My Life As A Female Scientist

Posted: February 22, 2011

One female scientist’s personal account of her love for Science and the special challenges of women in Science.

I was in class six when I read about Madam Curie. I was amazed by the strength she possessed in her endeavours to seek science, by the Nobel prizes she had won. And she also managed to be a mother and a wife, all at the same time. This was exactly the time I was falling in love with Science, the cycles of water, nitrogen and oxygen and the Archimedes principle. Reading about Madam Curie gave me my dream. By class eleven, I read about Rosalind Franklin – another great scientist but one who did not get her due credit in spite of her great role in deciphering the structural details of DNA. It provoked me a little, but by then, my mind was set; all I wanted was to study Chemistry.

I had a great time at University during my Bachelor’s and Master’s although the facilities and the emphasis on practical training was negligible. A small stint in a research institute to pursue a Ph.D and then I left India. The decision to explore science outside India was a decision made more to follow my husband, who was looking for better opportunities. I took up the challenge and also kept up with the convention of an Indian woman who follows her partner all over.

My early years as a female scientist

We landed in Germany, the country where Schrodinger’s theory came to life. After a small period of staying in separate cities, I opted for a Ph.D position in the same university as my husband’s. Unknowingly, I was unfolding into a person with different perspectives. The hierarchy was negligible, and no one was Sir or Madam (a colonial residue we still carry in Indian academia).

The independence allowed at work was novel. I remember my first meeting with my Ph.D supervisor, where he told me the essence of the project we were going to start, and then said, “Now you need to play around a bit and find your way through it.” For me, trained in a stringent educational system of evaluation based on the percentages we got in exams, these words were surreal.

While I was settling in and finding my way, I got pregnant. I was nervous and reluctant to discuss this with my supervisor, as I knew from my Indian contemporaries that it is an unwritten rule not to mess up your career by getting married and pregnant while doing your Ph.D. But I was working with X- ray irradiations and carcinogenic chemicals and I wanted to inform my supervisor, as my pregnancy would mean a reshuffling of the experimental plans. So I did that; he was surprised, but polite and told me to get counselling on the laboratory safety measures I need to take. He also directed the technical assistant of the group to take care of the steps where I needed to use X-ray irradiation and harmful chemicals. I doubt if this provision is available in any laboratory in India.

I knew from my Indian contemporaries that it is an unwritten rule not to mess up your career by getting married and pregnant while doing your Ph.D.

Yet, it is not easy for a Ph.D student to lose the independence of doing her own experiments; additionally I was also cutting down on conferences and lab visits. However, I managed to work so much that I got my first publication from the work done during my pregnancy.

Then came the maternity leave. Germany gives a provision for one year of paid (not full) maternity leave if wanted. I opted for 7 months leave and with no help from family members apart from my husband, who was also a Ph.D student, we sent our daughter to day care for the whole day. Those were painful days for us. I was trying to get back to work and our daughter was falling ill each fortnight. We managed somehow, as there are provisions of extra leave for parents of young children. Our Ph.Ds got prolonged and I was going through a lot of turmoil.

I figured out that the situation was similiar for many other women in academia. Most of them were opting out or minimising their work stress by choosing part time research or teaching positions. This is where women leak out from all demanding professions.

Striving for work-life balance

In the meantime my husband finished his Ph.D and had to move to a university in another city for postdoctoral research. We became a weekend couple. I would finish my work before 5 and run to pick up my daughter from day care. On finishing the experimental part of my thesis, I joined my husband, extremely worn out. I wanted to stay at home, finish writing my thesis and search for a new job, preferably in the same city. I also started learning medical writing, to keep my options open.

Well, many months after submitting my thesis I figured that it was not easy to get a postdoctoral job in Germany and the temporary jobs I was getting in medical writing did not suit me. My husband in the meantime finished his postdoctoral research and began searching for a permanent academic position in India. Being parents now, we were feeling the need for a permanent source of income. I also widened my arena, and got a postdoctoral position in the UK almost at the same time my husband got a placement in a research institute in India. So again we fell apart.

With extreme understanding from my postdoctoral supervisor and no help at home, I finished two years of research, where I confined my work day between 9 am to 5.30 pm and limited the number of conferences I attended (during which my husband took leave and came to cover up). In terms of science I did not lose much, but in terms of networking – yes, a lot.

Women in science face difficult choices 

I came back to India, again worn out and tired. By now, through my husband’s daily routine, I also saw how much time a young faculty member needs to spend at work along with regular meetings, conferences and tours. There is fun too as he can now give shape to his own scientific ideas. That idea excites me but the other stuff – not so much! Also, I face again the challenge of finding a suitable job in the same city.

The qualifications and credentials I have are not enough to get a full time academic position when compared to those who managed to work after 6 pm on weekdays, on weekends and went to tens of more conferences…

The qualifications and credentials I have are not enough to get a full time academic position when compared to those who managed to work after 6 pm on weekdays, on weekends and went to tens of more conferences – when I was giving time to my daughter, and instilling curiosity in her and a basic love for doing science.

The way forward? I don’t know. I am not sure if I will again opt to live in another city where I can find a suitable academic position or will I opt for other science related jobs such as temporary research or teaching jobs in the same city where my husband lives.

The choice lies in my hands but the choice will matter to my child too.

CP

A science researcher finding ways into broader science careers. A women enthusiast to the core

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22 Comments


  1. wonderfully written. and one thing i know that you will surely come up with the best decision. only women has the strength to take care of their duties and passion both in a systematic manner and you have been proving so ‘always’ and will continue doing so ‘always’.

  2. Sujatha Koduvayur -

    This is a situation that most women in science face these days. We cant get by with a work place that has flexible hours or even have on-site child care. There is just no way one can do quality science(bench work at least) and have quality time with children. The only solution open to us is either change fields (something that tolerated flexible hours) or quit! For someone who is passionate about one’s research, it is a tough choice to make. I am curious to know how many make the choice and how it has worked out for them. Good luck on yours.

  3. Very well-written and genuine. We have the choices that our mothers didn’t have but that doesn’t mean our lives are easier. Things are more in flux now than ever before and it’s tough to find the right balance. One can only hope it gets easier for the next generation.

  4. Excellent!!!

  5. Very well written, Chandrima. Being a doctor who has struggled with the love for science as well as for my children I know how tough it is for you. When my daughter was just one I started sending her to a creche for a couple of hours because I thought I would step out of home and start working someday. That some day never came because I always felt the children needed my attention. Today, my daughter’s a teenager and still whenever I am invited to speak on medical writing in a conference I have to first find out if my husband can cover up. It’s tough to be in a nuclear family in a city that never is our own even if we have been here for over 12 yrs now.

  6. good luck with the “choice”, Chandrima! I hope you find it possible to pursue both your dreams of passionate research and top-notch child rearing.
    I bet its going to be tough, but you’ve surely heard- ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’.

  7. CP

    Thank you all, for your encouraging words.
    Yes, women in science or any high profile career for that matter have long way to go.
    It has been tough for women in earlier generation even to start a career and now it is more challenging to continue, but I am hopeful that
    a) with building communities,
    b) support systems for nuclear urban scenarios,
    c) by tweaking the career needs to our terms instead of following blindly the rules made beforehand
    d) and most of all by being there for encouraging each other
    we can do it!
    womensweb is doing great job by providing a platform to the like minded people.

  8. Wonderfully written!!! You have put up a tought fight balancing your career and home…I am sure you will carry ahead with the same vigour and streght….

  9. Atanu Chakraborty -

    An excellent article.. as always..I do believe that you will overcome all the roadblocks, as you have always done. You will realize your dream, may be a bit modified to suit the reality, but nonetheless, you will do it. You have the courage and the drive..

