spend summer vacations with Konar and her siblings, asking them to solve advanced math problems.

“During summer vacations he used to ask us to sit down and solve problems. So we were sort of learning people’s schools, like when we were probably fifth grade, we were doing problems from seventh grade or sixth grade,” Konar said.

 According to Konar, she and her siblings were pretty good at math and would spend time discussing math and physics at home. She attributes her interest in math as one of the reasons she became an engineer because, in India, it’s common for people who are good at math to drift towards studying engineering. In high school, Konar decided to study engineering after discussing it with her family, her older siblings having already decided on an engineering path helped her prepare. After high school,  Konar got her bachelor’s in electric engineering. Konar says during her time studying for electric engineering she found power engineering very interesting and took all of her electives in courses teaching it. After finishing her bachelors she decided to pursue her masters in power engineering. She got accepted into Iowa State University and moved to the United States to pursue her masters.

After finishing at Iowa State, Konar met her advisor, UI-ASSIST technical co-lead Dr. Anurag Srivastava while applying for her Ph.D. at different institutes. Before deciding on WSU, she says they discussed her research and areas of interest in power engineering and found that the UI-ASSIST program provided an opportunity for her to grow in her field. 

Konar says being a part of UI-ASSIST has taught her a lot about different areas of power engineering and power grid functions from being a part of teams working to improve power grid restoration and data distribution. Students who were part of the UI-ASSIST project are now working across the globe. Megha Gupta was a part of the UI-ASSIST project during her time as a Ph.D. student at IIT Delhi. She focused on themes six and seven of the project during her time, which are DSO Functions/Energy Management and DSO Market and Regulatory Issues.

Although she got her degree in the electric engineering field, Gupta is now working at the Denmark University of Technology working with solar and wind plants, figuring out how to best optimize the use of wind and solar energy at the same time.

When Gupta started her bachelors, she started developing interest in power systems and how they work, energy being produced and then coming to people’s homes.

“When I’m talking to an outside person I can easily explain what I’m studying, that is the point where I developed the [interest], the ‘okay I want to pursue my career in power systems engineering’,” Gupta said.

Gupta got her masters in that field, and then eventually her Ph.D. She said that it is a cool experience to be able to propose things that impact regulations and policies.

As a woman in the STEM field, Gupta says she has never experienced gender bias challenges. While she has been the only woman in project meetings the people around her have motivated her to do her best.

“Don’t get demotivated, that being a woman you will not be prioritized or be looked down upon… it never happens. Keep doing your work, maintain your consistency and have patience if things don’t turn up right when you want. People will automatically recognize you and things will fall into place,” Gupta said, “You have to be good in your efforts, the rest will fall into place.” 

One of the most interesting aspects of the UI-ASSIST project is that people from around the world are a part of it.

Linli Jia grew up in Wuxiang, China where she gained an interest in the STEM fields in high school. Jia said engineering was something she had gotten familiar with when she was young and a lot of Jia’s family had been engineers and she said it felt like a natural choice.

Jia didn’t think a lot about what major she wanted to pursue throughout high school, but she was guided by her parents and relatives towards electrical and computer engineering.

“The principal, the physics [of electrical engineering] is complicated and also charming,” Jia said.

There were a lot of women majoring in engineering surrounding Jia when she was going through school, she said that they were very logical and powerful women.

Before coming to Washington State University to work towards her PhD, Jia got her Masters degree and then worked for a utility company in China.

“I was interested in maybe some changes in my life, I was interested in studying abroad and then when I applied for [programs] in the U.S., I found WSU belongs to PSERC,” Jia said.

Power Systems Engineering Research Center (PSERC) is a research program between universities and industry partners to modernize the grid.

Jia primarily works on theme six of the UI-ASSIST project, which focuses on resilience of distribution systems. She started with UI-ASSIST about two years ago, when her advisor asked her to join the project to participate in research and get research support.

As a woman in STEM, Jia said that she did not pay much attention to how people treated men and women differently, but she noticed that there was a large difference in the number of men and women in her classes, there were much more men than women.

However, when she was in graduate school, Jia noticed that the number of men and women in her classes were about the same, but by the time she was in her PhD program, there were more men in her program.

Jia said that she has been able to broaden her vision by studying abroad, and the more new stuff she tries the more she is able to learn, and the process of trying new things gets easier.

A big part of science is being able to successfully communicate information to people who may not be well-versed in that field, it is important to have people to help with that.

