Aliya Mir: A life in service of wild animals

Posted on 17th October 2022

Aliya Mir: A life in service of wild animals

By Sehar Qazi

A postgraduate in Mathematics, she found her true calling in rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife, besides spreading awareness on the need to tackle human-animal conflicts. She is the only female wildlife rescuer in Jammu and Kashmir

Aliya Mir is Kashmir’s only female wildlife rescuer and conservationist.  (Photo Credits: Sehar Qazi)

It is 10 am. Aliya Mir is on a rescue call. She cautions the person at the other end to maintain proper distance from the snake found in the vehicle, before dashing off for the rescue operation with her team. Mir gets around five such calls a day, and sometimes even more, mostly from locals, wildlife department and the police control room.

Aliya Mir at the rehabilitation site of rescued snakes in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir  (Photo Credits: Sehar Qazi)

Jammu and Kashmir’s only female wildlife rescuer, Mir (41) works as a project manager with Wildlife SOS, a non-governmental organisation established in 1995 to protect and conserve India’s natural heritage, forests and wildlife.

Born and brought up in Srinagar, Mir has been a strong presence in the field of rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals in the region for the last two decades. She graduated in science and did her post graduation in mathematics. She also holds a diploma in disaster management with a specialisation in wild animals and their healthcare.

Although I studied science and maths, I found my calling in wildlife rescue. Day by day, I learnt about the abuse of animals and destruction of their habitats. So I decided to be the voice of these voiceless creatures,” she says.

Mir recalls that she has always been close to animals since childhood. “I, along with my siblings, used to bandage injured puppies in our locality and take care of injured birds. It always felt good to help them.”

However, her first tryst with wildlife circles came in 2002, when she married a veterinarian and moved to New Delhi. “I met people engaged in important projects for animals. I joined veterinary medical camps as a volunteer. With time, I developed an interest,” Mir says.

Why her work matters

Mir was back in Kashmir in 2007, when she watched a viral video on social media of a bear being burnt and stoned to death. She found the whole incident insensitive and brutal. At that point, she decided to step forward to educate people about the need to conserve wildlife.

In Kashmir, climate change has disrupted the natural habitat of animals.

During summer, we get more calls to rescue snakes. In winter, it is mostly about leopards and bears that wander into low altitude areas. We rescue and move them to care centres, and then work on their rehabilitation,” explains Mir.

After every rescue, Mir and her team examine the animal for injury and assess its overall health. In case of an injury, it is given treatment at the care centre.

Mir’s activities also include visits to wildlife rehabilitation centres to check the health status and feeding patterns of rehabilitated animals, and to prepare reports and proposals. Moreover, she conducts training sessions for wildlife department staff and others. She is doing research on reptiles and how climate change has impacted brown bears in Kashmir. She is also studying ecology and behavioural changes in animals. 

Creating awareness among people on the need for measures to prevent human-animal conflicts is high on her agenda for the future. According to reports, over 200 people died and over 3,000 received injuries in man-animal conflicts in the region from 2006 to 2020.

 Aliya’s sphere of activity always keeps her on her toes.

Aliya Mir with her team member Showket during the rehabilitation of rescued snakes in Srinagar (Photo Credits: Sehar Qazi)

A perennial spring of support

I could not have gone this far without my family's support. At school, my children are often asked about my work. Whenever I bring animals to the care centre or home, my kids are eager to look after them. My elder son is a keen learner and has been reading about wild animals for a long time. He identifies them and it makes me happy,” says Mir.

Her sphere of activity always keeps her on her toes. She does not remember the last time she took a day off from work completely. “I can get a call any time. The location can be either in Srinagar or on the outskirts.”

Her team members are all praise for her dedication. One of them, Showket says he joined Mir’s team as a driver 15 years ago. “Due to her constant encouragement, I learnt about animals and started to join her in rescue operations. Nowadays, I get many job offers, and they offer better pay. But I do not want to leave this team,” he says.

Mir’s son Fahad is also inspired by his mother’s work, but is concerned about her safety during the rescue efforts. “My mother makes me realise my responsibilities toward nature and everything connected to it. I am proud of her, but I want her to be safe too,” Fahad says.


Mir, however, says there is no escaping from such risk factors since animals are unpredictable. “We have to prepare for the worst. As a team, we try to wind up rescue operations swiftly, so as to prevent any possible harm to ourselves and the animals.”

There are gender related challenges too.

When I reach the site with my team, people expect male staff to come forward and help them. A few days ago, while rescuing a snake, I overheard some elderly men saying ‘now women also do this kind of work’. I smiled, finished my work and left. I was happy and proud that I saved another life," Mir says.

In the initial days, it was quite a task to survive in the male-dominated workplace. “If I can do it, I believe any woman can do it easily now,” Mir beams with a satisfaction of having shown the way. 

Aliya Mir holds a Himalayan Monal, pheasant native to Himalayan forests and shrublands.

Meet India’s famous herpetologist who discovered 50 frog species

Posted on 10th October 2022

Meet India’s famous herpetologist who discovered 50 frog species

By Punita Maheshwari

Dr Sonali Garg’s journey is full of night ventures into the dense forest of the Western Ghats, Northeast India, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Outside the country, her scientific forays extend to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand

Direct from the field: Dr Sonali Garg smiles wide with a tiny frog.

For Dr Sonali Garg, frogs are not just amphibians that leap out during monsoons or when you are near a lake. As she puts it, it is her calling. As a girl, Sonali came across as a person who was fond of nature and environment. She was drawn to books, research and studies.

An above average student in Class 10, Science and Mathematics were her subjects of interest for further studies. It led her to take up BSc Zoology (Honours) course in Hans Raj College, Delhi University, in 2008. While at college, she honed her interest in biodiversity, which concentrated more into frogs and later helped her become India’s first woman researcher to discover 50 new frog species.

Sonali did extensive field expeditions in remote forests of the Western Ghats, Northeast India, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during her decade-long research. Outside India, her scientific forays extended into Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. This not only made her a familiar name among frog researchers in the country, but also helped her bag the Edward O Wilson Biodiversity Postdoctoral Fellowship from Harvard University. Through it, Sonali will further her quest for the discovery of earth’s animal species.

Her field expeditions did come with self-explorations, life lessons and some adventures. As a frog scientist, not just most, but all of her fieldwork happened during the night in the heavy forests. 

“When you are in remote areas for field work, dynamics are different,” she acknowledges. “There is a certain way the villagers around the forest are used to seeing a woman and when someone in field work clothing goes into the forest, there are certain challenges to beat that mentality. So, you dress accordingly (cover up as much as you can; if need be, wear traditional clothes) and more importantly try to look past that, do your job and do it well,” she adds.

