They are a small population and working on hugely important projects. In some of the noted research institutions in the country, women are working towards building better missiles, and rice which can grow under stress.
Poonam Arora, 31, is part of a National Physical Laboratory (NPL) team in New Delhi that is developing an atomic fountain clock, which could reduce India’s dependence on other countries for a primary standard of time and frequency.
During her PhD in Germany, Arora chose to become a scientist because “I had heard that the science and technology ministry were putting in money to promote science and technology”. It was difficult, after her PhD, to choose the institute she had to join: the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) NPL or the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). She picked the former because CSIR’s 37 labs/institutes are into almost all major branches of science, including applied research work, which has a much greater impact on Indian society at large and, significantly, due to the freedoms. “In CSIR, there’s no restriction on us on collaborating with our colleagues abroad and discussing work with them,” says Arora, who won a Young Scientist Award from the Union of Radio Sciences last year.
Sujatha Sunil, 40, got into the profession because she was “enamoured” by the DNA structure and the classical Mendelian principles of genetics. The work is “extremely exciting”, says Sunil, now a research scientist at the India (New Delhi) component of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), which is part of the United Nations system. About 15% of ICGEB’s scientists are female.
Anupama Singh, 37, says she “dreamt of becoming a scientist to serve people. I dream of new ideas, new and non-conventional ways of doing things.” And there she is, now a principal scientist at Indian Agriculture Research Institute’s (IARI’s) agriculture chemicals division where she developed a hydro-gel for plants grown in stress or limited irrigation agriculture. At IARI, out of a staff and student population of 700, about 130-140 are female.
For these women scientists, this is a passion and long-term commitment. For Arora, work is like a “satisfying tool. Every day, there’s something exciting...It’s much more rewarding than a usual 9-to-5 job.”
Puja Goel, 32, is project scientist at NPL in New Delhi. The Dhampur girl wanted to be a scientist because of the “fascinating lifestyle” it entailed. “You keep thinking and growing with challenges every time. It’s a lifetime of innovativeness,” says Goel, a PhD on synthesis and characterisation of ferro-electric materials, from the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee.
Though the ladies face challenges like their counterparts in other professions do, traversing a male-dominated and demanding profession like research and development in India is no cakewalk. One of the scientists said she wished they were taken more seriously. They are not doing a routine job and work occupies your mindspace and keeps your brain ticking all the time, even at home, the scientists say. “It keeps going on in your mind, even before you start work in the morning and at the end of the day,” says Goel. This is not something where you can hand over your file/duty to a colleague and go on leave, says Arora. “There are no fixed timings.” R&D means you are there for the long haul.
Scientific research is a “struggle” and you should be self-motivated to keep going. “Failure doesn’t matter. It’s just a stepping stone to success,” says Sunil.
“Sometimes, you don’t get results - productive results - even after two, three or even ten years. It’s about patience. It’s about how you take it - the result, and analyse it,” says Goel.
Arts attract the eves
The maximum number of female students gets into arts courses, followed by science (less than 20%). Under 8% of the women entered engineering and technology, much fewer (3.86%) into medicine and a fraction into agriculture and veterinary science. Here’s the distribution of women enrolees (provisional) by faculty in 2009-2010:
* Arts: 27,76,289 (Percentage of total women enrolment: 45.66%)
* Science: 12,14,864 (19.98%)
* Commerce/ Management: 9,67,392 (15.91%)
* Education: 2,24,974 (3.70%)
* Engineering/ technology: 4,67,581 (7.69%)
* Medicine: 2,34,702 (3.86%)
* Agriculture: 16,417 (0.27%)
* Veterinary science: 4256 (0.07%)
* Law 84,517 (1.39%)
* Others 89,381 (1.47%)
* Total: 60,80,373
University Grants Commission annual report ‘09-10
My life in S&T
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