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Two Indian journalists are bringing the women of science to life

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Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra are chronicling the lives of Indian women scientists at The Life of Science.

Bengaluru: Under-representation of women is every bit an issue in science as it is in most other fields, especially in India where the number of women in research is slowly but steadily increasing. Chronicling the lives and everyday achievements of these women is vital but almost non-existent. So, two Indian science journalists have decided to fill this vacuum and tell these untold stories.

In 2015, Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra started a project, The Life of Science, to publish interviews of female scientists across disciplines all over the country. Through interviewsnat with over 100 female scientists, the three-year-old collaboration throws light on how women made headway in their fields by breaking tradition.

Funded by crowdfunding initiatives and private grants like India Alliance, Jayaraj and Dogra have been bringing stories of women scientists to the fore.

Conception and early days

Armed with degrees in biotechnology, bioinformatics, and journalism, Austria-based Dogra and Bengaluru-based Jayaraj first met online in 2014. For a year when they were both in the Karnataka capital, they worked together at Brainwave magazine, a science publication aimed at kids from classes 3 to 8.

“There was no encouragement or motivation to pursue research for me. I had no role models I thought were cool even though I studied science for five years. I couldn’t name even three scientists, let alone three women scientists,” said Jayaraj.

“The work that fascinated me most was at the intersection of science and society, not the lab,” said Dogra.

For one of the pieces the duo worked on for Brain Wave which needed a depiction of a scientist, the illustrator depicted the character as a loony, frazzled and old white man. That incident kicked off a conversation between the two about how stereotypes exist in science and how much women have to fight to be recognised everyday.

Both found themselves out of a job when the publication’s funds dried up in December 2015.

“We had been speaking about our idea of doing articles about the ground realities of Indian science,” said Dogra. “We decided this was the right time to finally do it.” They pivoted their theme to focus exclusively on women scientists in India, and not just the famous ones.

The first interview was published in January 2016. Churning out one interview a week, Dogra and Jayaraj travelled all over the country.

Since they operated as freelancers, independent of mainstream publications, the duo said they were always bound by lack of funds. “We spent a lot of time raising funds and applying for grants. Several times in vain,” said Dogra. Looking at crowdfunding, they made videos and travelled everywhere meeting people to arrange for both interviews and funds.

In the course, they received recognition throughout the country, with their pieces being picked up by other publications as well as their paraphernalia — like the Women in Science calendar — making a prominent presence in science communities.

Among the recipients of the Laadli Award for Gender Sensitivity in 2016, the duo recently started converting interviews from the latest season, as they call each year’s batch of interviews, into comics.

Themes and subjects

The Life of Science interviews follow a standard format where the scientists are first profiled through their background, family experiences, education, and current institution. Then they are interviewed about problems they’ve faced in science as women, where they struggled and the challenges they’ve overcome.

In academia, while men still control positions of power and seniority, a key challenge that makes research hostile to women is the sheer amount of time it takes.

To enter academia and research, women finish studies usually past the age of 25. By the time they enter the first year of professorship, they are close to 34 — the positions are open to individuals only under 35. While systems change slowly, this practice has led to several women dropping out under domestic obligations or wants. As a result, the number of women in research dwindles even more, causing obstacles to rise.

Jayaraj describes a scene that is all too common in colleges these days. “Even though I studied in a reputed private institution, there was always this underlying acceptance that all the female students were here to just get a degree before they get married. So there just was no challenge or motivation to. It’s not a very nurturing place to learn science when peers aren’t serious despite being hardworking and intelligent,” she said.

Both women are aware that this isn’t a blame to be placed on female students who face immense pressure to be “marriage material”. Even today, the two journalists encounter women in science, during their interviews, who are victims of the same vicious cycle; they’re smart, end up in great institutions but only until their families ‘finds someone suitable’.

Challenges in covering women exclusively

Dogra and Jayaraj faced scepticism and suspicion very early on from the women they interviewed, given how rare the coverage of women scientists is.

“Before the interviews even began, several of the scientists would first interview me to find out why I was speaking to them and what the purpose of TLoS was,” said Dogra. “Since the work also involved a lot of travelling all over the country, it was met with more doubts. What is this single woman doing travelling by herself and why is she speaking to me, was the line of everyone’s reasoning at the beginning,” she added.

Some scientists were even empathetically concerned about the journalists’ safety when they travelled alone. All of that has since changed as the project got bigger and popular, though.

On the other hand, some scientists showed comfort and opened up with the two of them, owing to the fact that they were probably familiar with and empathetic to the issues the scientists face themselves. “They are also quite willing to share several personal experiences off the record. We can’t publish them, but we acknowledge that it comes from comfort and trust,” said Dogra.

Perhaps the most important challenge Jayaraj and Dogra face is how they carry the voices of these women who’ve opened up to them. As the world takes its first steps to accept institutionalised sexism and the need to highlight women, the second step of speaking up without fear of backlash is still a milestone away.

Scientists tell stories about rampant sexism around them but often seem to be either unwilling to go on record or are picky about their quotes fearing repercussions. One of the things the duo spend the most time on while writing stories is phrasing the scientists’ account such that they aren’t accusatory or potentially troublesome. The need to report women’s accounts tactfully has been a subject of much debate in recent months, following the barrage of stories flowing from the #MeToo movement.

Vidita Vaidya, neuroscientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, said Jayaraj and Dogra have, through their narratives across India, both at well-funded and struggling research institutes, important insights into the challenges that face women in STEM in India.

“Getting a glimpse into the journeys of women at different stages of their career, tackling a spectrum of challenges is inspirational and humbling, while also highlighting the major changes that need to take place across institutions so that we can create enlightened working environments that encourage women in STEM. I have read pretty much every narrative on the TLoS website and marvelled at the terrific work these two young and dynamic journalists have done. One almost feels part of a circle of solidarity and sisterhood,” said Vaidya.

Books in future

Since the two are in separate countries, they coordinate in work sprints. They often meet up whenever they travel to either Austria, where Dogra is based, or in Bengaluru, where Jayaraj lives.

The duo are currently collaborating to write two books on women scientists in India, and looking to raise funds for it.

The Life of Science can be found online here. The journalists call themselves Lab Hoppers and can be found on Twitter at @labhopping, or their respective handles, @nandita_j and @OrganicInfinity.

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