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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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