Jamie Kness graduated from Washington State University in the spring of 2023, double majoring in science communication and journalism media production.

According to Jamie, she started with UI-ASSIST to get professional experience with her science communication major, wanting to be a jack of all trades with her expertise.

“I wanted to be able to write in any way on any medium for any reason,” she said.

Getting a double major wasn’t easy, especially during COVID. Kness thought that a lot of the health messaging could have been done better. It motivated her to be able to build connections between the scientific community and the general population receiving the messages.

“I have learned to always be curious, no matter what,” Kness said.

She said that just because you don’t know everything about the field you are studying or writing about, the sense of curiosity goes a long way in learning about any given research or technical field

“When you’re going into a STEM major or career, you are going there because you’re curious or you want to know how something works… In communications as a journalist or writer or person who makes content, you’re trying to be curious on how you can make something that people want to see” Kness said, “Be curious, be proactive in your craft, try to get as much experience as you can and try not to be afraid to fail.”

Although writing isn’t always easy, Kness said that you aren’t always one hundred percent proud of what you are writing about, but it is good to get experience and to make your writing sound good.

 UI-ASSIST is a very large and ambitious project, with partners across the United States and India, there has to be a lot of coordination in efforts to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Dr. Noel Schulz is the Administrative Lead of the US team as part of UI-ASSIST, she has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

Schulz grew up in Virginia, where her father was a University professor, teaching computer engineering and her mom was an elementary school teacher. Schulz is the oldest of three, she has a younger brother and a younger sister.

She first got interested in the STEM field in middle school when her father had a heath kit, which included all of the components to build a television. Schulz’s dad would solder the pieces of the kit together, and she had resistor earrings that were part of the electrical boards that her dad was making.

Through school, Schulz enjoyed math and science, particularly math. Growing up, both of her parents were very keen on education, and making the most out of education. Schulz cites that as one of the reasons why she became an engineering faculty member, to combine those two aspects of education and engineering.

In high school, Schulz knew she wanted to be an engineer but not what specific kind, she took both industrial engineering and electrical engineering classes but ultimately ended up with electrical engineering when her advisor told her there were less women in the electrical engineering field.

“At that time we were probably less than 10% women in electrical engineering,” Schulz said.

During her junior year at Virginia Tech, Schulz took a power class and really enjoyed it, then she went on to take a power electronics class and liked that one, she ended up getting her masters in microelectronics from Virginia Tech. She decided to get her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and she got a fellowship that paid for her studies in power engineering.

After finishing her Ph.D., Schulz taught at multiple universities until 2016 when her husband, Dr Kirk Schulz was named president of Washington State University. One of Noel Schulz’s colleagues at WSU, Anurag Srivastava said he was putting a program together (UI-ASSIST) and wanted Noel Schulz to be a part of it.

Srivastava had connections in India that could be a part of the project and would make a strong base between the two countries. Schulz became the administrative lead of the project while Srivastava took on the role of technical co-lead.

Schulz and Srivastava worked with the partners of the project, and her background overlapped with the project well. The proposal for UI-ASSIST was submitted in October 2016 and – in summer 2017 – they heard their proposal had been selected.

Having 15 partners from the United States and 15 partners from India took some administrative cooperation and coordination to get meetings set up.

Part of Schulz’s job as administrative lead is working with the budget and working with different partners and making sure money is spent correctly. Coordinating the UI-ASSIST monthly webinars is another part of Schulz’s job, the webinars are held once a month by the India or United States team and have been going on for the past five years.

Not all of the science that takes place across the UI-ASSIST project is engineering related, sociology is also a part of the research that is done. Sociology takes on an interesting role in the UI-ASSIST project, Dr. Christine Horne has been interested in household decision making around energy.

Horne is a professor of sociology at Washington State University and has been a part of the United States/WSU team of the UI-ASSIST program.

“Their decisions to opt into a utility program or their decision to lower their thermostat or their decision to invest in solar energy. One of the things that affects those decisions are norms, what people believe that others around them approve. SO that was one of the things I went into the project with was the question about ‘how are norms related to people’s interest in getting solar…,’ understanding how social influences are related to household decision making,” said Horne.

One thing Horne discovered during her time with UI-ASSIST was understanding peoples opinions on their utility companies and installing their own battery storage.

“The project shifted from initially having a focus on norms to having a focus on trust and peoples trust in utility companies,” Horne said.

