Dr. Ragini Narasimhan

Physics and Calculus Teacher

Dr.+Ragini+Narasimhan

Dr. Ragini Narasimhan

Biography:

  • Indian Institute of Technology: Bachelor of Technology, Computer Science;
  • University at Albany, SUNY: MS and PhD, Computer Science;
  • Seattle Pacific University: ARC program and M.Ed.
  • Worked at Microsoft for 10 years as a software developer and manager.
  • Likes to teach physics with toys and video games (nerf guns, buggy cars, water balloons, angry birds) and enjoys tying math to real world applications.

Background: Dr. N taught my quantitative physics and calculus classes. She helped me see mathematical thinking as a skill I could learn rather than an ability I did or didn’t have, and made me reconsider the level of understanding I could achieve. During class she would offhandedly mention stories about her childhood–her brothers’ attempts to teach her logarithms, or her experience in school in Nigeria–so I was excited to learn more of her story.

 

I’m always struck by how to talk about math and physics as if they were art forms. Can you tell me a bit about your journey into the math and sciences? Why did you decide to become and engineer?

Math and science are part of my family’s blood. My dad’s family is made up of mostly engineers. My dad was a civil engineer. His sister was an electrical engineer. His other sister was an electronic engineer, and his other brother was an aeronautical engineer. My brother is a mechanical engineer, and I’m a computer science engineer. It was like, why wouldn’t you be an engineer? What’s wrong with you?

We looked at everything through this lens of engineering. When the TV wouldn’t work, I would turn the antenna in a certain way, I would stand in a certain place to block some waves and improve the signal. And immediately my dad would say: “she’s talking like an engineer.” It was a positive reinforcement, but to a narrow channel.

Because I was the TV fixer, my family decided I was going to be an electronic engineer. But then computer science became the hot incoming thing. I had never even touched a computer before undergraduate.

Math and science are part of my family’s blood.”

— Dr. N

 

What was that kind of family environment like to grow up in? How did it influence your perspective?

Because my family was so engineering focused, we had to be good at math. Math is like God. There was this inherent competition between me and my brother to get 100% on every test, which I failed miserably at. I would come home, and my brother would snigger and say: “how many points did you donate to your teacher this time?” But he would also stand up for me and say, “this kid doesn’t memorize anything because she doesn’t have a memory . . . but she can derive anything from scratch.”

My brother’s brain was like a file system: he would look at a problem, think, “I’ve seen something like this before,” then look back through his brain try to figure out the pattern matching. My brain was an empty slate. You could give me the same problem from yesterday, and I’d start all over again with no idea that I had done it before. Once I spent half an hour on a final exam deriving an expression because I just couldn’t remember it.

My brother saw that I was good at logical thinking and synthesizing new information, and he felt like that was more useful than just reusing things you already know. He pushed me towards better and harder things which I never believed I could do. He was like, “you’re different, you can do this.” He didn’t put it in such nice terms, though. He would really say: “what’s wrong with you? You can do it. Get going.” I’m tough on the outside because of that. And I think it has helped me survive well in several spaces that are male dominated.

 

I think I first understood that people treat women and men differently when I was 35.”

— Dr. N

How has being a woman in male dominated spaces—especially as a woman in STEM—impacted your life?

People don’t believe me when I say this, but I think I first understood that people treat women and men differently when I was 35. I didn’t think about it before. That’s how thick skinned I was. After years of working at Microsoft, HR contacted me to be a mentor for other women and I did not quite understand why women needed other women as mentors. I was quite clueless.

If somebody told me that women should be treated differently—or that you must be gentler with women—I’d say, “why would you think that? We’re just as tough as anybody else.”

I still believe that, but I also believe there are a set of women who are downtrodden to such an extent that we need to build up their confidence. That part was not clear to me at all. Just because I was able to handle it, I kind of assumed other women should be able to handle it as well. And that’s not true.

The first time I felt my sex impacting me was in undergrad. Just to be clear, my college—the Indian Institute of Technology—is not an easy place to get into. A while back there was a comparison to this college system and MIT, and it found that that the entry requirements for IIT may be more rigorous than MIT. And it’s probably harder for women to get in there.

My computer science class was made up of about 28 people, and I was the only woman in that class. Overall, about 250 people joined the university that year. Only 12 of them were women. That was a record high—we were celebrating that we had 11 other women to bond with. After first semester another woman transferred into the computer science department, so we had an increase of 100%.

It felt good to have another woman. It was very difficult to collaborate with men. If a guy was seen with a girl, it was assumed he was trying to get together with her. The hassle the guys had to go through just to be friendly to us girls was not worth it—they were like, “nope, I’m out.”

 

If you needed help, who would you go to?

Tough. It was hard to ask questions, because you’d be attracting attention to yourself in a 200-person classroom. I probably only spoke to my professors once every month and a half. I remember the times I went in for physics help—that’s how few and far between they were. Most of it was buckle down, study, and figure it out. Textbooks were so expensive that most of us couldn’t afford them, so our notes were it. Whoever took good notes was the king or queen.

When I first came to Uprep, I was shocked by the amount of help a kid could get. Every teacher is willing to bend over backwards. I’m not saying that’s bad, but holy cow, that’s a lot of support. I wondered, when these kids go outside, what will happen then? Are we setting them up for success in this bubble? I was just wondering about the practicality of the whole thing. I voiced these concerns during a faculty discussion, and the woman in charge responded, “life is harsh. Do we have to impose harshness at a young age?” I took it to heart. I thought, “I’m gonna bend over backwards, and see how it goes.” I think that kids are resilient, and they manage just fine once they reach college, and at least their life at Uprep is somewhat simpler.

