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What's Their Secret

By Jennifer Shen     10/19/11 7:00pm

Devika Subramanian grew up in a college campus neighborhood in Rourkela, a relatively small steel town in the eastern part of India with a population of around 100,000. She said that she has always been very interested in science and math, and her family, friends and teachers were all very encouraging with her interest.

Her class, COMP 140: Computational Thinking, has proven to be very popular, with the number of students growing from around 38 to 114 over four years. Subramanian said she is proud that COMP 140 has helped to bring the number of computer science majors from around 21 to 75, and she is even more proud that more than 21 of those are women.

So what's her secret?

At the age of 16, Subramanian got into a very competitive university in India, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. She said the structure of the school was very much like Rice University, with a comparable residential college system with affiliated faculty — similar to masters and associates at Rice.

"Perhaps the best years of my life were my undergraduate years," Subramanian said. "We had a very close connection with our teachers, [which is also] one of the things I like about Rice."

Even though Subramanian really enjoyed the challenging curriculum and excellent peers she had at IIT, she felt intimidated at first because of her young age and gender, since there were only two female engineers in her class of 300.

However, Subramanian recalls a turning point when she managed to score at the top of her class on the final exam in one of the toughest first-semester engineering classes every

 engineering freshman had to take.

"That was the first time I realized I may have a future as an engineer," Subramanian said.

Subramanian said her professor even invited her to talk to him since she was the first student to ever ace the exam.

"And [the professor] said, ‘I can't believe a woman did this ... and I'll make you an honorary man,'" Subramanian said. "I told him, ‘I don't want to be an honorary man. I'm a woman, and you better accept it.'"

Subramanian said it that's when she really began to think about the gender barrier in engineering.

"Maybe because I have experienced a world where there were so few [women engineers] ... I see the effect that women can have on [the engineering community]," Subramanian said. "I think women can change the culture of the system ... for the better because we think differently, so we can [bring in] a different perspective, which is why I agonize over how ... I can make it easier for the women who come after me."

Despite these challenges, Subramanian said that for the most part, everyone at IIT was very encouraging, and she felt that her peers' recognition of her ability as an engineer helped her integrate into the community. In addition, Subramanian

 said that the unparalleled learning environment had a significant impact.

"It trained me to learn ... to approach a new thing without any fear, and I think that's what a good engineering education should be," Subramanian said. "Nothing is unlearnable. If you're willing to learn, it can be taught to you."

This learning philosophy also extends to Subramanian's teaching. Subramanian said that she challenges her students in COMP 140 with concepts that many people in the department thought may be too hard for an introductory course, but students continue to amaze her and exceed her expectations.

Subramanian said she wants COMP 140 to be a way for anybody to understand what computer science is. She said that computational thinking, which is the ability to take a large problem and break it down into pieces, is crucial to living in a world that is getting more and more quantitative.

Subramanian said her decision to become a professor was influenced by her listening to her father, a mechanical engineering professor, teach as a child.

"I know I was fascinated by the world of the classroom," she said. "And I've always found that when I explain something to someone, I'll learn it better."

What brought her to the U.S., Subramanian said, were the opportunities it offered to women engineers that India lacked at that time.

"The academic environment [in the U.S.] was willing to recognize my ability," Subramanian said. "I [wanted to] go to a country where it's what you can do, not who you are, that matters."

 "What's Their Secret?" is a weekly feature that highlights a faculty member who has had a significant impact on Rice students.

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