Horne said an interesting thing she learned during her time at UI-ASSIST was seeing what goes into a grant the size of UI-ASSIST, she has been part of the project since the beginning.

Horne got her undergraduate degree in political science and after graduating, she went to Columbia to get her law degree. After several years as an attorney, she became disillusioned with the ability of law to create social change. Horne decided to go back to school to study sociology at the University of Arizona for her Ph.D. and started studying social norms.

Sociology is an important part of this kind of research because it is crucial to explore why people feel certain ways about things that are going on, especially with Horne’s learnings about people having very strong opinions about their utility companies.

The research done by Horne could potentially help other researchers and utility companies on how to better interact with people paying for their services.

Beyond the scientific disciplines, a program the size of UI-ASSIST needs someone working the budget, that is where Jeannine Burke adds a lot to the program.Jeannine Burke has been around since the proposal stage of UI-ASSIST, helping Anurag Srivastava and Noel Schulz when they submitted the proposal of the project up until now, working with budgets and documentation and making sure they are up to date.

Burke has been a part of the project since the beginning and will be until UI-ASSIST ends, in the budget capacity and occasionally works as a program assistant for the project when the role is unfilled.

One of the biggest gains Burke has gained during her time with UI-ASSIST is a great appreciation for culture.

“We have a lot of similarities [to India], but we have some differences that we take for granted here in the United States. We take for granted that everytime we go and hit a light switch  it’s going to turn on, and that’s not true for every culture and country around the world.” Burke said.

“The number one thing that I have gotten out of this is a huge amount of friends… I have people in India who write to me and say ‘Hey, when are you going to be coming over here? You have a place to stay, you can stay here and we’ll take you all over the place’ I felt like I was  the mother of the group, especially the grad students who have gone through [the program], not just here in the United States but some of the grad students and the visiting scientists who have come over here for internships during the summer,” Burke said.

 Burke said that she has seen some of her new friends in India get married via livestream and has pictures of their kids.

“My grandson was born just shortly before we kicked off our first workshop in Portland… he had been born about six months earlier and he was my focus. I remember telling the group, ‘I’m a new grandma, so get ready because if you want to see grandma pictures and baby pictures I’m the woman,’ and so I think that it opened it up so people knew I was approachable,” Burke said.

Burke shared her frustrations with COVID-19, and that she wasn’t able to see everyone on an annual basis and the conferences. Seeing people from around the country and around the world at last year’s annual meeting was a good time.

“Getting to understand the purpose [of UI-ASSIST]… when you’re on the staff side, you rarely get to have an intimate understanding of the work being done by the researchers, generally we have too many things going on and we’re not as involved with each and every project. This one, I’ve been super involved with it since the very beginning, I’ve read the entire proposal, I’ve read the entire reward. Not that I understand the science, I’m not an engineer, but I can see the purpose in all of the things they are trying to accomplish. What I’m most excited about is that it’s spawning other work, and other possibilities for future research in this area and also all of the lives that it has touched,” Burke said. 

With Washington State University being one of the main universities involved in the project, some hard-working people are needed to help keep the bones of the project strong.

Tiffani Stubblefield works for Washington State University, handling some of the background logistics of the UI-ASSIST project.

“Scheduling meetings, I plan the logistics for our annual meeting and everything surrounding that and keeping track of records,” Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield said that one of the biggest things she has gained from the project is working with the India partners and having experience working with people around the world.

She has been a part of the project for a year, her background is in stewardship and donor relations and she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Idaho.

The Department of Energy is a big reason why UI-ASSIST has gotten as big as it has, and some employees from the DOE work closely with the project. 

Elena Thomas-Kerr is a senior advisor to the office of Asian Affairs, for the United States Department of Energy.

Going into her bachelors (international relations), Thomas-Kerr was interested in Russia, specifically in the nuclear non-proliferation aspect of international relations. She says when she was in college, it was a fascinating time with the Berlin Wall falling and everything happening with the former Soviet Union.

Thomas-Kerr thought the budding democracies in Eastern Europe were especially interesting, and national security was one of her interests. In college, there was no international relations program at the program, but she was able to design her own program at the University of Michigan to earn an international relations degree.

“I found out about a program where you could design your own degree based on examples from other universities and then [present] in front of a board, and if they approve it, you could actually create your own degree,” said Thomas-Kerr.

