A pioneer in the study of earthquakes, Rajendran was awarded India’s first ever ‘National Award for Woman Scientist’ late last month.
Bengaluru: Kusala Rajendran’s life is a lesson in grit for women everywhere, but the renowned seismologist says she has also been lucky — lucky for having had the support and freedom to make her mark in a field where her gender made her an exception.
As she received India’s first ever ‘National Award for Woman Scientist’ late last month, Rajendran dedicated the honour to women all over the country, “who have to always struggle hard to achieve their goals”.
“So many women don’t even get to achieve 10 per cent of what they want, and I feel like I’m one of the luckiest to have had so much support and freedom to pursue the career I wanted,” she said.
Rajendran is a pioneering force in the study of earthquakes, and much of what we know about Indian earthquakes, we know through her.
Lone woman standing
When she took up applied geophysics at the Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, India’s top institute in the field, in the mid 1970s, Rajendran was the first woman there to ever study the subject.
“I had no seniors to help me. The boys had a lot of help but I wasn’t free to speak to them outside of class. Even visiting a male professor in his office by myself would set tongues wagging,” said Rajendran, a graduate of the 1979 batch.
This gender divide translated to isolation in the field, where the men huddled in tents, bonding and forming support systems.
She knew a lot of women had quit earth sciences because travel with men who weren’t their husbands was frowned upon, and this made her all the more grateful to her family. Their encouragement, she said, kept her motivated to continue in the field.
Graduation was followed by a work stint in Trivandrum, where she met her husband, the famed geologist C.P. Rajendran. The two worked together briefly before getting married. She left for the US in 1987 to pursue a PhD in seismology at the University of South Carolina and returned to India in 1993. She worked with the National Centre for Earth Science Studies till 2007, when she joined the premier Indian Institute of Science (IISc) as an associate professor. And that’s where she works to date.
The ‘big one’ is coming
Seismology as a science by itself is very young. It caught on primarily during the Cold War, when countries installed equipment to monitor nuclear activities. It hit the mainstream only when the plate tectonic theory was proposed and refined, in the 1960s.
Earthquakes, which largely strike without warning and have been known to destroy entire cities, occur at plate boundaries. A question seismologists are often asked is why earthquake prediction is so difficult.
“Earthquakes happen anywhere between a few kilometres to several hundred kilometres below the surface. They are beyond our observational capacity, and occur as a result of interactions of complex processes that are hard to model,” Rajendran said.
Because it’s such a young field, we do not really know the history of earthquakes either. Quakes recur beyond the interval of human observation, said Rajendran, every thousand years or more. Our detailed written history of a place is often limited to 400 years or less. We simply don’t have enough data.
Currently, forecasts are educated guesses about the probability of a quake occurring over a time period stretching years (or decades) in a large area, inferred from historical records and patterns of recurrence. Forecasts are different from predictions, which are statements about quakes occurring at specific times and locations.
For example, India is said to be due for a big quake measuring over eight on the Richter scale in the Himalayas, given recurrent events from the past, but there’s no way to know when that will come. To help understand just how devastating this will be, the earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal three years ago measured 7.3.
In the field
The most crucial time for seismologists is the period immediately after a quake, when the earth can be studied for previous occurrences.
Geologists dig a trench and study the walls, where they find layers of soil settled over each other through millennia. These layers can be dated and disturbances caused by historical earthquakes identified. Then, quake recurrence patterns are calculated, data that helps computer models forecast possible earthquakes in the area.
Rajendran and her team are always on the first flight to the site of an earthquake. It was on one such trip, after the deadly Latur earthquake in 1993 killed thousands, that she first collaborated with her husband on research. The two have continued doing so since, publishing several papers together and gaining worldwide recognition as the geologist-seismologist Rajendran duo.
A life of danger and adventure
Her time in the field, Rajendran said, had left her with a treasure trove of stories. In 2001, for example, she and her team went to Kutch to study the 26 January Gujarat earthquake that remains among India’s worst ever.
Once there, the team got digging in trenches 50 metres from the India-Pakistan border, careful not to arouse suspicions in troopers posted on the other side. All the while, they were accompanied by Border Security Force (BSF) personnel
“That was the most adventurous field trip I’ve had,” she told ThePrint, laughing.
Understanding and respecting local people and their culture plays an important role in the field, and also helps look for clues.
After the 2004 tsunami, the Rajendran duo reached the town of Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu to study past tsunamis, not knowing if there had been one.
Since there was no written record, they turned to the famous Tamil poem Manimekalai, which offers an account of the sea swallowing up the town. When they then dug through the soil, they found the deposit layer of ancient soil all the way from the ocean floor. Archaeological evidence of pottery in the same layer helped date the newly discovered tsunami to 1,000 years ago.
‘Taking the pressure off’
While countries like Japan and the United States, which suffer more frequent earthquakes, were the early pioneers of seismology, India had caught up over time, said Rajendran, adding that the state of research in the country today was on a par with international standards.
Rajendran, however, pointed out that the pressure of marks needed to be taken off students to help the field’s expansion in India.
“I was one of the best trained geophysicists when I left for the US, but when I saw my course, I was very afraid that I would fail,” said Rajendran. That is because exams in the US focussd on knowledge and learning, as opposed to just marks.
“Students enjoy a challenge and are capable of learning a subject for its contents, not marks,” she added. “What is required is to give them the environment and content to stimulate their growth.”