While in graduate school, Neerja Raman was challenged by her thesis advisor, Dr Paul Lauterbur, to fix a MR instrument in the basement of the chemistry building. In previous years, other students had tried their hands at it.
The device was huge and the task daunting, Raman told a gathering of Women in Technology International at their annual conference in San Jose, December 8. 'I was afraid I would fail but Paul said he would give me an 'A' if he felt I had worked hard and made an honest effort.' She succeeded in fixing it, down to the printer to provide proof that it was indeed working.
Years later, when Dr Lauterbur won the Nobel in Medicine for his work in MRI imaging, Raman said, evoking laughs, she loved to fantasize that her fixing up of the machine was the key. 'Thus was born my love of instrument systems.'
Raman, director of Strategic Planning for Imaging and Printing at Hewlett-Packard Labs, was making her acceptance speech after her induction into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, a prestigious award for women in science and technology worldwide. She was among six women honored at the gala for making significant contribution to science and technology as well as mentoring others.
At HP, Raman is responsible for business planning and new ventures for solutions and services that provide the company an edge in technology. At the time of her nomination for the award (by her company) she was director of the Imaging Systems Lab in the Printing and Imaging Research Center, responsible for research in digital imaging, architecture for printing and publishing solutions, information embedding and anti-counterfeiting, and digital content management.
She has applied technology, through the HP Arts and Science Program, to digitisation, preservation and sharing of art. "In paintings, you often want an exact reproduction, whereas in most of the camera technologies or printing technologies you are aiming for something that's pleasing," she told rediff-IndiaAbroad a phone interview. "We did some studies around image capture that would give very accurate results."
The initiative started as a scientific study by her group was later expanded to the UK and Europe, with Raman spearheading the technical side. Locally, de Young Museum in San Francisco (that recently reopened after being destroyed in an earthquake in 1989) utilises HP's technologies.
Last year, Raman published a book, The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide that draws a parallel between the Krishna-Arjuna dialogues in the Bhagwad Gita to the process of decision-making.
Raman, who has been a manager for a long time, felt that certain aspects of tough decision-making, prioritising and work-life balance were easier for her and she could help others. She realised that part of it was due to her upbringing, like her mother encouraging her to work. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't have kids or cannot have kids or can't have both," she said. A number of people that she counseled, both men and women, she found, couldn't do that because they had a lot of stress associated with making decisions.
Raman, who lives in Los Altos Hills, California, with her husband, Vas, and son Arjun (daughters Kavita and Priya have begun working and moved out), is on the advisory committee of Maitri, a women's support group in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduating from Miranda House in New Delhi, she got a Master's in physical organic chemistry from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
At the University of California in San Diego and later at Stanford, she researched aging and DNA sequencing. `At that time, many experiments were done manually, and I felt that the future lay in the automation of these instruments using computers,' she told the WIT gathering. At HP, the power of programming and designing instruments seemed the perfect mix to her.
Her message to fellow women is, be it science, ice hockey, or life, give it your best shot. Quoting NHL celebrity Wayne Gretzky, she said 'You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.'