By Tom Gresham
Growing up in Chester, Virginia, Tara Ram Mohan was the kind of kid who went to a lot of workshops at Lowe’s and Home Depot. As a senior at Maggie Walker High School in Richmond, she worked in the BEST (Bone Engineering Science Technology) Lab at the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering. She knew that engineering interested her as a possible career, but she didn’t know what direction that interest might take. She knew whatever she did, though, she wanted to feel as though she had a purpose.
“I’ve always wanted to find my impact,” she said.
As a student at VCU, Ram Mohan, who graduates in May, has made time for four internships, membership in three student organizations, a yearlong project with Bank of America, and, most recently, a semesterlong study abroad trip to South Korea – all while pursuing three majors in computer science in the College of Engineering and operations research and mathematical sciences (with a concentration in general mathematical sciences) in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Through those experiences and her perpetual search for new perspectives and challenges, Ram Mohan has broadened her skill set and gained a sharper focus on what she hopes to accomplish, while keeping the possibilities of what lies ahead wide open.
“There is a lot of opportunity for me now to work in different industries and in different contexts and to be able to explore,” said Ram Mohan, who also is a member of the Honors College. “I really like to learn. That's one of my top priorities in moving forward in my career. I never want to be stifled in a job where I'm doing something that I'm already comfortable with. I always want to be challenged.”
Last summer, Ram Mohan participated in her fourth internship. This one was with Starlink, a project of SpaceX. The internship led to a full-time job that Ram Mohan will start after graduation. Starlink provides satellite internet services, and Ram Mohan is excited about the chance to improve internet access to remote and less-developed areas, noting that the lack of a reliable internet connection can worsen education and wealth disparities and limit upward mobility both abroad and in the United States.
She was struck by how committed to the goals of Starlink its team members were.
“I appreciate that this mission is something that I truly believe in and want to be a part of,” Ram Mohan said. “I’m very excited about the opportunity.”
Ram Mohan’s internships were an integral part of her experience at VCU, even helping her to refine her academic interests. It was during her first internship at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond that Ram Mohan decided she wanted to pursue a major – in addition to computer science and mathematical sciences – that was data oriented and had a business-centric focus. She found the operations research major, which is geared toward solving real-world problems through optimization, and added it to her curriculum.
“It was perfect,” she said.
Ram Mohan’s internships have aptly complemented her academic interests. At the Federal Reserve, “I really came to understand how software is embedded in every part of our lives, and I got to see the impact of that,” she said. “Even though I was just an intern, I could see the importance of what I was doing and what that meant for the larger public.”
Ram Mohan then interned with DocuSign at a time during the COVID-19 pandemic when the company’s electronic document and signature services were of heightened importance. Next, Ram Mohan served an internship at local nonprofit Sports Backers, focusing on data analytics. In addition to her internships, Ram Mohan also worked with Bank of America for about a year on a machine-learning project, giving her yet another perspective and new skills.
Ram Mohan said her work opportunities grew out of the education she has received at VCU. Her internship with the Fed, in fact, happened when Ram Mohan’s participation in the RamHacks hackathon as a freshman caught the bank’s attention.
Ram Mohan said each of her academic programs has been “extremely supportive and encouraging to me.”
“Because of that, I’ve gotten the internships and the job experiences that have set me up for success,” Ram Mohan said.
At VCU, Ram Mohan also has been a part of the Center for Health and Human Rights, the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Women in Mathematics (where she currently serves as president). In each case, Ram Mohan gravitated toward the groups because of their emphasis on community building. She said the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Women in Mathematics, in particular, represented a chance for Ram Mohan to help create an open and supportive community for female students in those fields, she said.
“I’ve had some great opportunities because of VCU and created a strong network for myself, and I want to do what I can to help other women at VCU, particularly in fields where women are underrepresented,” Ram Mohan said. “That’s really my goal – to help people have a similar type of support and experience that I’ve had. I was able to develop strong relationships with my peers and others at VCU and also with the larger community. That has helped me get where I am.”
Most recently, Ram Mohan opted to delay graduation and spend the spring semester studying in South Korea. She recognized the opportunity the experience would bring for her to expand her education and widen her perspective.
It’s part of her insistence that she will not have a view of the world that is limited and “sheltered.”
“I think that would hinder my growth, and it would hinder how I can understand others and contribute to society,” Ram Mohan said.
Ram Mohan’s determination to pack so much into her VCU experience is a result of that sense of purpose that Ram Mohan has sought since she was a child. Ram Mohan said that inclination originated with her parents and their efforts for her. Ram Mohan was born in India, but her family moved to Bahrain and then the United States when she was young.
“My parents had to leave all of their family in India, the people that they grew up with, and so I want to make sure that my parents’ sacrifice was worth something,” Ram Mohan said. “I want to contribute to the world because of what they did for me.”