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Ratna Sharma-Shivappa was raised on an agricultural university campus in India. “Everyone around me was an academician, a student or a faculty member,” she remembers. “It was always about being in the university.” Both of Sharma-Shivappa’s parents were professors, and the family lived in on-campus housing. There was no question in her mind growing up that she too would go to college, earn her doctorate, and eventually end up teaching at a university.
As a young adult on an agricultural university campus, Sharma-Shivappa was surrounded by questions about agricultural issues, such as crop production, farm use, and use of resources and equipment. “I knew I wanted to look at aspects related to both the environment and agriculture,” she recalls. “I ended up in bioprocess engineering.”
Sharma-Shivappa attended college at Punjab Agricultural University, where she received her bachelor of technology degree in Agricultural Engineering. She then went on to get her master’s degree in engineering at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, and received her doctorate at Penn State University in agricultural and biological engineering. Sharma-Shivappa got her current job as an assistant professor at North Carolina State University within six months of finishing her doctorate;in fact, she had already secured the job before she submitted her dissertation. “It was quite a jump from being in graduate school to being a faculty member,” she says. “I thought, ‘Okay, now I have a lot of responsibility. I’m guiding grad students.’ Besides, I have a lot of things to deal with in addition to grant writing and teaching.”
Sharma-Shivappa feels that getting her current position has been a real highlight in her still developing career. “It’s really made me learn a lot over the past three years,” she says. “I’ve grown a lot both personally and professionally.” She also enjoys the interactions and collaborations with other people in the field. Her current job has also increased her awareness of the need for more research in biofuels development.
Sharma-Shivappa credits her husband, Dr. Raghunath Shivappa, for helping her get to where she is today; without his support, she says, she would not have been able to get her job and finish her doctorate. She is also mentored by her Ph.D. advisor, Dr.Ali Demirci, who has inspired her, given her confidence and put her in a position where she can now guide others. And perhaps most importantly, “I was inspired by my parents in the first place,” Sharma-Shivappa notes. “Both were faculty members, and I grew up seeing their work and watching them guide their students.”
Though Sharma-Shivappa has found much success in her chosen field, she did have to overcome some obstacles to get to where she is today. “When I finished high school, my parents wanted me to become a doctor,” she explains. “I couldn’t go to medical school because I really wanted to be an engineer. Not many women in India pursue unconventional engineering fields. I had always wanted to do something different. I had to pull against my parents wishes.”
Since Sharma-Shivappa’s career is still in its early stages, she feels that she still has a lot to achieve professionally. However, she believes that coming to the United States and leaving her family and home behind were very significant achievements for her. As an only child, it was especially hard to break the tie with her parents and move so far away to pursue her career.
Sharma-Shivappa is excited to continue teaching and researching in the environmental/bioprocessing field. She sticks with it primarily because she enjoys interacting with students, and the opportunities it provides for innovation. “I have to be creative—it keeps me active, looking for new things to do,” she says. “There is no way to get bored. I keep getting into new research and new ideas. Students keep you active too.”
Sharma-Shivappa has this advice for minorities who are considering a career in the environmental field: “The most important thing is that this is a very exciting field; it’s very applied, so you can apply what you learn in the field to a variety of things. Being a minority shouldn’t stop you from getting into this up-and-coming field. We all have something to give. Everyone has something they like and can do in this field—that’s the beauty of it.”
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