Sarada Parthasarathy, who graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India in 1953 is a great role model for women everywhere who want to have a successful career as well as a fulfilling family life. I was fortunate to meet with her several weeks ago and she bought me a cup of coffee at a neighborhood Pete’s Coffee. We chatted about the twists and turns that her life & career took and the wisdom she can offer to the young women of today about having a family and a career.
Sarada was born in Mannarkkad, Kerala, India, on 28 March 1929. She was the seventh in a family of ten children born to Kalpathy V. Ananthakrishna Iyar and S. Madurambal. Her father worked as a Civil Supervisor in Kerala. It is interesting that he received his diploma, also from CEG! Due to his job requirements, the family moved around a lot within Kerala. Some of Sarada’s siblings died in infancy, while the others thrived and excelled in studies. Sarada was especially good at math & sciences. She attended the now defunct VVP High school in Palakkad and completed her Intermediate in 1948 from Victoria College. She received a perfect 100 in her Mathematics exam.
Sarada’s sister Rajyalakshmi had set a precedence by choosing to study engineering at CEG. Sarada wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps. She applied to CEG for admission but did not get in. She started doing her undergraduate work in Mathematics in Presidency College, a prestigious institution in Chennai. By this time, her father had retired and the family had moved to Chennai.
In 1949, Sarada applied to CEG again and was admitted to the college.
Sarada was one of two girls in her CEG batch. She and her batch mate Kamala Devi both chose to study Telecommunications Engineering.
Sarada commuted to CEG from her house in Triplicane by public transportation. She had to take two city buses to get to college. The second year of engineering was an exception. One of the engineering courses was a survey practicum in civil engineering which required attendance at 7 AM. During that year, both Sarada and Kamala stayed in the house of Principal Rao Bahadur Lt. Col. Paul since he had a room available. They got their meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) delivered to them from the college cafeteria.
Sarada completed her four years of undergraduate education and graduated from CEG in 1953.
An Interesting Career With Unexpected Turns
Sarada’s career started with a six-month internship in All India Radio, New Delhi.
Her neighbor Dr.K.S.Krishnan was the first Director of National Physical Laboratory (NPL) which was established in 1947. He encouraged Sarada to apply for a job in NPL and she became the first scientist to be recruited as Junior Scientific Assistant in NPL’s Radio Propagation Unit studying space. That unit had just been started under director Dr. A.P. Mitra and Sarada became the second member of the team. During her tenure at NPL, she worked towards her Ph.D. at NPL for seven years. Her research was focused on sun spot cycle. Sarada built a receiver using vacuum tubes to do these studies.
In New Delhi, Sarada stayed for eighteen months with her sister Rajyalakmi and her family. Later she moved to the NPL employee quarters closer to NPL, in East Patel Nagar, New Delhi.
A highlight of her years in NPL, which was a once-in-a-lifetime event, came in 1957. Sixty-four countries joined together and kicked off the International Geophysical Year (IGY) that lasted from July of that year to the end of 1958. Around the world, numerous scientific experiments were conducted. The picture below from an article entitled “World Studies World” in the July 15, 1957 edition of Life Magazine showcased the contribution of India’s NPL to the project. It showed Sarada setting up the instrument to measure radio noise from the sun.
The report “Highlights of scientific activities in India during the International Geophysical Year” documented the results of the efforts thus:
“The response characteristics of the ionosphere to solar flares vary markedly over the frequency range 10 kHz to 100 MHz. At low frequencies (10 kHz to 500 kHz), the effect is of sudden enhancement of intensity of atmospherics and above 500 kHz, the effect is one of fade out due to sudden increase in absorption 6 of the medium and short radio waves. During IGY period, observations of both enhancement as well as the absorption were carried out at National Physical Laboratory, New Delhi, over an extended frequency ranging from 27 kHz to 25 MHz, to monitor solar flares, by Dr. A. P. Mitra and his group.”
Sarada received a post-doctoral fellowship in 1961 in the department of Radio and Electrical Engineering Division of National Research Council, Ottawa, Canada, with travel fully paid by Pan Am. She first traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, to marry her fiancé, who was working at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute as Radio Astronomer and then went on to Canada to work on her fellowship but soon after gave it up to join her husband in Alaska.