 

Just because people don’t look like me doesn’t mean they don’t feel like me.”

— Dr. N

You’ve spoken a lot about your family and your emotional environment growing up, but not your physical setting. Where are you from? How has that shaped your perspective on the world?

My mom and dad are from middle class families in India. We always had to save and save and save for a rainy day. That’s kind of my Dad’s life story. There’s an old-style Indian tradition that the eldest son takes on the burden of handling the extended family’s finances. My dad felt that burden. Sometimes when you’re so focused on saving, the rainy day can come and go, and you don’t even notice it.

My dad worked for the central Indian government. He traveled to different areas to build infrastructure, so I moved schools every two to three years. I’ve seen a lot of the country that most people haven’t, and that itself is an education. I learned early on that just because people don’t look like me doesn’t mean that they don’t feel like me.

When I was 11, my dad’s job led us to Nigeria. It was a good deal—he got to keep his Indian paycheck, and got compensated for his living expenses in Nigeria, so his entire Indian paycheck went into the bank for a few years. Our neighbors sent me off with stories about Nigerians with poison arrows. When I told my Nigerian classmates I was from India, their first reaction was, “back in your village, you probably have an elephant.” It took us a year to get past all those preconceived notions. And again, one comes to the same conclusion: we all care about our families, we all want to put food on the table, we all want to be happy. And meanwhile, can we just be friends and have fun?

So that was one thing I learned. The second thing was . . . how should I put this. Nigeria was going through a lot. There were two coups while I was living there. It was an excellent learning experience and gave me a newfound respect for India. Before I’d gone to Nigeria, I thought that nothing was ever working in India, that everything sucked. You know—”why doesn’t the government do this, why can’t they get it right?” But in Nigeria, necessities like milk were not available. We imported powder milk from Denmark. Products like rice and wheat, which we depend on on a daily basis, would come and go. You had to literally run to the market when they were available. People would stock up. We used one bedroom of our three-bedroom apartment for storage. That’s how difficult it was to get these basic commodities.

One time after moving to Nigeria, I went to India on vacation, to meet my relatives. Just going to the market and having fresh fruit and vegetables on display was such an amazing experience. I took that for granted the first 11 years of my life. It made me thankful for all the things that I had, even though India was considered a third world country.

 

How did these experiences impact you?

I’ve seen a lot of divides. As a kid didn’t really process it much but I just knew the divide existed. From my apartment in Nigeria in Lagos, if you looked out the window, you’d see an eight-lane highway. I’ve never seen something like that in India. But if you take the ramp off that highway, it very quickly became a dirt road. The highway would impress foreign dignitaries and the common man still used dirt roads.

I’ve seen divides in India. There are multi story buildings, and right outside them, there are people who live off the streets. Many service workers have very low incomes. They are housemaids, shoe polishers—all services you don’t typically see here in the states. If those jobs didn’t exist in India, a million people would be out of work.

You get numb, comfortable with it. I’m not saying it’s right, it’s just what happens.

 

Wow, it seems like your life has brought you to many different places. How did you come to the United States?

At the higher education institution I went to, the thing to do was to finish your four years, and either join a management college or go to the United States for your masters or a PhD. I wanted to be the first PhD in my family. That’s why I came over here. My first choice was UW, but I had limited money, and I had to carefully pick and choose where I would send my application. And at my school, the person with the top GPA would choose their top schools, and people with lower GPA’s wouldn’t apply to those schools because the students with higher GPAs were more likely to get in. There was one dude who was .05 ahead of me, and he applied to UW. So, I didn’t apply.

I really goofed off my first year in undergrad and I paid for it the next three years. Don’t goof off your first year. Get a good set of grades in the first year and then start relaxing.

Trust yourself to be able to achieve more than what you think you can achieve.”

— Dr. N

That transitions nicely into my next question. What do you want students to get out of your class? And do you have any hopes for us seniors moving forwards?

That’s a good question . . . let me meander a bit, and I’ll come to an answer.

I love teaching Quantitative Physics. This class challenges UPrep students and makes them realize that they are more capable than they think they are.  There are moments where a student may feel like, “I’m falling and drowning.” Even people who have gotten A’s all their lives can be in jeopardy. That’s a feeling you need to experience before college. Even when students feel overwhelmed, they know there is a safety net at Uprep.  In college you should experience that feeling of your brain stretching, over and over again. That’s when you know you’ve chosen the right courses. Struggle is good; it indicates you are growing. In college, I hope you guys stretch. I hope you prepare for it at Uprep by taking challenging courses here.

When you go to college and you’re dealing with whatever it is you’re dealing with, you’ll remember that you overcame a course like this before. That’s what I’m really looking for. Trust yourself to be able to achieve more than what you think you can achieve.Climb high, breathe that thin air and feel good about your achievement.

 

Do you have any advice about college in general?

We make such a big deal about college being the goal. I wish people would step back and see college as a pit stop in the whole race of life. Gosh darn it, you’re the customer. You’re the one paying the 50 K. You should demand for what you want out of college, not the other way around.

Also, know that you’re not paying for the great dorms or the great college professors who have Nobel Prizes—who can’t teach, by the way; I taught for one such person and my goodness he couldn’t teach—what you’re really paying for is your peers. The exclusivity of being amongst these peers who are smart, who have ambitions, who can do all these wonderful things. You’ll feel like, oh, he can do this, and she can do that, maybe I can do a fraction of it. And if it is an encouraging environment, you’ll start to think, maybe I could do it, too.

College won’t make or break you. If you have it in you to push yourself, it doesn’t matter where you go. If you’re committed to doing something with your life, you’ll do it one way or another. Nobody can stop you, least of all college.