Three Indian-origin women scientists made it in the list of 60 Superstars of STEM list announced recently by the Australian government. These bright minds — Onisha Patel, Devika Kamath and Asha Rao — are born and brought up in India and have done pathbreaking work in the field of science. All three moved to Australia to pursue higher studies and wish to change the situation for younger girls back home.
Due to gender gap in STEM courses, the government there is planning to train these scientists for one year to become influencers for female students. Talking to indianexpress.com, Dion Pretorius, communications and policy manager said, “When a child is asked to draw a scientist, two out of three will draw a man. The women scientists work is not reported much by the media as well. The Department of Science and Technology, Australia aims to change this scenario by making deserving female scientists get proper visibility so that they can be a role model for girls who wish to take up STEM.”
Alchemy of stars and everything around it
Born in Cochin, Kerala, 32-year-old, Devika Kamath is researching where stars get the cosmos matter they are made of. “Our universe is mysterious. The elements in stars are made of same elements that make up our bodies and everything around us. My core research is tied to understanding the uncertain physics of stars and demystifying their alchemy. It brings to light the connection we share with the Universe and this I think is very fascinating for most people which could have made my research stand out,” said she.
Kamath wanted to pursue astrophysics in India but there were limited opportunities during those days. “When it comes to research, many Indian students face a lack of guidance. After this fellowship, I want to set-up a guidance initiative wherein I can help Indian students achieve what they want to in academics,” she said.
While she believes that her cultural diverseness and unique research topic could have got her through she also said that one has to break too many stereotypes to become a woman scientist. “Every girl is taught to keep family as top priority. Society is such that if a woman pursues a career and that too in a male-dominated field, she has to overcome several challenges and break stereotypes,” she said.
Finding cure of cancer
While growing up in Ahmedabad, Onisha Patel loved science and arts but did not know what structural biology was until she took admission in RMIT University, Australia. Though many questioned her parents’ decision to enrol their girl child in Science, Patel’s family was supportive. “My dad told me about Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and that she went to Australia in the 1970s to study brewing which was a very non-traditional career path. This inspired me to pursue higher studies outside India,” said Onisha who moved to Australia in 1998 in search of better opportunities in science.
Today her research has the potential to generate a cure for many cancers including breasts. She is investigating how proteins work inside human bodies and based on the information will design novel therapeutics for cancer.
While she believes the education system in India has changed since her childhood, there is still a need to have more female role-models to motivate young girls to take up STEM. “I am very passionate about promoting art and science and I wish students are encouraged to combine creativity with curiosity to keep them interested in STEM. Every student has the ability to learn. What is important is to encourage them to think and generate ideas. When students are comfortable with failing, they will become more creative and confident to tackle challenging problems,” she said.
Making mathematical science in fraud detection
Asha Rao is a cyber mathematics expert and specialises in detection of money laundry. She teaches mathematical science at the RMIT University. She has participated in the fourth United Nations Intergovernmental meeting on cybercrime held recently.
Rao also teaches at the universities and her classes have more boys than girls. “Gender gap in STEM courses is as much a reality in Australia as in India. There are lesser women who pursue STEM in higher education and even fewer women in senior-level jobs. Most of this is because of societal pressure. Female students do not see themselves pursuing STEM and that needs to be changed,” she said. “We need to make young women believe in themselves and make STEM an interesting field for both boys and girls.”
Rao believes that if students are motivated to do their best, it would solve the issue of unskilled graduates. “It is important to establish a personal relationship with every student in a class. I tend to call students by their first name and motivate them based on their performance. Even if a student has scored average marks but better than before, I congratulate them and give feedback. This often motivates them and strikes conversations between teacher and students,” she said.
Keeping low enrollment of females in STEM courses in mind, Rao believes that it is important to show them the opportunities that are available around them. It is the society that has stereotyped certain courses and professions.