The university’s aspects of public policy and international security didn’t bring together all of her interests. Thomas-Kerr was able to piece together various aspects of international relations from other universities and the committee board approved the program, creating the international relations degree. Since then, the University of Michigan has created their own program.

During grad school, Thomas-Kerr participated in an internship that dealt with nuclear non-proliferation with Russia, which bridged her interests of Russia and national security very well. She had heard of nonproliferation before but this was her first real taste of it (nonproliferation is defined as providing for the stoppage of proliferation (as of nuclear arms))

In her current role as the senior advisor in the office of Asian affairs in the United States Department of Energy, Thomas-Kerr works with India specifically.

“I am responsible for coordinating our bilateral engagement with India under our strategic clean energy partnership,” said Thomas-Kerr, “This is actually a long standing bilateral energy dialogue that we’ve had with India that has emerged and expanded and evolved over almost 20 years now.”

Thomas-Kerr took over in 2018, and her job is expanding the United States’ collaboration with India in the clean energy realm and working with colleagues to expand the program and reach both parties’ clean energy goals.

She started her career with the DOE on the non-proliferation side, which is called the National Nuclear Security Administration. She worked in the NNSA for 13 years, specifically with Russia and non-proliferation and highly enriched uranium.

After her position with the NNSA and time overseas, Thomas-Kerr was hired and transitioned to the clean energy sector, especially in Asia. After five years, Thomas-Kerr took over the India portfolio.

“On a daily basis, I’m writing memos or remarks for the secretary [of energy] and deputy secretary [of energy] or participating in inter-agency meetings led by the White House to talk about our national strategies across different areas, whether its South Asia or technology specific, participating with the inter-agency to move progress forward under the strategic clean energy partnership and trying to develop new programs and areas where we can expand our operation,” Thomas-Kerr said.

When Thomas-Kerr took over the India portfolio at the Department of Energy, UI-ASSIST was already underway, and she joined the project. As a part of her job, she hosted a panel and she brought in some people from UI-ASSIST to talk about the importance of the project and clean energy.

“One of the key priorities under our strategic clean energy partnership is to help India achieve its very aggressive clean energy goals. They have a target of increasing their renewable energy by 450 gigawatts by 2030 which is a very aggressive goal,” Thomas-Kerr said.

Part of Thomas-Kerr’s job is to engage her team in the United States with the UI-ASSIST team to collaborate and progress together.

“My role is on the strategic clean energy partner side, so that is the umbrella agreement… UI-ASSIST is one technical program under [the strategic clean energy program],” Thomas-Kerr said.

For some people, they know exactly what field they will be going into from the beginning.

Dr. Anuradha Annaswamy grew up in Chennai, India, where she became interested in STEM in grade school. Annaswamy was a natural at math and science from the beginning. She was a math major in college, and at the end of her undergraduate, Annaswamy knew she wanted to study more, and that she wanted to do something that was more applicable, such as engineering.

The graduate program Annaswamy enrolled in was a condensed version where she was able to get a degree in power systems in only three years at the Indian Institute of Science.

“Electrical engineering was one of the branches that was offered in that particular very competitive, very prestigious school [the Indian Institute of Science]. Of all the different programs that they offered, that one was the most attractive to me and that’s why I picked it, because it was a very small program, very select and specific choices,” Annawamy said. “This one was more appealing than the other two.”

Annaswamy went to graduate school at Yale University, where she got her masters and doctorate in electrical engineering, with a focus in applied math.

“It was fairly abstract, and it was called ‘control systems,’ and control systems is a very broad based abstract systems concept and is applicable to a number of different domains, so that’s where the general foundation of what I was exposed to and what I was trained in came into the picture,” Annaswamy said.

After completing her doctorate program, Annaswamy wanted to continue being in academia and research. She found opportunities to apply her knowledge in control systems in faculty positions in the mechanical engineering space, which is her current role at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Technical Co-Lead Anurag Srivastava reached out to Annaswamy to see if she wanted to be a part of the UI-ASSIST project and she joined. Annaswamy says found the topic of UI-ASSIST an attractive one.

“[UI-ASSIST] really had to do with developing distributed decision making strategies that are applicable to getting electricity to people who didn’t have access to electricity like rural areas. The most important part is that it’s a big collaboration between the US and India, so it was like returning back home for me in a way, so that part was very appealing,” Annaswamy said.

As a part of the UI-ASSIST, Annaswamy works on the distributed optimization aspect and works on algorithms for grids.

