Student Essay Contest

Mrs. Nan Mattai: More Than a Parking Spot

2011 AWM Essay Contest: Grand Prize Winner

By: Stephanie Wenclawski, John F. Kennedy High School, Cedar Rapids, IA

I gazed down from the third story of my mother’s office building looking at the reserved parking spots. Wow, I remember thinking, it would be impressive to have a reserved spot. As I read the names of the ‘important people’ listed upon the markers for each spot, I realized that only one of the spots belonged to a female. At Rockwell Collins engineering is key, so this fact did not surprise me, but as I asked my mother about this woman, she simply smiled and began to tell me about this well respected colleague, Nan Mattai. I was impressed with what I heard and wanted to meet Mattai. I had the opportunity when I was serving as a volunteer at a regional competition designed to encourage future engineers. Mattai walked through the door and I realized this was a perfect opportunity to introduce myself.
Apparently surprised by the respect and admiration I demonstrated, Mattai gave me a pleasant nod. More recently, I had the opportunity to learn what an outstanding role model Mattai is for all young women as well as a prime example of someone living her American dream.
Born in Georgetown, Guyana as the third child of seven children, Mrs. Mattai learned the importance of education at a young age. Mattai was raised in a middle class family, where neither parent possessed a college degree. Her parents realized an education was the best thing they could provide for Mattai and her siblings. Mattai distinctly remembers her mother saying, “An education is better than silver and gold.” Mattai was competitive with her brothers, so when they chose math and science classes, she signed up for advanced math and science classes. Intrigued by math and its applications at an early age, Mattai would add up the cost of items in her mother’s grocery cart when shopping. As she grew older, Mattai learned more about science and applied mathematics and Madame Curie became an inspiration to her. Because Curie was the first woman to earn the Nobel Prize for Science, Mattai established her career aspiration of becoming a scientist and researcher in math and physics.
After graduating with a degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Guyana at the top of her class, Mattai received the President’s medal and pushed onward to accomplish her dream. With consistent encouragement from her parents, Mattai earned a masters degree in nuclear physics from the University of Windsor in Canada. The transition to Canada was difficult as Guyana was a melting pot of many cultures, whose ancestry had emigrated there to work on sugar plantations and the climate was warm, year-round. Due to her Indian descent, Mattai stood out because of both her appearance and her speech. With perseverance, Mattai overcame challenges and took advantage of the plethora of scientific instruments and equipment to further her learning. Mattai’s work was very well respected and she was honored with her photograph on the Guyana postage stamp.
Mattai’s perfectly planned future went astray due to ‘life’s circumstances.’ While in school at the University of Windsor her oldest son was born, a premature baby weighing just 4 pounds 13 ounces. With her husband still in school, no immediate family to help out, and day-care unaffordable for two students, Mattai remembered her parents’ words, “Family comes first.” As a result, Mattai left her doctorate program to care for her new son.
When the time came to restart her career, Mattai considered her options and decided to apply what she knew to make a difference in engineering and math. Mattai’s first engineering job, at Magnavox Electronics in Southern California, was as a software engineer. Doing the “continuous learning” that she loves, Mattai learned about Global Positioning Systems. This is a move that would prove beneficial for her future. Moving up the management ranks, Mattai began to focus on helping other technical contributors while enhancing her own skill set.
In 1993, Mattai and her family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mattai accepted a position as a software engineer at Rockwell Collins in a newly developed department named Data Links. Mattai continued to stretch herself and traveled frequently throughout the world meeting customers and discussing innovative solutions to business problems. In 2001, Mattai was promoted to Vice President of Engineering for one of the company’s business segments. This role required Mattai to assume leadership of 1,500 engineers. In recognition of her ongoing excellence in both the technical and leadership areas, in 2004 Mattai was promoted to her current position: Senior Vice President of Engineering and Technology, reporting to
Chairman, President, and CEO Clay Jones. Mattai now manages the company’s engineering workforce, which is one-third of the company’s 20,000 employees. Mattai’s role requires significant external interface and public speaking on the importance of STEM education and innovation. Mattai’s advice to those interested in pursuing a career in mathematics is “to take on challenging assignments and stretch beyond your comfort zone, deliver results that exceed expectations, and seek out mentors in the field.”
Mattai loves to travel and cook. Though she has visited much of the world, Mattai is still mesmerized by the beauty of other countries. Although Mattai failed to mention her numerous awards for leadership, technical excellence and innovation, she continues to be an inspiration for others. Named as one of the 2010 Iowa Women of Innovation, Mattai is clearly more interested in making a difference than winning awards.
Mattai’s focus on hard work, excellence and innovation has helped her succeed in numerous positions. Her leadership skills and accomplishments have gained her respect and an elite parking spot. Mattai’s philosophy of “if you keep at your goals you will get what you want” has brought her to remarkable heights. The lesson her parents instilled in her, “there are no boundaries to what one can accomplish,” is now being nurtured and instilled in others. Mattai continues to educate and encourage, specifically young women, to follow their dreams, break down barriers and join the workforce in math and science related fields.
About the Student:
As a junior at John F. Kennedy High School in Iowa, I am constantly engrossed in activities. I am Vice President of Best Buddies Club, Treasurer of Key Club, Science Roadshow Facilitator, and Student Volunteer Coordinator of the Regional Future Cities 4000 Competition. I serve as a member of the Academic Decathlon and math teams. I also volunteer in the community, serve on the Iowa Youth POWER Board, and try to make a difference in the lives of others. I plan to study marine biology, among numerous other subjects, and help break down barriers for females.