There are many topics that Padma Akkaraju can be excited about, but her first passion was physics.
“I was always very interested in physics, so much so that my sister would tease me while I was in high school by saying, ‘Are you going to take math and physics this year?’” she laughs. “I still love physics, there’s no question about it. I got very excited that they finally discovered the Higgs boson particle, and I was reading all about it.”
Her passion for physics led her to get a Ph.D. in applied physics from Indian Institute of Technology Madras, India, followed by a post-doc at University of Bristol in England.
However, when she moved to the U.S., she found a new direction when she realized that women and minorities are underrepresented in physical sciences, math and engineering. Fueled by her commitment to access and equity in higher education, she talked to people at OSU’s College of Engineering to advocate for founding a program supporting women and minority students in engineering. They got behind her efforts and, in fact, hired her as a coordinator for recruitment and retention.
To hone her knowledge in student development, Akkaraju went back to school for a master’s degree in college student services administration at OSU. Since then she has worked in a variety of positions related to student services. In addition, she has been teaching for the Ethnic Studies Department at OSU where she integrated her interdisciplinary background by developing courses such as “Science, Race and Gender” and “Race and Ethnicity in the Era of Globalization.”
“Advising has always been my home base. I like academic advising because it gives you an opportunity to work with the students on a one-to-one basis — to help them reach their goals and support them if they are struggling. That's a special type of relationship which can be very personally rewarding,” she says.
So when the advisor position for the new online computer science (CS) degree program in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science was created, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it. “It’s amazing to be in a place where cutting-edge programs are offered and the administrative leaders are innovative in leading the change to develop a one-of-a-kind program. That’s how I got attracted to this particular job,” she says.
The program resonates with her personal commitment for access and success. It caters to students over 25 years old from diverse professional and personal backgrounds and provides them with access to careers in computer science. Many of the students are going back to school in a different area from their initial degree: There are lawyers, scientists, and students with business or liberal arts degrees. Several of the students in the program are managing careers, school and family. It’s an experience Akkaraju can identify with, having been there herself — raising two daughters while pursuing a graduate degree in a second area of study.
When she is not working she spends time her time with her children. The family likes to camp, and go to theater and music events. “My oldest daughter is a violinist and a big fan of Midori, so if she is in Oregon, we just have to go and see her,” she says. In the summer she likes to spend time outdoors, especially in her garden.
Akkaraju serves on the Corvallis School District’s Diversity Action Planning Committee and has been actively advocating for an inclusive curriculum and positive youth development. She has also been a moderator for the South Asian Women’s Network (SAWNET), an online forum for women that focus on topics related to South Asian Diaspora.
“There are many facets to my life, and I enjoy all of them,” she says.
—By Rachel Robertson