Uma Ramakrishnan (right) in the field. Photo: Sridhar Reddy/NCBS-TIFR.
Flashback to a young me, aged 10, in class V. I wondered, why don’t people think of me as an individual or a person, before they think of me as a girl? I am comfortable with my gender identity in my personal life. Professionally, I am not sure I see myself as a ‘woman scientist’; I am simply a scientist. Someone curious about the world, obsessed with understanding what is happening in nature and willing to go to (pretty much) any lengths to find out! Of course, I am a woman, and a woman in science.
I have worked for 16 years as a molecular ecologist at a reputed national institute in India and have enjoyed many parts of it. My research work has involved a combination of field-work and lab-work and population genetic and evolutionary analyses. Through these years, I have explored wild tiger populations across the country.
My lab colleagues and I have walked and driven thousands of kilometres through protected areas across India. We have collected and analysed (in the lab) whatever biological material tigers leave for us, including faecal samples, hair and saliva. We have shown that in some landscapes, tigers are isolated (like Ranthambore Tiger Reserve) while in others they are connected (like tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra).
We have suggested interventions that will continue to facilitate connectivity. Our work on biogeography – the science of understanding why certain species are in certain places – has allowed us to understand the distribution of biodiversity across India. We have uncovered how the deep valleys of the Western ghats correlate with speciation for high elevation birds. Our research suggests the Himalaya seem to be a place that mammals have colonised but have not speciated in.
Our journey of discovery led us to our most recent work, on emerging infectious diseases and the interface between wildlife and humans, including bats in northeast India and rodents in the Western ghats.
There have been amazing times. We have worked in most states in India! For an Indophile like me, this has been as heavenly as the patterns we uncover. Close your eyes and imagine this. Driving in the early morning on a bumpy road, the uniquely Indian scent of mud dusted with dew, and the possibility of a day. Will we see tigers? How many samples will we find? And what will these samples tell us about these animals? Will that information help us understand what may secure their future?
These resplendent moments filled with hope are the best parts of science for me. Wonder and curiosity, and the hope of solving a mystery.
Like all long quests, it is the journey itself that counts. The best parts of my journey have been the co-conspirators – the many amazing students and postdocs I have had the opportunity to work with. I always remember those first interactions, and what caught my attention about a particular student.
I have walked the long and arduous road of a PhD many times with my students, rejoiced in their strengths, cringed as they realise weaknesses, but always coming out strong, ready to fly and take on the world. I have been humbled by how much I learned about life and science as a mentor. I feel lucky to participate in the growth of so many young people.
Like anything in life, it is hard at times to balance everything. I sometimes wonder at administrative meetings, why am I here? Shouldn’t I be home with my daughters? Shouldn’t I be discussing the latest results with my student? Shouldn’t I be writing my next grant?
Once, while discussing the future of the institution and student admissions, I felt my scalp tingle. Before I knew it, I was scratching vigorously. My colleague sitting next to me noticed and asked if something was wrong. That evening, I realised I had contracted head lice from my younger daughter. Somehow this image of me scratching head lice while the others discussed science and the future, with great seriousness, struck me as hilarious.
Real life always creeps in; you are not immune to it as a scientist. I was able to get rid of the lice and be a semi-serious faculty member again. Sometimes you are at work and your mind is at home, or vice versa, and you wonder, do I really want to be here?
Academic careers are full of choices. It is important to make them wisely, especially since time is finite. Do you really need to be a hostel warden, and on the canteen committee and administrative promotions committee? Don’t feel guilty when you need to take time off for personal responsibilities. If you wonder why you are doing something at work, do not ignore that feeling. Try to balance the various parts of your life and job so you aren’t constantly questioning yourself. I haven’t succeeded yet – but I hope you do.
And there have been the really hard times – like when I was at one of those “so important it can’t be missed” annual institutional conferences, and I had a miscarriage. I was crying inside, in tremendous pain. But I gave my talk, smiled and discussed science with colleagues and board members. Experiences like these are unique to women scientists.
Others are general challenges, like the searing pain when we receive dismissive reviews on a paper. After enduring tick bites and leeches in the Western Ghats to better understand biodiversity and the conservation status of tigers in India, it is hard to be told that your findings are only of regional interest.
I pick myself up every time because I believe in the stories our work uncovers, and that someone has to uncover these mysteries in nature and the world that surrounds us. I hope that some day, in the not so distant future, Indian landscapes and species will be of general – not regional – interest, like the Andes and mountain lions are today.
There are several stereotypes that I have fought. I am unsure where these came from – maybe cultural norms that have seeped in through my life.
“Ambition does not suit women”: As a young faculty member, you are expected to be successful, and yet when you are ambitious, you immediately sense that people around you are uncomfortable. But don’t bother! Be who you are.
“Don’t take risks in your work”: Many have asked, don’t you feel scared? Not really. I love the feeling of adventure and exploring the unknown. I often feel that the work I do comes at a great cost, so why shouldn’t I take risks? If I wanted to do something that wasn’t risky, why would I be doing this at all? Our research involves fieldwork in far flung locations in India. It’s exciting and the risks are worth it.
“Keep your passion and emotion under wraps”: I have struggled with this all my life as a scientist. The process of science requires objectivity, but does that mean that I, the scientist, need to stay dispassionate about the questions I ask and suppress the thrill I feel when discovering something new? Science is hard but rewarding work. At its core lies the passion and drive to understand the natural world better. I have learned that my passion is a strength when I conduct my research and communicate the results, and when I forge new relationships with my students and colleagues. Passion ignites the will to do the work of discovery, and that’s perfectly okay.
“You can either help others or yourself”: Every day, I am here because so many people believed in me. We must support the younger generation, we must be inclusive and encourage diverse participation in science.
I look forward to a time when many women scientists lead institutions, many women scientists play critical roles in advising government, and many women scientists receive awards. The leaky pipeline doesn’t fix itself. We have to fix it. The question is, can we have it all? I have been lucky and had an amazing run of it: science, motherhood and life. It has been difficult, but I suppose if the tape played again, I would not change much.
Uma Ramakrishnan is a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru.