|AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY|
The National Science Talent scholarship summer schools also enabled me to meet other young students of my age interested in science. This was not true in my peer group at school (a girls' school where the majority of the good students chose medicine as a career option). This was an eye-opener to me and it was fun to meet other students who also wanted to discuss problems in physics. This enjoyment continued later in IIT Mumbai, where despite the pressures of tests and exams, I remember studying physics as a lot of fun. Stonybrook where I did my PhD was also more of the same. We had a wonderful peer group where we learnt a lot of physics and a lot about life from each other. I did my PhD in high energy physics, in the sub-field of grand unified theories, which seemed really exciting in those days. I had a reasonably good rapport with my PhD advisor, who was quite young, and did not have any bias against having a woman student (though he was pretty worried when I came back to India for a long break in my first year; he thought that I would get married and drop out!). But my real mentors were my fellow students; we all inspired and tested and taught each other!
In retrospect, I remember teachers at IIT who asked me whether I was really serious about going for a PhD when I asked them for recommendation letters. We were probably not being taken seriously by the faculty, but it made no difference to us. We were not particularly aware of or interested in what they thought of us. So I would say that at the early training level, there were hardly any obstacles that I had to overcome, except some caused by my own extreme shyness and fear. I was afraid of giving talks and speaking to people I did'nt know and perhaps could not have impressed people. However, since until the stage of going abroad, we were mainly being judged on written work, I did not suffer much.
The major obstacles in life came as we grew older and had to look for jobs. I got married to a fellow student in Stonybrook and both of us had to go for post-doctoral fellowships. My first post-doctoral fellowship was together with him, but after that it was difficult to get jobs together. We used to discuss physics, in the early years of our marriage, since that was one of our common interests and partly what had brought us together, but I had to be careful to work independently, so that I could be judged independently. We both wished to return to India, and did not look for jobs abroad. But in those days (the mid-to-late eighties), there were not too many institutes in India, and not too many jobs. There were archaic, unwritten, anti-nepotism rules which prevented a husband and wife from having jobs in the same place. I got a job at the Institute of Physics in Bhubaneswar and my husband got a job at the Tata Institute in Mumbai, two opposite corners of India. We were both career-oriented, so the choice between staying together and staying apart and taking up jobs at two different places was not hard to make. ( I must confess that I have had an exceptionally supportive family. My family-in-law in particular, never made me feel guilty for making this choice. ) However, having made the choice, life was not easy. Communication was difficult in those days. Neither of us had phones and the Information Technology era of emails and internet was still in the future. So was cheap air travel. Trains between the two cities would take about 40 hours. Besides living apart from my husband, even living alone in the small town that Bhubaneswar was in those days was not easy. I finally ended up staying in a guest house room on campus, and living a PhD student's life, 10 years after I had got my PhD!
This was when I also realised that it is a hard for a young woman faculty to be taken seriously by students and postdoctoral fellows who are close to her in age. Besides the kind of attention that a `single woman' (and young married women living apart fall in this category!) that is attracted, young women physicists are constantly being tested. Not having a loud voice or an aggressive personality is confused with not being confident about one's work. Finally, when I found that my achievements were belittled, my work and papers attributed to my husband by incompetent students and post-doctoral colleagues, whose egos could not stand a `female' teacher, I made a crucial decision to shift my field of research so that my husband and I would not be in the same field. This essentially made life more difficult for me, since a lot of my training in high energy physics and contacts abroad would no longer be useful and I would have to start all over again. But my temperament is such that I get bored quickly, so trying to be a student once again and learn condensed matter physics, was something which appealed to me. In the long run, I think this was a good decision. Condensed matter physics is a wide field, and there are a lot of different subfields in which one can get interested, and there are a lot of puzzles and problems to solve. Also, my early training has not gone to waste, because those insights and ways of thinking help in my current field too. But I must confess that I still retain my early love for high energy physics, and I keep myself informed about the field, even though I don't work in it any longer.
