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Piyali Dasgupta
Last updated 28 Dec 2016 . 14 min read

Emergence Of The Young Indian Women Scientists: Anwesha & Arunima


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Close your eyes and imagine a scientist?

What is the first image which pops up in your mind? Is it a very serious faced, white lab coat wearing, bespectacled, nerdy and geeky guy?

Well, somehow the image of a woman doesn’t ever seem to be anyone’s first “go to image”. To top it all, it can never be a girl who is Indian, fun, vibrant, uber cool, creative and has a life of her own.

The report Women in Science and Technology in Asia in 2015 by The Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) tells us, “In India, the fraction of women with successful careers in science and those who achieve top positions in research and/or administration is very small, independent of discipline. Of the 25-30% Ph.D.’s, the proportion in faculty is between 15 and 20%, and at higher levels the number further drops. Women heads of laboratories, science departments of the government, or as members of governing or advisory bodies are rare. Women participate in a major way in teaching science and mathematics in schools as well as in colleges, but the percentage of women on the faculty of the high profile institutes like TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), the IITs, or IISc is about 10-12%.” Apart from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) the percentage of women faculty is woefully low.”

It further elucidates, the key factors for such poor representation of Indian women in science are compounded and regressive.  Firstly, parents, on average, tend not to spend on their daughter’s higher education in India. Secondly, there is a rampant gender discrimination and disparity at work and thirdly patriarchy dictates, women have to take a back seat in their career when they get married and start a family of their own. Women are supposedly meant to care for their kids and kitchen, while men go out to work and shine in their professional glory.  

These figures need to change.

Here are two kickass, young and millennial Indian women scientists leading by example. They are phenomenally brilliant at their work, while they are also divas, love travelling, are insanely fun, have a zest for life and love.

Anwesha Bose, 25 years, was born in Calcutta. When she was 13 years she moved to New Delhi with her family and finished high school here. During school days, besides her regular studies, there was emphasis on expressive arts like theatre, spoken skills and sports. She got her first class honors degree from LSR, Delhi University in the field of Statistics, because of her love of math. She went on to attend graduate school at IIT Bombay’s Department of Mathematics, to study Applied Statistics and Informatics. During her masters education she spent 2 months in the Middle East (Kuwait) interning with one of the largest and reputed business house “Alshaya”
to set up their Data Science team. Currently she is employed by the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter, as the PH.D candidate and researcher, at the Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands. Her research work is in the field of soft matter physics, with special focus on understanding the physics of new materials.


She describes herself as, “I am both lazy as well as a perfectionist. I am quiet but also someone who likes to interact with many people. I love to travel to new places, but also stay inside for days. I don’t think I am a nerd, but I devour Harry Potter and Monty Python. I am a racket sport enthusiast. I don’t think I am any particular “type”.

In her current project she is working with new materials with interesting properties, which have the potential to change how the rubber/plastics/biomaterials industry presently works. It involves innovation in the field of soft materials, which are application oriented. She loves the theoretical work, as it creates the foundation – ground level simplistic answers. It helps acquire the real picture behind “why something works, the way it does”. Since materials are the fundamental building blocks of almost everything – the impact is immeasurable. The work is is at a global level.

Arunima Murgai, 26 years, works as a doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Genetics in the vibrant city of Berlin. She focuses on developmental biology and genetics, and says “I can proudly say that I am a female scientist”. Before this, she pursued a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Delhi in Microbiology and followed it up with a Master’s in Medical and Molecular Biosciences from Newcastle University, U.K.  

She describes herself as, “I feel that I am constantly growing and evolving as a person. Each new experience, new encounter and every new travel that I have undertaken has been instrumental in shaping me into the person I am today. As a child, I was shy and timid soul, but I moved out of my comfort-zone and delved into the unknown. This turned me into the confident young woman, I am today. Travel, colors of sunset, reading Humans of New York or watching an elderly couple hold hands inspire me. I am a strong supporter of Wildlife conservation, and worked with a youth-based NGO called ‘Tiger Protection Group” as a creative writer. I love Science, and I am constantly amazed by the intricacies and perfection of biological life.”

A developmental biologist and a geneticist; her current work focuses on elucidating a novel role of a particular gene in creating and maintaining muscles in a developing embryo and during muscle regeneration after injury. She conducts research with the end goal of finding out new ways to push muscle re-growth in people who undergo extensive muscle injury, for example, athletes.

How did you find the scientist in you?

Anwesha – She believes it is an on-going process and anyone who has a questioning mind, loves rational and logical argument will appreciate the premise of scientific knowledge.

She explains, “The marvels of technical progress is all around us, and I believe that pursuing scientific education helps me to understand my environment/how things work, in a better way. While is it very common for girls to be stereotyped as ‘less-capable’ in the sciences, yet I think my teachers and parents have always encouraged me to pursue the talent they saw in me. They have helped me to find the scientist in me. The scientist in me is actually someone who pursues knowledge to find answers to difficult challenges. Everyone qualifies to be a scientist; it is just that we solve problems of different kinds.”

