The lives of female scientists in India are being chronicled online
More than 100 researchers describe their work and the struggles they face, including gender bias and achieving a positive work–life balance.
Two science journalists in India continue to build on The Life of Science, a multimedia website that they designed and launched in 2016 to highlight the research and lives of more than 100 women in the country.
The site, founded and run by Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra, aims to chronicle the scientists’ experiences in the lab and field. Jayaraj and Dogra, who work full-time on the site, compile feature stories, blogposts, podcasts, video and picture features about the women, whose work spans the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The journalists met in 2014 in Bangalore, while working on a now-defunct children’s science magazine. When this shut down in 2015, they decided to explore their mutual interest in science communication. Dogra had already planned to travel the country on a brief busman’s holiday, and visited the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Kalimpong to talk to women who worked there. Meanwhile, Jayaraj was interviewing geophysicist Kusala Rajendran at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and biophysicist Aruna Dhathathreyan at the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai.
When the two journalists conferred about the information they had gathered, they decided to create a website to publicize the stories. “We were curious about the science under way in laboratories in our back yard,” says Jayaraj about the site’s early days. “We also wanted to break the stereotype of the scientist as an old male person.” As the two began writing full-time, they crowdfunded for their work on the Indian platform BitGiving.
Jayaraj and Dogra have since launched a second campaign to fund their work on the site, which includes compiling some of the content into two books.
Each scientist’s story offers a glimpse into her world — from the physical environment in which she lives and works, to the nature of her research and how she reached her present position. “I particularly like how the narratives let us see the woman behind the science and scientific journey,” says Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, who is featured on the site.
The site showcases India’s diverse research landscape. Some of the scientists work with state-of-the-art equipment such as dilution refrigerators, confocal microscopes and high-performance computing clusters; others make the most of sparse funds and scant supplies.
Yet the stories’ common threads resonate with many others who aspire to, or are navigating, a scientific career: the struggles to balance family life and career, and to counter bias and stereotypes.
The interviewees offer ideas for ameliorating some of the struggles, such as establishing campus child-care facilities and promoting female scientists into leadership positions. “Nothing on this scale has ever been done before,” says Vaidya. She hopes that the site can help bring together those who are profiled, as well as other women who work in STEM in India.
Jayaraj and Dogra continue to find more women to profile. Viewer numbers and other metrics are not available, but the developers intend to continue the site in perpetuity. Indian online news sites including The Wire and Firstpost have syndicated some of the articles.
Those profiled are delighted at the chance to connect with readers. Number theorist Kaneenika Sinha at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune has received e-mails from parents seeking suggestions for training their mathematically talented child, junior scientists who plan to repatriate and want ‘insider’ information, and students with questions about her work.
Jayaraj and Dogra are experimenting with different formats, including photo stories, cartoons and podcasts. “We see The Life of Science not really as an entity or ‘our’ project,” the two say, “but what it stands for — and that is the voices of women in science.”
Q&A: Living and working in India
In this article, Puthusserickal A. Hassan discusses balancing research and home life in India. What do you do? I am a full-time research scientist working in the field of self-assembled materials. Currently, our focus is to understand the role of antifreeze protein mimics in sustaining self-assembly at sub-zero temperatures. My research objective is to understand how small molecules undergo association in various solvents or experimental conditions, leading to an entire gamut of structures with nanometre-scale features. Looking at the structure-property correlations of such colloidal assemblies gives an insight into the role of intermolecular interactions in governing the microstructure. Many natural systems rely on such intermolecular associations to develop macroscopic objects to carry out specific functions or even to modulate their existence in extreme conditions. Puthusserickal A. Hassan Head, Nanotherapeutics and Biosensors Section, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Do you enjoy it? Why? In my opinion, research is something you explore using your brain and sophisticated tools to understand how various processes happen in nature. Each experiment is a learning experience and gives new information which is hitherto unknown. By seeing new results, I feel like a child who gets to play with a new toy every day. What was your earliest career ambition? My ambition was to become a teacher with resources for research. During my graduate days, I wondered if I could see, one day, organic molecules the way that they are depicted in textbooks. Later, I realised that no one saw the molecules, but that the structures were deduced from a combination of different spectroscopic tools. What are some of the challenges in your job? The challenge today is that most of the scientific problems we try to address require interdisciplinary expertise. You need to expand your knowledge base by cutting across disciplines to understand how things work in nature. How do you deal with those challenges? Collaboration with experts is the best way to meet this challenge. It is not only the advanced instruments you use that are important, but also the proper utilisation and interpretation of data, which needs specialised learning across disciplines. Through discussions and collaborations with physicists and biologists, many challenges can be tackled. How does being based in India affect the way you work?< Research becomes successful once it is translated into products on the market. Despite having a good number of skilled workers, Indian industry lacks disruptive innovation. I feel that this is primarily because Indian industries do not invest enough in completely new products or processes, fearing commercial failure. For example, most pharma companies focus on the supply of generic drugs and very few attempts are being made at drug development. By incentivising industrial R&D in high-risk areas and supporting industry-academia joint projects, the transition from lab to land can be realised in many niche areas. What advice would you have for others trying to work in a similar sort of environment? It is a wonderful experience to explore new things in science. My advice is that one should first become a master in a specific area of interest. This mastery can be gained by nurturing a new idea that is just reported. This will provide the opportunity to gain knowledge about the tools and techniques needed for the specific problem. The next step is to think beyond what is reported. Speculate on an idea and see if you can prove that by using the tools you have acquired. When you prove an idea that was previously unknown, the excitement is unimaginable. What do you love about living and working in India? I love the culture of the place where I grew up. Living in India helps me to connect with my close relatives. Balancing my professional life with family, parents and relatives has been a top priority for me and being in India has made this possible. What's your top career tip to younger colleagues? First, assess your ability to explore new things in science. There may be several hurdles and failures along the way to cracking one problem. But the excitement you get once you resolve the issue is phenomenal. If you love exploring things that you have not come across before, go for research. What else would you say to others trying to build a scientific career in India? India is a hub of opportunity and it needs scientific solutions to help tackle many of its local problems – water purification, affordable healthcare and low carbon emission technologies, to name a few. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for young researchers. By addressing these challenges, you can help create an impact in society. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.
