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International Day of Women and Girls in Science – Interview with Dr. Swetavalli Raghavan

I would strongly advice aspiring academics to align their goals, expertise and skillset with what drives them intrinsically.

Swetavalli Raghavan

February 11 celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), gender equality has not yet been achieved. For example, female researchers tend to have shorter careers and they often receive smaller research grants than their male colleagues (1). The 9th international day of Women and Girls in Science centers around women leadership in achieving the three pillars of Sustainable Development, namely: economic prosperity, social justice, and environmental integrity.

In celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we interviewed Dr. Swetavalli Raghavan, a full professor at St. Joseph’s University in Bengaluru, India and founder of Scientists & Co.

You wanted to be a scientist since you were a teenager. When you look back on your path as a researcher, was there an experience and/or mentor that stood out who helped you?

Growing up, every time I asked my parents what they’d like to see me become, I unfailing got the same answer — “Become a good person, a good citizen”. As simple as these words may be, they have practically shaped my approach to life and helped me build an exciting career at the crossroads of science, policy and development.

I did not plan a career in academics, I was more inclined to work in the development sector. I opted, however, to study science because I found it stimulating and could effortlessly grasp complex scientific concepts. It was during the course of my PhD, which was heavily wet-lab based, I decided to align the academic training I received with my burning desire to deliver social good. I started learning and developing the aptitude, attitude and skillset that would enable me to have a career in science policy making. It is not a well-defined career path, particularly so in India. I took several leaps of faith, shattered conventional definitions of what a scientist can or cannot do, passionately pursued disruptive ideas, sought unconventional opportunities for growth, constantly learnt from failures (that of my own and of others’) and fearlessly challenged status quo that no longer served purpose. Here I am today, grateful for all the learnings and experiences that I have had.

You have recently become a full professor at St. Joseph’s University in Bengaluru, India, only 6 years after defending your doctoral thesis. What advice would you give to aspiring academics? Possibly something you wished you had known when you first started?

Academic training enables one to do good science. But to do great science one needs the courage and grit to look beyond conventional measures of success. My career took off the day I defined the metrics of my own growth — that I am not bound by the volume of my publication, prizes or awards, but by the impact and reach my work has on society.

To let you into a secret, I wanted to become a farmer – such a shame it is not promoted as a career! Imagine, the job description: A hands-on role that involves working in close proximity with like-minded individuals and nature, with a 100% job satisfaction derived from satiating basic need — hunger, and contributing to the reduction in poverty and promoting better health outcomes. Your ‘output’ reaches the homes of thousands of people, who know you not and who you know not, but is essential, valuable and impactful. I apply the same principles to my current profession too.

I would strongly advice aspiring academics to align their goals, expertise and skillset with what drives them intrinsically. You simply cannot go wrong when the motivation comes from within.

What is it like to be a woman in STEM? Do you feel that your gender gives you a different perspective and experience from your male counterparts?

Most certainly, yes. Our experiences and lived realities are influenced by gender, consequently influencing us to think and problem-solve (both key factors driving science & innovation) differently. It would be unfair to say one gender is superior to the other, or their inclusion brings more advantages to the table. However, because science has been driven and led by men for very long, women’s imagination, perspectives, ideas and potential were not sufficiently captured or utilized. I think now is the time to improve on that.

During your PhD studies, you founded Scientist & Co with the desire to introduce young people to STEM. Can you tell us about this company? What are your biggest takeaways from this experience?

Scientists & Co. is best defined as a social movement that promotes science. Our team is a dedicated bunch of professionals who generously offer their time to realize the vision of leveraging science for societal good. Based on localized needs, we design evidence based interventions to improve the quality of life, deliver science-literacy campaigns and/or educational programs to promote STEM. I have been doing this sort of work since my undergraduate days with help from friends, but it was during my doctoral studies that I decided to give it a formal structure and streamline operations. We are now a 5 member core team & 280+ program specific mentors & volunteers.

My biggest takeaways are:

  1. Science education can be a fantastic social equalizer. It improves public awareness and engagement on global challenges. While it is easy to see value in adopting to tech, the uptake of beneficial scientific practices, for instance general hygiene for better health or a switch to circular economy to promote sustainability, is painfully slow. When people understand the scientific basis of why something is beneficial or harmful to them, their participation is greater.
  2. Engaging community enables inclusion of diverse thoughts, views and perspectives at the decision-making level, thereby aligning research priorities to needs and birthing innovations with wide-reaching impact.

Having visible role models is important to motivate girls to pursue a STEM education. How do you think can we have more women involved in science and have them as role models?

Role models do not necessarily have to be holding high offices.

Since the inception of their respective offices over half a century ago, India’s Council of Scientific & Industrial Research got its first woman Director-General in Dr. N. Kalaiselvi in 2022, and the UK its first woman Chief Scientific Adviser in Dame Angela Ruth McLean in 2023. The turn of the decade has seen a rise in women having successful careers as researchers, sci-preneurs and science communicators. The momentum is building as more and more women are progressing into positions of influence and leadership. I foresee greater number of visible role models in the coming decade.

That said, role models do not necessarily have to be holding high offices. We all have that one favorite teacher at high school. We paid more attention in their class, felt comfortable asking them questions beyond what’s prescribed in the syllabus. Odds are that we chose their subject as a specialization at university and made a career of it. In my opinion, an approachable, innovative science class teacher serves as a greater inspiration to students. Not only will s/he be a relatable role model but will also attract more girls to learn the subject s/he teaches. Training science teachers at all levels of education is, therefore, an important aspect to encouraging and retaining talent in STEM.

My favourite teachers were Jayanti ma’am who taught me biology at Rajaji Vidyashram Chennai, and Veena ma’am and Rekha ma’am who taught me biochemistry and life sciences respectively at Jain College Bangalore. No prizes for guessing what subjects I chose at university!

You have been involved in policy making and research in the UK and India. Given your experiences, how do you feel the landscape will change for women in science over the next 5 years?

A majority of the policies formulated to empower women in science tend to provide concessions as opposed to enabling a levelled playground. In a report I have authored for the Royal Society of Chemistry, evidence shows that careers of men and women with similar educational attainment and experience, do not progress equally. This is owing to gendered roles attributed to women in society, conscious as well as unconscious bias at every stage of one’s career, lack of inclusive workspaces and poor working conditions – these tend to impact women more than men.

How many universities offer flexible work arrangements for those with caring responsibilities? Or provide reintegration support for women returning after a career-break? Are there sufficient mechanisms to report and redress incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment? How many campuses have fully functional creches or child-friendly policies? Is the time taken off by women during maternity discounted while assessing cumulative achievements during promotions? How many women, if at all, are on the decision making panels for coveted awards and prizes? We need robust, fool-proof policies to address these gaps. Good practices must become norm, only then are we in a position to provide equal opportunities to all.

If you were to summarize your message for girls and women in STEM, what would that message be?

I would give them the same advice I give myself —

  • Freedom is not “given”, it is “taken”. I strongly urge you to take yours, be it in the way you think, speak, act or do science. Do not worry about confirming to norm, but be steadfast in defending the truth.
  • The pinnacle of your accomplishments is defined by the extent of your imagination. So, dare to dream big, chase it, and do not stop until you own it. But remember to do this at a pace that allows for a work-life balance. Being a workaholic is no virtue. You are much MORE than your work.
  • Be your own champion. Stand up for yourselves. Also, practice being an active bystander; question unacceptable behaviors and influence people to re-think what is appropriate. Do not forget that what affects one of us, affects all of us.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS


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