All-round support

Sonali emphasises that her journey has been fruitful, all thanks to her colleagues, who played an important role in providing an atmosphere that promotes equality and safety. “As we travel around places that are mostly remote, it is imperative that those around me understand the concepts of safety. I was fortunate in finding a team that never made me feel like I am a woman doing a man’s job… Your own sense of safety and passion also plays a role in promoting such an atmosphere,” she confirms.

Apart from humans, a jungle rulebook is one of its kind. It is as risky for a man as for a woman,” she adds.

Even her family, while being as supportive as she puts it, had natural concerns each time she went on an expansive expedition.

There have been times when I had discussions with my mother on the safety parameters of my job. I remember telling her that I could easily be injured staying in Delhi as I could be in a jungle,” she shares.

Sonali’s parents played an instrumental role in her reaching the heights she has today.

Dr Sonali Garg is the first Indian woman to have discovered 50 new frog species.

“I would rather be killed or injured by an elephant in a jungle than die in a road accident in Delhi,” she says, highlighting her determination to do the job she has chosen. 

What helped her gain more trust from her family was her habit of sharing stories of work with them. “I think when they saw the spark in my eyes, I had even more unwavering support from them,” she says.

Sonali’s mother Raj Bala, a businesswoman, is all praise for her. “Even as a school student, she wished to do something big in her future career. As parents, we decided to always provide for her in every possible way… When someone posed a question about marriage, she used to reply that I have married her off to studies, and it will happen if/when it is supposed to happen,” Bala quips.

Now that she is in Harvard, I am absolutely proud of her achievements. I tell her to live life to the fullest; you have done enough for the family and home, do the rest for the society and make the country proud,” Bala adds.

Her neighbour Santosh Jhanwar is equally proud of her. “I have seen Sonali grow up. She has always been sincere and studious, besides being well behaved. She always has an eye on her career. She truly deserved the biodiversity fellowship from Harvard University,” said Jhanwar, a homemaker.

Extensive research

Frogs play an important role in biodiversity. The insect-eating species is irreplaceable as their sensitive nature quickly indicates environmental hazards in both water and surroundings. They are also an important source of medicine, including highly potent painkillers.

Sonali took her PhD from the Department of Environmental Studies of University of Delhi. Subsequently, she continued to work as a Research Associate sponsored by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Government of India. 

Her outstanding discoveries include a new genus and species of mysterious frog, the details of which will be published in international platforms such as BBC and National Geographic. Sonali has described three new genera and resolved numerous century-old taxonomic puzzles. Her research largely focuses on unravelling the unique diversity of frogs, besides studying their evolutionary relationships using DNA, and biogeography to decipher patterns of historical and present-day distributions. Among many, Mysticellus, Mysterious Narrow-mouthed frog is a new genus from India discovered by Dr. Sonali. In addition, the Microhylid frog from Indonesia (Microhyla Sriwijaya) has been described by her along with Indonesian scientists.

At Harvard, Sonali will work at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), in affiliation with the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Established in 1859, the MCZ is a centre for research and education focused on the comparative relationships of animal life.

With frog population diminishing, bio-scientists like Sonali play a major role in taking the research forward. Her adaptive nature, fearlessness and time management skills accurately complement her attitude towards work and interest in her field subject. The Bombay Natural History Society recognised her contributions to the amphibian research and conservation by conferring her with the JC Daniel Young Conservation Leader Award in 2019.

Images of frogs discovered and described by Dr Sonali (clockwise): Vijayan’s Night Frog, Microhylid frog from Indonesia (Microhyla Sriwijaya), and Mysterious Narrow-mouthed frog.

This is a niche field. Such exposures help people learn about the behind-the-scenes stories in conservation fieldwork. Bio-scientists in the country should get due recognition,” Sonali sums up.

Poonam Mulherkar: The small town girl behind the scenes of Pfizer’s vaccine rollout

Posted on 03rd October 2022

The small town girl behind the scenes of Pfizer’s vaccine rollout

By Saloni Mehta

The Director of External Supply at biotech giant Pfizer, Poonam Mulherkar’s focus is unshakeable and her training in the production of high-standard pharmaceutical processes permeates her articulations and her actions alike.

At her home office in Gandhinagar

Growing up in Bhopal, Poonam Mulherkar was always fascinated by the applied aspects of science in daily life. “All throughout my bachelor’s and master’s, I really wanted to get out and go into the industry,” she says.

So right after her master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati, she joined Genentech, a ground-breaking biotechnology research company, now part of the Roche group in the US. She worked in the lab as a process development scientist for about five years, followed by another seven years in facility design—an experience that she calls her “practical education”. The hands-on training she underwent at Genentech in those early years not only satisfied her innate desire to apply her knowledge to processes but helped shape her for bigger things to come.

Early days in Bhopal

Watching her father, who was a technical entrepreneur, tinker with cutting-edge technology inspired Mulherkar to follow in his footsteps. She was also deeply impacted by her mother’s work ethic.

My mother learnt finance and accounting from scratch, subjects that she had no training in, to help with my father’s business and in a few years, she had a strong grip on company finances. My mother taught me that if you have a ‘why’ you can figure out the ‘how’ if you are ready to put in the hard work”.

Her supportive parents encouraged her to dream big and follow her dreams and provided her with the opportunity to realise her true potential. When she was preparing for her engineering entrance exams, she was forced to either choose between appearing for the Madhya Pradesh state exams or the national-level Joint Entrance Exams (JEE). Although her mother realised that the JEE was far more competitive, all she had asked her was, “Which do you enjoy more?” This was especially unusual for girls to hear in a small town like Bhopal.

Recounting her experience at an all-girls school where she had no one to look up to, with even her school principal being sceptical about her wanting to clear the JEE, Mulherkar never let anything deter her in any way. Instead, she viewed her small-town background as an advantage.

Growing up in a small town meant I sometimes did not know what was happening in the outside world. This made it easier for me to just focus on the task at hand.”

Her absolute focus led her to IIT-Delhi for an integrated MTech degree in biochemical engineering, where she found comfort in a tight-knit group of friends. Being one of only 14 women in her batch of about 350 students was never a hindrance.

Adapting to change

Mulherkar has, indeed, adapted to shifts in her life with incredible patience and perseverance. The switch from working in the lab as an individual contributor to a managerial position was no mean feat.

Growing up in Bhopal, with her parents and siblings

With her husband and sons

“It did not come naturally to me. As an individual contributor, everything is under one’s control. But as a manager working with commercial scale systems, your scope of influence is much bigger,” she says.

