Monday, January 19, 2009

Vijaysree Venkatraman reviews "Lilavati's Daughters"

The review appears in Chemical and Engineering News, so do catch it before it vanishes behind a paywall. Here's an extended extract from her review:

[...] In India, a developing nation with few quality child care centers, reliable help comes from considerate grandparents, but this happens only when they don’t need care themselves. In the chapter “Why and How I Became a Scientist,” biochemist Maharani Chakravorty recalls taking her infant along to her workplace. “The poor child used to sit on the rubber sheet spread on the floor of the laboratory playing with test tube stands, right there in front of my working bench,” she writes. Some contributors to the book proudly mention in their essays the fact that their children have become researchers themselves. Sulochana Gadgil, a Harvard University-trained meteorologist, writes in the chapter “My Tryst with the Monsoon” that her mathematician son made critical contributions to two of her recent papers.

Without enlightened policies in the workplace, women scientists can find it hard to realize their potential. In this book, more than one woman mentions years of separation from her spouse because it was too difficult to get appropriate work in the same Indian city. In the chapter “She Was a Star,” the woes and achievements of Darshan Ranganathan, an organic chemist who was also married to one, are recounted by her husband. He writes that she languished as a research associate when he was a professor of chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK), because an unwritten rule forbids spouses from simultaneously holding faculty positions in the same department. “I am left with the wistful feeling that Darshan would have flowered more, much earlier, had she been offered a faculty position at IITK,” writes D. Balasubramanian, director of the L. V. Prasad Eye Research Institute, in a moving tribute to Ranganathan, who died of cancer in 2001 (Curr. Sci. 2001, 81, 217). The Indian National Academy of Science has instituted a biennial lecture in her memory.

Thanks to this book, aspiring women scientists in India can find role models closer to home. Readers with no connection to the subcontinent may enjoy many of the essays because few stories are more heartwarming than that of an underdog who wins against the odds. Clearly, many of these women were by no means favorites. One chapter is about a mathematician who, as a little girl, sported a turban and disguised herself as a boy to attend school. Her uncle, a village headman, thought that educating her was pointless and said so. A city school principal requested female students who had done well in the qualifying exams to give up their spot in science to boys because lab space was scarce. His reasoning was that women only have to work in the kitchen; a science education would be wasted on them.

Given this milieu, what these women have accomplished in the rarefied field of research is nothing short of amazing. The book acknowledges their lonely struggles. Although this anthology has no manifesto, nearly every essay hints at the fact that the establishment can do more to accommodate highly qualified women who want a career in pure science. Open-minded policymakers in India looking for ways to retain talent in research institutes can certainly find some answers here. And despite cultural differences, readers from elsewhere are likely to find unexpected resonances in these narratives on and by women scientists. That is, in part, a testimony to the universality of a life in science. Sadly, it also reveals the ubiquity of the bias faced by women pursuing this demanding vocation.