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Women @ Energy: Ritimukta Sarangi

March 19, 2013 - 4:11pm


Ritimukta Sarangi is a Staff Scientist for the Structural Molecular Biology Division at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Ritimukta Sarangi is a Staff Scientist for the Structural Molecular Biology Division at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

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Ritimukta Sarangi is a Staff Scientist for the Structural Molecular Biology Division at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. She has held this position for three years, working on the design and development of a high-energy beamline with simultaneous polarized single-crystal X-ray absorption spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography capabilities. She began this work as an Associate Staff Scientist in 2007, upon her graduation from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Ritimukta earned her M.Sc. in Chemistry from the India Institute of Technology in 2001, and her B.Sc. in Chemistry with a minor in Physics and Mathematics from Saint Xavier’s College in Kolkata, India. She mentors high school students in Stanford’s RISE program, is a lecturer at the Annual School of Synchrotron Radiation at SSRL and two summer school programs at SSRL, and is a member of several professional organizations. Ritimukta has lectured all over the world, and holds awards from Stanford, Q2XAFS, SLAC, and others.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

As a little child I was extremely curious about how things worked around us. From simple, everyday things like "how are our voices transmitted over the phone?" to complicated questions such as "are there others like us on another planet in another solar system in a galaxy far, far away?" But the curiosity that led me to a career in STEM was really shaped by several not-so-famous people who had a profound impact on my life. My father was a physics lecturer who demanded that I think logically and ask questions before accepting information at face value. I also had an excellent chemistry teacher in high school who encouraged us to apply the principles of chemistry to everyday life. I would perform flame tests on common household items such as salt and aspirin and draw the chemical structures of ingredients in insect repellent. These experiences took chemistry out of the classroom and made it a way of life.

2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

The United States has some of the best high-energy research laboratories in the world and is the world leader in fundamental research in STEM. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to be part of this scientific team. As a staff scientist at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource at SLAC, I get to work with state-of-the-art X-ray instrumentation and in a work culture that is driven by the pursuit of the unknown and amazing in STEM. I focus on trying to understand the importance of metals in our bodies and how metals containing biomolecules work. I am excited to be part of collaborative research with some of the best scientific minds in the field. I am also extremely passionate about teaching and training and am very active organizing annual workshops and summer schools. It is a very satisfying experience - the ability to transfer my unique knowledge in X-ray science to researchers around the world.

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

Drawing from my experience, I feel STEM education should be made more engaging and connected to everyday life in order to attract girls and young women. Since family and teachers play such an important role in the early development of academic interests, they play a vital role in shaping future generations of innovators, regardless of gender, and both play vital roles in encouraging girls to explore STEM topics. Teachers should teach STEM classes in a fun and exciting fashion, giving young women the opportunity to get involved and take lead roles in practical experiments that bring subjects out of the classroom and into their lives (even onto their dinner tables) where their parents can lend enormous support.

To attract adult women, choosing a career we need to share that research in STEM is one of the most rewarding, exciting and amazing experiences they could ever have. But it can be demanding at times. Our country should be flexible and provide ample support for a woman in STEM who wants to start a family, including flexible work hours and child support.

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

I encourage high school students interested in science to avail outreach programs run by local universities. For example, Stanford University provides several summer internship opportunities for low-income and underrepresented high-school students from central and northern California.

There are several ways in which a young person can position herself to prepare for a career in STEM. At the undergraduate level, my advice would be to apply for an internship through the Department of Energy’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program. It’s an excellent opportunity for undergraduates to work in a Department  of Energy facility and to gain first-hand experience in research under the guidance of an expert scientist. Not only, will this experience help the student decide which area in STEM to pursue further studies in, but research experience at the undergraduate level will be favorably viewed during graduate school admissions.

Typically students at the graduate and postgraduate level have a clearer future direction in mind. However, they can benefit extremely from having a woman mentor, who they can turn to for guidance. I suggest that they contact their research group alumni and woman professors for advice. When I graduated, I explored industrial and academic research alike. I was helped by my research group alumni women to understand the difference between the two career paths and to realize that academic research would the most suitable career choice for me. In turn, I have helped younger women in choosing their careers.

5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

I play badminton to relax and stay fit. I love spend my time with my toddler, who has the energy of 10 elephants (as he should!). I am a passionate cook! I am Indian and love to whip up yummy curries and savory dishes for my family.