I was recently featured as Mom of the Month in March 2020 for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Moms Club. Thank you to STEM Mom Club founder Kamentha Pillay for this feature. The Link to the website is: https://www.thestem-mom.com/445479410
The interview went as follows:
Name: Natasha Subbiah Age: 33 Location: South Africa
Job title: Former chemical engineer, stay at home mum, aspiring author, and blogger.
What does your everyday work entail?
My current work entails teaching, mentoring as well as overseeing many, many trips to the toilet, i.e. being a full-time mum :-). In between this, I have just completed authoring a non-fiction book dealing with children’s nutrition. This has entailed research, experimenting, recipe testing, food photography, and of course, writing. My previous work entailed optimisation and troubleshooting of operations at a boiler feed water plant within the Sasol Synfuels complex.
What career path led you to your current work?
Now, as we brace for coronavirus, we know that being free of non-communicable diseases and keeping a strong immune system can assist us in fighting against this deadly virus. The time, effort and money that go into a healthy diet and lifestyle are becoming increasingly necessary and worthwhile investments. Fortunately, our bodies are extremely forgiving, and changing bad habits can result in rapid renewal and healing. My upcoming book goes into details of what the principles of a healthy, balanced diet are, however, I will be posting an article onto my website with some pointers soon.
After experiencing a miscarriage and struggling to fall pregnant, I was desperate for a child to come into my life. When my first son did eventually come safely to us, I felt very much at home with my new role as a mother. I had every intention of going back to work though, possibly for half a day, but while I was on maternity leave, divine intervention seemed to come into play. My husband, who is also an engineer, secured a job in Johannesburg (we were living in Secunda at the time). The timing for my exit from engineering could not have been more perfect for us, everything fell into place far better than if we could have planned it ourselves. Soon after moving to Johannesburg, I learned that my son suffered from severe food allergies and I was pushed to cook everything from scratch. Then baby 2 came along. I used the awareness brought to me in my days of optimisation and troubleshooting to try to optimise my family’s health, and through the years we went through a diet evolution. My son is now largely free of food allergies. Although many factors that influence health, such as pollution, stress, genetics, and use of medications, I have found that convincing my children to eat a predominantly plant-based diet, has served us well in the past years. I also find that moderate exercise and stress control techniques such as prayer and meditation are crucial for health. I observed the struggle mothers face in convincing children to eat healthily and found myself assisting mothers with how to help their children or grandchildren eat more fruits and vegetables, so when a paediatrician told me that I needed to make this knowledge into a business, and with some pushing from a friend, I got started with a book dealing with how to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables. Through my eating practices, I have also managed to help the older people in my life, better manage their health issues, even turning around pre-diabetes.
How did you decide to move into this career path?-was it a certain person or moment which initiated it all?
Both my parents have influenced my choices greatly. My father is the one who pushed me into engineering. He was a physical science teacher and my high school principal. He made science come alive to me. Everywhere we went, he would have fascinating stories of how the world around us worked, and why it worked that way. It was real-life magic. For my “show and tells” at primary school, I would take test tubes from my dad’s laboratory and make bubbling, fuming potions to enchant schoolmates. Science was very much a part of my life. One day, in the back seat of my dad’s car, driving home from shopping, I learned that chemical engineers made toothpaste…. wooow that seemed like the coolest thing in the world to me and I decided then, that that was what I wanted to be. Although I am not in engineering anymore, I have used many of the tools learned to systematically and methodically address many of the challenges I face, including in the research and analysis of data for the future benefit of my readers.
It was the example my mother set, by sacrificing her career to home-school her children up to ages 5, which gave me confidence in my decision to leave engineering. My siblings are also in engineering, which stands as a testament to her methods. She was researching parenting even before the ease of Google. She eventually taught hundreds of children how to read when she worked as a Grade 1 teacher. However, it was my Guru, my eternal parent, who gave me the drive and confidence to pursue my latest project, my book, with zeal and determination for the last 2 years.
Was there ever a time that you recall wanting to change paths & what convinced you to continue on your chosen path?
Making the decision to leave engineering and mother my children full time was such a natural and seamless decision since I was already on maternity leave and I have not regretted it since. I did find full-time parenting challenging. There are overwhelming moments because I am solely responsible for the children’s wellbeing, which can be intimidating when they are completely dependent on me for physical, emotional and academic development and because I am so emotionally invested in the outcome of my “job” as a mother (and this is the case for all or most mums – working or non); but the rewarding moments far outweigh these stresses. I find that having a growing spiritual life helps to relieve the tensions and enjoy the moments that I have with the children more. Having projects such as my book and blog has helped give me a sense of being productive even in the sometimes tedious routine that entails nurturing children. It has been a few years of self-discovery which I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to indulge in.
Give us a brief description of a normal/extraordinary 24hours in your life.
