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Asmita Sarkar’s New Initiative Hopes To Give Little Girls More Hopes To Achieve Their Scientific Dreams

Posted: April 17, 2020

Asmita Sarkar’s Twitter callout about Women In Science WikiProject was an intriguing one. Here’s what she says about women scientists needing representation.

“It breaks my heart to see only a few women scientists in India have their own Wikipedia page,’’ says Asmita Sarkar, a neurobiologist and researcher at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. She spoke to me about the Indian Women Scientists WikiProject to advance conversations about Women in Science.

Reactivating my Twitter account after a long time, I came across Asmita Sarkar and her project. And getting a chance to talk to her about the same had me excited to learn about a field that interests me but I lack knowledge of.  After a few emails back and forth, finally learning about Asmita’s hopes and prospects for the project offered me much food for thought.

What inspires and drives her

Asmita began by talking about Veronica Rodrigues who had worked on fruit-flies. She was a trailblazer in the study of coding in olfactory information in the brain.

“She not only revolutionised the field of neurobiology in India but assumed several leadership positions. These helped in shaping the research environment of two of the best research institutes in India NCBS and TIFR. She is a role model in our institute. But to my surprise, when I Googled her name and went to her Wikipedia page, the contents of the page broke my heart,” says Asmita, taking me back and helping me recall the heartfelt caption behind her Twitter post.

Inspiration from experience

Asmita first became acquainted with the true scope of the problem at the start of her career. Working as a researcher, she notes, “Women have been a minority in the Indian science community. One problem I noticed in my institute is that, although biology has a good male to female ratio, the ratio is skewed in other fields like maths, engineering and physics.”

“My research career made me aware of this gender gap in my early days when one of my colleagues said that science is not a ‘girls’ job. That statement outraged me,” adds Asmita. She believes she was fortunate to take part in Women in Science forums in conferences and recognise the problems women face in their academic careers. These include the gender pay gap, reluctance to hire married post-docs and workplace harassment, among others.

Wikipedia remains a powerful tool in this regard. “There are individual well-researched pages dedicated to Pokemon, backstage dancers, and even guns! However, only 17.7 percent of the 1.6 billion English Wikipedia biographies feature women. This figure is even lower for the scientists and only six percent of almost 150,000,’’ says Asmita, alluding to the fact that most often, these Wikipedia pages are poorly researched, badly written and lack citations.

Her vision for Women In Science

In order to gather volunteers, Asmita first tweeted about the project expecting only about 5-10 people to reach out. She was pleasantly shocked when 80 people reached out to her wanting to volunteer.

Her team is working on a list of about 50 scientists. She plans to employ the ‘Divide and Conquer’ method so each individual handles a specific task they specialise in- be it research, writing or editing.

Asmita believes that in India, where only 12.6 percent of the population speaks English, it is important to translate these pages to regional languages. This will help improve the communication and exposure. She expects her number of volunteers to grow and hopes to gather more to help with these important translations.

Moreover, Asmita believes in gathering her existing group of volunteers and writing a few articles on Wikipedia. Then publishing it on Twitter to improve outreach and further volunteer involvement in the project.

She hopes that institutes will coordinate with organisations like Labhopping and IndiaBioscience to get more public engagement. And could host Edit-a-thons to get more volunteers on board with the project.

Editing Wikipedia pages can be a tedious and intricate task as the process of researching and writing seems rather demotivating at first. However, Asmita already has a community of people to help make this project exciting.

Wikipedia also has a rather strict notability criteria which is implemented by a group of invisible editors. They have the potential to red flag and take down pages. Asmita cites the example of Jessica Wade who had six of her 500 pages taken down owing to the strict notability criteria.

Why women in science need to be discussed

“Having well-written pages about women scientists are important to give good role models to girls who want to become scientists,” says Asmita, who believes the project will help further public engagement and encourage young girls to pursue scientific paths.

In the long term, Asmita Sarkar hopes to extend the project to other research and education institutions. She plans to emulate the models of UC San Diego and the University of York that already hold mass edit-a-thons.

“With active participation from scientific communities and institutions in getting the word out, we can encourage more graduate students and researchers to participate in this initiative,” she concluded on a positive note.

Asmita’s musings and experiences about Women in Science helps us acknowledge the different facets and dimensions of gender inequality. Maybe, with community and group initiatives among passionate people like the WikiProject, one day we will look back and our hearts won’t break when we see inspiring and strong women owning their narratives.

Picture credits: Asmita Sarkar

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Shivani is currently an undergraduate political science student who is passionate about human rights and

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