It is an understatement to say that the move to the USA posed challenges to her career. Sarada did not have a work permit. Thus she was forced to take a break. But that didn’t stop her from finding ways to engage in interesting and mentally challenging activities. She stayed home working unofficially in the Physics and Engineering Department of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Then, instead of getting frustrated about not being able to pursue her original technical field, she plunged into more studies, getting two degrees in Accounting and in the Russian Language from the University of Alaska in 1968.
Sarada’s work hiatus continued until 1973 when she went to work for the State Government of Alaska as a civil clerk. In 1983, Sarada got her CPA license and continued to work as an accountant. In the meantime, her husband had retired and they moved to New Carrollton, Maryland.
In 1985, Sarada joined the Small Business Administration (SBA) office of the U.S. Government. She worked at the headquarters in Washington D.C. Her husband encouraged her to focus on putting her capabilities to work rather than worrying about titles and ranks. Sarada’s career in SBA progressed steadily. During the first four years, she worked as an accountant, and later in the Budget division as a Budget Analyst. She found the budget analyst job quite interesting as she was in charge of budgeting for business loans to small businesses and for disaster loans for all the 50 states.
Many of us can relate to working in careers where the managers are younger than us and are a lot less experienced. Sarada navigated such experiences with grace and excelled in her job.
Sarada retired from SBA in 2011 as a Senior Budget Analyst.
Sarada met her future husband Raghava Iyengar Parthasarathy at NPL. He joined NPL in 1955 as Senior Scientific Assistant. He left NPL for Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1957 and Sarada and he were married in Fairbanks in 1961. Their daughter Hemai was born in 1968. Sarada’s work took a backseat with her desire to be home to raise her daughter. Sarada speaks of those years as very fulfilling, seeing her daughter growing up. Once Hemai turned five, Sarada started her second career, this time in accounting.
Raghava retired from the University of Alaska in 1982, and the family moved to New Carrolton in 1984. He joined National Space Data Center, which was part of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, working there until 2010. After the death of her husband in 2012 Sarada moved to California to live with her daughter and her family. Her daughter Hemai has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from MIT and is Scientific Director at Breakout Labs and a partner at Breakout Ventures. Her partner Alexander Stewart is the Chief Mathematician for a private company, Direct Conversion. Loki, the red retriever in the picture below, completes the family and is quite attached to Sarada and vice versa.
Sarada spends her retirement traveling a lot. When I met her a few weeks ago (July 2017), she had just returned from a tour of the National Parks in the USA. In a few weeks, she will be traveling to Oregon to see the total eclipse of the sun. In October she is planning to visit Italy.
When not traveling, she keeps herself busy cooking, shopping and being healthy.
Flexibility has its rewards
Sarada studied to be a telecommunication engineer. She had the opportunity to be part of a historic year in the world of scientific experiments and contribute to the advance of our knowledge in Geophysics. Life threw a lot of challenges her way and she navigated them all to have an interesting career that spanned the disciplines of engineering and accounting. Through all of those years, she gave importance to her family. She put her career on hold to raise her daughter. She supported her husband’s successful career by taking care of the family. For all the women who take up studies in technical fields and enter a career but leave the workforce because of natural and unavoidable life events, Sarada is a shining role model. She shows that you can have a fulfilling career even when you put your family first. When I asked her for a message to today’s women entering the work force with a technical education, she said: “We are all unique, like finger prints. In my life, I had so many changes of jobs and worked in several different fields. Each person has to adapt to their circumstances, keeping an eye on what their goal in life is.”
Hemai, Sarada’s daughter received my cold LinkedIn message asking if her mother graduated from CEG and answered in affirmative. She passed on my request to talk to her mother enthusiastically, and I am thankful she did since this story would not have been written without her help.
Sarada was gracious in accepting my request to visit her, gave me generously of her time in answering my numerous questions, and shared a number of pictures of herself and her family. I am so glad to have met her in person.
This is the seventh write-up in my ambitious journey of chronicling the life and work of the early CEG alumnae. If you like what you read, please “like” and share.
You can read my earlier life stories of other CEG alumnae here:
My goal is simply to encourage more girls to study engineering & science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of the world. I am hoping stories of the CEG women will inspire many to do so.
I will be writing more such posts here, and then collect them into a book for publishing.
If you have information about the women who are CEG alumni from the 1940s to 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.