Uma Chowdhry. Photo courtesy DuPont.
Polymer science and technology are just two of the areas to which Uma Chowdhry, a scientist and manager at the DuPont Company, has contributed. She directed the Terathane business for DuPont in the mid-1990s after inventing new ceramics for use in electronic devices. For Chowdhry, a leader in both research and business, it is not enough to make a new material that she is proud of as a scientific accomplishment; she also has to find practical uses for it. She moves new chemicals from beakers in the lab to products in the store.
Chowdhry was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, in 1947, the year her home country became independent from Great Britain. She first became interested in science in high school and studied physics at the University of Bombay, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 1968. She moved to the United States, hoping to study nuclear physics in graduate school, but two people got her hooked on chemistry: her future husband, chemist Vinay Chowdhry, and Pol Duwez, a materials chemist at the California Institute of Technology, where she was earning her master’s degree in engineering. After graduating from Caltech in 1970, she worked at the Ford Motor Company for a short time and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in materials science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976.
The next year, Chowdhry went to work at DuPont in their main labs in Wilmington, Delaware, where she became involved in many different research projects. One of the earliest projects studied better ways to make a compound called tetrahydrofuran, or THF, a common laboratory solvent used in industry. Later she did research on ceramics—materials like porcelain and china that are chemically very similar to glass. Ceramics do not normally conduct electricity and, in fact, are often used as insulators in electric gadgets. Chowdhry cleverly applied chemistry to make ceramics that conduct electricity; moreover, she was able to make ceramics that conduct electricity even better than metals do. Such materials are called superconductors, and they have many potential uses in computers, batteries, and other electrical devices.
Eventually, Chowdhry was promoted into management at DuPont, although this was not her career goal. Some chemists do not necessarily want to be “kicked upstairs,” preferring research to management. Chowdhry, however, soon found she not only loved her new work, but she was good at it too. She discovered in herself the ability that all good leaders have—the ability to inspire people to want to do their best.
For a while Chowdhry was head of DuPont’s Terathane operations. Terathane is a substance used to make various polymers, including polyurethanes. Most polyurethane molecules consist of alternating shorter chains of molecules—some very stiff and straight, others floppy and flexible—hooked together like cars in a train. This allows the polyurethane to be strong yet flexible and not brittle. The floppy, flexible segments in polyurethane chains are Terathane molecules. Polyurethanes are used to make items as diverse as foam seat cushions, paints, and skateboard wheels.
In 2006 Chowdhry became DuPont’s chief science and technology officer, a position from which she retired in 2010, after 33 years with the company. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1996 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.