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Lehigh's international tapestry: A career spirals upward into the joy of teaching

Everything was looking up for Nandita Das’ investment career three years ago.
      After earning an M.B.A. from the
University of Saskatchewan in Canada, Das had worked a year for a subsidiary of Mackenzie Financial Corp. in Toronto. She had qualified for her Canadian investment manager designation, and was working towards her Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, the final level of which she recently passed.
      In short, she was rising up the career ladder.
      But Das’s husband, Ratan, an electrical engineer, was working in Florida for ABB, a multinational provider of automation and electrical products and services for industry. Traveling to see each other was making the couple and their daughter, Diya, then 7, feel like "perpetual honeymooners," she says.
      And Nandita’s long-distance phone bill was skyrocketing.
      "I was not so much of a careerist that I did not wonder what I would leave behind when I died," says Das, who speaks English with the clipped and jovial tones – and versatile vocabulary – common to many natives of India. "And I did not want to leave behind a daughter who did not know her father and who had never had her mother and father together as a real family."
      Around this time, Ratan Das was transferred to Allentown. The move opened up a new opportunity for Nandita – if she was willing to take the risk.
      "It was a very difficult choice to come to the U.S.," Nandita says. "I did not have a U.S. work permit. But when I came here during a house-hunting trip, we went to Nawab’s [an Indian restaurant on Fourth Street] and I saw this big university a block away."
      Das checked out the university’s web site, gathered up her nerve, and came to Lehigh to talk to James A. Dearden, professor of economics, about doing a
Ph.D. in economics in Lehigh’s College of Business and Economics.
She found out it was too late to apply for financial aid.
      "I had to decide whether to wait a year or pay my own way," Das says. "So I enrolled – it was a risk because it was very expensive, but it was better than waiting."
      After a semester as a self-paying student, Das secured a teaching assistantship and a tuition waiver from the university. The financial savings were significant, but not as much as a discovery Das was able to make about herself.
      "I realized I love teaching," she says. "The satisfaction I get from teaching cannot be compared to any promotions I ever received in industry or replaced by any amount of money."
      In three years, Das has taught introductory courses in economics and finance as well as an advanced economics course in money and banking. Last summer, as a visiting professor, she taught a course in statistics.
      As a teacher, Das has earned a reputation for dedication and thoroughness, and for grading students as much for consistency as for getting the correct results when solving problems. Last spring, she won the university’s Arthur E. Humphrey Teaching Assistant Award.
      "Nandita takes the time to help students who are not even in her section," said one student nominator. "She answers all our questions, gives practical problems and tests, and offers evening review sessions," said others. "She is intelligent, caring and generous."
      Das spices her classes with examples from her career in industry, which, in addition to her year with the Mackenzie Financial Corp. subsidiary, includes eight years with India’s
National Dairy Development Board in Gujarat, Bombay and Delhi. Starting in research and development with dairy products, Das rose to become quality control officer in NDDB’s edible oils section. She was charged with preventing food adulteration, and she became known as a strict enforcer of regulations who was willing to work around the clock when a crisis arose.
      For her Ph.D. dissertation, Das is charting relatively unexplored territory, studying the diseconomies of scale in the management of hedge funds. More fraught with risk than mutual funds, hedge funds are open only to accredited investors with at least $1 million in wealth, and are not advertised to the general public. Das’ work is being supported by a Warren York Fellowship from Lehigh and a research grant from the Foundation for Managed Derivatives Research in Washington, D.C.
      And she is being advised by Larry W. Taylor, professor of economics, whose help and honest opinions, Das says, are invaluable.
      After she receives her Ph.D., Das hopes to continue teaching.
      She knows herself well enough to be prepared for any contingency.
      "I have never decided my steps deliberately," she says. "But it seems that something always comes along and pushes me in the right direction."

--Kurt Pfitzer


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