Dr. Rema (Abraham) Thomas: Mechanical Engineering Designer

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Rema Thomas graduated from College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, India, in 1970.  After working on interesting designs in Mechanical Engineering Research and Development Organization (MERADO), she went on to work on exciting wind tunnel model design in National Aerospace Laboratories while continuing her studies and receiving her doctorate, and raising a son.  Her design career while managing her family life exemplifies one of many options available to women today.

Early Life

Rema was born on April 27, 1948, in Pune, Maharashtra. Her father K.C. Abraham was a businessman and ran an institute for automobile engineering and business management.  Her mother, Dr. Annamma Abraham was a physician at St. Margaret’s Hospital, run by a Christian mission. Later she was responsible for the hospitals in Karaikal, under the French Government, and then worked for the Madras Corporation, in various hospitals in the city.

Rema was six years old when the family moved to Madras (now Chennai). Rema studied in Sacred Heart Presentation Convent, Church Park, one of the best matriculation schools in Chennai, and passed her final exams in 1964.  She completed the Pre-University Course (PUC) at Stella Maris College in 1965.

Rema’s father wanted her to study mechanical engineering with a view to help set up an industrial venture.  Rema applied to CEG and was admitted in 1965.

At CEG

Rema’s home was near Central Station in Madras and she had the luxury of being driven to the campus in the mornings by car, made necessary by the strict attendance policy of having to be at class by 6:30 in the morning for many workshops. After the classes were over, in the evening she took the public transportation back home.

Rema enjoyed the company of Prema and Nalini, and later in her third year Shantha and Kamala. In the Mechanical Engineering program, she was the only girl in her year.  In the history of CEG, R. Sarojini was the only woman to have graduated with Mechanical Engineering specialization until Rema came along.  Rema was in the first year when Sarojini was in her final year, yet, Sarojini was very friendly, and would take Rema to her house, which was close to the campus, for lunch.

Prema remembers Rema’s family as high achievers, yet very humble, including Rema.  She used to visit Rema’s house often in the first year and enjoy the non-vegetarian food Rema’s family offered her.

rema old pic  When the lectures were less than engaging, Rema would ask Prema to teach her how to write the Tamil language.  Rema’s mother tongue is Malayalam, and she could speak fluently in Tamil, but not write.  She also remembers that Nalini, who was well versed in Tamil, as well as the Kannada language, taught her some Kannada phrases and made her say that to a boy, only to find out later what they actually meant and realized it was a prank.

Rema remembers that her male classmates and many of the staff were very kind.  Some of the junior faculty were bullies.

Rema graduated from CEG in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Career

Soon after graduation, Rema joined Crompton Engineering, Madras, as a trainee and later became an Assistant Engineer in the Power Systems Design group where she designed electrical transmission towers and worked on several electrical design projects.

In 1975, Rema joined Mechanical Engineering Research and Development Organization (MERADO), under the Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI), Madras, to work on mechanical engineering design projects. CMERI is part of The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), a prestigious Indian Government research and development organization. She also joined the post-graduate program at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM) and completed her master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1980.

Rema worked on some interesting mechanical design projects in MERADO. The Coimbatore Handpump Field Testing Project, a collaborative handpump R&D project of the Government of India, UNICEF, and UNDP/World Bank, was made possible because of Rema’s design work.  Another interesting project was the industrial coconut dryer. Yet another project was a foldable wheelchair design, using indigenous parts. This came about because Rema witnessed an imported wheelchair which could be carried in a briefcase, and then unfolded for use.  She proposed working on the design, and with her boss’s approval went on to design one that could be used by a spastic child.  Rema remembers that when she made a presentation to National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Bangalore, prior to accepting a job there, she showed the picture of a child in the wheelchair she designed, and the audience was thoroughly impressed.

Rema’s husband’s work in Bangalore resulted in Rema moving to Bangalore and joining NAL which is also part of CSIR.  NAL was originally started as National Aeronautical Laboratory and later renamed to National Aerospace Laboratories because of its increased multidisciplinary activities and its involvement in the Indian space program. There, as a Scientist, Rema was involved in wind tunnel model design. Wikipedia describes wind tunnel model thus:

“A wind tunnel is a tool used in aerodynamic research to study the effects of air moving past solid objects. A wind tunnel consists of a tubular passage with the object under test mounted in the middle. Air is made to move past the object by a powerful fan system or other means. The test object, often called a wind tunnel model, is instrumented with suitable sensors to measure aerodynamic forces, pressure distribution, or other aerodynamic-related characteristics.”

Rema got quite animated explaining the nature of the design work she did. The Story of NAL’s Wind Tunnels chronicles the history of the wind tunnel projects, and it is easy to see how much the work in NAL must have meant to Rema.  One of the major achievements of the NAL’s Wind Tunnels project is the design and fabrication of sophisticated models and balances.  Rema’s work at NAL is classified and hence details are not available.

