Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Sumita Pennathur ’00, SM ’01

A teacher of subjects from saxophone to nanofluidic systems
April 25, 2012

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.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

SpaceX Starship
SpaceX Starship

How SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket might unlock the solar system—and beyond

With the first orbital test launch of Starship on the horizon, scientists are dreaming about what it might make possible— from trips to Neptune to planetary defense.

a Chichuahua standing on a Great Dane
a Chichuahua standing on a Great Dane

DeepMind says its new language model can beat others 25 times its size

RETRO uses an external memory to look up passages of text on the fly, avoiding some of the costs of training a vast neural network

Conceptual illustration of a therapy session
Conceptual illustration of a therapy session

The therapists using AI to make therapy better

Researchers are learning more about how therapy works by examining the language therapists use with clients. It could lead to more people getting better, and staying better.

Photograph of Geothermal power plant located at Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland. Aerial view
Photograph of Geothermal power plant located at Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland. Aerial view

What it will take to unleash the potential of geothermal power

Four new pilot plants funded by the US infrastructure bill could help expand the range of the “forgotten renewable.”

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.