Think women scientists and the average person might be able to come up with Marie Curie and maybe a few other names. Ask about women scientists in India and the names of Ritu Karidhal and M Vanitha, who were in charge of the recent Chandrayaan-2 mission, may strike you. And while there are considerably less women in science than men, their work is no less phenomenal -- it is just much, much lesser known.
Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra know this only too well. The duo, who run thelifeofscience.com which has been chronicling stories of Indian women in science for over three years now, has now come up with a children’s book on Indian women scientists. “We wanted to make visible these awesome women whose work in the field of science can inspire an entire generation,” Aashmia tells TNM.
The Life of Science (TLoS) has interviewed over 100 women in science – from fields ranging from biotechnology to cancer biology to astrophysics. In their book, 31 Fantastic Adventures in Science: Women Scientists in India, illustrated by Upasana Agarwal, authors Aashima and Nandita tell the stories of 31 women in science, some of whom have been profiled on TLoS before.
But why a children’s book? To begin with, the idea seemed only natural to Aashima and Nandita because the duo met while working for a children’s magazine. “It seemed like a logical extension of science communication, for both of us had already been going to schools and speaking to students about TLoS,” Nandita says. “We are a feminist project, and we have been campaigning to get more women in science. However, it is not as simple as just asking for it; it requires a cultural shift too. So why not start with kids? Young readers can look up to these women,” Aashima adds.
Illustration from the book: Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Biotechnologist
The format and look of the book are also enjoyable – the colourful illustrations of the women profiled along with the pastels and bright hues used don’t make you feel like you’re holding a book on people who have worked in fields like computational biology and condensed matter physics.
The book also means a lot for Upasana, who has written for TLoS as well. “These women’s stories are unheard of. There is very little knowledge among science students about them and their contributions. It adds to perceptions that STEM is not really for women, leading to fewer women choosing it too. There are sociological implications of the lack of visibility of women in science. This book is really important in those respects,” they say.
Illustration from the book: Bushra Ateeq, Cancer Biologist
When it came to visualising the women featured in the book, the illustrator read the essays about their lives and their work, and tried to imagine what their desks would look like. The result are colourful portraits of the scientists that bear markers from their personal and professional lives.
31 Fantastic Adventures in Science: Women Scientists in India has been a year in the making, and is targeted at children of ages 10 and up. And while one might argue that for a children’s book it does retain some jargon from the areas of science that the women featured are from, Nandita says we shouldn’t be underestimating children.
“Some words have the potential to trigger curiosity,” she notes, adding, “We also want to use this book as an opportunity to undertake more interactive sessions with children. It is as much about the science as it is about the people in it.”
Illustration from the book: Gagandeep Kang, Clinical Scientist
To people who might still wonder – why a book on women in science, Aashima responds, “For one, there was a clear gap in the market when it came to children’s books on women in science.” Another reinforcement appeared when they were seeking some new interviews for the book. “There were some women we wanted to write about, but they felt that there are better scientists than them and that they don’t deserve a book chapter. Women sometimes do not see their own value, their own contributions because of the structural bias against them. We need to bring about a consciousness in women as well,” she says.
To that end, Nandita says that while it’s a children’s book, she hopes adults will read it too and learn about these exemplary women and their work.
31 Fantastic Adventures in Science: Women Scientists in India will be available on Amazon on August 25.
Illustrations courtesy: Upasana Agarwal, Penguin Random House India