Inferior & SDG5 | Additional Material

As a lead up to the event with Angela Saini on Inferior, we interviewed some women scientists in India at different phases of their career.

Aanchal Bhatia

Aanchal Bhatia is a freshly minted PhD from Upinder Bhalla’s lab at National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore. She shines light on brain cells to uncover secrets of their connectivity.

  • In what position are you currently working and where?

Currently, I am a bridging Postdoctoral Fellow at Dr. Upinder Bhalla’s lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS, TIFR).

  • How did you get into Science and Research?

During my Bachelors degree, I became fascinated with how the brain works. Since NCBS had a number of neuroscience labs, I joined the NCBS PhD program directly after my Bachelors in Science.

  • In the context of your work what motivates you?

I really enjoy learning new things and making connections between concepts. During days when I am able to get into this process, work becomes so enjoyable that the time of the day or whether I am at home or at work doesn’t make a difference.

  • Have you experienced equal opportunities for professional growth during your career?

In my time as a PhD student at NCBS, I felt that there were enough opportunities to grow and did not feel an imbalance in growth opportunities based on the gender of a person.

  • What is  your most positive work-related memory? This encounter could be with a person, a book, a teacher, a radio show, a news clipping from the paper.

The most positive memories of my scientific career are the times I spent discussing work and coming up with new ideas with my collaborator. Other than this, the countless discussions with colleagues in the canteen and late night discussions in the hostel were an important part of my growth as a scientist.

  • While a lot has been done towards gender equality we still face gender-based inequalities at many levels. Do you agree with that and if so, where and why do you think we are unable to bridge these gaps? 

We need more women in senior positions. This would help young women picture themselves in the roles where they currently only see men. And secondly, by having women in the decision-making positions, I think, the infrastructure of the system can be made such that it is more supportive of women.

Sonia Sen

Sonia Sen completed her PhD in developmental neurobiology from the National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India. She did her post-doctoral work at the Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland, Station Biologique de Roscoff, France, and the University of Oregon, USA. Sonia’s research interests have been in the development and evolution of the brain. Her group at the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS) works towards understanding the spatial cues that initially diversify and then maintain neural stem cell identities to therefore control neural circuits in the brain. With this understanding, Sonia’s group aims to reverse engineer specific neurons of choice – an as yet un-achieved goal that has held back neural stem cell therapies from realizing their full potential.

  • How did you get into Science/Research?

It was a messy mixture of accidents and self-indulgence! I had no plan, only a desperate need to never be bored and to always make sure I was having a good time.

  • Did your access to education, and your upbringing play a role in choosing to be a scientist? If so, it would be wonderful if you can share some of this experience with us.

I was five when I met my first scientist. Initially, it did not go down well. Although I was gloriously impressed with her lab in the basement with its mysterious paraphernalia, my five-year old’s sense of justice was deeply offended that she used animal models in her experiments. It took a while, but we eventually settled it amicably. I wrote her a poem about the Witch in the Dungeon and she gracefully accepted it. She has been part of my life and science ever since.

Like her, there have been many others. Wonderful, devoted teachers at school and college, who put all their energy into keeping generations of wildly different young minds engaged and active. They have stayed with me throughout my life. Access to education is access to such people and there can never be enough of them.

  • What is your personal relationship with your work?

I absolutely love what I do! I love it for the people I get to work with and for the questions we together address in the lab. I love plotting projects together and watching them take shape. And I love that when we hit a wall, everyone pitches in to figure it out.

  • Have you experienced professional growth/equal opportunities for professional growth during your career?

In any profession there are two types of company you can find yourself in. The first type underestimates what you think you’re capable of and the second believes you’re capable of far more than what you have pinned yourself at. I have had a healthy mixture of both, but the latter have been like catapults for my career. I appreciate this hugely and it can only be paid forward.

  • What was the most helpful encounter/positive memory in your scientific career? This encounter could be with a person, a book, a teacher, a radio show, a news clipping from the paper.

It is impossible to single out any one encounter because I’m convinced that we draw on every single lived experience as we navigate our professional lives – whether it’s a course we took, a play we acted in, a run-in with a stranger, or a hike.  So, what I have learned to value is attentiveness in any encounter. This quality is easily lost as we accumulate responsibilities and it is worth reminding ourselves of it frequently.

  • While a lot has been done towards gender equality we still face gender-based inequalities at many levels. Do you agree with that and if so, where and why do you think we are unable to bridge these gaps? 