However, her seniors persuaded her to take the leap.

Sometimes, we just need a small nudge from someone who believes in us,” she reflects.

When she relocated with her husband and two sons to India in 2009, she decided to take a break from work and bounce back from burnout. During those 18 months, she wrote a book, Back to Pavilion: The First Years Back in India: Observations, Anecdotes & Insights of a Confused Desi, while working as an independent biotech consultant. It was during one of the consulting assignments that she looked at a technical design and realised how much she missed being an engineer. This led to her accepting the position of technical manager at Pfizer. 

However, the shift from an American workplace to an Indian one was fraught with cultural challenges.

“As Indians, we do not want to show our messy side to our superiors. It is only our fair notebooks that must be on display, never our rough ones. But sometimes, science — especially applied science — is messy, and in the mess lies the truth. You have to be ready to accept and understand that not all experimental points will fall neatly on a straight line, if you want to make a difference in the real world of science,” she remarks.

Nature of work & Covid impact

Mulherkar is presently Director of External Supply at the biotech giant, where she leads teams involved in technology transfer. It’s the process wherein technological know-how from a manufacturing site is transferred to another to manufacture a product. Usually, most view technology transfer as a hardware-related process, wherein one needs to keep in mind the capabilities and constraints of the factories and their equipment. However, Mulherkar knows not to ignore “the other half of the puzzle: people”.

The capabilities, bandwidth, experience and constraints of the different people involved have to be kept in mind too,” she points out.

With her experience and expertise in biochemical engineering and pharmaceutical manufacturing, she has been instrumental in guiding her team in implementing intricate scientific processes. Mulherkar regularly works with CMOs (Contract Manufacturing Organisations) to help scale Pfizer’s product rollouts while ensuring quality. 


At a China facility under construction in 2016

Celebrating Chinese New Year 2019 at work

In recent times, her work has included the rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine. She and her team were responsible for enabling the chosen external facilities for the production of the vaccine and ensuring rigour of the processes involved. This also involved training CMO teams on the various complexities of the manufacturing process. Transferring the know-how for every single step can easily take up to 2-3 years, but Mulherkar and her team ensured everything was completed within 9 to 18 months.

Even as she operates from her home office in Gandhinagar, she actively collaborates with teammates across the globe, including colleagues in Russia, Belgium, the UK, Italy and China. Interacting with a plethora of diverse people has also made her more empathetic.

“There are so many similarities at the core of who we are,” she says, explaining how she connects with her international colleagues. “I really feel like a global citizen. “

Whether it is imbibing people’s work ethic by observing them or figuring things out with her mentees, she is always ready to listen, understand, and collaborate. She also narrates how not being able to totally overcome her fear of deep water, even after multiple attempts, has made her more humble. “It has made me more empathetic towards people’s struggles. I realise that sometimes, like in the case of mental health disorders, circumstances are just beyond the individual’s control,” she elaborates.

As she enters the last 10-15 years of an active career, Poonam is looking forward to turning 50, travelling more often, and figuring out how to use her experience and expertise on a bigger landscape. She is excited about the technological evolutions in the pharmaceutical industry and wants to keep learning. And on the personal front, she hopes to finally learn how to swim in the deep without fear!

Future of women in science

Having witnessed several incredible women take charge during the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine rollout from across the world, Mulherkar is beyond optimistic about the future of women in science — now more than ever.

“Even my current group at work is mostly women and from different countries!”

And her first and foremost advice for all young women who want to pursue science is: “If you are someone who has the opportunity to study or work and have a support system, just go after your dreams. What limits you is only your fears and insecurities, nothing else.”

Find people who will support you; introspect and check if your conditioning is limiting you, and remember, hard work never fails and there's always room to grow," she concludes.

Edited by Rina Mukerji

Dr Harini Nagendra: Ecologist by profession, writer by passion

Posted on 26th September 2022

Dr Harini Nagendra: Ecologist by profession, writer by passion

By Nita Shashidharan

The director of the Research Centre and the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Harini has been leading research on land change and sustainability issues of forests, lakes, and cities in India and globally.

In the Field at Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve  Maharashtra

Going for walks, just looking at the trees along the way, was a favourite pastime of Dr Harini Nagendra in her childhood. “My mother Manjula is a Botany graduate. When we spent our holidays in Salem, her hometown, we visited Yercaud’s botanical garden. When in Bengaluru, we went to Lalbagh and Cubbon Park. In Delhi, I followed the same routine with my father,” reminisced Dr Harini (50), a Professor of Sustainability at Bengaluru-based Azim Premji University, where she serves as director of the Research Centre and the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability. 

“My mother and I would together dissect flowers to study their parts,” Harini says, adding that she realised only much later that all these exposures have subliminally influenced her.

Harini regrets not having chosen BSc Botany. Nonetheless, her engagement with trees continued, with a focus on the changing relationship between people and nature. Her book titled Nature in the City, and those co-authored with her colleague Seema Mundoli Cities and Canopies, Where have all our Gunda Thopes Gone? and So Many Leaves are proofs of her passion.

Harini says she is fortunate to have women in her family, who stood as strong pillars of support both before and after her marriage. Her grandmother Thungabai and aunts in Bengaluru and Coimbatore got her more interested in nature as a child.

Her father CV Nagendra always pushed her to reach for the skies, while her husband Venkatachalam Suri and daughter Dhwani inspired and encouraged her constantly. Harini also owes a lot to her housekeeper Lakshmi, who took on so many of the household responsibilities over the past 20 years and gifted Harini the time and mental space to facilitate her work.

Both her mother Manjula and mother-in-law Annapurna had to fight against the traditional family mindset that discouraged women from pursuing education. They completed BSc courses, but had to give up on further studies. “My mother-in-law was always extraordinarily thrilled that I could do my PhD. She is glad that I can continue to work on my research and passion.”

Finding her path in research

When Harini joined the Integrated PhD Programme at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), she was still figuring out her career path in biological sciences.

I was at the IISc’s Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) to attend a talk by an evolutionary biologist. But instead, by chance, I heard ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil speaking, where he stressed the need to do research relevant to humanity, something that links to the problems influencing our daily lives. This echoed with me since I too wanted to do socially relevant research. It is one of the reasons I entered the field of ecology,” she says. In Dr Gadgil, she found her PhD mentor as well.

In the 1990s, Harini was one of the few women ecologists working on remote sensing in India. Using satellites and other remote technology, remote sensing can provide information about the Earth’s surface without coming into direct contact with it.

It is a technical field. But only quite recently, when participating in a few conference panels, did I realise that we had only a few women in it.” 

Harini continues the family tradition of walking amidst trees with her daughter Dhwani

Dr Harini Nagendra is someone who successfully bridges the gap between science and outreach, seamlessly.

Since the 1990s remote sensing has advanced rapidly in capabilities and applications. I started working in this field because I wanted to understand the changes taking place in the entire Western Ghats. To examine changes across a region of that size, you need an ‘eye in the sky’ view from remote sensing satellites. Satellite images have improved significantly in terms of spatial and spectral resolution, enabling us to see landscapes at a much higher level of detail than before. Access to cloud computing and advanced computational approaches now allows us to study landscape change in multiple forests and cities at a speed and quality of analysis that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago,” remarks Harini.

During her PhD, the CES did have women researchers, but women pursuing PhD were fewer in number. Fewer still pursued field research. Harini herself did more remote sensing than fieldwork for her research. She first experienced fieldwork challenges during her site visits and biodiversity surveys.

“It was a time when India had only a tiny pool of ecologists. Priya Davidar, Kaberi Kar Gupta, Aparajita Dutta, Divya Mudappa and a few others were there, working in very difficult environments. In contrast, my Western Ghats work was in settled landscapes. I was always interested in places that have people’s presence, but it was still difficult. Being a single woman in the field, there were safety and travel concerns, besides problems in getting accommodation,” Harini says.

Over time, she moved on to do more socio-ecological and interdisciplinary research in sustainability. This gave her insights as to how local communities were more willing to communicate with a woman researcher than one from the opposite sex, despite them being strangers, and often put forth probing questions.

She thinks certain places are a lot safer for field work, especially when you know the language that people speak there, dress in a culturally sensitive way, and when on sites that are known to be hospitable to everyone. “Some areas are just more accepting of strangers. Generally, if you go off the beaten path into rural Goa or Maharashtra, it is typically safe. I think in many parts of rural India, even if you go alone, you would be safe because there is a community that has its way of treating women with respect. It is in urban centres, where such connections are gone, that safety sometimes becomes an issue.”

Even today, Harini is concerned when her female students go to the field, and always helps them with measures to remain safe.

Dr Harini giving a talk at the Clarivate Awards Function. In 2017, she was awarded the Clarivate Web of Science Award for excellence in interdisciplinary research

Dr Nagendra has been using her reputation for good. For example, on social media, she called out DST for invisiblising women identities.

Bias in academia

Harini does not shy away from calling out bias in academia. In her interview with Vrushal Pendharkar for IndiaBioscience, she can be seen drawing from her experiences and voicing her stance on the structural and systemic barriers for women in sciences.

Dr Shivani Agarwal, her former student, currently pursuing postdoctoral research at Columbia University, remarks, “Being a woman in science, we think we cannot have it all. But look at Dr Harini, she has a career, a family, writes books, takes care of her in-laws and mother, and is financially strong. When I look at her, I think we (women) can have it all.”

On writing beyond research

“Writing is like breathing to me,” Harini says, sharing how she was already writing fiction at the age of seven. She recalls how her English teacher, Mrs Joseph, taught her to think more about nuances in literature and storytelling.

Dr Raghavendra Gadagkar, a Behavioural Biologist at the IISc, is another early mentor. He introduced me to terrific authors, mostly scientists writing for the public. He invited several of us during our PhD days to write for Resonance, a magazine that aims at popularising science education. I wrote many articles for it. That was a key moment for me,” she notes.

Wanting to bridge the gap between research and outreach, she started writing for the media. “When people write back to me or talk to me about the issues I raised in my writings, it gives me a space to engage with them. I learn. I grow.”

For over nine years, she has collaborated with Seema Mundoli, Assistant Professor, Azim Premji University, to come up with books and research articles. “We share a common goal of wanting to take our research to the wider public. Harini stands out for the way she treats people. She gives me the freedom to write, and is very supportive and empathetic to the cause as well as the person. She celebrates differences, instead of making an issue out of it,” says Mundoli.

You get a glimpse of Dr Harini’s feminist side through the character Kaveri she sketched for her mystery novel, The Bangalore Detective Club. Borrowing from her historical research in Bengaluru, she explores themes of colonialism, women empowerment, and independence in this book.

‘A scientist who does not stop at science’ is a phrase that rings a bell as you flip through her multitude of writings and keep abreast with what she continues to accomplish, by leading research on land change and sustainability issues of forest, lakes, and cities in India and globally. A well-known public speaker, Harini has over 150 scientific publications and multiple national and international awards to her credit. She stands for what many passionate environmental researchers would want to be someone who makes her voice matter for the causes she believes in.

An assorted set of books written by Harini and her co-authors over the years.

Wired to think differently: How grit and determination can turn disability into asset

Posted on 19th September 2022

Wired to think differently: How determination can turn disability into asset

By Sahana Sitaraman

Despite having profound hearing loss from birth, Dr Mahita Jarjapu never let anything, or anyone, stop her from pursuing her dreams. Today, she works in the US as a scientist addressing questions in immunology.

Dr Mahita Jarjapu sheds light on creating a barrier-free environment for people in STEM

One fine day, around 12-18 months after a baby is born, parents get to experience the utmost joy of hearing their child’s first word. Mahita Jarjapu’s parents had to wait longer than usual to hear their daughter speak, all the while anxious if she would ever be able to.

In the dreary month of February 1990, Mahita’s parents were told by doctors that their 19-month-old daughter had profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss – a condition in which the vibration sensing hair cells in the ear are damaged.

They were told that without specialised hearing aids or a cochlear implant surgery — a fairly new and experimental technique in 1990 Mahita will not be able to hear anything.

Desperate to hear Mahita talk, they took her to multiple doctors, audiologists and speech therapists, but were disappointed to see how children with difficulties in hearing were nowhere close to speaking fluently.

One day, a neighbour came dashing into the house and told them about Dr S R Chandrasekhar Institute of Speech and Hearing in Bengaluru. They travelled from Hyderabad to visit the institute and were redirected to Balavidyalaya – The School for Young Deaf Children, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. That marked the turning point in Mahita’s journey.

Together we thrive

At that time, Balavidyalaya was one of the very few schools in India practising ‘early intervention’ to help develop speech in children with hearing loss. Their method was rooted in making a child wear the hearing aid throughout their waking hours and exposing them to as much verbal stimuli as humanly possible, and as early as possible, to try and forge the auditory-speech pathways during the crucial years of growth.

But it came at the cost of Mahita’s mother tongue Telugu, as the technique worked best if only one language was used to communicate, in a bid to limit confusion. Mahita’s parents chose English, which was not only new to her but also her mother.