Arunima – She narrates, “Since my early days in school, Biology for me was passion rather than just a taught subject at school. I was fascinated by the human body and how perfectly the body machine works and functions. Back in the early years of school I was instilled to think that loving biology equals becoming a doctor, which I later realized was untrue. I grew up watching the medical TV drama series “Grey’s Anatomy”, for me this was a huge source of inspiration. I loved the idea of being a miracle worker, the power of being able to help people and explore life. Back then I envisioned ‘scientist’ as an intelligent group of individuals in their big white lab coats, shaggy hair and an eccentric personality.  However, towards the end of school something changed in me, and I wanted to discover Biology at a micro level, and figure out the answers that weren’t obvious to the naked eye.”

What is your inspiration behind your work?

Anwesha – Her inspiration is not any person or institution. It is a combination of many success stories that great people have written over ages, which is why we can look at living on the mars one day. She tells, “The single-minded pursuit of scientific truth has the ability to rewrite the future. That is my greatest inspiration.”

Arunima - Over the years she has discovered a very different meaning of being a scientist. It is fun, one’s own play zone to brainstorm, come up with new ideas, test those ideas and explores the unknowns of the world. She seeks inspiration and motivation in small things of life. Every challenge brings out the problem solver in her.

She says, “My workplace is like my second home and it has a very relaxed environment where work goes hand-in-hand with having fun. Our coffee room is always stocked with chocolates, snacks, and the occasional birthday cakes, in addition to the ubiquitous German kaffee. But my favorite memories are usually associated with me and my colleagues treating ourselves now and then to beer at the balcony while watching the sunset.”  

What has been the biggest challenge in your life and how has it shaped you as a person and a scientist?

Anwesha - She shares, “I have had many episodes of pressing family issues where I have struggled to keep myself together. Mostly during my school days, I have had to combat the pressures of a being a single child and with other abusive relationships. However, with every challenge I have learnt patience and to adapt myself constantly. These situations have helped me to be a better scientist – because the work requires lots of efforts and constant evolution of thought process. My ability for quick thinking helps me not only at work but also in my day-to-day life in the Netherlands.”

The ability to adapt, adjust and communicate to new cultures and people, while keeping a strong sense of her own identity makes for her strength.  

Arunima – She tells, “The last 3 years of my life have been some of the most rewarding, yet the most challenging years of my life. Working in a laboratory with erratic and long working hours is a laborious task. Every day present new obstacles, the sum of which can become extremely frustrating and demotivating. Every road-block had been pivotal in my personal and professional growth. I delved into my work as a naïve 22 years old, and now I am almost 26, through this journey I have harnessed a number of skills including time management, self-motivation, conflict resolution and negotiation.”

Her love for people, nature, wildlife, giving nature and coupled with an optimistic take on life has turned out to be her biggest strength.  

An IPS investigation reveals, “ Women scientists are sidelined by male-centric selection committees for awards and for appointments to research and development (R&D) positions in government funded organisations.A gender-wise breakup of data related to three important national awards – SSB, Young Scientist and National Bioscience award – shows a consistent marginalisation of female scientists and technologists. There were very few females among the recipients of the Young Scientist awards since it was instituted in 1987. Of the total 133 people who won the award up to 2009, only 17 were females. Equally the National Bio Science awards have been prejudicial to women. Between 1999-2008, 70 scientists received the award which carries a cash prize of 100,000 rupees (2,200 dollars) and a research grant of 300,000 rupees (6,400 dollars) per year for a maximum of three years. Only 10 women scientists were chosen.”

Is it tough being a woman in a science world?

Anwesha – She confirms, “Yes it is tough, only because it is still considered as a great deal for a woman to be a scientist. Still I hear that a woman has been hired because she is a woman, there are prejudices against them.”

Arunima – She elaborates, ‘There are numerous reasons why the number of women reduces higher up in the hierarchy. Reasons like; long and erratic working hours, constant pressure to start a family, financial instability and lack of considerable support to women with children, makes it tough being a woman in science.”

What do you have to say to young women like you who are aspiring to become a scientist?

Anwesha – She believes it is vital to work smarter, because harder will only get one to a certain point. Personal grooming is essential, so that it builds strong self confidence so much so, that one is able to communicate with anyone; may it be the restaurant or the white house!  

With that not to fake one’s own abilities because someone will always see through it soon. Remain true to one’s unique self and stay away from the know-it-alls.

Arunima - She tells, that just remember to keep going. When the road gets tougher, have the courage to gather your stuff, stand up strong and just keep going.

Take risks, be adventurous, move out of the comfort zone and meet as many new people as possible. You have the power to be who you want to be in life. She also shares, “Every time I feel low, or things get too hard- I look for a new beginning. A new day or a new week or a new project. I always try to be hopeful and optimistic- there is always something better around the corner when you least expect it.”

Parents need to instill the love of science in their daughter, help them dream and aspire to be a scientist and not just become someone else’s wife and more importantly rather than saving for their marriage, invest in their education.  

At workplace, women need to stand up against all kinds of discrimination and not back off when they have a family. Running the family and home has to be a joint collaborative effort by both parties.

Lastly, women need to understand one can have it all. Yes, they need to believe they can.

 

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Piyali Dasgupta
A writer and an educator with expertise in experiential learning,capacity building, counselling & content development. A feminist, wit addict and time/life traveler. She loves trees, water bodies, vintage,cooking and arts

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