“Collaborations are fantastic, you learn a lot from each other. It was also great to get these international perspectives of what everybody was doing. Everyone brings their own unique contributions to the table… even though the problems might be the same, the lens with which they are viewed are very different because the kinds of constraints and logistics and the needs that the countries are facing are different,” Annaswamy said.

As a woman in STEM, Annaswamy has not personally felt any discrimination, but she said that based on numbers and statistics it is undeniable that there is discrimination against women in the STEM field.

Annaswamy served as a president of the control systems society, part of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) where she wrote an article for a control systems magazine where she wrote that there are barriers to entry for women in the engineering field and that the number of women in engineering from undergraduate to graduate to Ph.D. to faculty drops every step of the way from 50% women in undergraduate to ten percent by the end.

“I have seen it stay at that ten percent for a very long time, over several decades. My daughter is doing a PhD in electrical engineering as well… the kinds of the things she sees are not that different from what I saw which is very sad,” Annaswamy said. “There is lots more work to be done, but things are moving in the right direction, but a lot more movement has to come.”

There are many different subsets of engineering. The engineering umbrella is wide with lots of room on how to interpret the subject, from chemical, to electrical to civil. Those are only a few examples of engineering disciplines.

Sometimes one’s path into STEM leads you to a completely unrelated field within the sciences, Chaitali Bhattacharya first got into STEM when she was young. She was raised in a family interested in science and curiosity.

“Because of the kind of ambience I had, the kind of surroundings I had, the kind of upbringing I had, I was always interested [in STEM],” Bhattacharya said.

For Bhattacharya, it was not a question of whether she wanted to go into STEM, but what aspect of STEM she wanted to focus on. Growing up, Bhattacharya’s father was a nematologist, who studied worms, which fostered her interest in life sciences.

 “On the weekends [my father] used to take me to his fields and to his labs for watering the plants… that was where I got acquainted with pesticides and pathogens. I used to sit very curiously at his microscope and try to see [different things]… that’s how gradually I started loving microorganisms,” Bhattacharya said.  

In her master’s program, she took mycology (study of mushrooms) classes, and she was fascinated by looking at fungus spores through microscopes. She also had an interest in sustainable agriculture, with a goal of straying away from chemical pesticides.

Bhattachraya’s PhD thesis was on biocontrol agents, which is where she found her love for sustainable agriculture and plant management.

Bhattacharya has worked in many different fields over the course of her career, she has been a teacher, a researcher, corporate worker, and even the grant management sector.

She is currently working with Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) which is an organization funded by both India and the United States, with a goal to catalyze collaboration between the two countries.

When she joined IUSSTF, she was given the UI-ASSIST program to look after and manage the program.

“Both India and the U.S. always have been cooperating in several priorities, energy cooperation has always been one of the very important areas that has been of quite significant value to both the countries,” Bhattacharya said. 

India and the United States have a history of working together to further the implementation of smart grids and clean energy.

“Both the countries find this program to be a very lucrative program, a program that is able to bring very good collaboration, a program where the youngsters have been supported by the elder mentors. The smart grid community has been established, this is indeed a very wonderful project, and I am proud to be helping and implementing this program,” Bhattacharya said.

Bhattacharya joined IUSSTF in 2017, around the same time that UI-ASSIST got started, where she is a principal science officer as well as the acting executive director of IUSSTF. She is the senior person who is looking after the program and is the link between the researchers and the funder and assisting and facilitating the programs growth and development.

“We help get the right kind of experts who can help us in evaluating the project, who can help us in telling whether the project is going in the right direction. These researchers are wonderful, they are the best in the community, both in the U.S. and India, but at times what happens is they have the tendency to get further deeper into their research activity. So there is a time where we have the help of our advisory committee to try and tell them ‘this is where you need to stop with the research, maybe it’s time to reorient yourself with the deployment that you promised you would be giving us,’ at the end of the day we are responsible for the countries money to be spent on an  activity that was sponsored so we help them in regularly monitoring them and helping keeping the program on track,” Bhattacharya said.

During her time with UI-ASSIST, Bhattacharya says she has learned a lot about project management, she said that the UI-ASSIST program is a huge project, and the research is expansive. The program takes a lot of monitoring, and making sure everyone stays on the same track but not getting siloed from others in the program.

Along with the United States Department of Energy, the Indian Department Science of Technology was part of the award given to the UI-ASSIST project and some of their team members are working with the program.