Every day, Mahita and her mother would go to school, learn new words and sentences in English and progress together. At home, from dawn to dusk, Mahita was at the receiving end of a constant running commentary of the most mundane to the most interesting activities of the day.

Around five months after starting at Balavidyalaya, Mahita’s parents finally heard the most precious sound in the whole world. She opened her tiny lips and said amma and nanna.

Five years went by in a flash and the teachers at Balavidyalaya said Mahita was ready to join a mainstream school. Wishing to be closer to their extended family, Mahita’s family went back to Hyderabad, and got her enrolled in Class 2 at Sherwood Public School. The 11 years Mahita spent there were critical in developing her confidence and drive to pursue goals deemed unattainable for her.

I was never treated differently, and the teachers were very compassionate, patient, empathetic and supportive. I was never left out and was encouraged to participate in all extracurricular activities,” Mahita recalled.

Dr Mahita Jarjapu with Saraswati Narayanaswamy, Dr Meera Suresh (currently Honorary Vice Principal of Balavidyalaya) and her parents.

Dr Mahita Jarjapu with Saraswati Narayanaswamy, founder of Balavidyalaya, during its Golden Jubilee Celebrations in December 2019.

She knew to take all the support and kindness and pay it forward. Friends remember Mahita as a bundle of positivity and kindness. “I always talk more about what I got from her than what I was able to do for her,” her friend Abhimitra Meka said, with a nostalgic smile. From teaching patience and tolerance to inculcating a drive to keep knocking down barriers, Mahita has been a strong influence in all her friends’ lives.

Hearing the inner voice

As the end of school years approached, Mahita found herself gravitating towards the field of medicine. “I was always interested in science and used to read these ‘Did You Know’, ‘Inventions and Discoveries’ types of books right from Class 6,” Mahita recounted.

But knowing well that the Indian government did not approve of doctors with hearing issues, she chose to pursue basic science. College was a major change. With classrooms accommodating hundreds of students doing parallel conversations and teachers facing the board while speaking, Mahita realised that she was missing out a lot. She could not lip-read if the speaker was turned away from her.

But she put in extra effort to be on par with her peers, and this drive got her into the Indian Institute of Technology Madras to pursue a master’s in chemistry. Not only did she excel in academics, but she also changed perspectives on communication.

Her thesis advisor Dr Nandita Madhavan said with pride in her eyes,  “Although Mahita’s speech might not be very clear, but the way she communicated her research ideas, it was probably one of the best ways. That made me wonder, do we sometimes over-emphasise accents, pronunciations and how we speak?”

Mahita continued her streak of excellence and joined Prof R Sowdhamini’s group at the National Centre for Biological Science (NCBS) for a PhD, in 2011. In the six years she spent there, she dazzled her advisors and peers with her intelligence, patience and diversity of talents.

In the beginning, I used to draw and explain many things. But I soon realised she does not need any of that support. She is very, very smart. And extremely adept at lip-reading,” Prof Sowdhamini said.

Her friends and colleagues went the extra mile to make sure she was included in all settings formal and informal. “I ensured we did not switch to Hindi or other languages, while Mahita was there,” recounted Pritha Ghosh, Mahita’s friend from NCBS.

But her most challenging, yet fun experience with Mahita was when she taught her Odissi. Ghosh reminisced, “Whenever I taught her, she would ask me what is the gap between this step and the next, in seconds? It made me look at dance in a different way.”

“Over time, I have come to realise that her way of thinking is quite valuable. When I replicate that and try to think along the same lines, I tend to be a more satisfied scientist,” said Abhimitra.

Dr Mahita Jarjapu with her friend Roopa Comandur, at IIT Madras convocation

Dr Mahita Jarjapu handing over her thesis to Prof. Sowdhamini

Being in environments not designed for people with hearing issues challenged Mahita to come up with her own ways of doing things. “Since I already know that during seminars, the audience might not be able to follow my speech/acoustically understand me fully, I make my presentations in such a way that they are self-explanatory while ensuring the audience is not overwhelmed by the amount of text on the slide,” Mahita explained.

Extensive reading of literature made up for the missed conversations in group settings. But sometimes, being oblivious to these exchanges acted as an advantage. “If someone in a group is discussing how difficult a task is, and I miss out on that part of the conversation, I might go ahead and attempt it and try to make it work,” Mahita said.

Excellence as a way of life

Continuing her academic career, Dr Mahita went to Prof Chris-Bailey Kellogg’s lab at Dartmouth College for her first postdoc and is currently in the lab of Prof Bjoern Peters, at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, San Diego, California. She is working towards understanding what makes an antibody choose a particular binding site (or epitope) on the antigen and is also involved with the Coronavirus Immunotherapeutic Consortium.

Since moving to the US, and with the start of the Zoom era, Mahita has gained immensely from regular access to closed captioning during meetings and seminars. Having visited and lived in multiple countries, Mahita felt India has much to learn in making spaces more inclusive.

Awareness about early intervention and special education at a young age is a must. But even more crucial is the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream schools, facilitating not only their growth, but also inculcation of acceptance in children without disabilities.

Prasada Rao, her father, feels the country has a long way to go. “It is disappointing to see that three decades later, parents are still not advised about auditory-verbal therapy, which is much more comprehensive than speech therapy for developing speech-language skills in young children with hearing loss,” he said.

“From the beginning, our objective was to make her stand on her own. She should not depend on anybody. We did whatever was needed to achieve that goal,” Rao said with certainty.

Their efforts have borne the sweetest fruits. A journey that started with tears of agony has transformed into one where Mahita’s parents’ eyes swell with tears of pride. 

Dr Mahita Jarjapu at her thesis defence seminar

BMC’s first woman director, Archana Achrekar builds an inclusive legacy

Posted on 12th September 2022

BMC's first woman director, Archana Achrekar builds an inclusive legacy

By Poorvi Gupta

From delayed promotions to men who refused to take orders, Archana Achrekar has fought several gender biases and paved the way for more women employees at Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation

Since 1888, the year when BMC was founded, no woman engineer had been appointed as director. Achrekar’s post comes third in the municipal administration hierarchy, after the commissioner and the additional municipal commissioner.

Women civil engineers were a rare sight in the country when Archana Achrekar joined the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in 1984. Though India got its first female civil engineer in Shakuntala Bhagat almost 30 years prior, things were seldom rosy for Achrekar.

Achrekar landed the appointment in 2020 and proved her mettle despite the roadblocks set by COVID-19.

