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Sumita Pennathur learned she loved teaching as a 15-year-old saxophone player in Foxborough, Massachusetts, when she started giving lessons to her 10-year-old neighbor. Nearly two decades later, the neighbor is an accomplished saxophonist, and Pennathur, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and a PhD from Stanford, is a professor.

“I shared my excitement and love for the sax … and that is when I knew I wanted to teach,” Pennathur says. “I wanted to see great students become even greater. I wanted to be proud of the new crop of young, bright students making a difference in the world.”

Pennathur is putting her knack for teaching to good use now in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she advises graduate students—her favorite part of her job—and investigates the physics of micro- and nanofluidic systems for use in bioanalytic and energy applications. This work could lead to the development of assays that can test specific biomolecular signatures for disease as well as novel energy sources. 

Indeed, Pennathur has demonstrated such excellence as a researcher—not just at UCSB, but also earlier at Stanford, Lockheed Martin, and Sandia National Laboratories—that in November 2011, the U.S. government honored her with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

So is it all science all the time? Hardly. When Pennathur isn’t at the lab, she often can be found playing alto sax with her band, Fitz Minor, which includes a global-studies professor on piano, a lawyer on bass, and a graphic designer on drums. Each band member has two kids under age six.

“People think it is crazy that I do so much,” Pennathur says, “but actually, I think it would be hard not to do all this stuff. It balances me out and allows me to really focus on what I need to focus on.”

Plus, Pennathur says, her being a professor, a musician, and a mom signals to other women that it’s possible to have kids in the early stages of a science career. “It’s not that you work a lot harder with kids,” she explains. “You’re just a lot busier. But it is a good kind of busy. It makes you smile at the end of the day.”

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