The Life Story Of A Woman Scientist Who Started Her Career In The Sixties

Scientist Vijaya Sinha started her career in the sixties, at a time when female graduates in India were few. Her story inspires Indian women in science today.

Scientist Dr. Vijaya Sinha started her career in the sixties, at a time when female graduates in India were few. Her story inspires Indian women in science today.

Born in 1944, I was brought up in a conservative middle class family in Bihar. Since education for girls was not considered to be that essential, I could not go to a regular school continuously till Class X. Off and on, I was taught by tuition teachers or an elder member of the family.

However, I was quite ambitious and told my parents of my first ambition – to pass Matriculation with first division. For this, regular schooling was a must for Class X and Class XI. With difficulty I was admitted to a Hindi medium school in the Biology stream. It was in 1959 that my ambition was fulfilled when I passed High School with a first division.

The next step was to get admitted in a College. My percentage was not good enough to get admission in the best college of the time, but I got into Women’s College. In those days it was common for parents (or in-laws) to decide what a woman would do with her life. My father wanted me to become a doctor. While I used to attend all the classes, I could not attend Biology Practical since I could not cut frogs. The College Principal received a complaint against me and I was called into her office. After an application to the University Registrar, I managed to shift to the Mathematics stream.

With a lot of hard work, I managed good marks and shifted to Patna Science College, a highly reputed college. I passed B.Sc. Honors in Physics in 1963 and M.Sc. in 1965 in Physics with Wireless and Radio Physics as a Special Paper.

Life as the only girl in class

Let me share with you a few incidents from my time in College. There were 29 boys and I was the only girl in M.Sc. class. I used to enter the class only after the Lecturer entered the classroom. No boy ever talked to me nor did I to any of them. Talking to boys was considered a taboo.

Once I lost my notebook and started crying, wondering how to get the notes. I told my father about it and he went to the Boys’ Hostel and borrowed the notes from one of the boys. I was interested in games too and took part in all the games, winning prizes every year, except for outdoor games because my younger brother studying in the same college explained that outdoor games are not suitable for girls. This reflected the prevalent social attitude towards girls. I passed M.Sc. with a first division standing second in the University.

PhD – an unusual choice for women of the time

A lady getting a First Class M.Sc. Degree in Physics was uncommon, and so I immediately got an ad-hoc appointment as Lecturer in Physics in a college for women. A few months later I was appointed as a Lecturer in the Post Graduate Department of Patna University (PU) and asked to teach Nuclear Physics to the M.Sc. final year students.

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Teaching Nuclear Physics was not a problem but to teach in English was a big problem. I wrote the whole lecture (my first lecture in English) and learnt by heart each and every line that I wrote because I was not able to talk in English. I got used to it and I was not that scared in subsequent lectures.

Though I liked teaching, my interest was to do PhD research, so that I could become a Scientist. Without knowing how tough it would be, I applied for getting the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF), CSIR to join IIT. There were written as well as oral tests, which I thought I did not do very well in. Two months later I received a telegram from IIT asking me if I would like to join!

I was too surprised and happy and spent no time in thinking what to do. I thus joined IIT as a JRF in 1966 to work on high temperature transport properties of solids, vacuum zone refining and related heat transfer problems, which come under Solid State Physics.

The atmosphere at IIT was completely different from that at PU. There were very few girls. Staying in the hostel was compulsory. I was initially placed under a Senior Research Fellow. If I remember correctly, every day I used to ask him when the work would start. His answer used to be that the equipment is not there, so work would start after the equipment arrives. And the equipment could arrive only after the laboratory was ready! I got the opportunity to meet my guide only after a couple of months of my joining. I was so unhappy that I told him that no work can be initiated unless it is sorted out whether the laboratory would be made first or the equipment would come first. He realized that I was quite serious about work and solved my problem by sending me to National Physical Laboratory (NPL) where both the laboratory as well as equipment existed. I started working there.

Resolving the work-and-marriage challenge

In the meantime my marriage was fixed in 1969. Here I would like to mention that marriage for a woman scientist was not that easy. My parents had a lot of problems getting a suitable match for me, especially since they wanted me to continue with my Ph.D. work after marriage. When they had almost given up the idea, it so happened that while travelling in a flight my father was sitting next to one of my teachers in the college, who suggested his brother-in-law, an IAS Officer as a suitable match for me. Thus, I got married.