Priya Thomas grew up in New Delhi, India, gaining interest in the STEM field in middle school, specifically biology.

“Right from the school level I was fascinated with science and I wanted to do something along those lines,” Thomas said.

Thomas knew she wanted to be an engineer because she knew it would open avenues for her. Thomas said at the time, biomedical engineering was becoming big and the field would be relevant across the world, which is why she took up interest in that field.

“I liked science, especially biology, so biomedical engineering, when you go for orientation and counseling sessions, you get to see that there are a lot of subjects related. In the healthcare industry itself ,it gives you the feeling that you are giving something back to society, you are doing something to help other people,” Thomas said.

As a subject, biomedical engineering looks at diagnostics to develop treatment solutions or even research that looks for health solutions that are more affordable. Thomas explained that the biomedical engineering field is broad, hospital support and equipment diagnostic and repair are two possible areas of work for biomedical engineers.

Thomas works for the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF), which is the administrative body in India for joint clean energy research. Thomas has worked with UI-ASSIST since the proposal was received by IUSSTF.

“We received six or seven proposals at the time, what makes it appealing is probably that there are so many partners involved in [UI-ASSIST]. It is not an easy task to have everyone gel together but we have done it, and each partner brings something unique to the project,” Thomas said.

   In terms of UI-ASSIST, Thomas is a program officer at IUSSTF, so she works with program implementation and evaluation so at the end of each year, Thomas reports back to the government with updates on what the project has done throughout the year.

As a part of the UI-ASSIST program, Thomas has learned a lot, one is management of the team. Thomas said UI-ASSIST has managed to bring people in all different backgrounds, research areas, and interests in a very successful manner.

“Especially the Indian side, because I have been part of the evaluation process of the Indian side I think we have done a tremendous job of implementation to ensure delivery what has been promised initially,” Thomas said.

Being a woman in STEM, Thomas said that there are a lot of assumptions that you have to face, not different treatment, but people assume things.

“If you look at the engineering fields, I have always observed biological science, there are a lot more women who take biological sciences, whether it’s graduating with an engineering degree, but in subjects that require more field oriented careers, for example mechanical engineering or petroleum engineering not many women take up because it’s challenging to be on field, people assume that and they don’t promote that to women anymore. Career wise, being from a biomedical background, when you see companies coming to hire you, they don’t prefer women for field jobs, there are jobs where you have to visit a number of clients a day to ensure whatever you delivered them is working fine, so they don’t prefer women for that, that is changing but there is a assumption that women pick the convenient option… They generally look for places that are more flexible, because at a certain point of time women turn to what’s their family responsibility and what’s important to them. I feel it’s an assumption that people think and it affects the careers [that women are offered] and the way women think about themselves, even compromising on ambitions they might have,” Thomas said. 

Between her time in her undergraduate program and now, Thomas has noticed a change in women in STEM.

“I see a lot more women who are ambitious and assertive with what they want with their careers and goals, if they don’t get what they want in a particular place they are ready to move on. I see a lot more women up there on top… at IUSSTF, right from the start there are a lot of women who work in the office. The numbers are fifty-fifty, I have always worked under women reporting officers so that has been a refreshing change,” Thomas said.  

Math and science come easy to some, and a path to a job in STEM is clear, but the exact destination is not always known until you get there.

Merrill Smith grew up in the Washington DC Metropolitan area where she first gained an interest in STEM after enjoying and being good at math. Smith really started to notice her interest in math during the later years of her grade school career. Smith joked that math classes helped her GPA in college.

Smith said she doesn’t know if she actually knows the moment when she wanted to become an engineer, it just sort of happened at Virginia Tech, where she went to college.

As a biology major, Smith didn’t think she was able to do what she wanted to do with that degree, and probably would have had to go to grad school if she wanted to have a career in biology. Smith heard of engineering, and that she would be able to get a job with that degree.

“Honestly it wasn’t a well informed decision at the time, in hindsight it worked out very well but not well informed,” Smith said.

Smith was suggested to go into chemical engineering because of her biology background but that field wasn’t for her. She ended up going into civil engineering because she could visualize what it is.

“I did work at a construction company and a civil engineering design firm when I first graduated from school. Those are very tangible things, and when you work in that space what you’re doing and what you’re accomplishing is very tangible, unlike some other fields,” Smith said.

Smith now works for the United States Department of Energy (DOE) in a senior advisor role in the office of electricity.

“The office of electricity has a large R&D function, and that is where I work, in the R&D group in the office of electricity,” Smith said.

