16 Apr, 2021 no replies
“Science is not just about learning, but doing,” says cool woman in science, Mala R
Hey everyone, your best friend Sara here!
You know how we read a lot of stories these days about women in science?
What if we could know them and better still ‘be them’? I got lucky and managed to chat up with an accomplished scientist and an uber cool person, Mala Radhakrishnan who had the most refreshing answers to so many of our questions.
Mala is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Wellesley College and an alum of Harvard and MIT. Mala has a refreshing approach of combining creative writing with chemistry and has published Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances, a book of poetry that humorously teaches chemical concepts. Read on.
Sara: In the 120 years of Nobel prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry, prizes were awarded 601 times to men and 23 times to women.* What do you make of this glaring gap?
Mala: The gap shows that we have a lot of work to do to make sure that anyone who wants to be a scientist can become one!
Science is human-created, so WE are in charge of making it what it is. The tools and models we use in science reflect the perspectives and experiences of the scientists who develop it. In other words, if we bring more people into science – each with their unique perspectives and ways of thinking , we will make science better through more diverse ways of understanding the world around us.
We need to do a better job to help budding young scientists like you see that science is not something you just ‘learn about’ but rather it’s something you DO and CREATE. It therefore requires creativity, working together, exploration, and perseverance, and everyone can bring something valuable to its progress.
Much of the problem is who we “see” around us as scientists. If I ask you to draw a picture of a scientist you will most likely draw a man. It is hard for young women to see themselves as scientists because so many of the scientists they see around them in the media and in history books are men. This is because of how history happened, but that does not mean this is how it OUGHT to be. Change is difficult because this history gets reinforced through our experiences. But now, we are in a moment of change and we need to take advantage of it. By making sure that women scientists have a prominent voice and that young children can see consistent images and read numerous stories about women scientists, we can make the concept of a female scientist more central and soon, any young child will automatically know that she can be a scientist if she wants to!
A few months ago, my daughter wrote a story about how her “Mommy” was a scientist and now she says she wants to be one too (she’s 6 so that might change!). It made me realize how important it can be to see examples of other people like you who are doing something you wish to do.
Sara: Your qualifications read A.B., Harvard University and Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology and you are Associate Professor of Chemistry at Wellesley College. How achievable is it for a young girl in India to follow your path? Would you have any advice for her?
Mala: I will actually put this question back to you, Sara, and challenge the idea that someone else ‘should’ follow in my exact same path. There are countless number of ‘paths’ to become a scientist and one’s journey is what makes them who they are. I actually don’t think that there is one best path in an absolute sense. That being said, I think it’s important to find one in which you are surrounded by intellectually curious people, are encouraged to learn new things through exploration, and have good teachers and mentors throughout. That can be anywhere in the world, and you can be any age when you take this path. It will take different amounts of time and different sorts of obstacles along the way for different people, but that’s ok because you’re learning every step of the way.
At Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley, there are many, many amazing women from India, and I have enjoyed working with many of them throughout the years. That is certainly a possible path for someone from India and there are programs that can also make it financially possible for young girls who may think it is financially not within reach. Having good teachers and mentors who can find ways to help connect you with information and resources is an important part of learning more about such opportunities, and starting early on definitely helps.
That being said, this path to becoming a scientist is by no means the only one, nor the best one, depending on who you are. If everyone followed the same path to becoming a scientist, then we wouldn’t have the many diverse perspectives we need to make science great.
So wherever you are, whether in a village or city, keep being curious, learning and doing science, asking questions, surrounding yourself with good teachers, mentors, and peers, and take advantage of opportunities that get you to explore new places, people, and experiences. If you do these things, you are already a budding scientist, and if you keep doing them, you will be able to forge your own path and, if you do take a nontraditional path, you can maybe even help redefine and reshape what it means to be a scientist and help science progress even more than you ever expected!
Sara: As an alum of Teach for America program, you would have good exposure in engaging with the young. Over here at Bookosmia, we have creative and articulate youngsters who desire to give back to the society but do not know where to start. Could you share some tips?
Mala: If you love science or really anything (arts, music, writing, history, sports), share your love with others who are younger or older! Inspire others and have fun doing it too through organizing a club for youth, or creating videos or other resources you can share with others. Become a mentor or pen pal for someone younger so she can see an example of the benefits of pursuing one’s passions.
There are many organizations that provide opportunities to people interested in helping others be a ‘big sibling’ or serve as a role model, either in a specific capacity (like science or writing) or just in general. Some of these opportunities involve more formal teaching roles or are parts of highly structured non-profit organizations. But others can be as simple as volunteering to go visit a mentee once a week and doing some simple science experiments with her.
No positive effect is too small. Very small differences can add up over time, and what might seem like a small task for you might mean a lot to someone who sees you as a role model. Passion for some discipline + an interest in helping humanity + creativity + perseverance = positive change in the world!
Sara: Your book ‘Thinking, Periodically: Poetic Life Notions in Brownian Motion’ has been widely covered for its refreshing approach in combining everyday humour with chemistry. How do you think science can be made fun for the average 12- 18 year old student?
Mala: People understand and enjoy learning new things better if they can connect to it personally. By relating scientific concepts to themes we all encounter in everyday life, like friendship, family, or overcoming obstacles, you can fit new concepts into your current ways of understanding the world. In other words, the concepts aren’t so ‘new’, but are rather familiar and comfortable.
Also, science can be made fun by not only exposing students to creative and funny presentations of it but also by having THEM creatively express and communicate it . By writing poems about science, you can come to understand it in new ways while having fun at the same time. Finally, science is most fun when you are doing it in a hands-on way- exploring nature, gathering your own data from doing your own experiments or simulations. Even if it is a simple one that doesn’t require any fancy equipment.
The key is to ‘do’ science – to create your own models, visuals, or ways of communicating ideas, to explore and come up with your own hypotheses and gather your own data, and build upon your own understanding of the world. Also, what’s more fun than doing science with your friends? Science is a group effort and you can make friends along the way too!