Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mrs. Nan Mattai: More Than A Parking Spot (Part I)

I gazed down from the third story of my mother's office building looking at the reserved parking spots. Wow, I remember thinking, it would be impressive to have a reserved spot. As I read the names of the "important people" listed upon the markers for each spot, I realized that only one of the spots belonged to a female. At Rockwell Collins engineering is key, so this fact did not surprise me, but as I asked my mother about this woman, she simply smiled and began to tell me about this well respected colleague, Nan Mattai. I was impressed with what I heard and wanted to meet Mattai.

A while ago, I was serving as a volunteer coordinator at a regional competition designed to encourage future engineers, when Mattai walked through the door. I realized this was a perfect opportunity to introduce myself to Mattai. Apparently, surprised by the respect and admiration I demonstrated, Mattai gave me a pleasurable nod. Recently, I had the opportunity to learn what an outstanding role model Mattai is for all young women as well as a prime example of someone living her American dream.

Born in Georgetown, Guyana as the third child of seven children, Mrs. Mattai learned the importance of education at a young age. Raised in a middle class family, where neither parent possessed a college degree, they realized an education was the best thing they could provide for Mattai and her siblings. Mattai distinctly remembers her mother saying, "An education is better than silver and gold." Mattai was competitive with her brothers, so when they chose math and science classes, she signed up for advanced math and science classes. Intrigued by math and its applications at an early age, Mattai would add up the cost of items in her mother's grocery cart when shopping. As she grew older, Mattai learned more about science and applied mathematics and Madame Curie became an inspiration to her. Because Curie was the first woman to earn the Nobel Prize for Science, Mattai established her career aspiration of becoming a scientist and researcher in math and physics.

    After graduating with a degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Guyana at the top of her class, Mattai received the President's medal and pushed onward to accomplish her dream. With consistent encouragement from her parents, Mattai earned a masters degree in nuclear physics from the University of Windsor in Canada. The transition to Canada was, however, difficult as Guyana was a melting pot of many cultures who worked on sugar plantations in a warm climate. Due to her Indian descent, Mattai stood out because of both her appearance and her speech. With perseverance, Mattai overcame challenges and took advantage of the plethora of scientific instruments and equipment to further her learning. Mattai's work was very well respected and she was honored with her photograph on the Guyana postage stamp.

    Mattai's perfectly planned future went astray due to "life's circumstances." While in school at the University of Windsor, Canada, her oldest son was born, a premature baby weighing just 4 pounds 13 ounces. With her husband still in school, no immediate family to help out, and day-care unaffordable for two students, Mattai remembered her parents' words, "Family comes first." As a result, Mattai left her doctorate program to care for her new son.

    When the time came to restart her career, Mattai considered her options and decided to apply what she knew to make a difference in engineering and math. Mattai's first engineering job, at Magnavox Electronics in Southern California was as a software engineer. Doing what she loves – continuous learning – Mattai learned about Global Positioning Systems, a move that would prove beneficial for her future. Moving up the management ranks, Mattai began to focus on helping other technical contributors while enhancing her own skill set.

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