‘Man Smart, Woman Smarter, Bacteria Smartest’

‘Man Smart, Woman Smarter, Bacteria Smartest’Dr Dipshikha Chakravortty of the Indian Institute of Science delivering a talk at the International Conference on Women in Science, Research and Innovation, 2017. (Photo: Christ University)
  • The International Conference on Women in Science, Research and Innovation, 2017, was held at Christ University on 20-21 June.

    Held in collaboration with the Consulate General of Israel to South India, the event saw women scientists deliver engaging talks to aspiring researchers.

“Dead white men” fill up the pages of science textbooks around the world. They are omnipresent in libraries, lecture halls and reading lists, and it’s hard to get away from that fact. However, what’s more revealing is how accurately that pithy phrase describes the state of science even after stripping it down to include only the gender and not the colour or the vital status.

Women have been underrepresented in science for all the years of the field’s existence. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, only 29 per cent of the researchers worldwide are women. In India, that figure drops down to well below the average at a paltry 14.3 per cent, going by a recent World Economic Forum report. Not one of the nine chairpersons of Indian Space Research Organisation, perhaps India’s most successful scientific organisation, has been a woman.

These are telling statistics, and not doing anything about it is akin to looking away from the problem. In light of this, it was refreshing to see the Consulate General of Israel to South India take the initiative and collaborate with Christ University, Bengaluru, to organise a conference dedicated to women in science.

Some of the top women academics in the country came together this week to inspire and inform a young and hopeful crowd of undergraduate science students as part of the International Conference on Women in Science, Research and Innovation 2017, with philanthropist and writer Sudha Murthy closing out the event with a personal speech.

The two-day conference was flagged off on Tuesday (20 June) by Consul General Yael Hashavit. In her address, the chief guest identified education as a priority area for any nation, especially in its formative years. Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, she recalled, had set the tone for her country in this regard by including education in the very first budget.

 Dr Suma S of the Department of Life Sciences, Christ University, and Consul General of Israel to South India, Yael Hashavit. (Photo: Christ University)
Dr Suma S of the Department of Life Sciences, Christ University, and Consul General of Israel to South India, Yael Hashavit. (Photo: Christ University)

This might seem counter-intuitive to the idea that people first need roti, kapda, makaan before they can begin to worry about seeking an education. But the results in Israel are encouraging. Today, women there constitute 56.5 per cent of all students, higher even than their percentage in population. Female literacy is at 96.8 per cent, as per 2011 estimates, for ages 15 and above. Numerous state programmes like the National Council for the Advancement of Women in Science and Technology and Girls to Engineering Studies continue to work actively to increase the number of women in science and technology.

One of the key points raised at the conference by both Hashavit and Murthy was the importance of, and the need for, a good support system for women. The Consul General recounted how she received ample support from her husband, who chose to stay back and look after their child on a parental leave, while she attended to her professional commitments in Japan. This is seldom the case in India, where gender roles are rigid and the onus falls on women to sacrifice their jobs to stay home and take care of the child.

“We do not have a society that encourages women to go ahead,” said Murthy. No one supported the Infosys Foundation chairperson when she was a small-town girl from Hubballi, Karnataka, after she decided to study engineering. In 1968, the idea of women wanting to enroll in an engineering programme was more than just surprising. Murthy’s family members and relatives tried to persuade her to become a women’s doctor or historian instead, roles stereotypically associated with women. However, she went ahead and studied engineering anyway.

Resistance can come from all quarters, Murthy recalled, from family to infrastructure. In her engineering days, her college did not even have a bathroom for women and Indian society was far more gender-segregated than it is now. As the only girl in class, she had no friends and few, if any, of the boys would even talk to her. Despite these hardships, she topped the university and graduated as an electrical engineer. “Never desist from something because there’s no encouragement,” she advised the inspired lot at the auditorium.

This sentiment was reflected in the message of Professor Karen B Avraham, Full Professor at the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at Tel Aviv University, the video of whose 2012 talk at a similar Women in Science conference was played in one of the sessions. Avraham suggested that women need to believe they can do what they want. “We have to, I think, raise our young girls to realise that they can absolutely do everything they want and then own up to what it is that they want.”

Among the factors that Avraham identified as holding women back were the anxiety to do it all and financial hardship. “The overriding one that I’ve found is the anxiety of the future… I’ve polled a number of women… who are doing PhDs at Tel Aviv University… [what I found is that] women who did not yet have children were very anxious about what would happen when they did.” That anxiety, about how to balance it all, holds them back.

What can help, said Avraham, is offering more postdoctoral fellowships to women. Typically, a woman stays back so that the man can go ahead and pursue his career, uninterrupted. This can change, however, with Avraham’s suggestion. In addition, greater acceptance in the academic environment can help women balance work and family. “If a woman has to go home at 4.30 to take care of their kid… then that is something that has to be accepted.”

Avraham adds that these changes are already beginning to take shape as many of her male students also have to go home at 4.30 in the afternoon to take care of the kid because their wives are working late. “There has to be acceptance in the home and the family, there is no question,” she says.

Lectures at the conference

The conference also saw five women scientists – a physicist, two microbiologists, a theoretical computer scientist and head of a biotechnology startup – flex their muscles in their areas of research.

Dr Rita Mani of NIMHANS spoke about the “inscrutable” rabies virus. (Photo: Christ University)
Dr Rita Mani of NIMHANS spoke about the “inscrutable” rabies virus. (Photo: Christ University)

Dr Reeta Mani of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) took the stage to shed light on the “inscrutable” rabies virus. This disease claims 20,000 lives annually in India; that’s one-third of all the deaths around the world on account of rabies! Yet the disease remains “neglected”. Thus far, there is no known cure for rabies, and neither is there a clear understanding of how rabies kills.

Dr Meenakshi D’Souza, associate professor at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru, held a session on the mathematics behind computer science. Through her talk, she sought to establish the possibilities as well as limitations of computers, and took us through the timeline of the computer’s life.

Dr Sudeshna Adak, chief executive officer of Omix Research and Diagnostic Lab Private Limited, spoke about the crisis brought on by the growing resistance of micro-organisms to antibiotics. Microbes are smart, so they evolve and learn to resist antibiotics. This resistance can even be transferred from one organism to another, making this a dangerous problem for society.

Dr Dipshikha Chakravortty of the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) explained how pathogens outsmart human beings. “Man smart, woman smarter, bacteria smartest,” said the professor, borrowing the phrase from a colleague.

Dr Prerna Sharma of the Department of Physics at IISc spoke about entropy-driven phase transitions in colloidal systems, making the argument that phase transitions driven by entropy are ubiquitous.

Too often discussions about women’s participation in fields like science, cinema, and the military get restricted to the politics of the issue. By putting the spotlight on women scientists and giving them a platform to share their passion for science with young students, substance was given precedence over style. In that, the conference was certainly a step in the right direction.

Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.


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