Uma Chowdhry: Materials Science and the Sustainable Marketplace

Uma Chowdhry: Materials Science and the Sustainable Marketplace

Film transcript

Transcription from video completed in June 2012, with interviews conducted in November 2011. Learn more about Uma Chowdhry and additional resources connected to the film.


I like to think . . . I like to think that I had the courage to dream of the impossible.


This is a story about ambition, nanotechnology, and changing the world.


Chapter 1: Materials Science and the Sustainable Marketplace


My name is Uma Chowdhry. I grew up in Mumbai, in India, when it was still called Bombay. Bombay is a city of . . . at the time, it was 12 million people; today it’s more like 15 . . . teeming with people.

I have very happy memories of my childhood—full of laughter, full of joy, full of peace and happiness. [I was] strong-willed, independent, rebellious . . . rebellious.

I was the youngest of three. My father was an important influence in all of our lives—had a very strong desire to get his children educated. He himself didn’t get beyond high school. And so he wanted to live out his life through his children’s lives. And it was very important to him that my report card from my school was the best. And so I felt a lot of pressure to always excel.

My father tried to get me into music, into dance, into painting. You know, he tried everything to see where my talent lay.

You know, I was willing to work hard at those things, but they didn’t come as naturally as math and science did.

I wanted to become a scientist. And I wanted to become one that was somehow internationally famous.


In the 1960s Mumbai was deeply patriarchal, and women often found themselves and their dreams in second place. Uma bristled under its inequities, particularly at home, where her brother got top billing.


Towards the end of my stay in Mumbai, I began to think, “Well, I’ve got to get to a place where I can be equally important.”


Uma researched her future avidly and dreamed of studying in the United States. She spent hours at the British Library in Mumbai, poring over listings of the nation’s top schools, successful professors, and Nobel Prize winners.


I aspired to want to follow in their footsteps, and I wanted to become a scientist of international repute. I remember applying to all the schools that were in the top 15 or 20 that I could try to get into.

And I’ll never forget the most exciting day . . . when the postman arrived and I opened this envelope—it was a thick envelope—that said, “You have been admitted to Caltech, and we have a scholarship for you.” I was in seventh heaven.

I was 20 years old. The government only allowed $8 for anyone leaving the country. So I had $8 in my pocket. Never left India before, never got on a plane.

I’d never seen anything like California or any city in the U.S. because we didn’t have television when we were growing up. It was hard leaving my parents, it was hard leaving home, and I didn’t know what I was in for.

So I arrive in LAX—that is a very intimidating airport to arrive in for someone who has never seen an airport like that.

Luckily, there was a person standing there with a placard with my name on it. He said, you know, “Welcome, welcome to Caltech. I’m a student there, and I’m gonna drive you to your new home.”

And then began what was the most frightening experience (laughs). To get on an L.A. freeway for someone who has never been on a highway before—you know, six-lane highways, everybody going at breakneck speeds. I just sat there totally terrified.


Chapter 2. “I Dreamed Very Courageously”


My bachelor’s degree from India was in physics and math; so I was going to be a particle physicist because there were three Nobel laureates at Caltech who were particle physicists. And I just thought that was the thing to do because I’d heard the Nobel Prize is the highest prize you can aspire to as a scientist.

Ignorance is bliss (laughs) . . . so when you’re ignorant, you’re not afraid to dream. And I dreamed very courageously.

And then, you know, when I went to the first course, and the second course, and the third course, and my eyes began to widen, and I said, “Okay, we’re gonna have to slow down and take very small steps to be able to get to where we want to get because this is not easy.”


Uma’s ambition inspired her to constantly consider what should come next. During her years at Caltech in the late ’60s, she was drawn to materials science, which universities were just formalizing as a unique discipline.

Materials science investigates how the molecular structure of objects—like metals, plastics, and ceramics—affects what they can do, how they can change, and the new ways we can use them.


This one professor—French professor I met—he said, “You know, if you’re a little interested in materials, um, I’ll make you much more interested.” And what I began to appreciate is that materials science was about the physics and chemistry of solids. It’s things you encounter in everyday life that are made with materials.

It’s quite fascinating how even during, you know, my lifetime I’ve seen tools evolve at a rapid pace to be able to look at the nanoscale. You’ve heard of nanotechnology—things that are very, very, very small, at the atomic level—and be able to see them, visualize them.

I’ve always wanted to see what’s happening at this atomic scale.

