Women in Science: The Mathematicians of Surathkal

Five scholars from NIT Surathkal talk about the struggles of being women in science and the difficulties of pursuing higher education.

The scholars at NIT. Credit: The Life of Science

It was summer break when I visited the National Institute of Technology campus at Surathkal (NITK). The 250-acre campus that is home to around 3500 engineering students during the academic year was unusually calm. Luckily, an acquaintance had put me in touch with a young mathematician, Manasa K.J., who was one of those who stayed behind during the holidays.

When I got there, Manasa introduced me to four colleagues of hers – Kumudakshi, Manasa B., Sabari M. and Rashmi M. – and the six of us gathered for a chat. During the next forty minutes, we did not talk as much about their research topics as I usually do but we did have an illuminating discussion. Among the themes that came up were the quality of schooling in their villages, experiences with gender discrimination and, most importantly, a few progressive government programmes that are narrowing the inequalities in math education in India.

With mathematics, it’s not always love at first sight

One thing all five of these women have in common is that they were good at math growing up. “When we were younger, maths was just numbers and was easy to remember. There was no need to memorise big-big sentences like in physics or chemistry,” said Kumudakshi, earning nods of approval from the whole group.

But unlike Kumudakshi, most of the others did not always intend to stick to studying pure mathematics. Manasa K.J. found that she was falling in love with physics, which she says involves practically applying mathematics rather than staying in the abstract. After school, she wanted to study engineering, but despite scoring well in exams, financial problems stood in the way. Reluctantly, she joined a B.Sc. Education course in a college in Mysore. “After four years there, I had no choice but to to go ahead (on this path).” She applied for an M.Sc. in physics, but was offered a seat in the M.Sc. Mathematics course instead. Manasa accepted this, a little dejectedly. “It was getting a bit frustrating because what I wanted I was not getting.”

But somewhere along the way, Manasa felt her outlook changing. She recollected: “I began to love maths like anything. I was scoring well, I even got a rank!” She later took up teaching but realised she wanted to learn more. “I came back to research. I’ve realised that maths is actually my passion – what was meant for me.” Manasa insists her bitterness about her dashed engineering dreams are long gone.

While Manasa spoke, I noticed Sabari listening intently. Sabari, who hails from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, wanted to study medicine. “My grandmother and several others at home, practise home medicine. I was very interested in that as well as in physiotherapy.” Like Manasa, Sabari too could not follow her dreams despite procuring a seat in a medical college due to certain difficulties. Again, like Manasa, Sabari’s second choice was to study physics but scored better in maths. She ended up doing B.Sc., M.Sc. and M.Phil. and some teaching before enrolling at NITK for her Ph.D., where we now sat talking about her motivations.

As it turned out, Sabari is not so far from medicine after all. Her research in image processing has direct applications in medical imaging techniques like CT scanning, that helps detect diseases. To make clear scans, it is necessary to devise mathematical solutions to reduce the noise and disturbances, so that the image created is as clear as possible.

What is image processing?

CT scans involve obtaining the image of a cross-section of a part of the human body. In order to be able to get the most accurate depiction of the area, the image quality must be high. Sometimes the scanner detects signals outside the body and this reflects on the image as ‘noise’. If the image is too grainy, then an accurate diagnosis is difficult. Image processing can reduce this.

Image processing is a branch of mathematics where the input is an image – it could be a photograph or a video frame, for example. By applying some mathematical operations to the image, it is converted into a digital form. Further operations are applied on this digital image to produce an enhanced version of the image.

Manasa B. realised early on that she had a penchant for mathematics but her only ambition then was to become a teacher. “At teen ages, we do whatever parents tell us to,” she said candidly. “They said take science in 11th and 12th standards so I did.” Manasa feels  that it is often the case that students who do not score enough to gain entry into the so-called ‘professional’ courses are the ones who end up taking up basic sciences. After her B.Sc., Manasa was told that she would need to do a Master’s to teach at colleges. As planned, she began her teaching career after that but two years in, she realised there was more she needed to learn to become a good teacher.

The campus. Credit: The Life of Science

The campus. Credit: The Life of Science

Where you go to school matters

“All of us come from small towns,” said Manasa K.J., who hails from a village 18 km away from Karkada in Udupi district, Karnataka. “Mobile connection came there only in 2013,” she said smiling. Manasa has seen the hurdles facing government schools in villages up close and personal. “There was only one maths teacher available to all classes from class 1 to 7.” Perhaps it was no surprise when out of the 30-40 students who studied there, all but 10 dropped out before high school.

Manasa was lucky because her father was the math teacher. Only one other student at her old school continued to 11th standard. “Tenth standard is the highest education students were allowed to reach, especially girls. For the boys, it is better now but back then nobody sent their children out of the village to continue studies and there was no science college nearby.”

