Recently, I was lucky enough to connect with Ashie through my blog. Getting to connect to like-minded people who I never would have met otherwise, like Ashie, is one of the reasons I love blogging so much. Dr. Ashie is a PhD Engineer who has had a career spanning from biotech and renewable energy research to education and start-up.
She founded StemChef last year to promote STEM education though cooking. She features experiments she has created in the kitchen with her daughter and it sounds so fun! I think it is a fantastic idea. Recently, I have been trying similar concepts with my own young children.
Ashie found me shortly after I did the STEM for Kids post Teach your kids STEM concepts while making Rice Krisipies Treats. I’ve recently added the Gardening series on the blog, and I will be trying to incorporate as much STEM and kid interaction into our home Gardening and cooking as possible. Now, after interviewing Ashie, I’m eager to learn more ways to incorporate STEM for kids in the kitchen from StemChef.
I hope you’ll relax with a cup of tea and enjoy reading about Dr. Ashie’s journey from scientist to educator.
Engineering Emily (EE): How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
Ashie Bhandiwad (AB): Growing up in India, my only two choices were to become an engineer or a doctor. I really disliked biology at the time so it was sort of decided from societal perspective. That being said, I was really influenced by my dad’s work in pollution control. And I wanted to grow up and save the environment. So pursuing Chemical Engineering seemed like a logical step for me.
EE: What was your college major?
AB: Chemical Engineering during Bachelors, Biotechnology for Masters and Biochemical Engineering with a research focus on Bioenergy for my Doctoral work.
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?
AB: Well I sort of have three different experiences in the three degrees I pursued across three continents. I could write a book on the many experiences, lol. But in a nutshell, I would have to say that each of them had their own experiences to offer that has made me the person I am today. Interestingly, my Bachelors class of Chemical Engineering was 60% female, so needless to say, us girls ruled – which was the most awesome experience
EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?
AB: Yep! Quite a few actually. I tried to opt for ones with environmental impact. My very first internship during Bachelors taught me to be extremely efficient. I was in a team of 4 – I was the only girl and we had found quite a coveted internship at a well-known food institute. The project was focused on downstream processing.
While the project was awesome the commute was terrible. The food institute was about 2.5 hours car ride away from my University. The place had a boys hostel and a so-called girls hostel. But I didn’t feel comfortable living there for three months, so I commuted. I had to catch a train at 6am to reach work at 9am and took the last train out at 5:30pm to reach home at 10pm. I got a lot of reading done on the commute. In hindsight, it sort of prepared me for the Bay Area commutes!
EE: How did you find/get hired for your first engineering job?
AB: Besides, the numerous internships I did during the course my studies, my first job was at a startup as a Lab Manager. It wasn’t a particularly engineering role. It was more biotech focused. Since it was a startup environment, I had multi-faceted hats on that included lab management, research management, setting training protocols, grant writing to name a few.
I had moved to Portland, OR and started searching for jobs afresh. But instead of just sending out traditional job applications (which I did), I started reaching out to Professors at the University. I contacted folks whose work I genuinely liked and I saw myself working there for a while. After knocking on 5-10 doors, I landed my first job.
EE: What industry do you currently work in?
AB: I’ve taken quite a pivot – I’m in the education sector.
EE: What has been your career path from college graduation up to today?
AB: It has been quite a long and winding path really. After my Chemical Engineering, I knew I still wanted to work in the environmental industry, but the means to the end pivoted from chemical to biochemical so I did a Masters in Biotechnology. I met my spouse during this time and after graduation I relocated to where he was working. Since I wanted to get real world experience, I took up a role in the Biotech industry though not quite focused on environmental impact.
After a couple years I wanted to go back to the roots of why I embarked on this engineering journey. The research on renewable energy specifically bioenergy development really caught my interest. I spent a decade of my life first completing doctoral work on the subject at Dartmouth then working as a research scientist at UC Berkeley.
Although the topic is still close to my heart, a new passion was instilled after the birth of my daughter. This was education. I grew up in a rigid education system that I can safely say I did not thrive in. When my daughter turned three I could see that she was going to have to go through that sort of a system too. That’s when I decided I really have to do something about it.
I am on a path to reimagine traditional education system as it stands today. To that end, I founded a startup last year called StemChef that teaches kids ages 5-10 STEM through cooking.
EE: Have you travelled for work, and if so how often and to where?
AB: Yes since I was in the scientific research field for a decade it involved attending and presenting at numerous conferences – both domestic and international (mostly Europe and Asia). The duration was usually from 3 days to a week.
EE: Have you had to move for work?
AB: Most of my big moves (and I mean inter-continental moves) have been for education. The latest move (to the Bay Area) was for my hubby’s job and I honestly couldn’t be happier. Being in the heart of Silicon Valley has brought about such amazing opportunities – like having the balls to start my own venture!
EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?
AB: It is sort of difficult to pinpoint on one specific one. But there is probably one that I am quite proud of. I was working on a chemical process design model for building out a bioenergy processing pilot plant for a large oil company (they were diversifying their portfolio). They pretty much used my blueprint with few modifications to build it out. That was a major confidence booster.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?
AB: Being taken seriously – this very much pertains to working as an engineer as much as a biotechnologist. The whole gender bias thing has certainly reared its ugly head in a few scenarios.
EE: Do you feel women are treated equally to men in engineering?
AB: No, I do really think there is a gender gap especially in the male dominated industries like chemical industry, oil industry, and energy industry. Usually the inequality is from the top level rather than peers. Well these are the ones I have had direct interactions with. But from friends’ experiences this attitude spans other engineering domains like software too.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
AB: I have to take a moment to acknowledge the support I have received from my husband. Planning out the week has kept my sanity. Since, my startup is education oriented, I involve my six year old daughter in many aspects of the curriculum development so I sort of get best of both worlds – work done and mom-daughter time.
EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?
AB: I would highly support their decision because the perspective brought by female engineers is invaluable in the field. But I would also say don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
EE: What advice do you have for working moms?
AB: The number one problem we as moms (working or not) levy on ourselves is guilt. Letting go of that guilt makes life much easier for us. Working moms feel it even more. Easier said than done but that just makes expectations a whole lot easier to manage from our standpoint alone.
One tangible thing to do is plan the week around both personal and professional life so as to avoid high stress situations. Like every other situation, there are many bad nuts amongst us. So if there is a group of moms or circle of friends who are deflating you as a working mom don’t be afraid to cut those ties.
EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?
AB: I definitely would but the approach I would take would be way different. In part it was the Indian system that is setup the way it is where the theoretical knowledge is isolated from the application base. I would like to first take a problem and then acquire the knowledge/build a solid knowledge base needed to solve it.
Ashie is an impressive woman! I’m honored that she participated in our Women in Engineering Interview Series. It was exciting to read that her chemical engineering class was 60% female! Mine was 50% female, and I hope this trend means we are heading in the right direction for achieving gender balance in engineering. Now we just need to figure out how to keep women in engineering for their whole career, so they can move into management and top leadership roles.
Ashie has had an exciting career in research and now is taking on a new role as an educator with her start-up StemChef. I highly recommend you head to her site to learn about what they plan to offer in scientific cooking for kids. 🙂