I graduated with a master’s degree at Caltech and wanted to go to get my advanced education, my Ph.D., in materials science. My husband came across from India. We got married, so despite my father’s wish that this was just infatuation and it would all wear away once I got to California, and I’d meet a very bright, young gentleman at Caltech whom I would want to share my life with. But no, I wasn’t going to change my mind. I was steadfast in my belief that that was the man I was going to marry.


Uma and her husband, Vinay, moved to Cambridge and enjoyed an ambitious life together. While he pursued his Ph.D. at Harvard University, Uma started her doctoral study in materials science down the road at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Wasn’t without hard work, though. I can’t emphasize the fact enough. That it was a lot of work, very little play, in those years of trying to close the gap between where I had come from and where I wanted to go.

It was a huge gap.


At MIT, Uma worked on her Ph.D. through a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission—now the Department of Energy—where her worldview widened considerably.

With a greater awareness of the world’s energy needs, Uma specialized in finding practical applications for the high-temperature ceramics she’d mastered at Caltech. This helped her create battery materials that would remain stable under severe conditions.

This juncture—the intersection of materials science and the betterment of the marketplace—would be the foundation of the rest of her remarkable career.

And that first step? One of the most advanced and prolific industrial research labs around: DuPont.


I said, “Well, if I go to a research lab in industry, then I can at least aspire to do very high-quality research that could someday end up in a practical application. And maybe along the way I will make discoveries and inventions that will change the world.”


Chapter 3. From the Lab to the World


The Chowdhrys moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where Uma and Vinay each found a remarkable home for their career passions and a shared love of science.


America really transformed my life, and the DuPont Company had a huge role in doing that.

DuPont had this incredible reputation of having changed the world. Not only did they change the world of clothing; they changed the world of construction, they changed the world of transportation.

The image in my head was like a giant playpen, you know (laughs), where scientists could come and find all the tools that they could ever want, and all the gizmos they could want, and play.

It was very much, you know, “do whatever your heart desires because good things will happen.”


Uma took advantage of this energy to advance battery technology and discover new catalyst materials. In her eyes the sky was the limit.


I remember asking for a million-dollar microscope, and everybody laughed. But, you know, this was the state-of-the-art microscope where you could begin to look at atomic levels.

We had analyzed the different atoms we could combine to form complex molecular structures, where we could then control the surface properties and control the bulk properties to be able to achieve the speeds of reaction that we were looking for.

It was a fascinating time. It left me feeling full of awe about the American spirit—for invention, for entrepreneurship, for probing into the mysteries of the universe at the very fundamental level.

It’s awe inspiring. It really is.


Chemistry underwrote almost everything Uma did at DuPont, including biology, materials science, and engineering. Her work here was mission based and exciting, and she and her team dreamt big dreams about how they might globalize their research.

While Vinay created Qualicon, a company that revolutionized food safety with DNA fingerprinting, Uma was at the forefront of the sustainability movement with new superconductors, feedstocks, electronics, and polymers.

Her team started converting cellulose into biofuel, and reengineering bacteria. She furthered her mission-based philosophy by expanding her research capabilities around the globe.


So we built a lab in China, we built a lab in India, we built one in Brazil.

It’s been very rewarding to watch those labs grow, to hire local people, and create new products for local needs. When we talk about innovation, it’s about taking the science out of the lab and creating value in the marketplace.


From corn-based fabrics to raincoats to carpeting, her team’s transformative work in the lab fundamentally changes the way we look at things we’ve largely taken for granted.


And we’re living in a very exciting time because the world is changing rapidly.

There’s gonna be more needs in the world in the future; there’s more people in the world that we have to feed.

New problems will arise as a result, I have no doubt. I mean, there will be water shortages, there will be energy shortages. So how do we come up with inventions and discoveries that help us overcome these challenges?

The opportunity is vast to use the power of renewable materials and naturally occurring phenomena, and combine them in new and unique ways to make a much better planet and a sustainable tomorrow.

There is no better time to be a chemist.

I like to think that I would be remembered for having, um, worked on sustainable products and having globalized our research to be able to reach, you know, the far ends of this world, and provide better products to improve the material standard of living for people all over the world.

And chemistry has been at the root of all that we do.


Uma’s group developed the process to convert renewable corn cobs and stalks—not food crops—into biofuel. DuPont plans to commercialize this process in 2013.

As chief science and technology officer emeritus, Uma lectures at universities and actively serves on several distinguished boards and committees.

Despite life as retirees, Uma and Vinay find they’re just as busy as ever.

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