My Ph.D. work however was delayed because my guide felt that because of marriage, I would not be able to devote as much time to work like earlier. It got further delayed because I had my first child, a son in 1971. However, I was appointed as Senior Scientific Officer in the Physics Department of IIT. I had my second child, another son, in 1972. This time, I did not tell anyone that I was pregnant till seven months because I felt that my Ph.D. would be further delayed. It was difficult to conceal it anymore and my guide came to know about it. Somehow I convinced him that I would complete writing the thesis before the child’s birth.

At that very time my husband was transferred to Gandhi Nagar (Gujarat). I could not go with him because I was expecting the child and also had to submit my Thesis. It just happened that the child was born a month earlier than the due date and I could not complete the work – the thesis was typed but the pages were not arranged. I got all the papers arranged in the hospital. I was discharged from the hospital three days after childbirth and instead of going home, went straight to my guide with all the papers because I was afraid he wouldn’t correct the thesis! I got a long ‘lecture’ from him and was sent back home with the instruction that I should not come back before 10 days. Anyway, my Thesis was finally submitted and I received my Ph.D. in 1973.

I was subsequently asked to join Solid State Physics Laboratory (SSPL), Delhi but chose to join my husband at Gandhi Nagar, in In spite of suggestions by a number of persons to join SSPL. With two young kids, the idea of taking up any job at that point of time was ruled out.

For the next four years, I did not do any scientific work. However occasionally I used to visit Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), and sit in the library glancing through some literature. There I met a few colleagues of mine from IIT Delhi who had joined PRL. They persuaded me to start working again. I applied for a Post Doctoral Fellowship (PDF) to work at the Physics Department of Gujarat University (GU). After a few months I got a letter from CSIR saying that I could join GU as PDF but the last date for joining was the very next day! I packed a suitcase, took both the children and came to Ahmedabad by bus without even thinking of where I would stay. I was very keen to start work and I did not want to miss the opportunity.

That was 1976. My work was on the effect of geomagnetic fluctuations on human beings. This was completely different from my Ph.D. work. However I picked up fast, published three papers during two years of PDF, got acquainted with other research work going on in the department and also did part time teaching for Space Science Students.

Later on, I started a Child Care unit (Crèche) in the University campus where I used to keep the children in the afternoon after the school. My third child, a daughter, was born in 1977.

Around this time, it was suggested to me that I should apply for the post of Pool Officer in Space Applications Centre (SAC). I applied for it and was selected for one year. I had to join a certain Division. In this connection I met a number of Scientists but they did not appear to be keen on taking me mainly because I was older in age compared to the person under whom I was supposed to work. Finally, I could join Microwave Integrated Circuit Facility (MICF) to work on SAW (Surface Acoustic Wave) Devices. The work was new to me; I had to start from the basics. Initially it was quite difficult for me to adjust as well as for others to adjust with me. However I never felt that I was differentiated either by juniors or by seniors. Once in a while I used to get remarks like I was ‘born with a silver spoon in my mouth’ or that I was selected because of ‘recommendation from higher ups’, etc. Probably they did not know how difficult it was for me to get the job.

Five years after joining SAC I was Heading MEDF (Micro Electronics Design Facility) Division as Manager, published a few research papers, prepared a number of technical reports, attended and presented papers at National and International Conferences at various places in India and trained a number of Trainees. All my dreams were fulfilled.

While I was working in SAC, both my sons got settled in their jobs and also got married. I finally retired as SF in 2004. Before retirement I was asked if I would like to continue working. I declined because I wanted to spend more time with my daughter who has some health problems.

Life after retirement

I do miss the ‘SAC like’ atmosphere and in order to keep myself in touch with the Scientists working there, I have joined Retired ISRO Officers Association, Ahmedabad (RIOAA). I am also an active Member of the Executive Committee, and the only woman member. After retirement, I also developed the hobby of writing poems in Hindi and English.

This is my life experience as a woman Scientist. Every woman scientist is not a Marie Curie but I got as much appreciation and recognition as I deserved and I could utilize my time doing academic work whenever it was possible for me. I do feel that if half time/ flexi-time jobs are permitted for ladies (salary, promotion etc. accordingly adjusted) things would be much better.

Now I am living an enjoyable retired life with my husband, sons and their wives, daughter and her husband and two grandsons and one granddaughter all in Ahmedabad (in different houses), except my elder son who is now in Mumbai. On Sundays, we meet up together in the same house so that we feel like a big family living together.

What I want to convey to younger women is that almost every one of us is facing problems mainly because of marriage – new environment, children etc. but we have to be bold and keep looking for the opportunities work as per our wishes and relish the happy moments.

Icon of female scientist via Shutterstock


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