Rashmi said that students’ interest in mathematics depends greatly on the teachers’ skill. “While teaching maths, you need to give real life examples, but that is not easy in higher classes.”

“Where you go to school matters,” says Manasa. This becomes even more evident, she says, when they interact with their contemporaries from the IITs, IISERs – India’s top research institutes. “That’s when we realise how much we know and how our background and school education plays a role.”

Making math a level playing field

It always helps to collaborate with peers and arenas where they can do this are at government-funded training programmes for mathematicians – specifically the ATM schools (Advanced Training in Mathematics Schools) for teachers and Ph.D. students; and MTTS (Mathematics Training and Talent Search) for B.Sc. and M.Sc. students. Sabari and Manasa K.J. had just returned after an advanced training camp in Calicut and Bhubaneswar respectively. Both MTTS and ATM provide training, accommodation and food for selected students. “These really help. We learn a lot,” says Manasa. At these camps, though, women remain a minority. At the camp in Bhubaneswar, there were only five women out of 26. Why do you think this is so, I asked Manasa.

“Parents don’t want to send their daughters out of the state. I’m in NIT-Surathkal because I come from Karnataka itself. There are constraints.”

Manasa said that the will to learn beyond what is considered ‘necessary’ is not something everyone has.

The impact of these programmes has left a big impression on Sabari. She has plans to join the faculty at MTTS. “From basic education itself, students are hating mathematics a lot. If they join a B.Sc. in maths because they were forced to, then they will soon know the reality, that what they were taught till then is not enough. Usually, these students will not have good faculty in their colleges, especially if they come from villages. At MTTS, we have to motivate them by letting them see maths in different ways.” Sabari has already taught here once and she said that she learnt a lot while teaching. “The students there answer the problems we give them in different ways. So we are able to see the different ways students think. That’s very enjoyable for me.”

The founder of MTTS, S. Kumaresan says,

The aim of this programme is to attract talented young students towards mathematics by giving them a better perspective of modern mathematics than at college or university level. This is achieved by adopting newer methods of teaching in which the participation of the students is the most important ingredient.

This programme has made a great impact on the mathematical scene in India. To quote a colleague from Tata Institute, India – “Earlier, when we interviewed candidates for PhD., we would be happy to find 2 or 3 out of 100. Due to MTTS’s efforts, we now interview about 30 to 40, none of them is a dud, we can see that they are confident enough to tackle unseen problems and have a clear understanding of the concepts and all of them can be traced back to MTTS.”

In a video interview, Kumaresan laments about the difficulty of finding teachers willing to forego a month of their summer for this cause. He will be reassured to know that promising young mathematicians like Sabari are eager to do so.

Family and society

In a society like ours, doing a PhD. is not always encouraged, especially for women as there is an opinion among families that the man must be more qualified. The women agree that they have heard people say things like “who will search for a boy now (now that she’s a PhD.)”. Sabari says that she had to fight a lot before she was allowed to come to NITK for her PhD.

“Right before I joined here, one prospective groom came asking for marriage. My parents asked me to stay back and get married. I said, no I will go to Surathkal. If he agrees to let me, then good.”

However, he didn’t, and Sabari proceeded with her plans.

Manasa B. counts herself lucky to have a father who is very particular that all his three children be well educated. “He wasn’t able to finish his 10th standard and he was determined that we do.” While she’s grateful for that, she knows that marriage will eventually come into the picture. “They’ve told us that in between studies if we ask you to get married, you can’t say things like ‘no, only after I finish’.” In her case, Manasa joked that she is off the hook until her elder sister gets married.

Only Kumudakshi is married among the five. She got married right after B.Sc. and has a baby now. “I started my PhD. in my sixth year of marriage. It’s not easy to manage with a baby but they are our strength.” She admits that she is able to do this because her mother lives with them. “Otherwise, managing this would have been a bit difficult. Someone should be there to take care of the house and things.”

Kumudakshi had told me earlier that her experience studying at a government school was not as challenging as Manasa K.J.’s. But when I asked her if she would send her son to one, she smiled. “My husband sometimes says sure, why not, but I would want to send him to better schools. Though actually, I don’t think it’s true that students will do better in private schools. If they want to study, they will study anywhere.”

This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are traveling across India to meet some fantastic women scientists.


    Kudos to the math scholars! They have achieved their aim despite all odds. Women have always been assumed to be inferior to men by male patriarchal society. In the recent years, girls have increased in enrolling themselves to IITs and NITs. Many are successfully pursuing doctorates in maths. Thus is a positive sign for women empowerment in higher education.