STEM Moms: Sindhuja

Mother’s Week is still going strong with this post about Sindhuja, an engineer with a passion for images. Say hello to the woman who is helping us start a Grad Moms (not just STEM!) Group at Stony Brook.

Sindhuja, jokingly strapping her husband into a M.R.I.
Sindhuja, totally not experimenting on her husband (she really wasn’t!).

EDUCATION: B. Eng. in Electronics and Instrumentation at BITS-Pilani, India, M.Sc. in Biomedical Engineering at University of Rochester, NY

CURRENT POSITION: Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook University

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Sindhuja currently investigates changes in brain structure or function in the presence of cognitive impairment in multiple sclerosis using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and some fancy schmancy statistics. She is generally interested in neuroimaging, MRI, and big data.

What/who got you interested in your field? Is there a story involved? When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science?

During my sophomore and junior years in college, one of my most favorite area of study was on control systems in engineering. I was fascinated by the idea of a system balancing both outside inputs and internal feedback to provide an optimized output. The various factors that could upset this delicate balance were also riveting to me. I was also obsessed with reading the latest in science about psychology and behavior, thanks to the medical fiction novels my surgeon mom got me hooked onto. At some point, my interests merged and I realized that the human body happens to be the most sophisticated control system there is, with the brain as the principal controller taking in all our experiences, nutrition, chemical imbalances and producing a human with a (mostly) autonomous functioning mind. From then, I paved my slow and steady path into becoming an imaging scientist with specific focus on the brain. The more I learn about the brain and the more I investigate it, the more I realize we are very very far away from understanding it fully. In my lifetime, I hope to make a tiny contribution to our understanding of the brain.

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science?

When I made my decision to pursue science, most of the resistance I faced was “Why science?” Perhaps it is a bit cultural, but I was told repeatedly that someone with my brains could be making a lot of money and scale up the career ladder quickly if I only applied myself into some of the more “sensible” career paths. So I think the issue is twofold: 1) science in its current state is not respected or rewarded adequately in general, and 2) there are not enough women leaders in science. When you put them together, you see that there are more women in helper jobs (techs, assistants, etc) in science and the more “brainy” leaders are out there making money rather than being “stuck inside a laboratory all day”.

Sindhuja with her advisor, Dr. Caterina Mainero, when she worked at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston before starting her Ph.D. Her farewell gift from her advisor was a book called “Portraits of the mind” which follows the history of mankind’s research into the brain with hi-def pictures, and a note that said “There is also beauty in what we work on”.

Have you had any experiences as a women in STEM that you’d like to share?

I share this with a bit of reluctance, but the cliche that women make it harder for other women came true for me. I worked in an environment with a female head where only the women were tasked with doing paperwork and other miscellaneous regulatory grunt work because “they have a better eye for detail”, whereas the men got a free pass because “they keep making mistakes” or “they don’t do it as thoroughly”. The men involved were asked to focus only on the science whereas the few (two) women had to prioritize managing the grunt work over their own research. While this is not the most obvious case of discrimination, it certainly felt like the tasks we were given had a lot to do with our sex. I recently learned that the term for this is called “office housework”, and women end up with a lot more housework either voluntarily or otherwise. Because we are just so damn good at it!

From the Blog Administrator: Sindhuja’s response has inspired us! We want to know how prevalent this is at Stony Brook and start the discussion on how to prevent it. Please! Tell us your story with THIS FORM.

How do you think that society can be more supportive and less discriminatory of mothers and would be mothers in the workplace?

Allow the new moms to recover before making them work full time! If someone went through a major surgery or medical procedure, no one asks them to come back to work at 6 weeks and pick up where they left off. I was lucky to have the support of my family during the first few months after childbirth. But despite that, I found it challenging to be back to work full time after 8 weeks. Sleep deprivation, physical and mental recovery from childbirth, and adjusting to the new life took me a lot longer than the state sponsored 8 weeks at half pay. Once again, I am lucky with an understanding principal investigator (P.I.) and coworkers, but I cannot say the same for every mom out there.

How has becoming a mother changed your experiences in work and/or academia?

Since becoming a mom last year, I’ve been scrambling to make the different pieces of my life fit together in the most time and energy efficient way possible. The pervasive idea behind science is that you work round the clock, at the mercy of your experiments and deadlines, and at the same time, you can make your work as flexible as you want. Pre-baby me would have scheduled to work on something late in the night or on weekends. But now, I can’t and won’t unless it was an emergency. This makes me prioritize my tasks, and value my time a lot more.

The most challenging part of being pregnant and having a child while in a Ph.D. program is the exhaustion and mind fog. I don’t fully understand the biological basis behind “mommy brain”, but I can easily imagine the new responsibilities and thoughts occupying a big chunk of working memory would add a measure of challenge to an already fatigued brain. So I use the tools available to me (notes, calendars, etc.) to help me reduce my cognitive load and function with better clarity. It is still a work in progress, and I love talking to other moms about how they manage.

Sindhuja's child is pressing on the computer keys while staring at colorful images of brain scans.
Sindhuja’s 5 month old (at the time) helping her finish up work so she can play.

What university or community resources have you used during pregnancy and after?

I used the New York paid (half pay) family leave for 8 weeks right after giving birth in May, and I was able to avail the Stony Brook Childbirth Accommodation Policy (SB-CAP) to take 12 weeks off during my fall semester at full stipend. If you are planning on having a child while a graduate student, please know that there is an application and it needs to be accepted before the 24th week of pregnancy.

What I really wished our university had during the early postpartum period was a community of moms going through the same grad student / STEM life. One year out, I am extremely excited about setting up a “Grad Moms” group through GWiSE (thank you GWiSE!). We plan to meet up monthly for coffee on weekdays (strictly 9a-5p) or go on playdates over weekends or anything in between. We would like to keep the group open to all graduate student and postdoc moms at SBU, regardless of what field they are in – no STEM only restrictions. No hard commitments for the group, just show up, share coffee and stories, and go gaga over each other’s children’s pictures! If you would like to join, please fill in THIS FORM.

Do you have a functioning support system that you find yourself often relying on?

My child loves going to daycare where he learns so much from 8 am – 6 pm everyday. My husband is an amazing co-parent as well, and we routinely cover for each other when work makes us a bit busier. The first few months of postpartum, my parents stayed with us and we couldn’t have done it without their help.

Sindhuja kneeling on the ground and holding her son upside down.
Spending a Friday morning at the pediatrician’s instead of preparing for a lab meeting

Let’s say you’re having a rough week, what do you do or think to keep yourself going?

Something similar to the cliche phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. I cannot hasten my progress towards my many goals. But every little bit I do, chips away at each giant goal in front of me, and I will eventually accomplish what I need to.

Do you have any tips or advice for anyone that wants to start a family in academia? Is there anything you wish you knew before becoming a mom?

In addition to the compound effect from chipping away at your tasks, understand that this is a phase, just another season in your life. In this season, you will have to be different from who you were in the prior season, it doesn’t mean who you were is forever gone. Life gets a bit more predictable and simultaneously more unpredictable with a baby. Be patient with yourself when you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Also, mom guilt happens all the time for every minute thing, so keep moving and don’t let it stun you in your path.


Sindhuja will be joining a group of social Graduate Moms who plan to meet once a month or so. Are you a mom in graduate school? Are you interested? Then fill out THIS form to let us know who you are and what you would like to do in these meetings.

Happy Mothers Week everyone!


Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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