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Cancer cure, fascination for biology, neuroscience — what drew these women to science

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, ThePrint speaks to two women and a girl determined to change the world of science in their own way.

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New Delhi: On 22 December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science as part of its resolution ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’

Meant to promote complete and equal access for women and girls to the sciences, it is celebrated by UNESCO and UN-Women in collaboration with other institutions.

Currently, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women and according to UNESCO data from 2014 – 2016, only around 30 per cent of female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. The world over, female students’ enrolment is particularly low with only 5 per cent opting for natural science, maths or statistics, only 3 per cent women opting for information and communication technology and 8 per cent opting for manufacturing and construction.

In India, the Ministry of Science and Technology has a special Women Scientist Scheme, which provides fellowships and research grants to enable women to re-enter the field as well as provide a launch pad for them into the field. Aside from this, the Ministry also started the Vigyan Joshi programme in October 2018 to encourage girls from rural areas to opt for any subject in science, engineering and technology. Through the programme, students met scientists from NASA and even got a scholarship of Rs 5,000 after completion of the programme.

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, ThePrint speaks to women and girls in the field of science about their choices, struggles, and journey.

Entering the world of science

Neharika Ann Mann, who is about to take her class 12 board exams opted for science in class 11, taking physics, chemistry, biology and maths as her main subjects. However for this 17-year-old, the dream of entering the world of science began very early on.

She said, “It was in class 3 that a close friend’s relative died of cancer. It was then that I decided that I would find a cure to cancer. That thought has evolved and I have now decided to eventually study pharmacology, which is a branch of medicine concerned with the uses, effects and modes of action of drugs.”

Neharika plans to apply to Delhi University and because she was advised not to specialise too soon, wants to study biochemistry first, before specialising.

With no one else from her family working in the field of science, Neharika explains that it is the very fact that the stream enables her to think out of the box that attracts her most to the world of science.

She said, “In ICSE science, there is a lot of pressure and we often feel as though we have to mug up theories. However the reality is that you need to keep finding things that interest you and ask questions that a science textbook will not give you.”

Also read: CERN scientist Archana Sharma says Indian girls need more female role models in STEM

Finding a career in the world of science

Manya Singh was fascinated by biology in school. Physics and chemistry did not excite her as much because she could relate more to biology as she could observe many aspects of it in her surroundings.

After graduating, Singh studied botany from Ramjas College, Delhi University. She tells ThePrint, “It was during my undergraduation that I studied flora and fauna even further, and when I zeroed in on my interest in ecology and also where I felt the urge to do fieldwork.”

Singh then enrolled for a Masters in ecology and environmental sciences from Nalanda University, which is where she ultimately focused on climate change and conservation studies. Unwilling to only be restricted to the classroom, she decided to work in the field as well. Her fieldwork took her to Gujarat, where she worked at the state’s forest department, focusing on agro-forestry for commercial use. She then moved to Dehradun, where she is currently based. At the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research, she works with mountain communities across the state to focus on springwater and glacial conservation.

While in the field, she noticed the skewed gender ratio. She noted that in research positions or in her Masters, the gender ratio was fairly equal, but in the field it’s only men. “There is an astounding lack of women out there in the field. Be it as project leads or in state forest departments or ministries such as for water resources. There are barely any women. It is what I have to encounter and witness every day.”

Singh also led the climate strike in Dehradun and hopes to eventually apply for a PhD on methods of water conservation.

Settled in the world of science

Vidita Vaidya, is a neuroscientist and professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, a National Centre of the Government of India, under the umbrella of the Department of Atomic Energy. Vaidya’s primary areas of interest are neuroscience and molecular psychiatry.

Having got her neuroscience doctoral degree from Yale and postdoctorate from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and from Oxford, Vaidya joined TIFR in 2000 as a principal investigator.

She studies parts of the brain that regulate emotion and monitors how these mechanisms are influenced by life experiences. Vaidya also investigates how changes in the brain form the basis of psychiatric disorders like depression and how early life experiences contribute to alterations in behaviour.

Speaking to ThePrint, Vaidya explains that it is “hard for young women who want to become a faculty member at an institution for science in India.”

She underscored the need for more diversity in such institutions and explained how cutthroat and ruthless the scientific community can be with its high levels of competition.

Vaidya is however quick to acknowledge government schemes that encourage more women to enter the field, creche facilities and the progressive maternal leave policy. She noted, “I am where I am because I have a supportive family, be it my family structure, in-laws or spouse, and therefore do not face the standard challenges.”

With the same goal – of achieving success in their respective fields – these women are determined to change the world of science in their own way.

Also read: These forgotten women played a huge role in eradicating smallpox from India


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