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#OdySci Profile Day 8: Gouthami Senthamaraikkannan

As part of Science Odyssey, we are interviewing a variety of STEM innovators to investigate pathways into STEM and to discuss the future of STEM learning and careers. 

Gouthami graduated with a B.Tech in Chemical Engineering from NIT Trichy in 2010 and went on to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Alberta in Computer Process Control between 2011 and 2015. Her PhD was focussed on the development of multiscale predictive models for the optimization and control of complex physical systems. Following her doctoral degree, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Calgary until 2017, during which time she developed several stochastic models to characterize foam and foamy oil behavior. Gouthami currently works as a machine learning researcher at 1QBit where she works on generating data-driven solutions to various applications through machine learning and artificial intelligence.

What sparked your interest and eventual career in science?

It was not really a single instance but rather a gradual appreciation of the subject that led me to my career in science. Growing up, I was very fond of learning new things. However I was also often intimidated when faced with tough problems. For instance, somewhere around middle school we were introduced to Algebra and I remember struggling with it. I was not doing well at school, which led to a fear of the subject and I was beginning to get stuck in this vicious cycle. However, I was very fortunate to have supportive parents and teachers, who guided me with care and helped me overcome my apprehensions. With their support, I put in significant effort in the form of practice. This improved not only my understanding, but also my speed and accuracy in solutions. Soon, I realized that algebra was just a neat approach to solving puzzles. In this way, I developed a fascination for the subject. Later, I began experimenting with coding and started writing algorithms for puzzles as well as mathematical and real-world problems concerning physical, chemical & biological phenomena. Hence, it became a logical choice for me to pursue a career in engineering.

What role does mentorship play in engaging youth in STEM?

Quite often, young people develop a perception that STEM involves high levels of difficulty, which sometimes dissuades even those with interest from trying to approach the subjects. Young minds have immense potential for creative thoughts and ideas. When they are provided guidance about the possible resources they could use, their ideas can become their passion and they dedicate their full effort in support of realizing them. The subsequent results can be breathtaking. A good mentor can encourage young people to overcome their apprehensions, instill a sense of self confidence in their intellectual capabilities, and in turn help them unlock their potential.

Did you have a mentor who supported you in your work and own learning journey?

I have had several mentors who have supported me in my work and learning journey. The most important person among them, who started it all for me, is my dad. My dad who is a chemical engineer as well gave me excellent directions at every stage of my schooling, academic & professional career. Apart from that there were several of my school teachers and university professors who have mentored me, satiated my curiosity for knowledge and constantly encouraged me to learn more.

What did you want to be when you were in elementary school? Did you plan your current career path?

When in elementary school, I was utterly amazed by the vastness of the skies and our universe. I often imagined becoming an astronaut. As I grew older, I was inspired by a range of personalities in different fields such as Sachin Tendulkar, Kalpana Chawla, Madame Curie, Albert Einstein, and many more. Each of them was a pioneer in his or her field. The most important thing that I learned from them was that one should work where their passions resides, and then put one hundred percent of their efforts into achieving their goals. I had a passion for two things: solving puzzles and mathematics. I was therefore able to identify that I could venture into a career in STEM where I could put these skills to proper use. But even my current career path was not exactly planned. I have a Bachelor’s degree as well as PhD in the realm of Chemical Engineering, but I now work on a variety of applications in several different industries through machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques. This was possible essentially because everything I did was inherently mathematical and required me to think creatively to solve very complex, unconventional and often abstract problems.

What is Scientists and Innovators in Schools program’s role in promoting and supporting STEM learning and careers in BC?

I believe Scientists and Innovators in Schools program can play a significant role in promoting careers in STEM. Through its mentorship programs and by providing resources, it can make STEM learning more approachable and allow them to see the infinite possibilities that lie ahead for them to bring their creativity to life.

Scientists and Innovators in Schools (SIS) is a Science World volunteer-based program that helps address British Columbia's need for more scientists, engineers, technologists, technicians, creative technology professionals and innovators to promote students' interest in these areas. Our goal is to inspire students with exciting, in-school presentations by career mentors. The program is offered to Grades K–12 everywhere in BC.

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