Q&A: Navigating academia and industry in India
What do you do? Do you enjoy it? Why? I am a doctoral candidate at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka. My dissertation focuses on intelligent systems for predictive modelling in financial applications. Aside from my PhD research topic, I enjoy working on problems that have the potential to make an impact through different aspects of research such as social, business and technology. Through my PhD programme, I have moulded research skills to work on funded projects or serve as independent consultant. What were your early career ambitions? After not performing well at school, my parents suggested that I take up a course at an ITI (Industrial Training Institute). This meant that I would be a skilled technician in an organisation after graduating. However, I decided to study for a Diploma in Electronics and Communication Engineering, which is technically a higher degree, as I did not want to limit my career prospects. The initial semesters were tough, but later I picked up with the help of learning in peer student groups. How did you make the decision between pursuing a career in academia or industry? Once I completed my diploma, thoughts of applying for jobs surfaced. However, at that time in India, a new scheme was introduced whereby diploma holders could apply and join the second year of an undergraduate programme. I stayed at the same institute where I had studied for my diploma and was awarded a BTech in Information Technology in 2007. Around this time, the economic recession was prevailing, the dot-com bubble had mostly subsided and the industry in India was changing rapidly. I felt that my place was not in industry, as I did not believe I had the excellent coding skills it required. I took up my first job as a lecturer on a contractual basis at Cochin University Engineering College at Kuttanad, which is a state-funded public university. After my first stint as a lecturer, I personally felt that academia provided a better comfort zone and space for professional growth. What were some of the challenges on your journey? Most of colleges where I worked already started to regulate for more qualified (PG/PhD) teaching staff. I was interviewed and received a job offer from Amrita University in Quilon in early 2008. But in that year, a breakthrough occurred while I was trying to qualify for GATE (Graduate Aptitude for Engineering), a national exam that provide chances to pursue Master’s and PhD programmes. More recently, this exam has been a criterion for selection for some positions public sector companies. I received a strong grade and rank, which I don’t think I would have got without the exposure and subject knowledge I’d acquired during my undergraduate training. What did you do next? After unsuccessful applications to graduate schools for Master’s programmes, I worked for a short period as technical staff at an institute for a government funded project on digitisation of a library with nationwide reach. Later in 2009, I applied for an MTech (Master of Technology) programme at a state public university and was selected for a teaching assistance scholarship. As part of the dissertation project work, I applied for an internship at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization). Even without support from the university or a scholarship from ISRO, I worked on a two-semester project on the development of a software tool prototype for space research applications, which resulted in a related IEEE publication. How does being based in India affect the way you work? There have not been many drastic changes in India, from academic point of view, in recent years. There are constant checks and performance reviews either in government posts or private institutions. To an extent, although private institutions offer higher salaries, they also demand a higher workload as part of accreditations that may actually work positively in long run. What advice would you have for others trying to work in a similar sort of environment? There can be a sense of lethargy and inertia certain positions. The best policy is to keep searching for grants for funded projects, extend your professional skills, such as research reviewing and talking at conference and workshops. Undertake student support programmes like mentoring and community initiatives for spreading knowledge. What do you love about living and working in India? In my case, the government funded my research and hence I feel a sense of moral duty to give back to my nation. India has potential for growth both scientifically and economically; at least historically that has been evident. What’s your top career tip to younger colleagues? Stay focused and keep your eyes open for higher education and research opportunities. Reach out to your seniors, teachers and peers for advice. What else would you say to others trying to build a scientific career in India? From my experience, joining the best-ranked institute does not necessarily mean you will receive top training or skills, unless you have a true passion for your research. Smart work and motivation can instil students with the confidence to perform well and be recognised in academia. Make use of generous government scholarships as well as privately funded schemes.
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