As I waited outside Kavita Shah’s office, she was inside, shaking hands with a delegation that was conferring her the title of one of six directors of Banaras Hindu University (BHU). “As of now, I am officiated,” she told me later, hardly controlling a beaming smile.
She is now the only woman to hold this top position. Before this, she was one of the only two female deans in 17 departments at the 100-year-old university.
The climb to the top hasn’t been easy. But Shah tells the story of her 22-year-old scientific life as if she was describing events of a vacation full of adventure.
She started as a Zoology student at the women’s college at BHU named Mahila Mahavidyalaya (MMV). She earned a Ph.D. from the same university soon after. Following stints in Japan, Geneva and North East Hill University in Shillong, she found herself coming back to teach at BHU.
Scientist without a lab
When BHU offered her a lectureship, Shah was very confused. “I thought I had interviewed for a position in the faculty of science at BHU, not for MMV (which operates separately from the main faculties of the university). This was one thing I was not expecting.”
At this time, Shah was already a researcher pursuing post-doctoral projects that required a functional lab to carry out experiments.
Shah decided to take up the challenge. What followed was two years of elaborate administrative procedures, several meetings and pleas for funding to set up a Central Instrumentation Laboratory (CIL) – a deck of important scientific instruments including spectrometers, microscopes and lasers – inside an examination room at MMV.
“Research at MMV had totally stopped years back. I was the first researcher to set up a laboratory. I had to convince the higher authorities that the science building of MMV is not justified without a CIL and that I was willing to bear all the pains required to set up one.”
“For the laboratory, I got just a bare room with four walls. Finally, I did all the designing, drafting, AC sanctions, ducting, water channels with proper lines, electricity, wiring and equipment. In fact, I was in charge till I left MMV and joined this institute.”
“Even today, the same instruments that were bought with the first sanctioned [Rs] 50 lakh are still in use.”
Biochemistry to the rescue
Even in her science, Shah shows enterprise. She jumped from enzyme biochemistry into environmental biotechnology with the idea of using the same enzyme that she worked on as a chemist. From this enzyme, which comes from waste left behind after a rice harvest, she has developed sensors for detecting biomolecules, nanoparticles, pollutants and dyes.
In Shah’s crown, two jewels shine the brightest. One is the enzyme-based sensor of the neurotransmitter dopamine, for which she was recently decorated with the Women Scientist Award 2011 from the Biotech Research Society. The ‘rice-peroxidase-enzyme-biosensor’ is a novel discovery that can monitor levels of dopamine in neurological patients to help administer proper dose of the drug to patients with Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s diseases. “We have patented this sensor already and we are working to refine it for higher sensitivity. We are also looking into commercialisation of this.”
The second highlight of Shah’s research are the biosensors and bioreactors she developed to break down pollutants in local small-scale dyeing industry.
“Dye houses are small units using chemicals affluent. They discard the waste water directly in the soil after dyeing, but this water ultimately comes to their own tap water and drinking water or their agricultural land. It gets accumulated in the water table and then there is no way to remove it. To avoid such contamination, we are preparing to give dyers the small instruments at a very low cost so that the contaminated waste water can be treated. So that they can at least protect themselves and throw waste-water in the soil without contamination. The main toxic part can be removed partially – that is our main aim. We have a prototype for testing it. We haven’t published any papers yet.”
Along the way, Shah managed to earn several grants from home and abroad. The result is 75 scientific publications.
Amusingly, all along the interview, she managed to keep hidden the juicy details when I prodded for specific information on unpatented and future work. She avoided and skimmed through with slick diplomacy.
She did, however, hint at some exciting projects her research group is undertaking including one which questions the burning ritual on the river Ganga based on alarming levels of silting seen there.
“We are working on water quality management and different components that are yet not been reported as pollutants in Ganges. Also on the burning ghats – to what extent is it [the ritual] contributing to the socio-economic factors and is it actually required or it is something extrapolative.”
Indian universities and scientific institutes could use more leaders like Shah. Her vision is clear and her endurance shines through. Her people skills have clearly been a major asset that has helped her along the way.
Oh, she can also play the sitar.
The trick is devotion
The secret to Shah’s success seems to be her resourcefulness – she is able to recognise what is needed to get the job done. She fully accepts the situation and finds her way around it.
In her experience, there are only two kinds of women who can go very far in research: those who have support from their families and those who rebel against the oppression.
The trick she says is devotion. “As a woman researcher, you cannot deny that you have to take care of family and in spite of that, you have to excel in your work. In that view, I can say that a person who is not devoted can never be a good researcher, especially a woman.”
“Definitely a woman needs to contribute at the both ends and it is not possible to leave everything and completely devote towards research.”
Below are Shah’s comments on how universities and families could take steps towards equality.
How can science become more equal?
It is important that higher authorities in universities are more open-minded. A very cordial relation and a spirit of mentorship are needed. Women should be given an equal platform to have their say. They cannot be just sitting in a crowd and totally unheard.
Main positions should be given to women to show that they can also be good administrators. Women are more humanitarian in approach because their instinct is like that. I feel at least one senior position should be occupied by a woman.
Any comments on the family system and society?
I am associated with a local girl’s school. I notice that by the time they are in class 12 they are married so they are deprived of further studies. Parents need counselling, but there are other constraints like poverty, big family size or safety issues. The unawareness of scholarship schemes by the government is also a problem.
What about after marriage?
I did all my education after marriage. I did my MSc, B.Ed, Ph.D., a couple of post-docs, then taught at NEHU and completed three more post-docs here. So I would say it’s all your will. Women tend to give up for the family, they succumb to the pressure and give up. It is that point where they need to think judiciously. When you start looking for a way the way comes to you. It is you who pave your own way.
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.