Women @ Energy: Triveni Rao

In March 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched a new series, "Women @ Energy," to highlight women who are improving the world through their careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) across the DOE complex. To date, seven Brookhaven scientists have been featured.

Photo of Triveni Rao

Triveni Rao is the Associate Division Head of the Instrumentation Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and also holds the position of Senior Physicist.

Triveni Rao is the Associate Division Head of the Instrumentation Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and also holds the position of Senior Physicist. She joined Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1985, upon her graduation from the University of Illinois at Chicago's PhD program in Laser Physics. She also earned her Masters in Physics from the same institution. Triveni's areas of interest in her research include high brightness, high average current Electron injectors, and the interaction of high intensity short pulse laser on matter. She holds three patents and two invention disclosures, and is a member of the APS fellowship selection panel, the Brookhaven Council, the BNL Nuclear and Particle Physics Safety Council, and the Laser Safety Advisory committee.

What inspired you to work in STEM?

I consider myself a product of two disparate cultures. I spent the early, formative part of my life in India - a skinny, tall kid with oversize glasses who would rather sit at home and read a book than go to the movies. I was a picture perfect geek, but luckily for me, I did not know that I was one. In Indian society at that time, it was not only accepted, but was expected that you focus on studies and excel in them. When I was growing up, no one told me that women were not wired to be scientists or mathematicians or that I was doomed at birth to nonscientific endeavors. In my blissful ignorance, I proceeded to become Physicist. In those days, my interests were not limited to physics. I still vividly remember one of my high school biology classes.  My science teacher wanted to show us how the respiratory system works. A strict Brahmin, unused to even the concept of killing an animal, she proceeded to collect 50 paisa (roughly 5 cents in those days: the budget of the poor government school did not stretch to support such innovative approaches), purchased the respiratory system of a butchered lamb, and asked a technician to blow into it so that her students could appreciate the complex workings of a body. Alas, my ambition to become a doctor was put to bed by my squeamishness. I just could not bring myself to dissect a dead frog or cockroach. Instead I decided to become a physicist (knowing I would not have to deal with body parts of living organisms) and the next chapter in my life began!

With my Master's degree, high hopes and $50 in my pocket, I came to the US to do my Ph.D. I quickly learned that the rules had changed, perhaps not the fundamental ones, but certainly the soft values. Failure was accepted as a necessary learning experience in the path to innovation. Reticence and docility need not be the hall marks of women. Voicing opinions, exploring opportunities, and venturing into the unknown were not only encouraged, but welcomed. I did not have to live by age old customs set by millennia of tradition. I was able to stretch my limits without the fear of stepping out of my expected role. I was blessed with a world renowned expert on Lasers as my thesis advisor, recently moved from Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light source (SSRL) to University of Illinois. He had very high expectations for his students and challenged us to rise up to meet them and our potential. I am proud to say, as his first female student I was able to hold my own and break some barriers for other women to join that group. Under his tutelage, I flourished and was able to set up world records in the project I was working on. This supportive environment has continued at BNL.

What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

The opportunity to stretch the limits, to set high goals, and to establish collaborations within the Lab, with other Labs in the DOE complex and with international institutions to achieve those goals has kept me motivated and enabled me to look forward to coming to work each day. The ability to use state-of-the-art tools to explore matter, working with experts who teach me how to use these tools, exchanging ideas, results, explanations, all of these make me what I am scientifically. I am a grateful beneficiary of BNL's rich scientific, technical and cultural diversity. Being a cog (although a very small one) in a very large machine, making paradigm shifting discoveries makes me feel that I am contributing to better understanding of the universe while immensity of its unknowns keeps me humble. Where else can one hear a proclamation in one breath, "contrary to previous belief, quark-gluon plasma forms perfect liquid" and in the next "but we do not know how, when or why"? If this does not evoke simultaneously a sense of elation and of humility, nothing will.

How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

Studies have shown that both recruitment and retention issues need to be addressed at all levels to increase the presence of women and other under representative minority groups. In the employment arena, the availability of a strong mentorship program and assistance in the grant process play a crucial role in retention. Last year I co-organized a workshop CARE 2012 (Career Enhancement in a Research Environment) for early career STEM faculty at BNL/Stony Brook University (SBU) and they all echoed this need. I am happy to say that as a follow-up of this workshop, BNL is now embarking on setting up a mentorship program. Another point that was brought into sharp relief was the paucity of funding opportunities for young STEM staff. At BNL, many of our projects are funded by large grants with a senior scientist as the principal investigator. CARE 2012 indicated that such a paradigm limits the visibility of junior faculty to the program managers and funding agencies, thereby reducing their ability to obtain independent grants. We took this concern to heart and with the blessing of the management of BNL and SBU, we are now organizing CARE 2013. The objectives of this endeavor is to help the STEM faculty to align their research interest with those of the home-institution and the funding agency, and provide a forum for net-working, establishing collaborations, developing contacts with program managers in funding agencies and subject matter experts and getting critical review of their ideas and proposals. CARE 2013 will also be a training ground for early career STEM faculty in organizing and running a workshop, an important skill for professional growth.

Do you have any tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

I am an experimental scientist! The two main lessons I have learned over my long career are (1) a successful research is 90% preparation and (2) the real world is not a text book case. I have mentored a number of undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students. The frustrations they feel when equipment does not work or a set of data that cannot be explained can be overwhelming. Having a sympathetic mentor and knowledgeable friends to bounce off ideas go a long way to address it. Experience is a great teacher as well.  I would suggest the candidates  participate in research as early as possible, through research programs already available to high school and undergraduate students. This also gives them an opportunity to explore different fields well before they have to commit to one. Don't forget, it builds a strong résumé as well!

When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

I enjoy travelling, reading and gardening. A memorable road trip took me from Adirondacks, Montreal, Quebec City, PIE, and Halifax to Boston and showed me the immensity and variety of this continent. In another trip through Thailand and Cambodia I was impressed by how much we, as a civilization, have changed in the past centuries and yet remained the same.

A recent read, biography of Steve Jobs, brought into sharp focus the vagaries and dichotomy of human nature. Some of Steve's statements such as "We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and add something to that flow" or on the decline of great companies (applicable to great research facilities as well), "When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don't matter so much and a lot of them just turn off" resonate deeply with the scientist in me.

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