My current routine is fairly new since I was home-schooling my eldest until only this year. My day usually starts at 4: 30 am which is when I get to pray and work on my book while my little loudspeakers are snoozing. Then I get everyone ready and usually send my big boy off to school with his dad. With the morning rush over, I get to do a session of ashtanga yoga and then my 3-year-old and I have a home-schooling session in which he is learning how to read, count and write. When the little guy is napping, I recite Vedic chants (ancient Hindu scriptures) and cook or at least prep for cooking. This can take some extra time if I’m doing recipe testing. Then it’s time to give the little guy lunch before we are off to fetch big brother from school. After big brother gets lunch, I usually do some home school of some sort with the boys. It usually takes the form of reading practice, a meditation session, education in human values, homework or storytime. I also like for us to get into the garden once a day, weather permitting, to prevent Vitamin D deficiency (studies have found most South African’s to be deficient in this vital nutrient, which is predominantly acquired from the action of sunlight on the skin). Then it’s the supper, and bedtime routine. When the little guys are sleeping, I get to whatever is left of the cleaning up, followed by some work on my book or blog, and a session of meditation and reading of spiritual material. I usually try to fit work in, whenever I can steal a moment; but these days I have been making a lot more time for prayer as our planet is being engulfed by covid-19. I hope that my prayers, together with yours, will lighten the impact on humanity.
Name the one thing which excites you about your field of work.
The one thing that excites me in all the roles I’ve had, engineering, motherhood, and writing, is the potential to make a positive difference, whether it’s to ensure the safety of my colleagues, or reducing environmental impact, or helping my or others children to thrive; every positive change I make excites me and makes me feel more like my true self.
What has your experience been like being a women in STEM?
Very positive. When starting work, I was lucky to have filled the role of a strong woman, Karen Naidoo. She paved the way for me in a way, by reducing the shock to the plant personnel when little, young me strode in. I was also surrounded by other confident and well-respected women working in the plants around me. By contributing positively, I believe I earned the respect of the predominantly male personnel. I did have run-ins with difficult personalities, who I believe were difficult to anyone, regardless of gender. My job did involve physical stamina and exertion, having to climb up and into vessels, and I believe I handled these opportunities as well as any man (and I dare say – better than a few – given the advantage my diminutive form and relative strength gives me). With age, I can now reflect to say that I do believe I lacked confidence at times when I had to encounter new environments within the very large plant complex. It can at times be intimidating for a new female employee in a male-dominated environment, partly because of my inbuilt reservations and because it is difficult to break into social structures that are made completely of males, especially males outside my racial group, but I overcame those reservations increasingly as the years passed. I was lucky to be surrounded by gentlemen in the environment I worked in, which eased that transition, and by the time I left, I felt valued in my workplace.
Do you find that there are still barriers within the STEM field?
I believe that management portfolios in certain large companies still lack diversity. I hope that, since we see increased diversity in the lower rungs, diversity will filter up to management in time. Johannesburg seems to me to have a refreshingly diverse workforce, at least in the companies I have observed and I have a positive outlook for the future if all parts of the country adopt the Joburg culture.
Did becoming a mom change how you experienced your field of work?
Well, yes completely, it pulled the rug out from under me in terms of career path, however, it has also opened up my mind about the possibility of other career opportunities that could be had. I believe parenting should be seen as a qualification on its own (especially when you are in teaching and management positions), by virtue of the many hard lessons it teaches us, lessons in patience, in anxiety management, in people management, in compassion, in team-work, in perseverance, a strong sense of responsibility and duty, and in time management and so I believe that when I re-enter the formal workforce, I will be better equipped for many of the challenges. Parenting also pushed me to be a better person so that I can exemplify what I want my children to aspire to be. Learning to love like a mum is something that can’t be taught in university but, when applied to other people, can be beneficial in your career, in dealing with people and in life as a whole. In this way, being a mum has changed how I experience most aspects of my life.
How do you think organisational spaces could be improved upon in order to better support women in STEM?
Although I have not worked in a traditional environment while being mum, some of my favourite people are working mums. From their experiences, I would love for breast milk- pumping rooms to be provided to mums. Nourishing children is one of our greatest duties and it must be supported for the good of humanity as a whole. Meetings that overrun, mums that are forced to work well over normal hours, this sort of thing saddens me. This is something I see happening in the finance world more than engineering, something I would love to see addressed. Now that more and more women are in the workforce, parenting must be seen as a joint social responsibility of employers as well as parents. Employers must consider their employees’ family commitments.
What do you hope to achieve within your career, whether in the short/long term?
Well now that my book is complete, I am in pursuit of a publisher. My short time goals are to publish and make this material available to the many women that are waiting for it. I am also planning to offer free workshops to parents at schools, companies, and religious institutions (when Covid-19 is done shutting society down, of course), to teach families how to better nourish their children. I am also going to plunge into a new book soon which will be a non-fiction narrative based on the contents of my blog, unitymama.com which looks at interfaith relationships.
Would you encourage your little one(s)& other young girls to move into a career similar to your own & why?
I would love for my children and others to follow whatever career their interests are in, whilst considering social or market needs at the time, as well as family life balance, if they plan on having families. I would not discourage them from engineering; it is a rewarding profession for males and females alike.
What’s your favourite mom&kiddie activity?
I love taking my kids on hikes. It’s something I grew up doing with my parents. My little one has to get carried most of the way, but we can still summit a koppie or 2 with him in our arms. It is a wonderful adventure. Our second favourite activity would have to be reading, especially new books. I love to see the thrill and amazement on their sweet faces. Oh, and I love the giggles… so much.
Please could you give fellow STEM moms some advice on how to navigate the challenges within our field.
The role of a woman in society is more unique, essential and complex than the modern world has yet acknowledged. Be unapologetic about fulfilling your roles as a woman. Being a feminist should not mean being forced to be more like a man, or under-valuing a mothers role in her family and in society; it should rather mean being freely allowed to choose what kind of life you would like to lead and showing people (little ones and big ones) the benefits that our feminine natures can bring to our families, professions and societies along the way.