Smith said that she found the UI-ASSIST project by good luck. The project had already gotten started before Smith became involved, but was a part of the project during the proposal phase. She had been managing microgrid work and program management, so a combination of technical experience, management, timing and luck put her back with the UI-ASSIST project. She is the DOE program manager with UI-ASSIST.

“I manage the program… I deal with interfaces with other programs that are relevant to the UI-ASSIST program like the microgrid program, storage program, and our international program,” Smith said.

Smith said that she has learned that the Indian government and the United States government are different, both governments are funding their own portions of the project, but compromises have to be made about how she has to run the program in order to work with another government.

“Watching how this program has progressed, it’s so complex because of all the teams, all of the different organizations that are contributing [to] this project. I guess I would say that I am pleasantly surprised with how well that’s gone, I would have to credit a lot of that to Washington State for doing that. Just watching the whole process has been kind of amazing, to see everything come together…,” Smith said.

Being a woman in STEM, Smith has not experienced a lot of different treatment or attitudes in the workplace.

“It was clear in school that there were not very many women in civil engineering, or engineering in general but I didn’t feel like I was treated differently. Once I came to the Department of Energy, I had two primary jobs before I worked at the Department of Energy, one in design engineering and one in construction and both of those were primarily male-dominated work environments, and DOE in technical areas as well. What I will say is again, maybe I’m just a lucky person but the majority of the time I have spent at DOE, I have either been in offices that were from the technical staff predominantly women, which is an anomaly. For a number of years I worked in [the] distributed energy resources program, we were a very small office and we were 75% women which is basically unheard of,” Smith said.

“I have spent a lot of time at DOE in organizations [where] the top management has been women, like I said that is not normal. I would say I probably have not had the true experience that other people may have had,” Smith said.

Dr. Anita Gupta works in the clean energy and sustainable technology sector for the Ministry of Science and Technology in India.

Growing up in a family that worked in the engineering or medical fields, Gupta was exposed to some of the STEM disciplines early in life. Her father was a professor of civil engineering so she gained interest in engineering through him.

Gupta got her doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from IIT Delhi, then she worked as a scientist for the Indian Department of Science and Technology.

“Then I was assigned to really propel science and technology-based entrepreneurship in the country, and that was through an institutional mechanism wherein we set up close to 180 technology business incubators across various domains of technology in the country,” Gupta said.  

Gupta has been doing technology-based entrepreneurship work with the Government of India for the last two years, with a focus on clean energy, climate change and suitability, and sustainable technology.

As a part of the UI-ASSIST project, Gupta’s role is to oversee the implementation of the project on the Indian side, because there were a lot of stakeholders from the public and private sectors that were involved with the project.

Through her upbringing and current roles, Gupta said that she has a very good experience being a woman in the STEM field.

“My family has been very, very progressive and in fact, just to tell my husband I did all my higher education after B.Tech in terms of Masters and also [as a] researcher, my husband really encouraged me to go for it, even after starting a family. So that progressive mindset is really important to support women in STEM… we have seen progressively women opting for engineering and technical career [there is] close to now 30% participation in terms of intake in engineering schools and colleges,” Gupta said.

Even with the increased representation of women in the STEM fields, it is not always easy for women to have their voices heard. However, Gupta had some encouraging words for women who are in the STEM field or are thinking about joining.

“If you’re really passionate to work in the STEM area, I think whatever hiccups or roadblocks, just have the energy to navigate and I think it is the best time for a woman to embark on the STEM career,” Gupta said.

Gupta has high marks for the way that the Indian Government is planning and acting in the future of energy within the country.

“We are working our landscape in terms of renewables and energy, we have fixed a target of by 2030 that we will have to have an electricity production through non-fossil fuels,” Gupta said.

The Indian government is planning to increase their solar energy integration and to transition the country into a greener future, which is part of her role.

Despite the high number of women in the distributed energy resources program, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure that women’s voices are heard and amplified.

While statistics from across the STEM fields still show a substantial lack of inclusion of women in STEM, the stories of the women of UI-ASSIST show those numbers might be increasing. According to a Forbes article, “People who don’t feel included in a company’s structure and mission are less likely to invest their time and energy into the future and longevity of that organization.”

An inclusive workspace is something that should be strived for across industries and professions, and UI-ASSIST has proven that it creates that inclusive workspace amongst the industries and universities that are involved with the program.

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