Inspiring, informative, insightful.., meet some of India s most celebrated female scientists. What led them to choose their particular field? Who encouraged them? What were their struggles? What are their sources of inspiration? What are the key questions at the cutting edge of modern research? Why choose a life in science at all? From astrophysics to zoology, learn what it takes to make a career in science.
Ram Ramaswamy is vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad.
Rohini Godbole is professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and choir of the Women in Science panel of the Indian Academy of Sciences.
Mandakini Dubey is a freelance editor who has taught writing and literature for many years.
Some years ago, two of us, Rohini Godbole and Ram Ramaswamy, edited a collection of nearly 100 biographical and autobiographical essays called Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India. The title was inspired by the Lilavati, a treatise in which the great twelfth-century mathematician Bhaskaracharya addresses a number of mathematical problems to a young girl. The story goes —though this is just speculation — that the book was written for his daughter, lilavati, to teach her mathematics.
Though we know little about Lilavati, her legacy lives on in the women scientists of India, and the example they embody for countless other young women looking to find their own way in the world of science. ft is for these younger readers that Ram and Rohini thought of bringing out a new anthology, one that would offer an inspiring glimpse into how Indian women scientists have forged lives of discovery for themselves.The third member of our team, Mandakini Dubey, joined us to oversee this transition to the book that you are now reading.
The 24 chapters of The Girl’s Guide to a Life In Science are based on selected essays from Lilavati’s Daughters. In choosing the list of contributors for this volume, we were guided by the wish to represent the diversity of disciplines and backgrounds that together make up the story of Indian women in science today. Since the collection is intended for school and college students who bring their own curiosity and know’edge of science to the book, we asked each of the authors to contribute additional material in which they discuss the questions and research that constitute their main work. Each chapter begins with a short description — called ‘know-it-ology’ — of the particular discipline under discussion, and includes additional information boxes that enlarge on the key catalysts that led each scientist to her chosen field and the questions that continue to fascinate her.
We are grateful to the authors for responding so generously to the demands of this revision process, for giving freely of their time and taking the trouble to communicate the often complicated nature of their work in clearly understandable terms. We are also deeply thankful to the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, and Zubaan Books for their support of the project. Ram Ramaswamy, Rohini Godbole and Mandakini Dubey
One of the few toys I had when I was a small child was a plastic ark in bold primary colours. No animals going in two-by-two no Noah, no Noah’s wife. Just an ark which I was able to sail over the concrete floors of our house in the Ethiopian town of Harar, where we lived at the time. It is unlikely that I would have had an acquaintance with the myth of the Flood. I had run away from thc local Maltese missionary school within a few days of being enrollec there, and had been granted the freedom never to return. So, I spent my days at home, blissfully alone.
One morning, finding that the deck of my ark had somehow been bent out of shape, I first cried a little and then set aboul trying to squeeze it back into its frame, and eventually succeeded.: showed my mother and she smiled in delight and congratulated me
“Perhaps you will grow up to be engineer,” she said. I did not grow up to be an engineer, and indeed never exhibited any further aptitude for it. But there was a magic in thinking that the rest of my life could be composed of such utterly satisfying experiences as fitting a deck back onto my toy ark, even as a grown person. And something of that feeling comes back to me whenever I find a new solution (not necessarily the right one) to a scientific conundrum, and each time I know I should thank my mother for reinforcing the thrill I felt in fixing that little ark and opening my young mind up to the possibility of spending my life solving puzzles and understanding how things worked.
Many of the stories you will encounter in this book will bring tenderly to light the role played by our parents in encouraging us to pursue scientific careers: mothers and fathers, supporting and enabling us, involving us in their own quest to enjoy and make some sense of the natural world, instilling within us the courage to follow our goals and dreams, to take real risks and to live with the consequences.
I have spoken of my mother, who always had an aptitude and a regard for mathematics and science, but my father—who generally disdained both disciplines — had as great a role to play in my decision to become a scientist. He was an extraordinary man who produced in his lifetime many poems and novels and critical essays in film and theatre. He distinguished himself in the history of pre-colonial urbanisation in Africa and was an inspiring and devoted lecturer to his students at Calcutta University. It would take many pages to explain the profound influence he had on my life, and yet the truth is that he was usually bored when I tried to communicate to him my extreme excitement at having realized, for instance, how DNA actually worked. He had a lazy abhorrence of science which he justified by equating it with technology which for him was the root of all the world’s ills. Within my father’s companionship, I became drawn to the arts — music, cinema, theatre and, of course, literature — and for a good long time, it was writing that came to fill most of my spare hours.
After Ethiopia, we spent a few more years abroad, returning eventually to Calcutta in 1976 when I was eleven years old. By this time, I was writing quite furiously — long novels imbued with experiences I had never had — the men in them all seemed to live quiet, unfulfilled lives, while women had grand adventures but then usually met with uncomfortable ends. I had no interest cit all in science and mathematics.
I was enrolled at first at a school called La Martiniere, with a long and distinguished tradition of offering young ladies a good private education. However, in 1979, walking home with my father from the Calcutta Book Fair, I made (aided and abetted by him) a decision to attend instead an experimental school by the name of Patha Bhavan which had been founded in the 196os by a group of intellectuals, many of whom he knew very well.
It was at Patha Bhavan that I first began to see in science many of the attractions of literature, and the enthusiasm of my physics and mathematics teachers for their subjects filtered through and shaped me. I began to spend long hours reading for myself about science, and again that thrill arrived, the thrill of ‘seeing’ or thinking that one could see.
Fate, in its most extravagant form, led me to Princeton University for my undergraduate studies. I chose at first to major in physics, but was quickly diverted towards a new field that came to my attention — one that involved the application of mathematics to the study of biological processes. Within this vast and burgeoning area, I chose to concentrate on the study of infectious diseases, the games of survival played out between host and pathogen. It’s what, as a scientist, has occupied me ever since — the life history strategies of viruses and bacteria and larger parasites like those that cause malaria, and how the host population evolves in response.
And meanwhile, I have continued to write fiction, only because there isn’t any way I could give it up. The miracle is that what I have written have become books, living and breathing on their own, soaring sometimes as books will and then settling back down with a thump, threatening to be stillborn and then clawing their way back into existence, always having to submit to my other consuming preoccupations and graciously accepting their complicated roles in my life.
But let me return to my mother again, pronouncing in 1969 — in response to my having fixed a toy ark — that I might grow up to be an engineer. What it reflects is how progressive middle-class Bengali culture was at the time with regard to the possibilities availableto women. I was privileged to grow up in such a milieu, and found t shocking when I came to live in the ‘Western’ world how many women still struggled against the expectation that they would not have a career.
Priya Davidar says in her contribution to this book that “India is truly the land of paradoxes” when speaking of the unexpected lack of hostility against women fleidworkers in rural India. This is manifest in the various ways that several of the women you will read about n this book have been supported by their families and by society despite all the prejudice and injustice that typifies the broader plight of women in India. In her story, Aditi Pant mentions how local .llagers would offer her hot baths in their own huts when she was the only woman among the team of oceanographers exploring the west coast of India. I think it is this miraculous quality of the fabric of our culture, its ability to accommodate the out-of-the-ordinary, the unpredictable sources of sympathy that it contains, that have elped all of us tread the difficult paths of our dreams.
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