When she landed the appointment in June 2020, Achrekar (60) was the first woman to head the Engineering Services and Projects section at the BMC, in the 132 years of its existence. However, her path was strewn with obstacles: delayed promotions, a misogynistic work atmosphere and restricted access to the field, among other things.

Achrekar studied at Mumbai-based Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, the same college from where Bhagat graduated in 1953.

At college, boys would taunt me saying I was wasting a seat. They thought my civil engineering degree was useless as women typically stop going to work after marriage," Achrekar told 101Reporters. 

However, she knew how passionate she was about engineering. The aspects of design and fieldwork that she learnt in her final year consultancy project at M/s Gadiyali and Rawal Consulting Engineers truly solidified her passion for civil engineering. That lit a fire in her belly, which she continued to carry with her until her retirement in September last year.

From desk job to fieldwork

Fieldwork was a part of her consultant job. At the BMC, however, Achrekar had to wait for two years to get her first project. “Back then, women working as field engineers were frowned upon. Therefore, I was assigned a desk job. I was the only woman in meetings; my peers would not take me seriously or hear my project views. But I persisted and got my first fieldwork project in the sewerage department. I wanted to do technical work, and not a desk job of making reports,” exclaimed Achrekar.  

However, things were not any better on the field either. Achrekar recalled how the men in the team would often stare at her as if they were wondering why she was there at all! “Those days, the BMC hardly welcomed women engineers. They were far more present in administrative services than in engineering services,” Achrekar said.

In the early 2000s, Achrekar had a woman colleague running for a prime engineering position at the BMC. Unfortunately, she was not selected, which discouraged that woman to such an extent that she took voluntary retirement.

Watching her quit, similar thoughts crossed Achrekar’s mind as well. Instead of quitting, she decided to share experiences of gender-based microaggressions at the workplace with her female peers in both government and private sector organisations. This helped her feel a sense of solidarity, which boosted her resolve to persist and thrive.

Archana had been the chief engineer of BMC’s city engineer department

Achrekar celebrates Independence Day 2022, proud as she has created a legacy of inclusive municipal corporations.

Over the years, Achrekar has managed several BMC projects, the most significant being the AK Vaidya Olympic-sized swimming pool at Chembur and Ramdev Peer Mandir Marg at Kurla. She also built the staff quarters for solid waste management labourers at Kandivali. She was part of the planning team for the redevelopment of Crawford Market and overlooked the concretisation of parts of arterial roads such as LBS Marg, VN Purav Marg and Ghatkopar-Mankhurd Marg.

No longer a man's world

Twelve years after joining the BMC, Achrekar got her first promotion in 1996. There were no women civil engineers with her level of experience. Men around her were not used to having female bosses. Even her male juniors found it challenging to take instructions from her!

When promoted as Deputy Chief Engineer in 2012, she got her own cabin with an attached washroom. “It was a newly constructed office. However, the washroom had a urinal suitable only for men! It was quite clear that the office was built with the perception that only men would take up that position,” Achrekar said. 

Not just the office infrastructure, even the policies were designed to keep women away from long-lasting careers. Achrekar recalled that when she gave birth to her sons, only a three-month pregnancy leave was allowed at the BMC. No childcare leave or childcare centres for working women were present. As a result, she relied on her mother-in-law to raise her children.

"I somehow managed, just like other women from that time. It is a good thing that women now get maternity leave for six months, besides childcare services. It allows them to balance both work and personal life, instead of struggling in both," Achrekar added.

A study by Sukhatme and Dr Bharati Parikh at IIT Bombay has observed a positive trend of increased female enrolment in engineering colleges in the 1990s, though with a decreased rate of employment. Women engineers in the workforce went from 69% in the 1980s to 55% in the 1990s. 

Achrekar, however, noted that women’s participation in the workforce increased in the mid-2000s.

According to the Engineering Workforce Commission, in 2010, women received 19.7% of all civil engineering degrees awarded, as against the 18.2% in all engineering streams. Moreover, as per a report on women workers in India by the Neville Wadia Institute of Management Studies and Research, the increase in work opportunities in the early years of the new millennium has been to the tune of 9.3 million jobs per annum (from 1999-2000 to 2004-05). Of the total 46 million jobs created during this period, nearly 15 million went to women.

‘A change in mindset came about when the BMC promoted some women in mechanical and electrical engineering to mid-level posts and also started recruiting more women. Today, I see many women civil engineers, working shoulder to shoulder with men. In fact, women engineers have shown how intelligent, dedicated and dependable they are,” said Achrekar. 

A Women’s Day celebration at Archana Achrekar’s office.

Ridhi Gurav (centre), one of Achrekar’s mentees, stands tall with her leader.

In mentor’s role

Achrekar’s journey and passion have inspired many women to enter the field. One of her mentees, Ridhi Gurav (32), a Sub-engineer (Civil) at the BMC, said Achrekar was a supportive superior who helped evoke a strong sense of self-actualisation.

I recently cleared the Maharashtra Public Service Commission exam for recruitment to the post of assistant commissioner in the BMC, and she was the one who asked me every day what all and how much I had studied. Whenever I felt low, she guided me," said Gurav, who worked with Achrekar at the Civic Training Institute & Research Centre. 

Abhay Sabnis, Deputy Chief Engineer at the BMC, worked with Achrekar for two tenures, when she was a chief engineer and when she became the director. “She has been a kind and generous boss, who likes to play on people’s strengths. She never let her team members face brickbats,” Sabnis told 101Reporters

“She has certainly left a positive mark as a director who could make everyone feel at ease. Her achievement has opened the gates for women engineers. Today, they prefer to take up fieldwork more. This has only been made possible because of the consistent efforts of engineers like Achrekar, who never shied away from field projects.”

“Her peers saw history being created with her appointment, and now we see more women being promoted to leadership positions in the civic body,” Sabnis added.

The sky is everyone’s laboratory

Posted on 5th September 2022

The sky is everyone’s laboratory

By Priyamvada Kowshik

Astrophysicist Prajval Shastri is equally preoccupied with her efforts to make the discipline of physics more inclusive, as she is with her studies on black holes

Prajval Shastri was not even seven when she set her heart on space exploration. Humans were yet to land on the moon, as Shastri told her mother about her plans to be a scientist on a spaceship. 

Prof Prajval Shastri was born to parents who were science buffs. Hence, gravitating towards science came easy to her.

I remember being disappointed to learn that. A couple of years later, when the moon-landing finally happened in 1969, we listened to the live stream on All India Radio. That was an era when scientific discussions were as much part of our living rooms as they were in our classrooms," recalls Professor Shastri (63), Emeritus Scientist at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru.