We have a long way to go to achieve true gender equality, and we’ll know we are there there when we don’t have to talk about it anymore. As individuals we tend to be the centre of our worlds. So, when we read an article about a work-place discrimination, we naturally identify with the victim. In reality, each of us has likely been at both the receiving and perpetuating end of the scenario. So, all of us – men and women – need to stop and ask ourselves whether our own actions are perpetuating inequality. And even if we think they are not, we must ask ourselves the next question – are our actions actively supporting and promoting women? Intellectually, we are all cheerleaders of equality. We now need to show that our actions reflect our intellect.

  • Lastly, do you have a favorite book? If so could you tell us why you love it?

My reading habit has changed dramatically recently – I find myself reading many books in parallel (not any faster unfortunately)! So, by my bedside, there is usually a book in the science writing category and there’s always some pure fiction. Some excellent science writing I’ve read recently are She Has her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer, Early Indians by Tony Joseph and Mosquito Empires by John Robert McNeill. Well written books in this category have an important place in society. Without them, scientists would write only for other scientists, and that spells doom for both science and society.


Rohini Godbole

Rohini Godbole is a theoretical particle physicist and currently Honorary Professor at the Indian Institute of Science. She has held research positions in multiple Universities in Europe, the most recent one being the Van Der Waals Chair at the University of Amsterdam. Rohini has worked extensively on different aspects of particle phenomenology over the past three decades which led her to being an elected fellow of all the three science academies of India. Rohini has contributed to the progress of women in Science in India, not only by being an absolute role model but also by pioneering a variety of programs to raise awareness on the subject of Women in Science. 


  • How did you get into science and research?

For me getting into science and research was to some extent as simple as going into seventh standard after you finish the sixth.  I did not have to undergo any struggles per se’. I had won the National Science Talent Search Scholarship (more like the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana of today). In my immediate family we had a few (men) engineers and doctors, but absolutely nobody in science doing research, so certainly there were no role models. One had only heard about the Bhabhas and Ramans. I was quite well read for my age but the real early reading was more literary than scientific. But still one had read about the lives of Edison, Tesla as well as some of the Indian Heroes of Sciences (when I was about 11 or 12).

In my immediate family we were four sisters and our parents let us make our own choices and supported us when they were convinced of the correctness of the choice. Our (girls’) school did not teach General Science till the seventh grade, but rather Home Science. No one from our school used to win the ‘State Scholarship’ (ten for the whole state of Maharashtra in 1964 or so) since there was only one paper in science. My teachers taught me extra classes on weekends and I was the first girl from the school to win the scholarship. So that is where the seeds were sown!

  • Did access to education, and your upbringing play a role in choosing to be a scientist? If so, it would be wonderful if you can share some of this experience with us.

Indeed my access to education and upbringing were absolutely crucial. My math teacher, seeing that I was interested in mathematics and science,  introduced me to her husband who used to teach science in another school. He was my first science teacher, always encouraging my curious questions and directing me to sources of information. I was brought up in a family of four daughters, by parents who were highly intelligent – one an economist and one a linguist. The endless discussions and debates in the house were certainly responsible for developing a habit of questioning, understanding issues not just in science but more generally in life. The critical attitude that one developed due to these conversations was invaluable. Even more important was a family which absolutely adored scholarly pursuits and academic discussions. For example, my parents were not affected by the comments of my extended family, that sending a 21-year-old girl to the USA for four or five years was not such a great idea (in 1974). Their worry was that it would be difficult to find me a suitable match after I spend so many years abroad. What I further admire about my family is that when I came back to India after my Ph.D. my family understood my decision to first ‘settle’ in my profession before I ‘settle’ in my life. The second settling being the euphemism for marriage and children. I had the full support of my family at all stages when I took decisions which were perhaps not so traditional: like my ex-husband and I lived in two different countries for most of our married life, with us travelling back and forth, except for a period of two years when my husband lived in India and the time I spent in Europe where he had a job.

  • Have you experienced professional growth/equal opportunities for professional growth during your career?

This is a difficult question. I grew up in an India where having a research career was not easy (1979 is when I began my research career after my Ph.D.) for anybody, man or woman.  So I guess the opportunities were not denied out of hand, only because of gender, for sure.

  • What was the most helpful encounter/positive memory in your scientific career? This encounter could be with a person, a book, a teacher, a radio show, a news clipping from the paper.

