In conversation with Ms Susmita Das, Physics PhD student, University of Delhi (DU), to decode the struggles of pursuing science research in contemporary India. Her specific area of research is Astronomy and Astrophysics, with broader emphasis on variable stars that is, stars that change their brightness over detectable periods of time.
Chhavi: Science for the longest time had been a predominately male field, so, from Class 11th, where you first made the decision to pursue it, were there any struggles you faced as woman? Either from family or people in your close proximity?
Susmita: No, in that sense I feel very fortunate. We are a family of three daughters and my parents have always pushed us towards education. My family has been very encouraging. From my friends and professors, I haven’t felt any gender discrimination throughout my academic career, whether it be during school, bachelor’s, master’s or even now during research. In fact, I’ve been extremely motivated by my high school Physics teachers, Mrs. Bratati Roy Choudhury and Mr. P. C. Sarkar, among many others to pursue a career in Physics.
Chhavi :That’s so great.
Chhavi: Even in fields of science, there has always been a stereotype where astrophysics is not considered a women centric field, like most people pursue medical as one. Does that stereotype still exist and have you faced that?
Susmita: I wouldn’t say it’s a predominantly male centric field because there have been a few pioneers in astronomy who are women. As an example in the field of my research, we have a very important period-luminosity relationship which has been named after Henrietta Leavitt. However, there are few women if you compare the numbers. Of course, the institutes all over the world try to bridge the number gap between men and women nowadays- so it’s a very good time for women to be in science! A very interesting fact here is that we have the Astronomical Society of India and the current president of ASI is Dr. G. C. Anupama, a woman from IIA. It’s a female president leading the Astronomical Society of India right now, which is inspiring in itself!
Chhavi: Astronomy consists of night observations, field trips and much more that might hamper your safety. Have there been any measures to make it a more female friendly field in general?
Susmita: So, the thing about night observations is that you’re usually provided in-campus accommodation, so if you have any observation scheduled for the night, you also have the accommodation close by. And it is the same for both males and females wherever we go. However, suppose we are doing general PhD work (not night observations), say right here in Delhi University, maybe carrying out analysis in our data. When it’s night, you know it’s time to go back to the hostel, even though you may be in the momentum of getting some good work done. But then again, this is more the issue of whether we have out of campus accommodation or an in-campus accommodation. In institutes with in-campus accommodation, we wouldn’t have the constraint of leaving at say, 9PM from the lab.
Chhavi: Often women are discouraged for science research as it involves extensive years of study, and by that age they are expected to get married, with taunts like “Shaadikabkaroge?” have you faced that?
Susmita: Yes, these questions are fairly common especially during family functions. More than my immediate family, it would be other people around generally asking this question. I’m very grateful to my parents- I’ve just turned 29 but they have never pushed me to get married. Of course, my mother enquires if I have a boyfriend, if it’s stable relationship-wise and so on; it helps to have a bestfriend in my mother in that aspect! I’m from Guwahati, Assam and I think it’s not just a special case for me- I’m sure my friends from back home would agree that the focus has always been primarily on education, irrespective of gender and there has never been a pressure to get married “early”.
Chhavi: How did you feel when people ask you this question; you did an observation and on the brink of something great and people just want to know when you’re getting married?
Sushmita: When people ask me, I usually smile politely and reply that I need to get my PhD done first because I don’t want my married life to be interfering with my studies. Of course, that’s my personal opinion- I wouldn’t necessarily say that getting married during PhD is a bad idea. I have many friends and seniors who had been married and also had children during the course of their PhD, while all the time managing their professional life really well. It all depends on the person in question and how comfortable she is in balancing the different aspects of her life.
Chhavi:How do you think young women should approach their parents, wanting a career where they spend their next 7-8 years in extensive research?
Susmita: I believe having a female role model who is relatable to your own life may help. She could be, in some way, the person who leads the path. It would also be much easier to share her story as an example to your parents to convince them that she has been so focused in her academics and she’s doing really well now on her own.
Chhavi: I agree, but don’t you think it’s time that parents encourage their daughters for science research?
Susmita: Yes, yes but I think this is also changing with time. Parents are becoming more accommodating with the age their daughter is expected to get married; they don’t push that hard. Also, it’s not the case of choosing either your personal or professional life, you can choose both and maintain both in balance. I think it’s very important to balance your life well, in general. Parents are very encouraging when it comes to academics but they also worry about the future stability of their daughter, which is quite expected. However, with the changing times, parents understand (and their daughters can convince them of this well) that a stable future does not necessarily come from marriage. It’s the education that has the power to provide their daughters a stable future. If young women were to focus more on their own education, it automatically paves to a path of a much secure future.
Chhavi: Talking about representation of women in Science. Which is the female role model that you look up to or you were inspired by in the field?
