Tune into an enlightening conversation with Saisri Akondi, a Medical Device Innovator at Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology. She served as the Research Coordinator for Manipal University Technology Business Incubator and has been involved in various projects related to Biomedical Engineering. Apart from this, she is an active advocate for ‘HeforShe’ and believes in promoting equal rights for everyone. She has also received a grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’ for her project on creating a vaccination database for migrant workers in Karnataka.
Q. How would you describe your journey in the STEM field ?
Saisri: I was very close to my granddad since childhood. He ran a lot of NGOs for differently-abled people. He used to talk about how I should be developing assistive devices specifically for them. When I was in fifth, he took me to Jaipur and Jaipur Foots was a big thing back then. They developed an extremely realistic artificial leg that made differently-abled independent and gave them the confidence to lead a proper life. That inspired me to take up biomedical engineering. The fact that you could replicate the human body and remove barriers to living a prosperous life fascinated me. I considered becoming a doctor but I was in awe of the ability to replicate real organs and develop life-changing assistive devices which got me into biomedical engineering. Around the first year of my year of graduation, the concept of ethics in biomedical engineering resonated with me. That’s when I got into patenting, technology transfer, and creating affordable medical devices, this is exactly what I am doing now. I always wanted to do this. My dad wanted me to explore other STEM fields like oil and petroleum but I was able to convince him.
Q. Microaggression has been a major part of the everyday misogyny women face. How does it pan out for women scientists?
Saisri: One thing that we need to understand is that it is not easy for women in science and everyone talks about it but you only understand when you are a woman and in science, especially in a government institution. A friend of mine went for a grant from the United Nations and she was asked if she had plans to get married and they still persisted when she refused. When her male co-partner went in for the interview, he was asked technical questions. When you are a woman, you will be asked questions about your personal life that will make you uncomfortable and not if you have the technical know-how. During the lockdown, a lot of my women co-workers dropped out because they couldn’t handle the added burden of kids at home and research tests.
I don’t think people are intentionally discriminating, it is just a patriarchal mindset what if she can’t do it.
I clearly remember I was campaigning for ‘HeForShe’ in college and a friend came up to said “Why are you campaigning for this? It is only rural women who get discriminated.” We often undermine the hardships of females in STEM. Women in science face discrimination right from the time of choosing a research guide to publish their work. Even for getting funds, women have to work harder. There are government programs for women entrepreneurs but there is little being done to make this reach them. There is much more work needed to push women in STEM and biomedical engineering.
Q. Did you have to face any challenges during your career because of your gender?
Saisri: There are women out there who have had it worse. I want to become a Medical device Entrepreneur because I believe research by itself needs to reach out to people. There have been many instances where I have been meeting investors and there was this one CEO who very subtly pointed would I be able to give myself into entrepreneurship because I am female and might lose interest. And this is a statement I keep hearing since my engineering and a lot of other times. Sometimes your parents also doubt your capabilities.
Something very personal to me has been the imposter syndrome I faced during the initial years of my career where I used to doubt myself. For example, when I applied to CCMB, I doubted if I am qualified enough. A lot of my male counterparts don’t have that problem and that is something you get from society. I remember Sheryl Sandberg mentioning this in her book Lean In and I related to it that this isn’t a personality fault but it is the society. Men are scrutinized less whereas women’s achievements are attributed to external reasons.
Q. Over the years, multiple POSH policies have been brought in to make STEM workplaces more equitable. How, in your experience, have these moves impacted women?
Saisri: The problem with these policies has been the burden of action is placed on the victim and not the perpetrator. All these policies on how women will be protected which is great but men need to be taught to associate with others in workplaces.
Q. What is something you would like to tell young girls who aspire to be in STEM?
Saisri: Every woman’s story is going to be different. Saisri from Bombay’s story will be completely different from someone from say, Lucknow or Kashmir. The first thing is don’t worry about age and don’t let your dream die out. It is absolutely ok if you couldn’t do it when you were 16. Science doesn’t have an age or gender. I keep telling my 63-year old grandmother to do law which she has been really interested in. In case you don’t get family support for research, there are multiple research grants available from the government. The bottom line is that it is easy said than done!