One of the foremost astrophysicists in the country, Prof Shastri specialises in supermassive black holes at the centre of distant galaxies and the jet streams emerging from them.

She is equally passionate about dismantling the patriarchy in science, and the inequities and systemic barriers for women in physics. Shastri wants to build an inclusive physics community, where people of all backgrounds can thrive. 

Women in science represent an important societal intersection and among the sciences, physics has one of the largest gender gaps among science disciplines. To address this inequity, Prof Shastri founded and chaired the Gender in Physics Working Group (GIPWG) of the Indian Physics Association (IPA). She also conceived and led the drafting of the Hyderabad Charter for Gender Equity in Physics, a call to action to the Indian physics community to address gender disparity. 

A detested tag: Woman first, scientist later

Shastri’s physics education started purely out of a passion for science. She was born a year after the Sputnik launch; her father was a practicing medical doctor, and her mother a science buff. 

An education at St Agnes College in Mangaluru nurtured her scientific spirit, but it did not give her any inkling of the gender inequities in her chosen discipline. “In school, our science and mathematics teachers were women; in college, it was an equal mix. I saw education as a gender-equal space. I knew about caste, class and gender inequities in the outside society, but I had not yet awakened to the systemic inequities within education, especially physics,” she tells 101Reporters.  

That was until she joined IIT Bombay for her master’s programme. “We were 80 females amid 2,000 male students across all streams. And that is the first time I encountered remarks like ‘Oh, girls do well because they are bookish… girls are not bright’,” she recalls.

One incident that impacted her was when she scored higher than her male lab partner. “I was told I got a higher grade because I am a girl. It was demoralising, and I could not process it initially, despite being a fairly politicised person. I read history and philosophy, in addition to science, and was very much alive to what was happening around me,” says Shastri.

Prof Shastri has held post-doctoral research positions at the University of Texas at Austin, University of California at Berkeley and the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

A preparatory workshop for the Transit of Venus 2012 that Prof Shastri organised at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. She is seen here with Arvind Paranjape, current director of the Mumbai Planetarium.

During her PhD studies at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the experience of inequality “was up by a couple of notches”. “Our identities were first defined as women, not as passionate science scholars,” Shastri says candidly. 

In 1992, while pursuing her postdoctoral research in the US, the landmark Baltimore Charter for Women in Astronomy — which addressed the need to develop a scientific culture within which both women and men can work equally and effectively — was held. 

“That opened my eyes to how the inequity we experience results from a systemic phenomenon of patriarchy within the sciences. Patriarchy associates science with brilliance and tells you that women are not as brilliant as men. Women also internalise these stereotypes. So the general perception is that science gets more challenging for women as they progress to higher education and research. However, they don’t discuss the barriers and biases within. No study has found a productivity or competence deficit in women. On the contrary, stereotypes and barriers have been identified,” Shastri reveals.  

In the hiring process, these biases “unconsciously” put women candidates at a disadvantage. “When a woman applies for a faculty position, instead of simply looking at her academic track record, teaching experience, research and recommendations, the hiring committees start to second guess if she is married, will she do so, will she relocate, get pregnant, or will we lose her for a year for maternity leave,” Shastri elaborates. 

Branding as incompetent

“If you’re talking about inequity, you must be an incompetent scientist.” This deep-rooted bias was quite evident to Shastri ever since she returned to India in 1995, as a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru. It took her more than a decade to publicly voice her views.

In 2008, the conversation around gender inequity in physics and its impact on scientific productivity and excellence gathered momentum. To celebrate 400 years of Galileo’s discovery, 2009 was declared the International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations. The powerful motto, ‘She is an Astronomer’, centred around the gender issue in astrophysics. The IIA was a focal point for these activities in the country, with Shastri in the lead.   

The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), a global union of professional physicists, has a working group for Women in Physics (Shastri prefers the more inclusive term ‘Gender in Physics’). It organises international conferences every three years where, alongside cutting-edge research, interactive workshops on addressing gender inequities are held. The country teams are responsible for keeping the discourse alive within the physics community. In 2011, Shastri joined her colleagues who were involved with the IUPAP and started speaking up about the inequities in scientific forums.

"When I attended the 2011 conference as India's team leader, I realised that we did not have a forum or society to discuss these recommendations," says Shastri, while elaborating on how she proposed (in 2011) and eventually led the GIPWG in 2017. 

Women and people of marginalised social identities in science widely report that raising issues of inequity leads to their core academic work being undervalued. “Forget about talking of equity in science; even if I am involved in science outreach activities, I have to work harder at my research to not be called incompetent,” says Shastri. Her research papers not only deal with the black hole-galaxy connection, but also gender inequity. She addresses issues such as science communication in regional languages as well.

Shastri rightly emphasises the need for a course on the social processes in science practice, as a part of the graduate physics curriculum.

She believes that the cultivation of scientific thinking is for everyone, uses astrophysics as a vehicle to engage lay audiences of all ages with these questions, and works for the Peoples Science Movement towards this goal.

Prof Shastri has been a Fulbright fellow at Stanford University and is currently an Emeritus Scientist at the Raman Research Institute and Adjunct Professor at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Australia.

Posing tough questions

It was from multiple academic discussions of the GIPWG that the Hyderabad Charter emerged. ‘Pressing for Progress’, an interdisciplinary three-day conference, was held at Hyderabad University in September 2019, bringing together both scientists and social scientists. Apart from the workshops on the latest research in physics, sociological discussions and innovative theatre methodologies were used to explore issues of gender inequity.

The guiding principle of the Hyderabad Charter is that inequity results from patriarchy, both social and within the sciences. The charter noted: “The fraction of women with PhDs in physics, who are employed in tertiary education countrywide, is just 20%, far less than in biology. That fraction plummets to 10% and lowers in elite research institutions, leadership positions, and honours lists. The low fraction cannot be explained as a lack of interest in physics among girls — they win almost 50% of the INSPIRE fellowships in physics.” 

Some call it the “leaky pipeline”, but Shastri dismisses the metaphor. “It is a matter of the barriers getting bigger as women progress in their scientific studies,” she says.

The Hyderabad Charter calls for higher education and research institutions to have transparent criteria for hiring, the absence of which lands up being discriminatory towards women and minorities. Some key recommendations are: excluding the status/position or background of the spouse when assessing merit, encouraging work-life balance policies, including gender-neutral childcare leave, investing in diversity officers in committees  for selection, hiring, promotion, and research funding, etc. It notes that the commitment of institutional leaders is key to making progress.

Prof Prajval Shastri interacts with young astrophysicists, encouraging them to go a long way!

