Texas Tech University

Celebrating Women in Engineering: Sunanda Mitra

Amanda Bowman

June 21, 2019

Sunanda Mitra’s astounding career at Texas Tech University has impacted countless people.

Women have been the first in history to do many things. From Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, to Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences – physics and chemistry – women have left an indelible impression in the arts, sciences and humanity.

To honor and highlight women paving the way in the engineering field, National Women in Engineering Day was launched in the U.K. on June 23, 2014, by the Women's Engineering Society to celebrate its 95th anniversary. In 2017, June 23 officially became International Women in Engineering Day to celebrate all women who have made an impression in engineering across the world.

Sunanda Mitra, the Paul Whitfield Horn Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering through the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, is one such woman who has made her mark at Texas Tech University. She was the first female faculty member in the College of Engineering, and she didn't take no for an answer when told girls "don't study physics."

Here's a look at her incredible career.

Introduction to physics

Mitra was born and raised in Calcutta, India, now known as Kolkata. Growing up, Mitra found herself interested in physics at a young age.

"When I graduated from high school, my oldest brother, who was an English professor and a mentor to me, bought me a book called 'The Mysterious Universe,' by Sir James Jeans, and it talked about the expanding universe and physics in a layman language," Mitra said. "I really liked it. It sparked my interest in physics."

Mitra told her brother she wanted to study physics. She initially was met with resistance, but she and her younger brother, who is a doctor, were able to convince their oldest brother it was the path she should take.

"When I told my older brother I wanted to study physics, he said, 'No, girls don't study physics,'" Mitra said. "I insisted on it, and he gave in."

Off to Germany

With a determination and her older brother's blessing, Mitra earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in physics from the University of Calcutta in 1955 and 1957, respectfully. She then began working on her doctoral degree at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata.

Her husband, Arun, pursued his doctoral degree at Marburg University in Germany after receiving the Alexander von Humboldt fellowship.

The couple didn't see each other for a few years.

"I didn't go to Germany for two years because I already had a very good teaching job while I was working on my doctorate, and our son was only 8 months old when my husband left," Mitra said. "Then, Arun's professor offered him an even more rewarding position, so I had to go to Germany."

Mitra was able to finish her doctoral degree alongside her husband at Marburg University.

Finding inspiration

When Mitra initially began working toward her physics degrees, especially while working in nuclear high-energy physics, she was inspired by another woman who also didn't take no for an answer.

"My role model was a German-born woman scientist, Maria Goeppert Mayer, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering nuclear shell structure," Mitra said. "She has a book on it titled 'Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure.'

"Mayer earned her doctoral degree in physics from the University of Gottingen in 1930. That same year, she married a visiting American scientist in Germany, Joseph Edward Mayer. The couple moved to the United States where her husband was offered a faculty position in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. Maria was not offered a salaried position whatsoever. But she was so dedicated to science, she just did her Nobel Prize-winning work without any pay. Fortunately, she was able to work in a lab and did some theoretical work on her own time. She earned her Nobel Prize in 1963 at the age of 56, and she was offered her first faculty position as a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego in 1960."

Mitra also noted how Albert Einstein's first wife, Mileva Marić, a Serbian physicist, wasn't given the proper recognition she deserved. Marić and Einstein studied and lived together while attending the Zurich Polytechnique where her studies were interrupted due to her pregnancy.

Sunandna Mitra and Kris Kristiansen
Sunanda Mitra speaking with Magne "Kris" Kristiansen, former director of the Center for Pulsed Power and Power Electronics. Photo: Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

Arriving at Texas Tech

While wrapping up her doctoral degree in Germany, Mitra and her husband planned to move back to India. However, a visit from an American faculty member in mathematics from Syracuse University changed her family's course when he presented an open faculty position at Texas Tech, then known as Texas Technological College.

"Our American friend insisted that we come to America before going back to India," Mitra said. "He said, 'Texas Technological College needs to hire faculty in the mathematics department.' My husband was in the department of mathematics, so that's how we ended up at Texas Tech."

Mitra and her family came to Lubbock in 1967.

Applying physics to engineering

So how did Mitra end up in the College of Engineering with degrees in physics?

"In those days, there were no graduate programs in engineering," Mitra explained. "It used to be called applied physics. I was interested in both theory and applied physics. As a matter of fact, I think even as an undergraduate, I built amplifiers as part of the lab project but with big tubes, not transistors, because transistors were not even around."

