Bees, Books, Mars, Stardust – Women Matter
And no, they did not think that today’s education system prepared the students for a life in a creative field like science | Asha Gopinathan
On Mar 14, 2015


The fourth edition of the Café Scientifique was held in Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum on Thursday. To celebrate International Women’s Day and to honour Women’s History month, the focus was on Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). As the organizer, I was fortunate to find three highly qualified young women to come and speak to us about their science as well as their journey in the world of STEM.

Dr. Resmi Lekshmi, Assistant Professor in IIST spoke to us about the “Wonders of the Cosmos”. In fifteen minutes she got us deep into the world of stars and their eventual death. The idea of star debris becoming future planets and even flora or fauna appealed to many in the audience. “All of us are born of stardust,” concluded Resmi.

Dr. Hema Somanathan who works at IISER, Trivandrum gave us a peek into the fascinating world of insects. How do spiders spin their unique webs? Is this learning hard wired into their brains when they are born? She spoke of recent work with paper wasps which have shown that they can distinguish individual faces and even more amazing are the bees which can tell a Mondrian and Picasso painting apart! Some ants even teach one another. Next time you encounter a tiny insect with a few hundred neurons, do not scoff at it.

All photos by Asha Gopinathan

The last speaker of the night was Dhanya M B who works as a Scientist / Engineer in the Space Physics Lab in VSSC. She was part of the Mars Orbiter Mission as her team worked on the Martian Exosphere Composition Analyser (MENCA) as part of the payload of the Orbiter. Currently they are communicating with it daily and getting results which they are analysing. She expects that they will have some very original findings to report very soon.

Later the three panelists joined Alice Gauny, Director of Alliance Francaise for a discussion on what prompted them to join science and whether they had encountered any hurdles along the way.

Resmi spoke about growing up in a small village in Kerala where the Shastra Sahitya Parishad books and journals inspired her to become a scientist. As the daughter of two school teachers she did not face any discrimination while studying. She feels that the world of academia is more egalitarian than other professions. She is having a great time researching, teaching and giving talks at conferences all over the world. In her spare time she likes to go for hikes and read books.

Hema always knew she wanted to work with animals. She says that science requires long training, long work hours and one should only get into it if one is absolutely sure that you want to do just that. She is not sure if she successfully balances her work and personal life but seems to be managing all right.

Dhanya too seems to have found much encouragement along the way to be a physicist. Her first choice was to be a nuclear physicist but as fate would have it she landed a job in VSSC where they were doing space physics. So instead of micro atomic particles she now looks at macro scale objects. But she is very happy with her lab and feels she is learning a lot and contributing to ISRO’s mission. Her lab also has more women than men. All three stressed the need for hard work and perseverance to survive in the world of science.

The audience had many questions. Why India should spend so much money on the Mars Orbiter Mission. Dhanya convinced him by pointing out that it was the cheapest Mars voyage taken up by any country – actually cheaper per km than a trip from VSSC to Thampanoor! She also said that ISRO was sending payloads of other countries to space and thereby making money.

How many of their school friends were still in science? The answer was no one. So obviously there are a lot of drop outs for a variety of reasons. And no, they did not think that today’s education system prepared the students for a life in a creative field like science.

As the organiser of the event, I commented that one should not forget the contributions of women scientists which have led to major changes in scientific institutions where younger women scientists are beginning to feel accepted. I also cautioned that there is more isolation as they become senior and pointed out that to this day none of the IITs has a woman Dean or Director.

An Old Girls’ Club is being formed for women in STEM in Trivandrum to network and exchange ideas with one another. You can find out more about this by writing to me c/o Yentha. (anything@yentha.com)

The quiz of the day was won by little Nandini who is a junior school student in Central School, VSSC. Her wise parents had brought her and her older sister Pavai who is currently writing her board exams to this event as they knew it would inspire them more than any school text book. And girl, were they right!

About the author: Asha Gopinathan is a Neuroscientist, Consultant with GenSci-e-Tech, Trivandrum.

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