  10. hello Chandrima, I have been reading your blogs from quite a long time. Specially I liked your wonderful writings during Scotland days-about you and your daughter. I am also in science research and yet to get a permanent position, and with 2 kids. You were in SINP at some point of time, I guess? All the best..

  11. CP

    Thank you Moumita and Atanu for your best wishes. Sarmistha thank you so much for the good words, yes I was in SINP, were/are you working there?

  12. Wonderfully written and I can emphathise with each word. In a similar situation, and as u said the choice is in my hands and it matters to my baby as well….

  13. Made me jittery.! Good luck with ur choices.!

  14. Chandrima, Nicely written article. More women like you are required in academics, science and other high profile jobs. Women in India still tweak their career based on their family needs first and with a marginally tolerant society which wants them to be in “safe” jobs, its important that more women break the ceiling and persue intellectually challenging arenas.
    Congrats to your husband too for being such a new age man!!

  15. I don’t mean to offend anyone but I don’t think any individual should be given any benefits for belonging to a certain sex that too at the tax-payers expense. This is not directed against you personally and I congratulate you on your successful career and contribution to humanity.
    I’m talking about child-rearing and maternity benefits which I believe should be stopped. They do not come for free but someone somewhere pays for them. I believe having children is a personal matter and the individuals involved in the process of child-rearing should realize that it is their business and not everyone’s concern. This is not anti-women since women do not automatically have children, they choose to have them. It is very discriminating against men and women without kids that women with kids get such benefits and others don’t.

  16. Dr. Paramita Palit -

    I dont know whether I should start praising chandrima for a genuine experience, being in scientist myslef in an international organization, I have seen so many suffering from the same!! MY personal idea is to better take a break for a couple of years during the crucial period of parenting as doing science in half hearted way is not fruitful enoughand then get back, as there are a number of fellowships in post doctoral studies where a career break is a reason for funding budding woman scientist..My wishes are with you and hope you will get reward of your patience through a suitable job option in science.I have seen a number of eoman scienctist too who are doing the job and parenting both in a commendable way!! but I am started writing just to reply my preceeding commentator “Raj” ..” It is very discriminating against men and women without kids that women with kids get such benefits and others don’t.”..having children is not a personal matter dear its a family decision, not always , even in most cases, woman are not on the deciding position, I dont know from which background you are, but may be you will be a father one day and your wife , if wont get the same benifits you can understand the problem and the stuation!

  17. Well written article. I too experienced the same situation in India. Any way, congratulations!
    Dr. Asha

  18. Upasana Singh -

    Hi Chandrima,
    It’s my first conversation with you. My friend Dr. Trupti Jamalpure Sharma shared your blog with me. Your blog is mirror image for many women in science. Its nature who gifted us the ability to make babies. But it’s society, who increased challenges for us. However, I would say things are changing. I have immense support from my husband to pursue my career. I observed the same attitude in many men these days. They are serious about the careers of their wives and they are extremely helpful. Lets hope for a positive change in the society towards the women and celebrate womanhood.
    Good luck to all women for their careers and life ahead
    Upasana Singh

  19. Trupti Sharma

    Wonderful article Chandrima. The story for me has not changed a bit, daughter has grown up and I was assuming the challenges to mellow down a bit but every age group has its own challenges. At the end of the day I try to justify my input in scientific research and my daughter. There is this unseen pressure on all mothers who have a dream to pursue and it will never change. At times I even question myself that what am I gaining out of all this? I might find the answer somewhere in future but the present is switching roles…a researcher and a mother. Whatever it takes but it is an enriching experience for all of us as a family.

    • CP

      Thanks Trupti – for liking this article. Many years have passed since I have written this article but as you said day in and day out the game plan is about switching roles from mother to researcher for you and for my case it is mother to science writer 🙂

  20. Woman as a scientist is very tough unless otherwise your family support. I am the clear example as I quit my job as a Lecturer in Bioinformatics, when my husband has to move to another city.

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