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A Conversation with three South Asian Women Scientists

Raj Koothrappali on Big Bang Theory was the first and the only South Asian Astrophysicist I knew.

I’ve been passionate about Physics since I was a young girl but I’ve always been hesitant about pursuing a career in this field. Raj Koothrappali on Big Bang Theory was the first and the only South Asian Astrophysicist I knew then. As small as it is, this inspired me a great deal to pursue a career in the field of physics. Just knowing that there was someone like me who did something similar was oddly comforting, even in fiction. Mainstream media doesn’t really feature a lot of stories on women in STEM, so I decided to interview three South Asian women scientists from Stanford, ISRO, and ex-Caltech now DST scientist. 

Dr.Vinita Vinod is a neuroscientist who is working as a Postdoctoral researcher at Stanford. Her work focuses on neurodegeneration, specifically in Parkinson's Disease.

Dr.Sudha Krishnamurthy is a scientist at ISRO and she has a BE Honours from the PSG College of technology, Coimbatore.

Dr. Seema Pooranchand is an ex-DST scientist.

  • Santoshi: What sparked your interest in the field? Were your friends and family supportive of your career choice?
  1. Dr Vinita Vinod: My interest in understanding the basic cellular functioning was the main drive. Pretty good especially from my family, in spite of not many people in that group having any biology background.
  2. Dr Sudha Krishnamurthy: From 9th grade onwards, I began gravitating towards Maths and Science. My father, who was a Civil engineer from railways, would help me make charts and models during our school inspection time. It was my father who encouraged me to get into the engineering line. After seeing my performance in college activities and semester results, he kept encouraging me  in spite of the discouragement I faced from the other elders.
  3. Dr Seema Poorchand: I was just really interested in Physics from the start so I decided to pursue this. My parents were very encouraging. They allowed me to continue higher studies even though it was difficult for girls in those days.

  • Santoshi: What do you have to say about the demographics of the field?
  1. Dr Vinita Vinod: Biology field seems to strike a good balance of male to female at the lower strata (undergrad, grad levels). But it seems to incline more towards the male gender as we move upwards.
  2. Dr Sudha Krishnamurthy: No gender discrimination of any sort but sometimes when the important decisions were taken (not during formal meetings in our absence we get upset) there was much more male strength and the decisions were taken by them.
  3. Dr Seema Poorchand: There were very few females in research . About 10% compared to males.

  • Santoshi: Being a Brown woman, did you feel as if you were treated differently?
  1. Dr Vinita Vinod: Yes, at times. There are subtle mentions by some people (passing comments), which may be due to sheer ignorance or simply not thinking before speaking. I have also witnessed biased decision-making on the part of people in higher positions, hinting that they prefer candidates with experience/college from the US. But it is not a common thing, you just come across such instances rarely. 
  2. Dr Sudha Krishnamurthy: Maybe statistically but in ISRO, there was no gender discrimination. You are given freedom to explore your area of interest in line with the ongoing activities of the project we are assigned to.
  • Santoshi: What changes would you like to see to increase the number of underrepresented groups in STEM fields?
  1. Dr Vinita Vinod: There is a dire need for more incentives/provisions for these groups to enter the STEM field. The under-represented groups are such because they have a disadvantage with respect to their socio-economic status, or acceptance as per their potential in the field. These issues need to be addressed and amended with the incentives provided to them.
  2. Dr Sudha Krishnamurthy: The biggest problem I see with regards to this is that often women aren’t as confident and bold with what they’re doing. We should work on empowering them to become stronger and more confident in their work. Stigmas in society probably resonate with them sometimes but they should try and shake that off and really work on being more confident with what they are doing.
  3. Dr Seema Poorchand: We should also be very encouraging. With so much advancement in the fields of technology and science, there are numerous opportunities available now. Many projects are available online. Lot of exposure to the latest developments are available via the internet. Satellite data is at your disposal. So, it is very easy to pursue your interest. There should be awareness camps in schools, motivational talks and symposiums. Girls should be encouraged to participate. 
About the author

An avid reader and enthusiastic writer, Santoshi Subramanian is a 17-year-old girl with wide-ranging interests from playing Basketball at a National level to becoming an astrophysicist.



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