While she was working at NAL, she also started her doctorate studies at IITM.  When her son was young, she moved temporarily to Madras to complete her coursework and take the qualifying exams. In 1993, her husband passed away, and Rema moved between Bangalore and Madras in order to complete her Ph.D., which took several years.  Rema’s design work at NAL helped with the topic of her thesis: Studies on the Response of Polymeric Composites as a Material for Aerospace Wind Tunnel Models through Simulated Test Environments.  She received her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering in 1999.

Rema moved to the Knowledge and Technology Management Division (KTMD) in NAL towards the end of her career. Here she was responsible for editing the technical reports of NAL.  Rema remembers being very careful about making assumptions about others’ reports, and not hesitating to ask for clarifications when she was in doubt, never letting her ego get in the way.

While juggling her studies and work, Rema found time to teach her co-workers in NAL who had diplomas but were looking to get a degree. She also taught several higher secondary school children, including those who were diagnosed with dyslexia.

Rema retired as Senior Scientist from NAL in 2008.

Family Life

Rema’s father died in 1973 when he was only fifty-five. Rema is very grateful to her mother for helping her when she was juggling her career, her graduate studies and raising her young son.  When Rema had to travel to Madras for her studies, her mother stayed with Rema’s son, who was at the time a higher secondary student in Bangalore.  Rema’s mother stayed with her in Bangalore for a while and then went back to Madras. She died in 2003.

Rema’s older sister Usha studied MBA at Xavier School of Management (XLRI) in Jamshedpur.  She excelled in Table tennis and was a Madras State ladies’ Table tennis champion. Rema’s younger sister Anila got her a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in arts. She ran a nursery school for a number of years. She also acquired a cost accounting degree and worked in a chartered accounting company in Bangalore. She is now retired and lives with Rema.   Rema’s younger brother Ranjit also graduated from CEG in 1972.  Just like Usha, he was also a state Table tennis champion. He runs his own printing business in Chennai.

In 1979, Rema married Mathew Thomas, a Charted Accountant, in an arranged marriage.  He had a very successful practice in Deloitte Haskins & Sell (In 1989, Deloitte Haskins & Sells merged with Touche Ross in the USA to form Deloitte & Touche), and became a partner, opening their Bangalore office.   Mathew passed away in 1993 at a young age.

Rema’s son Anind was born in Chennai when Rema was finishing her master’s degree. He graduated from the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore.  He is currently a Partner at AZB & Partners, one of the top law firms in India. His wife Tanya is also an advocate and graduated from Symbiosis Law School (SLS) in Pune, and received a master’s degree in law from the University of Toronto in Canada. She is currently a Senior Associate in a law firm in Bangalore.

Anind and Tanya-captioned

Rema loves traveling.  When her son was growing up, they went on an extensive tour of Europe. In the recent past, her travels included trips to Ireland, Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Australia, and Singapore. She also visited Israel (holy land trip) and Egypt.

Rema is a member of The Mar Thoma Syrian Church in Bangalore. In retirement, her time is spent in religious activities. She is also an avid gardener. Currently, she is exploring organic terrace gardening. Other projects occupying her time are the renovation of her house and learning Hebrew.

Rema with Kalpa and Mallika-captioned

She keeps in touch with her friends and alumni from CEG by attending reunions and local meetings.

She is in touch with her CEG classmates such as Prema, who says “Today Rema and I talk very often and share mostly religious experiences. I find she is even a better and virtuous person now, very humble in spite of all her achievements.”

during alumni reunion-captioned

Design Career Enriched by Continuous Learning

Rema spent her career designing useful things. In MERADO her projects created things useful for everyday living.  In NAL, she worked on designs important to the Indian Government. While sustaining her career, she also continued her higher studies, getting her doctorate. Her career and continued studies fueled each other. She weathered the early loss of her husband and continued to live a fulfilling life.  She is an excellent role model for women everywhere on how to use your technical education to contribute to the economy in ways that are useful to the society while you nurture your family, develop yourself, and remain humble and grounded.

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks to Rema for taking my numerous phone calls and explaining the details of her career very patiently.

Credit goes to CEG alumnus Babuji Reddy’s collection of CEG, and alumni reunion pictures, which provided some of the pictures in this article.

I am thankful to Prema Thomas for her input to this article.

Note

This is story number twenty-one 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 the life stories of other CEG alumnae on LinkedIn (use #CEGalumnae in the search for posts/content) or my website Mathisarovar.

My goal is to encourage more girls to study engineering and science, enter the workforce and be equal partners with men in shaping the future of our world. Women face a lot of critical moments in their lives that make them want to leave the workforce. I am hoping the stories of the CEG women will inspire them to stay in it.

I will be writing more such posts here and will be collecting them into a book for publishing.

If you have information about CEG alumnae from the 1940s to the 1960s, please contact me to help make these posts complete.

 

 

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