Prior to joining the electrical engineering department at Texas Tech as a faculty member, Mitra also held a research scientist position in the electrical engineering department's Center for Pulsed Power & Power Electronics and in the Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC).

A novel research work on human vision performed by Mitra at TTUHSC led to a visiting faculty position in the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York in 1983, as well as an invitation to visit Cambridge University in the U.K.

Mitra became a faculty member at Texas Tech in 1984 and made school history with her hiring.

"I actually started the lab in Computer Vision and Image Analysis (CVIAL), now renamed as Biomedical Integrated Devices and Systems (BIDS), here in electrical engineering," Mitra said. "The department didn't have one in this research area before that. In the beginning, I was mostly training senior undergraduate students and bringing them to graduate school for image analysis and its applications, particularly in medical imaging.

"As you know, X-rays, MRIs and CT scans, they are all images. But in order to interpret the images, you have to apply all sorts of signal processing analysis techniques, which involve electrical engineering and physics. So that's how I started at Texas Tech."

Conducting research

Mitra has participated in numerous research projects over her 40-plus-year career. When asked about her favorite, she immediately had an answer.

"For the past seven or eight years, my research group and I have been working on MRI and functional MRI (fMRI), particularly to model the human brain in terms of connectivity of the neurons in the brain and how they work," Mitra said. "We actually don't know how our brain works, although our brains process at much lower speed than even mobile phones.

"We are able to instantly recognize faces, discriminate objects, and a 2-year-old child learns to recognize things and do pattern recognition sort of instantaneously. Computers do certain things repeatedly well, but they cannot actually do this instantaneously because we don't know how we process it. There has been a great deal research on understanding the neuro dynamics in the brain. Trying to understand the human brain is fascinating."

Mitra also has worked with large companies such as Texas Instruments and Northrop Grumman to help advise them on problems with image recognition and applications.

"I find it very interesting because, the way we are diagnosed, even from an MRI or CT scan, the radiologist just visually looks at the image," Mitra said. "There is a lot of variability, so there should be some standardized, computer-aided procedures to help."

Texas Tech Neuroimaging Institute

Not only has Mitra been a staple in the electrical engineering department at Texas Tech, but she also was an adjunct professor in the former Department of Radiology at TTUHSC from 1995 to 2003. This experience made her uniquely qualified to lead the Texas Tech Neuroimaging Institute (TTNI), if only temporarily.

"I was asked to be director of TTNI in 2013 because they didn't have anybody who could run it properly at the time," Mitra said. "I didn't want to be the permanent director, so I served as the interim director from 2013-16. Then when I had it running well, I went back full time to my electrical engineering professor position."

Encouraging others

Women are more than capable of thriving in careers based in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Mitra said. She also mentioned why she believes it's important for young women to enter the STEM fields.

"It's important because women give a different perspective; we think a little differently," she said. "The more exposed we are to different concepts, the more we benefit."

Mitra also wants young women to keep trying at certain subjects, such as math, because, she said, they are better at it than they believe.

Sunanda Mitra
Sunanda Mitra in front of a whiteboard. Photo: Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

"Sometimes, women think we are not good at math, but it is a matter of practice," she said. "When you get into it without working on it, you don't know whether you are good at it or not. There's a perception that women don't understand math, but it's just a perception that we carry without getting into it.

"I don't think there are gender barriers anymore. If you want to, if you're interested, then you can do anything."

Future plans and family

As for Mitra, she plans on retiring after her final doctoral students graduate in 2020. At the age of 75, Mitra's loving husband, Arun, unfortunately died in 2011, as did her son, Atindra. He was 49.

To honor her late son, who received his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Texas Tech, Mitra established the Dr. Atindra Mitra Graduate Fellowship in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"One of the reasons I still work is because of my students," Mitra said. "They're almost like my grandchildren. I donated a significant amount of money to establish this scholarship at Texas Tech in Atindra's name so the students also can benefit from that. You can never compare any loss with losing a child, but I'm just trying to do the best I can."

Mitra's daughter, Rita Mitra, and her granddaughter, Danielle Leblanc, also have taken inspiration from Mitra in their own careers. Rita is an associate professor in practice in the cyber security department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Danielle recently graduated with a Master of Business Administration from Tulane University and is working in data science/analytics.

"The characteristics of my mom that we as her 'students' take away are not her accomplishments, per se, but her insatiable curiosity about so many aspects of life and her ongoing persistence in learning about them," Rita said.