Uma Chowdhry

Born: September 14, 1947 | Mumbai, IN

Uma Chowdhry grew up in Bombay (later Mumbai), India. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from the University of Mumbai, and continued her studies at the California Institute of Technology. Chowdhry entered the PhD programs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working on batteries in the materials science department and thus became more interested in applied science. Chowdhry accepted a job as research scientist at E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company. She quickly moved into catalysis, and became group leader, then research supervisor before a promotion to leader of DuPont’s superconductor group, which produced twenty patents and multiple publications. Chowdhry was appointed Lab Director in the Electronics sector, where her sector developed a thick film paste for integrated circuits packaging. As business director for Terathane, she saw new plants built in Spain and Texas. Eventually she became the leader of DuPont Engineering Technologies where she promoted the brand and engineers to the chairman of DuPont, executives, and department heads, improving morale and garnering much respect for the engineers.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0715
No. of pages: 53
Minutes: 179

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush
24 and 25 August 2011
Experimental Station, Wilmington, Delaware

Abstract of Interview

Uma Chowdhry grew up in Bombay (later Mumbai), India, one of three children. She attended British missionary schools, which taught in English, and became interested in science in high school. Having obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from the University of Mumbai, she wanted to continue her studies in the United States and was accepted at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). She married for love, against her father’s wishes. After two years at the University of Michigan Uma and her husband entered the PhD programs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, respectively. At MIT Uma worked on batteries for ceramics professor Robert Coble in the materials science department and thus became more interested in applied science.  Chowdhry accepted a job as research scientist at E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, which she says was a good place for research, with much funding and good equipment. She quickly moved into catalysis, networking with other disciplines, and became group leader, then research supervisor, of a new ceramics group, at which point she gave up lab work. She became a Fellow of the American Ceramics Society. Next she was promoted to leader of DuPont’s superconductor group, which produced twenty patents and twenty to thirty publications.  But business experience was deemed necessary, so Chowdhry was appointed Lab Director in the Electronics sector, where she had to learn several businesses. Her sector developed a thick film paste for integrated circuits packaging. As business director of microcircuit materials (MCM) Chowdhry had to learn the manufacturing process, deal with customers, even work on the production line. As business director for Terathane, an intermediate for Lycra, she saw new plants built in Spain and Texas. Next she was made manager of the military market for the Americas, and then she became global manager. From there she became the leader of DuPont Engineering Technologies (DuET). She promoted the DuET brand and engineers to the chairman of DuPont, executives, and department heads, improving morale and garnering much respect for the engineers.  Realizing a dream, Chowdhry was selected vice president of Central Research and Development; then Chief Science and Technology Officer (CSTO). She points out that she has delivered a very large amount of revenue to DuPont and developed numerous products to improve and enrich lives. She retired after four years as vice president and four as CSTO. Chowdhry has learned much on every job; she loves to learn. She praises DuPont’s corporate ideology and purpose and its core values, especially safety. She explains that providing food and energy are DuPont’s current focuses. She talks about DuPont’s mandate to reduce environmental impact in all new products; and new labs in other countries. Though retired she serves on the advisory board of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the nominating committee of National Academy of Engineering (NAE). She believes that the United States is still best for innovation, entrepreneurism, research and development funding. Globalism results in more women involved, but America is still the most equitable. Chowdhy emphasizes the importance of communication skills, networking, and mentoring. She concludes with a discussion of her awards, hobbies, travel, and family in India.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1968 University of Mumbai BSc Physics and Math
1970 California Institute of Technology MS Engineering Science
1976 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Materials Science and Engineering

Professional Experience

E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

1977 to 1981
Research Scientist, Central Research and Development
1981 to 1988
Group Leader, Research Supervisor and Research Manager, Central Research & Development
1988 to 1990
Laboratory Director, DuPont Electronics
1990 to 1991
Business Manager, DuPont Electronics
1991 to 1992
Director, Best Practices for Manufacturing Quality, DuPont Electronics
1992 to 1993
Laboratory Director, DuPont Specialty Chemicals
1993 to 1995
R&D Director, DuPont Specialty Chemicals
1997 to 1999
Director of R&D and Strategic Planning, Specialty Chemicals
1999 to 2002
Director of DuPont Engineering Technology
2002 to 2006
Vice President, Central Research & Development
2006 to 2010
Senior Vice President & Global Chief Science & Technology Officer
2011 to 2014
Chief Science & Technology Officer Emeritus

Honors

Year(s) Award
1986

Elected Fellow of the American Ceramic Society

1996

Elected to National Academy of Engineering

2003

Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

2006

Chesapeake Bay Girl Scouts’ Woman of Distinction Award

2006

Recipient of Girls Inc. of Delaware Strong, Smart, Bold, award

2008

Member of Delaware Women's Hall of Fame

2010

Recipient of IRI Medal for outstanding technical innovation for benefit to society

2010

Recipient of Earl B. Barnes National ACS award for chemical research management

2011

Elected Distinguished Alumnus, California Institute of Technology

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Growing up in Bombay, India. Attends British missionary schools, learns English. Interest in science begins in high school. Extended family. Father’s influence, support. Bachelor’s degree in physics and math from University of Bombay (now Mumbai).

Moving to the United States
7

Culture shock of arriving in LA. Attending California Institute of Technology. Feeling unprepared for American graduate school. Supportive environment for success. Marrying for love.

Discovering Materials Science
9

“Life-changing” meetings yield acceptance into PhD program at MIT. Working for ceramics professor Robert Coble in materials science department. Funding from US Atomic Energy Commission; work on batteries. Growing interest in applied science.

Beginning Career
13

Accepts position as research scientist at E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company. Good place for research; lots of funding and equipment. Moves into catalysis. Feeling excited by breakthroughs and new technology. Networking with other disciplines. Named group leader, then research supervisor of new ceramics group. No more lab work. Fellow of American Ceramics Society. Leader of DuPont’s superconductor group; twenty patents and twenty to thirty publications. Paving new pathways for women at DuPont.

Next Phase: Business
20

Becoming Lab Director in Electronics sector. Learning the business. Goal-oriented, not just interesting. Developing thick film paste for integrated circuits packaging. As business director of microcircuit materials (MCM) had to learn manufacturing process, deal with customers, even work on production line. Business director for Terathane®, intermediate for Lycra. New plants in Spain, Texas. Manager of military market for the Americas, then became global manager.

New Challenges
29

Taking risks and learning from new opporutnities. Named leader of DuPont Engineering Technologies (DuET), creates new brand. Made Vice President of Central Research and Development; then Chief Science and Technology Officer (CSTO). Building strong relationships with managers and businesses. Significant increase in revenue; develops products to improve and enrich lives. Globilization of DuPont’s R&D. Pushing for sustainable growth. Traveling and connecting with labs around the world.

Retirement and General Thoughts
39

Stepping back and doing less in Emeritus role. Importance of investing and staying committed to R&D and innovation. Globilization of science and industry, impact for women to get involved. Stresses networking, mentoring, and communication skills necessary for success. Figuring out what fits for “you.” Awards. Hobbies. Travel. Family in India.

Index
53

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.