Shastri continues to use every platform to keep the discourse alive. “We are trying to get endorsements for the Hyderabad Charter from physicists across the country and 350 of them have endorsed it so far,” Shastri says. 

Acknowledging Shastri’s contribution, Dr Mamta Pandey-Pommeir, Chair of the The International Astronomical Union’s Women in Astronomy Working Group, France, tells 101Reporters that Shastri’s work has truly promoted Indian women’s careers in astronomy.

How this army doctor realised that kitchen is a battlefield for most rural women

Posted on 29 August 2022

How this army doctor realised that kitchen is a battlefield for most rural women

By Rina Mukherji

From Maharashtra’s villages to Indo-Pak borders, Dr Monica Barne’s work in medicine has taken her many places. But over the past two decades, her contribution to creating awareness on pulmonary diseases remains the pinnacle of her work.

“It is not just rural folk. Even the lower middle and middle class in urban India pay scant attention to the health of women working in the kitchens,” Dr Monica Barne quips. “To bring about a change, the younger generation needs to step up. During a school education programme, I urged students to get a gift for their mothers — an exhaust fan.”

Technician Shweta and Major ( Dr ) Monica Barne testing a patient using spirometer

The director of the Pulmocare Research and Education (PURE) Foundation and the CEO and head (training division) of the Chest Research & Training (CREST) Pvt Ltd, Dr Barne has been at the forefront of creating awareness on pulmonary diseases across India over the past two decades.

However, it was her personal life that shaped her professional career.

My daughter was asthmatic and suffered terribly. Her condition got me interested in pulmonary research.

Driven by her daughter’s asthma, she kickstarted a career in respiratory research, where she focused not only on asthma and allergic rhinitis, but also chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), her area of particular interest. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, 1990-2016, the COPD accounts for the second highest number of deaths in India, after heart disease.

But before Dr Barne would gain recognition for her work in this field, she would make a journey in the medical field that would see her not only work with the Indian Army, but also help her understand the problems plaguing healthcare in rural India.

From fields to the battlefields

Hailing from a family of farmers in Maharashtra’s Akola district, Dr Barne received a lot of support. Even while he worked on the family farm in Akola, her father attended school, and ultimately completed his post-graduation in chemistry to join the Ministry of Defence’s DRDO Quality Assurance Division, from where he retired as deputy controller (QAE-Military Explosives). Her mother, on the other hand, could not finish her schooling due to early marriage, but she completed her matriculation thereafter.

Seeing the poor condition of the healthcare facilities in her ancestral village, Dr Barne was inspired to work in the medical field. After clearing her higher secondary board exams, she got admitted to Pune’s BJ Medical College.

It was immediately after she had completed the initial part of her medical internship in Pune that Dr Barne joined the Indian Army on a Short Service Commission. This coincided with a tumultuous period in Indian history. 

During her posting in a remote village in Gujarat’s Surendranagar district, where she was completing her rural internship, things took a serious turn with the Kargil War breaking out in July 1999. Dr Barne was sent to an advanced dressing station on the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan’s Bikaner to attend to war casualties.

After the war ended, she managed the outpatient department in Bikaner city for the families of defence personnel. But two years later, things changed again when the Indian Parliament was attacked in December 2001. Next year, the army launched Operation Parakram, and Dr Barne was sent to the border again.

Dr (Major) Monica Barne as an army doctor. She served at the Indo-Pak border during the Kargil War in an advanced dressed station.

A patient being tested using a spirometer 

An eye-opener

While in Bikaner, Dr Barne also attended to local civilians as no proper healthcare was available to them. There, she rediscovered her diagnostic talents. For instance, she detected pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium in the heart) in a heat stroke victim and immediately sent him to hospital, thus saving his life. Similarly, she detected a hole in the heart of a boy who had come to get a cough and cold treated.

However, Dr Barne was also exposed to the realities of rural India — the poverty and gender disparities. In treating women, she got first-hand experience of the ways of rural life.

There was this young couple, with a toddler, who had come to me. They wanted an abortion because the woman was saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. Abhi nahi chahiye (we don’t want another child now), she told me. Abortion was legal, but why were they not practising contraception? The woman had nothing to say when I questioned them. But talking to the husband, I realised he considered it below his dignity to use a condom. Because of him, his wife would suffer.

To new beginnings

Once her stint in the army ended, Dr Barne first moved to Nagpur. She then married marketing professional Sumit Barne and moved back to Pune, where she worked at places that did not involve treating patients, leaving her dissatisfied.

It was around the time her daughter Yutika was born, that her husband was transferred to Mumbai. Dr Barne decided to take a break as her daughter was still a toddler. Moreover, her daughter was asthmatic.

In a few years’ time, her husband was transferred back to Pune. Since the family had moved to Kalyani Nagar, where the Chest Research Foundation (CRF) was located, Dr Barne took the opportunity to join up as part of their medical team.

During her work with the CRF, Dr Barne not only fulfilled her ambition of treating the underprivileged, she also began working on her medical research. With the help of Dr Sundeep Salvi, who headed CRF, she did pioneering research on several respiratory morbidities.

For instance, Dr Barne was part of the POSEIDON study, which showed that lung diseases are the major reason patients visit a doctor across all age groups.

Crucially, she was also involved in developing material for the detection, prevention and diagnosis of COPD by Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) in rural India. She was also instrumental in highlighting the prevalence of respiratory disorders in rural women due to indoor air pollution through studies undertaken in the interiors of Maharashtra.

Dr (Major) Monica Barne as an army doctor. She served at the Indo-Pak border during the Kargil War in an advanced dressing station.


Moreover, Dr Barne was the lead researcher for the Global Asthma Network study on paediatric asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema. The study used data from children and parents to determine the role of genetic and environmental factors in the prevalence of these diseases.

After CRF shut down a couple of years ago, Dr Barne set up the PURE Foundation and CREST in Pune with some of her former colleagues, to continue working on respiratory health.

A woman in medicine

Coming from a remote rural region, where even basic healthcare facilities were not available, her parents — her mother in particular appreciated the value of doctors even more. Hence, they were glad when Dr Barne decided to pursue medicine.

Dr Barne especially singles out her mother for her unstinted support to herself and her siblings, where pursuing their respective professional careers is concerned.

She (mother) was appreciative of education and ended up making us all highly-educated professionals

Asked if she had any advice for women who want to be in STEM, Dr Barne has only this to say: “Go for it! Remember, you are as efficient and as capable as anyone else. Aspire to be a leader!”

Edited by Sharad Akavoor

Dr Barne on a jungle safari with her family