In science, you also need to be lucky to hit upon an interesting problem.



Early Life

I grew up in a middle class household in Pune. My father studied politics and economics upto B.A. but had to discontinue his studies, despite winning a scholarship, due to financial constraints. My mother studied upto 2nd year of college but despite being first in Sanskrit and winning a scholarship at BHU, she got married due to social constraints. My mother finished her B.A. and M.A. after we four sisters were born. As you can see, education was a very important aspect of life in my family and we were all encouraged to excel. The seeds of my life in science were sown when I decided to appear for the ’State Scholarship Examination’ which used to be conducted in 7th grade. The examination had a paper in ’General Science’. Since my venerable and highly reputed girls’ school taught only ’Home Science’ till the 7th grade, it was not a surprise that no student from my school had gotten this scholarship. My teachers agreed to teach me outside the school hours and on holidays. My math teacher (Mrs. Sowani) asked me to come to her house as her husband (Bhau Sowani) was known to be an excellent science teacher. Not only did he teach me things that I needed to know to succeed in the examination but he opened my eyes to the world of science in general. He pointed me to a popular science magazine called ’Srishti Dnyan’ in Marathi, nurtured my interest in mathematics and encouraged me to participate in science essay competitions. Incidentally, I did get the scholarship (only 10 were given). I was mighty proud as the amount was just 1 INR less than my school fee. After my B.Sc. from Pune University, I applied to IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur. IIT Kanpur was rated a little higher for physics at that time, so I wanted to go there. But my parents said, look, if you fall ill, we can come to Bombay in 4 hours. If you are in Kanpur, it will take us 19 hours. So that’s why I opted for IIT Bombay. I must add that I was able to join IIT only because of the National Science Talent Scholarship, of Rs 200 or 250 per month (a princely sum at the time!). My father would not have been able to spend that much money on me, in spite of the fact that he was a high ranking government officer, I had three siblings and salaries back then were modest indeed!

Life at IIT Bombay

Coming from a Marathi medium college in Pune I was worried about fitting in. How will I speak in English? This was a far bigger insecurity in me than being a woman in STEM. There was also a marked difference between the way a subject was taught in IIT vs the university. Quizzes, home assignments, open book exams - these were all new to me. The B.Tech. girls in the hostel (called LH: the Ladies Hostel) were also not much help as they continuously wondered whether our ‘fundaas’ were ‘gol’! I dare say this impression changed reasonably quickly. We had our share of fun as well. Lakeside walks, Sahyadri treks, listening to songs in the night in Mood Indigo, seeing Hindi and English films in the Convo... Intellectually, the atmosphere was great and so were some of the teachers. Professor S. H. Patil in particular has been a big influence. If I’m a theoretical physicist today, it is because of the ‘home paper’ that I did with him which made me see the beauty in the subject. I had to work quite hard to reach up to his standards. We were a class of 17, just 3 girls, but we never ever faced any hostility or any bad treatment from our classmates. To be frank, gender was simply never an issue which affected our interactions. I have checked with my classmates (both male and female) and they agree with me. So this is not a fanciful reconstruction. Most of the teachers did not discriminate either, at least not in any obvious way. Though when I told Prof Patil that I want to go abroad to do a PhD he said, “Why do you want to go abroad?” Whereas to my junior he said, “Why stay in India, you should go outside”. But when I said I have made up my mind, he wrote me a very good recommendation letter.

Professional Journey

I came back to India after my PhD in theoretical particle physics from Stonybrook University. If you look at it professionally, it was not a great decision. I should have done a postdoctoral fellowship after my PhD as I had offers in Europe and USA. But at that time I just wanted to be home. So I joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research as a post doctoral fellow (PDF). I published three papers in a journal called Physical Review Letters in the early days I spent in TIFR (it was like getting a paper in Nature, for physics). I was in my late 20s at the time. Post-TIFR, I worked briefly at the Royal Institute of Science (Mumbai) and then joined the University of Bombay as a lecturer. Even after joining the University of Bombay, I was very lucky to continue my collaborations with some senior collaborators at TIFR with whom wavelengths matched and also with the younger postdoctoral fellows and PhD students. There was no official MOU between the University of Bombay and TIFR but a true collaboration doesn’t need these formal things.

New Horizons in Physics

With the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012, physicists have a complete picture of all the fundamental particles that we know of. But at the same time, there is ‘dark matter’ for which we have no explanation. The other puzzle is the dominance of matter over anti-matter. So clearly, there is physics beyond the world of standard model, which is known as ‘BSM’ physics. One such model which I had worked on is called Supersymmetry. But the same Large Hadron Collider experiments which gave us the evidence for the Higgs have not given any evidence for the particles predicted in these models. So now we are also looking at cosmic microwave background radiation in the universe or light/ neutrinos/ gravitational waves coming from the stars and galaxies for answers. To make progress on this path we need experts in machine learning to handle the big data, theorists who explore the mysteries of gravitation, experimentalists who probe the universe and cosmos through multiwavelength astronomy. This is the decade of astroparticle physics.

Women in Science

The first international conference on Women in Physics was organized by International Union of Pure and Applied Physics in the year 2001. I was invited to speak about my experience as a woman physicist in India who had achieved some measure of success, and it resonated with the audience. Women from Ghana, Mauritius, Egypt came to me and said that when Western women talk, we feel that they are from a different culture. But when we listen to you, we feel - ‘if she can do it, we can do it too!’. This made me think that if we can share the stories of more women scientists from India, it can inspire young girls to be future scientists of India. So with Prof. Ram Ramaswamy I started a project on behalf of the Indian Academy of Sciences and its panel for ‘Women in Science’ of which I was the founding chair. We approached 200 women scientists and finally, 99 stories were published in a book called ‘Lilavati’s Daughters’. The title is a tribute to Lilavati, a female mathematician in ancient India, as per folklore. Since that time I have been working in a lot of fora to increase the participation of women in science and make it more effective.

Work-Life Balance

Apart from research, during the early days in Mumbai I used to teach women in a slum to read and write and I was also part of a group against nuclear weapons. I was not particularly interested in ‘settling down’. Luckily, my parents really supported me. Then I got the chance to go to Germany for a post-doctoral position. There, I met a German particle physicist Dr Marek Nowakowski and we got married. For 6-8 years, I was in India while he was in Europe. I would travel to Europe in summer, he came to India at Christmas time. I must say that was perhaps one of the toughest time in my life but also perhaps the most exciting. I had chosen to do this, so I didn’t feel the pressure. I did some of my most important work in this period. I constructed my own support bridges - like-minded friends and people who shared my passion. The only seriously negative part in this whole journey was that we postponed having children. And somehow, we didn’t have them. But I have nephews and nieces who I am very close to. And young students give me all the affection and the love I need. Dr Nowakowski and I had a beautiful partnership but at some point, we drifted apart. We are no longer married.

Advice to Young Women

Follow your dream. Choose a problem that excites you and not just what’s in fashion.