I, a young person, (who had not yet got a job she liked) was visiting CERN, having dinner with another visitor there, telling him about some work that I had done recently and him inviting me to a seminar at his home university in Germany then and there! Or a year or two later, while I was still struggling to establish myself, a Japanese Physicist met me at a conference and asked me, ‘Are you the same Godbole who wrote such and such paper?’ On saying yes he bowed to me in the middle of Frankfurt Airport saying ‘I respect that paper!’ I think events like this did wonders to my self confidence!

  • While a lot has been done towards gender equality we still face gender-based inequalities at many levels. Do you agree with that and if so, where and why do you think we are unable to bridge these gaps? 

I agree that a lot has been done towards gender equality but we still face inequalities at many levels. According to me this is because most, if not all, measures to address this issue are from the point of view of solving women’s problems and helping poor women continue their work in science. I think all of us who want to discuss the needs and means of achieving gender equality (institutes, governments and scientists) should not lose the sight of the following things:

  1. It is not equality that we need to discuss but equity. There is a need to increase the number of women in science, but small numbers are just a symptom. Increasing the numbers will not cure the problem. Even more important than achieving numbers (whether equal or equitable) is the need to get the scientific community to internalise the need for gender equity. We need to consciously accept that there are unconscious biases and then work actively towards dispelling them.
  2. The number of women in positions of power (or decision-making positions) within a particular sector, should be in proportion to the women in that sector overall.

We have come a long way since people thought that creches were required only if one had above a certain percentage of women faculty. Now it is the men employees who are some of the major users of creches in the big institutes in India. We still seem to think that the solutions to having more women in science are long leaves for child care, flexi times for family responsibilities, providing ways to come back to a life in science after a break and retooling oneself (science journalism, science communication). The real schemes will be those which enable efficient participation and which are also gender neutral. That is, schemes are made available for partners of both gender to follow the other as opportunities for good jobs in research  are really limited. The presumption that it is the wife who will follow the husband (even in description of the schemes) makes clear the changes that need to be brought about in implementing schemes to bring about gender equity. Bringing about gender equity should be an integral part of science policies even though one would need to institute special programs to that end. For example the career advancement schemes, like INSPIRE (Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research) faculty programs, should look at academic age and not physical age, allowing for breaks in career for both men and women. Sensitising  the scientific community (students, faculty, administration) in places of higher education and research about the invisible bias is also the way forward to achieve gender equity.

We have law-mandated SASHA (Support Against Sexual Harassment) workshops but they clearly and specifically deal only with sexual harassment. They are not taken seriously and people think that once that is done, their job is over.

  • Lastly, do you have a favorite book? If so could you tell us why you love it?

I think there are quite a few in this list. I will tell you about two which I read recently and loved. 

  1. What Stars are Made of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin by Donavan Moore

A biography of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who was the first to observe that stars are made of hydrogen! The foreword to What Stars are Made of is written by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and I would like to share a few words from the end of the foreword. Near the end of her life Cecilia wrote about what had enabled her to be so successful: “I have reached a height that I should never, in my wildest dreams, have predicted 50 years ago. It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.” And in response Jocelyn Bell Burnell wrote, “Yes, Cecilia; I know!”

Both the women are astrophysicists/astronomers. You may know Jocelyn Bell Burnell, born in 1943, as the person who missed out on a Nobel Prize. Her supervisor got the prize for the work she did in her Ph.D. She was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Cecilia Payne Gopashnik was born in 1900, half a century before Jocelyn. She worked in the Harvard Observatory, but almost always in lowly paid positions and made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the Universe. She was a scientist par excellence and remained true to her purpose of pursuit of knowledge in spite of all the hardships. She too began her fundamental discoveries in her Ph.D. days. I found her life highly inspirational.

2. The Joy Of Insight: Passions Of A Physicist by Victor Weisskopf.

It is a wonderful description of how science is done, and what is meant by a life in science. I loved it because it described an era in fundamental physics which is full of heady discoveries in theoretical physics, and hence has a very special meaning to a particle physicist. In fact right now I am a member of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel of  the Department of Energy in the USA, which was founded by him. Victor Weisskopf played a very important role not just in the development of science, but later also as a very able (the first or perhaps second) Director General of CERN in Geneva, which contributed to the re-growth of theoretical science in Europe after the second World War.  His intelligence and humanity brings out the many aspects of the developments in fundamental physics, including the  ethical/societal aspects of science while discussing world peace in the shadow of an atom bomb.