Leading the way in telecommunications
When Veena Rawat, PhD’73, retired from the federal public service this spring after a distinguished 36-year career, she went right back to work – but this time in the private sector, still doing what she loves. An internationally recognized expert in the field of radio frequency spectrum management, Veena took a job with Research In Motion (RIM) as Vice-President, Advanced Technology Team. She also serves as RIM’s Ambassador to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations.
Veena’s doctoral research at Queen’s was on creating optimal communications in remote locations. She wanted to test specific types of cable to see how they transmitted radio signals in underground mines and tunnels. Her supervisor, Dr. John Beal, helped her gain access to data from a Northern Ontario nickel mine. There was just one problem. As a woman, Veena wasn’t allowed to enter an active mine. Professor Beal and a male research assistant had to collect the data on location for her.
The research completed, Veena successfully defended her thesis, “Unorthodox transmission lines for continuous access guided communications.” It was at her Convocation ceremony in 1973 that she heard herself described as the first woman to receive a PhD from Queen’s Department of Electrical Engineering.
This kind of “first” was not something Veena had ever dwelled on. She had been the only woman in her undergraduate class at the University of Rajasthan in India and again when doing her Master’s degree. She did know she was unusual in that she was one-half of the only married couple in Electrical Engineering, with husband Surendra, PhD’72.
Veena’s research at Queen’s set the stage for her future career in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). In 1974, she joined Industry Canada. There, she worked on programs related to access to spectrum for new radio services and related regulatory issues.
She and Surendra raised their two children, Vishi, Meds’02, who is now a critical care physician, and Vineet who, like his parents, pursued his PhD in Electrical Engineering.
In 2003, Veena joined the Communications Research Centre (CRC), an agency of Industry Canada and Canada’s largest public sector ICT research and commercialization institution. The following year, she became President of the CRC, the first woman to hold this position. Under her leadership, the CRC extended broadband services to remote and rural areas, improved search and rescue satellite-aided tracking, and developed the world’s first Wi-Fi-based cognitive radio-development platform.
Promoting Canadian innovation and working with international partners has been an important part of Veena’s work. In 2003, she became the first woman to chair the ITU’s World Radio Conference. In this role, she worked with 192 delegates on formal resolutions to bind all nations on allocations of channels for various communications. John Beal recalls chatting with his former student at that time. She made an offhand comment about her work on a committee. “I realized that Veena was chairing a world conference,” he says with pride. For her successful leadership of the conference, Veena received a gold medal from the Secretary-General of the ITU.
From the start, promoting opportunities for women in science and technology has been important to her. When she was starting out, Veena had no formal mentoring. “I had what I call ‘silent mentoring’,” she says. “I learned by example from my colleagues.” At Industry Canada, she implemented their university recruitment program to promote public service opportunities for female engineers. These days, she does her best to mentor and inspire both women and men in the field she loves. Veena urges engineering students to take a global view of the job market. “Students shouldn’t think just of opportunities in Canada,” she says. “They should search out national and international experience. There are so many opportunities in different fields when you do an engineering degree! You can stay on a technical track, following your specialized area of expertise, or you can pursue a business development side, or you can do your PhD and pursue an academic research-type career. It opens up so many avenues to you.”
Over the years, Veena has racked up a number of firsts and collected a number of awards for her work, including a 2011 Public Service Award of Excellence. And what is she most proud of in her stellar career so far?
“The people I’ve worked with,” she says. “I have been very fortunate. And when I say people I work with, I mean everywhere, the stakeholders and my international contacts. It has been an amazing experience.”