Behind the scenes in science

We  are sitting in Dr Shobhana Narasimhan’s drawing room in Vijnanapura and she stumps me with: “As a school student, I had a severe Physics phobia!” I am incredulous because Shobhana is one of India’s respected physicists. She is chairperson of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advaced Scientific Research, Bangalore. But more on her “ physics phobia” later because right now her frogs have cast a spell on me.

She has about 150 frog figurines from different parts of the world. Made from ceramic, rubber, jade, marble, wood, plastic, paper, metal and paper-maiche, her collection of funky frogs must be seen to be believed. There’s a guitar-playing frog, a motorbike-racing frog, and one which doubles as her computer mouse!

I ask this scientist who has unusual passions about her early life, and she informs me that her father, a well-known mathematician, and her mother, an accomplished classical musician, ensured that she grew up having the best of both fields. Shobhana did her MSc (Physics) from IIT, Mumbai. She also did the usual south-Indian girl’s routine — classical dance and music classes, though she gave it up as she did not find it “terribly interesting.”

After acquiring a doctorate from Harvard University, she earned two post-doctoral fellowships, including one in Berlin. She then returned to India, and to Bangalore. She has published many research papers and is a member of the Working Group on Women in Physics of IUPAP. “My research focus is to understand how materials work. I use this knowledge to design new materials. It’s based on theoretical calculations rather than experiments,” she explains. 

Her role as member of the Task Force on Women in Science, constituted by Government of India, also keeps her busy. The task force, she says, has discovered that there are very few women in Indian science, especially in physics. “Overall, women constitute typically about 5 per cent of the faculty at Indian science institutions. At IISc, Bangalore, for instance, there is not a single woman faculty member in the Chemical Sciences division. Even in IITs, there are very few women teachers and students in the Science departments,” she observes.

“However, this is not true at the research scholar level in Indian science, where roughly one-third of research scholars are women. This points to a tremendous waste of talent and hard work. Either these women are getting married and giving up careers or they are taking up less demanding jobs as school/college teachers. Another point to ponder is whether this is the result of discrimination at various levels in Indian science establishments,” she argues.

 The task force has submitted recommendations to the Union Government that every hiring, promotion and award committee should have at least one woman member. It has also recommended flexi-time for women and more days of maternity leave. “It’s just that we are asking for a fair deal for women,” she says.

 It’s time now to rewind to that physics phobia she spoke of earlier during this interview. She believes that her teacher’s method — which emphasised learning by rote  — was responsible for her fear for the subject, and hence she consciously employs a different approach when it comes to teaching the subject. “I design my course so students can learn to solve problems creatively, and I design exams to test their grasp of concepts than mere memory power,” she says.

Shobhana is also part of an informal group which trains science students in using state-of-the-art techniques correctly and effectively. This group has held  workshops in China, Ethiopia, South Africa, Iran, USA and India.  

How does this dedicated scientist and rationalist unwind? For one, she is a voracious reader. “Reading is an addiction. I have to read three to four books a week, mostly fiction, and particularly detective fiction.” Shobhana also listens to classical music and jazz, and yes, she adds to her frog collection whenever she can!

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