Sushmita:All through childhood, I’ve been inspired by Marie Curie. My father is the kind of person who motivated me through biographies of female scientists and it started from Marie Curie. However, every child knows about Marie Curie and Einstein. But as you study deeper, you have so many more role models coming in. Like Henrietta Leavitt who has given us the period-luminosity relation or Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered the first radio pulsars, it’s so impressive. My role model keeps changing with time.
Chhavi: Now that you are part of this field, have you ever faced any kind of sexism?
Susmita: Personally no. but I have heard about female students who are PhD scholars and might not be very comfortable with professors. I have heard stories but personally I have not faced them.
Chhavi: What’s your opinion on the notion of “being beautiful takes away from your intelligence”?
Susmita: Do you remember the hashtag about women scientists? #distractinglysexy in response to the surprisingly sexist comment by Tim Hunt, a Nobel Laureate. I believe the women in science came together wonderfully well in protest of his unfair opinion. I think it’s really unfair if you’re expected to choose one of the two options: that you can either dress well or work well. Over the last few years, I’ve met a few incredible women scientists who are also the most beautiful or well-dressed women I’ve ever met. I’m sure people with these stereopyed thoughts are more the exception, than the norm.
Chhavi: Adding to that, Have you ever faced that you won’t be taken serious, because you are beautiful?
Susmita: No, I don’t think so. I think that is also a very generalized notion. Sure, there may be cases where people assume but never confront. But again, I’m sure there would only be a handful of people who may not consider you smart only because you’ve dressed a certain way. Suppose you give a scientific talk in front of an audience from your research field, I’m sure they’d be more interested in the science aspect rather than how you’ve dressed. That way, I don’t think it’s ever been a case.
Chhavi: What is that one big factor that you would everybody consider when they are with science as a career, especially young women who want to be a part of this field? What is one thing they should keep in mind?
Susmita: Throughout my PhD life, all I’ve learnt is that you have acceptances and rejections from the multitude of applications and proposals you keep submitting. It’s always a ride of success and failure. Of course, when you have a successful application, you are really happy and then the rejection gets you down. So, the thing is through the ups and downs, you need to keep your calm because it all averages out. We may also have many more rejections than successful applications but we shouldn’t lose hope during those times. That’s what I keep telling myself, every time I get a rejection letter. I try to think about all the successful applications I’ve had so far to keep my motivation up.
11th February is recognised as International Day of Women and Girls in Science by UN Women and UNESCO. To celebrate the integral role of women in Science and Technology, DU Beat had the privilege to interview Mrs Richa Kundu, currently pursuing PhD from Department of Physics and Astrophysics, University of Delhi.
Avni: You’re doing PhD in Science and Research, what were your qualifications prior to this that got you here?
Richa: I did my Masters, MSc in Physics from Delhi University only. Then I cleared the NET JRF Exam, which is for the fellowship. Initially, I was a Junior Research Fellow and was funded by Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), MHRD and two years later, I was promoted to Senior Research Fellow.
Avni: 11th February is known as International Day of Women and Girls in Science, do you feel giving this name to a particular date, benefits women out there and promotes this area?
Richa: All that can definitely help, but to promote such things, women should actually be encouraged, because when I was in MSc., 70% of my class was female students, but as I went through Masters, I felt that mostly men are there as women in India are actually not really encouraged to pursue further research, most of my female classmates from MSc are teachers right now. After a particular age, there’s society and family pressure and they are discouraged from pursuing further studies. That mindset should change and giving a day won’t change that. Making people aware and treating women equally are the kinds of things that will change things.
Avni: There definitely exists gender disparity in your field, how have you been able to cope-up with it or manage it so far?
Richa: Personally, I haven’t encountered any such thing but I get a lot of international exposure, so I don’t see these things on international platforms, but if we consider India only, we can say that this is true for India as there’s a taboo that women should get married and have children, so the main thing is to change the point of view of people. Personally, I haven’t encountered any such thing as I am also married. I got married last year during my PhD and my in-laws and family are very supportive of my studies. I have to go to Chile for the next 10 months and my family is perfectly fine with it.
Avni: What are you currently working on in your research?
Richa: I am working on the extra-tidal region of stellar clusters. Stellar clusters are made up of thousands of stars that seem like a single star in the night sky. All the stars in a cluster were formed at the same time typically 12-13 billion years ago.
Avni: What are your plans after you complete your PhD?
Richa: I don’t have a set goal, but I have two things in mind. After this, I will apply for teaching jobs, but if I don’t get one, given the situation of India right now, I will apply for postdoctoral somewhere out of India to gain experience.
Feature Image Credits: Manav Ahuja for DU Beat
Interview by Avni Dhawan and Chhavi Bahmba
Transcribed by Aishwaryaa Kunwar