Celebrating Women in STEM, Medicine, Education and Entrepreneurship

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, an event was organised at IISc to celebrate the triumphs and trials of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine, Education, Entrepreneurship. The goal was to showcase inspiring stories of women leaders who have been trailblazers in their respective fields.

The morning session began with a talk by Nigar Shaji, Project Leader of the Aditya L1 Mission at ISRO. She traced her formative years growing up in Tamil Nadu, being inspired by stories of famous scientists like Marie Curie and the strong support she had from her family for her aspirations. She also highlighted the hurdles she had to overcome, stressing on the need to keep trying even if results take time.

The second talk was by Pratima Murthy, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) which turned 50 this year. Her talk showcased various inspirational figures in her home, school and college lives. She also spoke about the importance of women in STEM having networks of support, giving examples of how she worked with colleagues to steer challenges at NIMHANS, especially during COVID-19.

The next talk featured GC Anupama, Senior Professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. A self-confessed fan of machines and telescopes, she took the audience through various astronomy facilities such as the Vainu Bappu Observatory in Kavalur, Tamil Nadu, and the Indian Astronomical Observatory at Hanle, Ladakh. She pointed out how astronomers in India are doing great science and are being recognised globally for their efforts.

Sujatha Narayan, Senior Vice President and Regional Leader, Wabtec Corporation, was the next speaker. Speaking from decades of experience in the corporate sector, she emphasised the importance of a supportive family and ecosystem, the need to step out and grab opportunities and not wait for them to fall in place, and the significance of holding on to courage during difficult times.

The final talk of the morning session was by Vidita Vaidya, Professor at the Tata institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. She regaled the audience with humorous stories of failures that happened during the early years of setting up her lab, and how they shaped her research career. Advising the audience to “roll with the punches,” she ended by emphasising that one should take their work seriously but not themselves seriously.

The afternoon session started off with a panel discussion. The panel was moderated by Kajoli Krishnan, industrial physicist, and included several women researchers from IISc: Madhavi Latha, Prabhdeep Kaur, Chandni U, Rathna G N, Vaanathi Sundaresan, and Garima Jindal. Kajoli asked what each of the panellists thought about innovation, to which the answers varied from coming up with new ideas and doing things differently to creating solutions for everyday problems.

The panellists also shared stories about their work and learnings from professional experiences. They were also asked about what changes they have witnessed when it comes to women empowerment. One common challenge some of them pointed out was the initial lack of facilities, like separate restrooms for women, in research spaces, which has changed now. The panellists also acknowledged the efforts of their colleagues and peers in ensuring that coming generations do not need to deal with the same challenges.

Kajoli Krishnan ended the panel with an open question about whether an International Women’s Day is required in this day and age. The answer was a resounding “yes.” The need for both genders to come together on common platforms was also discussed.

The final two speakers for the day were Suman Mishra, Director of CSIR-CGCRI, and Gagandeep Kang, Director of the Division of Global Health, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Suman Mishra detailed her life as a scientist, remembering that back then, she had to pore over abstracts of multiple papers in the library to come up with her own original thesis. This also allowed her to read widely and understand the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. She ended her talk by motivating the students in the audience to keep going as one day, someone, somewhere will recognise their work.

Gagandeep Kang spoke about her days as a student at Christian Medical College, Vellore. Apart from her studies, she also spent time building props, which helped her develop problem-solving skills. She went on to share her research on Rotavirus and on studying malnourishment in children, as well as her experience during COVID-19. She concluded her talk by saying that scientists should be open to asking for help from their friends and colleagues when they are stuck on a problem.

The event concluded with a short speech by Usha Vijayraghavan, Dean, Division of Biological Sciences, IISc, who ended by saying, “Let these stories trickle down to your labs; let them know how amazing it is to be a scientist or an engineer in the 21st century.”

The conveners of the event were Dheepa Srinivasan, Pratt & Whitney and Usha Vijayraghavan, IISc.