In India, it is noticed that a woman researcher, especially in the field of science, finds it difficult to take her career forward after marriage. But of late, at least in Kerala, women scientists have been clawing their way back to their domains with the help of a programme called ‘Back-to-Lab’ introduced by the Kerala State Council of Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE).
It aims to grant a research and a post-doctoral fellowship to women researchers in Kerala who are 50 years old or younger and has had a break of more than a year. She should have at least two years of research experience and should be a postgraduate in a basic/applied science or other professional course.
The programme provides a financial grant up to `30 lakh. Researchers find a scientist mentor with more than five years of research experience and is a permanent faculty at a reputed research institution. Together, they formulate a project proposal, which is reviewed by five experts chosen by KSCSTE. If at least three of them give a go-ahead, the researcher gets to make a presentation before an advisory committee appointed by KSCSTE, to get approval for the grant.
The reason for introducing the programme is not a dearth of woman scientists, says KSCSTE Executive Vice-President Suresh Das. “There is a reasonably high number of women scientists in Kerala. Recently, directors from various IISERs (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research) commented that a large percentage of women who come to their institutes are from Kerala and they keep the gender balance healthy.
“What this programme should do is mentor the participants to be ready for leadership positions,” he says, adding that KSCSTE will review the programme and the papers published by the researchers and see how the council can help support the fellows better.
The programme has supported 20 projects since its inception in 2010. KR Lekha, who heads the Women Scientists Division of KSCSTE, is elated that the first fellow of the programme got a job and could complete her PhD because of Back-to-Lab. The fellows who are currently part of the programme also vouch for its benefits. However, if it had not been for their inherent strength, the programme would not have made much of a difference.
Going the extra mile
Manju C Nair was the first to complete the programme. In 2010, when she enrolled for the programme, her son was two years old and she had to carry the baby to the forests for her research. The samples of plants to be used in her research were all in Eravikulam National Park, Silent Valley and other forests in northern Kerala where the nearest road would be a couple of hours away. Her research, Systematic Studies on Bryophytes of Northern Western Ghats in Kerala, led her to discover two new species of Bryophytes (a lower form of plants, like mosses, which do not have complex tissues).
Manju does not think it is much of a struggle to juggle her career as a researcher and her responsibilities as a family person. Still, for the lay person who is not a mother, a wife, a daughter and a researcher, all at the same time, it does look like an extraordinary struggle.
Speaking about why her research is important and what made her go the extra mile, Manju says, “Only one per cent of the biodiversity in India has been reported. When we know exactly what we have, we can utilise the knowledge better. Such research is important, because it helps us appreciate the biodiversity in our country.”
She says the financial assistance of the Back-to-Lab programme helped her procure the instruments needed for the project. This included a microscope to which a digital camera could be attached, which cost `3 lakh.
She feels the research enriched her resumé. While working with a scientist-mentor at Malabar Botanical Garden for the ‘Back-to-Lab’ research, she got a job at Zamorin’s Guruvayoorappan College as assistant professor. Manju also completed her PhD during this time.
Chasing a dream
According to Sreebha AB, a 32-year-old researcher, the number of people in India who research the use of holography to make cost-effective solar panels is less than 50. Needless to say, finding a guide who would mentor a researcher in the area was tough, says Sreebha. “Moreover, at that time, Kerala University did not have facilities for advanced research in Optometrics,” she adds.
However, Sreebha, having successfully created a holographic recording material while pursuing MPhil, was determined to continue the research.
She not only found an expert in the field to be her guide, but also the necessary lab facilities. The guide owned a company making holography products. She registered for PhD in 2010. That is just one part of the story of Sreebha’s perseverance.
Her nine-to-five schedule being packed with her work at the company, she needed to work extra hours to do her PhD research. But she had to take a break after the birth of her baby in 2011, but when she returned to the company, she could no longer spare time for her after-hours research, and had to quit her job.
Now, Sreebha has made a comeback and is continuing her PhD work. By this time, Kerala University had set up the necessary infrastructure, like a powerful laser equipment and a vibration isolation table, at its Kariavattom campus. With the financial assistance from the Back-to-Lab programme, Sreebha has been able to buy some of the tools for her research, like splitters, holders, bases and mirrors.
The topic she has chosen has great commercial significance, as the solar panels available today are bulky and costly. Sreebha says, “We need a 2x2 metre square panel to generate enough power for a heater to work.”
However, if we can concentrate light from a larger area, to a panel of a smaller size, then the cost of the panel will reduce.
“Conventionally, we have been using convex lens to act as a solar concentrate. But we need a lens with a larger aperture, to make sure more light falls on the panel. The holographic material, made to act like a lens, is flat,” says Sreebha.
So the solar panel will be smaller in size, less in cost and would not need a tracking device to follow the Sun as it can trap light from any direction. This could pave the way for solar power revolution, with us being least dependent on conventional power generators.
Committed to society
The word ‘Endosulfan’ brings to mind nightmarish images of crippled babies and ghost towns where people have died young. Imagine walking among the victims. In 2010-2011, Jesitha K was part of a project by Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode, in which they did a base study of monitoring pesticide residues.
Her visits to Muliyar, Periya and other affected areas in Kasargod were what prompted her to research on the removal of pesticides from the soil.
Jesitha chose ‘The persistence of Endosulfan and its degradation by Biotic and Abiotic Factors’ as her research topic, when she registered for the Back-to-Lab programme. She has now registered for PhD in Calicut University, and has been working with a scientist at CWRDM, studying pesticide residues and removal in Kerala.
The Back-to-Lab programme did not just help her with the financial assistance. “There were numerous reviews at the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment, before my project proposal was accepted. This helped me get attuned to research as we had to modify our proposal based on their feedback. Since I started research after a break, I needed this support,” says Jesitha.
She says that since the programme insists that researchers get papers published, they get a lot of exposure. The work Jesitha did with her scientist mentor, PS Harikumar, has been published in journals like Current Science and Springer.
While programmes like ‘Back-to-Lab’ have given a fillip to women scientists in Kerala, similar initiatives are much needed to rekindle the spirit of research and discovery in other States.