The lab hoppers: chronicling the lives of women scientists across India
New Delhi: They call themselves the lab hoppers as they travel across the country to write about women scientists, their research and the challenges they face. In March, they created a website called ‘The Life of Science’ which would work as a repository, showcasing the work of one woman scientist every week. The aim is to hasten gender equality in science and discard the popular image of the scientist as a bearded man in a dusty laboratory shaking test tubes.
Nandita Jayaraj, 27, and Aashima Dogra, 29, worked for a children’s science magazine called Brain Wave. After the magazine folded due to funding problems, both embarked on a new journey. Since March, they have profiled at least 18 women scientists from cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Varanasi, Jaipur and Kalimpong.
“The focus is to bring out the voices of average women in science and not just the achievers. This is the hard part because it is hard to find information to work with. These women won’t get recognition, but they are carrying out research of their own and training future girl scientists,” said Jayaraj.
In a report in April titled ‘Where are India’s female scientists’, it was noted that even though there has been a rise in the enrolment of women in graduate programmes in pure sciences, from 7.1% in 1950-51 to 40% in 2009, women in faculty positions only make up around 15% of the total.
Dogra and Jayaraj, who have been students of science themselves, do not have a strict set of questions that they ask the scientists, but they find that inevitably certain trends emerge from the stories.
“After profiling these women scientists, there are certain key trends that emerge. One such is ‘support’. Almost all the scientists used it saying the support of their families or their spouses made it possible for them to come this far, which is great. But the flip side to this is that women who do not get such support from their families probably do not make it this far,” said Jayaraj.
Dogra and Jayaraj have written in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) on their findings after talking to women scientists—the support of families and the impact of raising children on their careers, among others. Their stories also focus on explaining the scientific research carried out by the scientists they profile and their motivations to pursue research.
In one of their recent stories, Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, eloquently describes her motivation to pursue scientific research. “You know that transient moment when you find something that, in that moment, you’re the only one in the world who knows? That feeling is addictive.”
While the two intend to continue lab hopping across the country, tracking more scientific research, challenges are beginning to emerge.
“We are trying to get funding as we want to continue doing this. All the travelling and the website, we have done using our own savings. So it is getting tough. What is important for us is to continue this project as there are all kinds of trends filtering out of these scientists’ stories and maybe we could write a book in the future,” said Dogra, hinting at a comic strip based on these stories in the future.