When Azita Owlia, PhD ’84, traveled from her home of Tehran, Iran to visit family in Connecticut in 1978, she didn’t expect to stay – let alone to go on to earn a BS, MS and PhD in chemistry at UConn.
But when the senior vice president at Bayer Material Science returned to Storrs last week for the first time in 23 years, her heart swelled with nostalgia for her former home.
“It was such a homecoming for me,” Owlia said. “I came over the hill and saw the dairy farm, and then I instantly remembered what everything looked like. It’s been such a long time, but every time I hear people talk about UConn, I have such a sense of pride.”
Owlia returned to UConn as the first recipient of the chemistry department’s Distinguished Alumni award, presented by her graduate adviser, Professor Jim Rusling. The award recognizes Owlia’s achievements in the field of chemistry and materials science, and also as a trailblazer: she is the first woman vice president at Bayer.
“Science was always the most natural subject for me,” says Owlia. “It’s all about creative problem-solving and process thinking.”
Owlia spent the first two years of her college career in a joint program with Hartford College for Women, Trinity College and the University of Hartford, where she improved her English and learned the ropes of being a college student in the United States. She then transferred to UConn, where she met Rusling and began an independent study with him that would carry over into her research.
“Jim was a really special as an adviser – he was good at picking up on where your strengths are,” remembers Owlia. “I had tremendous experiences with him here at UConn.”
After earning her PhD, Owlia took a job as a chemist at Bayer in Houston, Texas, and earned a business degree in the evenings. Now, more than a decade later, she’s based in Hong Kong but spends most of her time traveling for the company, which does $50 billion in sales yearly.
Although she admits that for much of her life she’s been a woman in a man’s world, Owlia has never seen her situation as having to do with gender.
“I love diversity, and Bayer is very diverse. I take pride in that,” she says. “It’s not really about being male or female because everyone comes from such different backgrounds. And we naturally find areas of commonality with other people.”
Owlia also spoke with chemistry graduate students during her visit and encouraged them to follow the advice that she always gives herself.
“I tell students that they should be open-minded,” she says. “I didn’t have every step planned in my life. When you have an open mind, you expose yourself to things you never thought you’d find.”
But despite all her education and business experience, Owlia jokes that UConn taught her one of the more important lessons she’s learned in life.
“I didn’t know you had to drop a course if you didn’t want to keep taking it,” she laughs. “So I just stopped going to the class. You can guess how that turned out.”