Finally, about 8 years after we returned to India, and 12 years after we got married, a new institute, Harish-Chandra Research Institute, opened up in Allahabad and in 1995, both my husband and I found jobs there. We are now well-settled and are now senior faculty. For women in particular, being senior helps quite a bit. One is no longer is being constantly judged. Students are much more respectful. I remember an incident in my early years of teaching, when one of my well-wishers among the students told me that when asked a question in class, my habit of trying to understand why and from what point of view the question was asked, and looking at the student and trying to gauge whether he or she has understood my answer and trying to rephrase it in several ways, was seen as a weakness and lack of confidence in the answer. I remember thinking about his point. But finally I told him that I did not wish to change my way, just because most of the male teachers did not behave that way and that the students would have to accept my way of teaching. Today, my style has been accepted and most students find me approachable and I also find it easy to interact with them. Most of us have also now been teaching for several years and teaching is something which definitely improves with effort and practise. I have also been lucky enough to have had good PhD students - I am grateful to my first PhD student, who was smart enough to be unbiased - and they have definitely helped in keeping me enthused about physics and in motivating me to learn about new subfields and new problems all the time. Over time, I have also realised that many politically and factually incorrect, damaging statements that young students and post-doctoral fellows make, do not reflect a deep-seated prejudice. A young student from Bhubaneswar who insisted that he did not go to listen to women lecture in physics, because his early experience with a few fellow women students convinced him that he has nothing to learn from women, ultimately ended up marrying a woman physicist, and one who is very serious about her career and doing better than him. One out of a group of young students at HRI who had argued with me that women are not good in physics, because all of them had sisters who were not good in physics, not only joined me as a PhD student, he also married a woman physicist!
But roughly until the late nineties I had not thought much about the question of women in physics. In 2001, I was asked by a colleague in TIFR to organise and collate a questionnaire regarding women in physics, prepared by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP). I had to present the results to an international working group on women in physics in Geneva. The questionnaire was sent to many women, but probably a biased sample, since it was essentially through a `colleagues' network. The results showed that most women physicists in India, including me, felt that there was no bias as such against women in physics in India, but that there were hurdles in getting ahead, mainly due to family problems. ( My own problems with some students, I attributed to my own diffident style of speaking, and also due to the fact that I was married to a `star' .) But after meeting the rest of the women in physics group in Geneva, and more so, after the International meeting on women in physics in Paris in 2002, we realised that if we look at the statistics of the number of women who start out doing a PhD and the number of women who end up in prestigious institutes, then it is clear that there is a huge leak, which cannot all be due to women dropping out due to family problems. It was then that I ( and other women physicists in my peer group) started wondering whether judgements regarding achievements of women physicists are unbiased, or whether there are some systematic problems faced by all women. Looking back, many of the women who were from the IIT's, realised that even when we were all getting top marks, we were often not considered the best and we ourselves also did not consider ourselves best. We began to realise that achievement often depends on expectation, and that many women physicists perhaps have achieved less than their potential.
From my own point of view, what I have enjoyed most regarding my now regular activities in women in physics, is that I get to meet many more women like me. This is difficult in our regular positions, because women are a minority in our research institutes. I have also had opportunities to speak about this issue now in colleges and Universities. Here, it is even more interesting to meet many more equally smart women physicists who may not have achieved as much career wise because they took different choices. What I have learnt is that many of them have achieved more than us in other spheres of life, sometimes in teaching physics and sometimes in family life. I have also learnt to appreciate many things in my own career development that I always took for granted. A supportive spouse, families (both natal and in-laws) who have not let me down or made me suffer because I was career-oriented and have not made sacrifices like many other women. Not all talented women have had the choices and opportunities that I have had.
What has sustained me in my career is that it is still a fun career. It is one of the few careers where one has no bosses, no definite time constraints and is free in many senses of the word. We are free to choose our fields, our problems and the ways we choose to tackle those problems. We are free to change our interests mid-career. Tomorrow, if I choose to work in some other area of physics or even biophysics, I am free to do so. All that the community expects of me is that I make a sincere effort to learn the new subject and then a sincere effort to do research and make my own contribution to knowledge in that field. And whether I am successful or not is judged by an international peer group. In which other career does one feel part of an international community? In which other career, can one visit so many different countries and not just as a tourist, but many times for much longer periods and get to know at least the physicists from that country? In which other profession can one constantly be in touch with young students and constantly be learning new things?
I hope that my experience as a woman physicist in India can help many more younger women make a career in physics. In my generation, the expectation still was that the wife's career would take a back-seat and that she would set aside her ambitions for her husband and family. Those of us who wanted to be different had to make difficult choices. Today, the job market and the academic scene is such that they cannot afford to let go of talented women. Institutes are no longer against hiring both members of a couple if both can contribute. With more women at the hiring level, we also can now make sure that there are no subtle and not so subtle biases at work. I hope that this means that there will be more and more women physicists in the research institutes in the years to come.
If I had to restart my career now, would I still choose physics? Definitely yes. I still feel that it is one of the most logical subjects and teaches one to think about everything under the sun. What would I do differently if I had to start all over again? I would definitely be far less sensitive to the comments which hurt me as a young woman. I would be less afraid of working on what I liked, less afraid of making mistakes, and less afraid per se! But perhaps this is something only a senior woman can say. Other than that, I guess I am quite content with life as a physicist in India and would'nt trade it for any other profession!