Gurneet Kaur has achievements any individual would only dream of. No godfathers or fairy godmothers, but a lot of hard work since school, and a single-minded focus to get over the barriers of being a girl from a middle-class family in India, are what made Gurneet stand out. And if you believe that science is not for girls, you should meet this illustrious and inspiring engineer.
The Delhi girl, now an alumnus of several prestigious educational institutes in the world, was instrumental in building the Virgin Hyperloop One consortium’s Hyperloop route that will link central Pune and Mumbai in under 30 minutes. Based in the US, she is currently a Senior Engineer (Quality) at Edwards Lifesciences, a global leader in medical device industry.
However, more than her many extraordinary accolades, is it her journey that makes 37-year-old Gurneet a role model for girls across the world, and especially in India, to pursue their passion.
Paving her own path
For a school topper with outstanding academic excellence, engineering would have been a natural choice for Gurneet. But she was attracted to physics, which she calls a ‘solid science’, and went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in physics from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and later a master’s degree in the same from IIT-Delhi.
After completing her postgraduation, Gurneet took an off-track decision, unlike most of her fellow IIT-ians, and chose to pursue a PhD to get out of her comfort zone. In 2006, she recieved a full scholarship to pursue a PhD in physics at Stuttgart University in Germany. While her family was worried about her as Gurneet had never even been outside India before, she was itching to explore the world and gain new perspectives.
Her family gradually came around even though no one in the family had pursued science before (her father was in economics, her mother a homemaker, and her siblings were into finance). “My family was supportive eventually even though they did not understand what I was doing. When I show them pictures of the lab, all they would ask was if it is safe. But they did not force me to come back home,” Gurneet has said.
Learning a new way of life
Gurneet set on making the best of her time in Germany even when things did not get off to a smooth beginning. She did not know the language, the education system was vastly different to India’s, and there were cultural differences to contend with as well. But she soldiered on. She took language courses to pick up German and travelled a lot to understand the world better.
And the German way of life taught her many hard lessons. “I was not used to people saying no openly; we tend to help more to be polite in India. But now I appreciate it. It makes for easier conversations. Thankfully, my colleagues were very supportive, and I never felt out of place,” she has stated.
The next big step
Once she got her PhD, it was time for Gurneet to take the next big decision – either return to India, which offered minimal opportunities at the time, or move to an English-speaking country, and gain more exposure. Around that time, she got married to Chiranjeev Kalra, who was working in the US. So, she migrated to California. Soon, she started working in post-doctoral research at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on quantum information transport using experimental magnetic resonance techniques.
In 2016, she moved to Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO) as a product engineer. Having grown up in Delhi in the 90s, Gurneet had first-hand experience of the positive impact mass transportation modes (the Delhi Metro, in this case) could have on a common man. Recognising the potential that Hyperloop technology holds in improving people’s lives and the cities they live in, she became a part of this game-changing venture as Manager - Product, Systems Engineering at VHO. She was part of a team of 12, which brings all the tech together and integrates it for products’ requirement.
Today, at Edward Lifesciences, where she joined in August 2019, Gurneet is on her next big mission – to help build medical technology for the next generation.
Woman in science
On encouraging more girls to pursue science, Gurneet says that we are headed in the right direction. “This may be a generational change. Most parents are worried for their daughters’ safety at the workplace. They are reluctant to let girls travel for the same reason. But this is slowly changing.”
Gurneet adds that retaining women talent will not be hard for companies if women employees are allowed flexible work hours. “Sometimes, even after six months of maternity leave, you are not mentally ready to work for eight hours a day. As a mother, I go through this too. Balancing is an everyday job. It is always at the back of my head - am I not focussing enough on my family? Am I not focussing on my work? But I wanted to follow my dreams and be a role model to my children,” she says.
Gurneet has a one-year-old daughter, Ishnoor, and a five-year-old son, Rabtej. She says that all women striking a work-life balance and changing status quo are her role models.