Mapping the heavens and charting a career in science

Professor Priya Natarajan was the first woman in Astrophysics to become a Fellow of Trinity. Now at Yale, she she has returned to Trinity to give the inaugural Women of Trinity Lecture, as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of women’s arrival at the College. Here she talks about the challenges and rewards of pursuing a career in science. 

You explore the complexities of the universe using accumulated years of wisdom and sophisticated equipment. Is it a paradox that here on earth equal pay remains an issue?

It is unbelievable and utterly unacceptable that in the 21st Century we are still talking about equal pay! It’s a matter of fundamental respect for women and their work and we are 51% of the population!

What are the three biggest challenges for women in science today?

For women who are contemplating an academic career in science, the key challenges are both internal and external. Internally, we need to silence the voices that reinforce stereotypes that we absorb from society and hold us back; externally, there are demographics (not enough women yet…though the numbers are creeping up) and structural biases – conscious and unconscious biases that present obstacles and erode confidence.

We need to remain resilient and follow our paths and pursue what we are passionate about. It is imperative that we define our own success, on our own terms with the components that we care about, and not capitulate to the dominant paradigm of what a successful scientist looks like…

priyamvada_natarajan s

How did you overcome those (or any other) obstacles?

My biggest obstacle was an internal one – the persistent feeling of being an outsider. When I was younger, I so badly wanted to belong. This was triggered early in my life, moving between cultures – India, US and UK; being in a male dominated field; being brown, another minority within a minority; being single and choosing not to have children; having multi-faceted interests in an academic culture that primarily rewards narrowly defined expertise. All of these things made me feel isolated.

Once I crossed the age of 40, somehow I realized that this feeling of being an outsider, despite the angst it had wrought, had helped me cultivate the emotional and mental resources to be my authentic self, which has been freeing and feels wonderful.

What did Cambridge do for you?

Cambridge and Trinity College were very nurturing environments for me. I am deeply grateful to College, and the election to a Fellowship was an incredible experience, it altered my intellectual orbit in very important ways.

Was it a long way from South to North India, to MIT, Cambridge and Yale? Which was the biggest journey and what’s the most important thing you learnt? 

The first step was the biggest one, leaving home very young and coming to study at MIT after growing up very sheltered in a wonderfully warm and supportive family. I was always very independent by nature but it was the first time I had to manage entirely on my own, and in a totally new environment. I was so excited at the opportunity that it did not seem so difficult at the time. Looking back, I am amazed at how I handled the transition.

This experience enabled me to learn about myself, my strengths and weaknesses. This self-learning continues even today; it has been empowering.

How does (Astro)Physics compare to other STEM subjects when it comes to welcoming and supporting women in their research and career progression? 

All academic disciplines are slowly becoming aware of the particular obstacles that impact the career progression of women in their fields. For a long time the conversation was entirely focused around motherhood and the challenges it places on academic trajectories.

Finally, now there is recognition of the deeper issues that also need to be tackled – embedded biases that are invidious and more uncomfortable to confront. I am very optimistic (by nature) and know that the career paths of young women today will be smoother than they were for my generation. This is the one legacy that I want to leave – in addition to my intellectual work of course!

Have men or women been more helpful in your scientific and other endeavours?  

I have been lucky and have had many mentors, male and female, who have helped me along the way. I am very grateful for all these amazing men and women who generously gave their time and energy to support me, advise me and encourage me throughout my career.  There is an important difference between mentors and sponsors that I often stress: mentors talk to you, sponsors speak for you. For most women and persons of colour, it is harder to find sponsors and that has been true for me too.

What’s your message to young women thinking of studying science at university?

A career in science is extremely exciting, rewarding and fulfilling…imagine living in a world of ideas, generating them as well as learning from others who are creative and innovative; continually solving interesting problems, being part of a global community; and helping understand the natural world and its wonders. And imagine getting paid to do all this! It’s a dream life, I urge all young people – women and men – to seriously consider science and research as a profession.

Professor Natarajan’s lecture, Mapping the Heavens: radical scientific ideas that reveal the cosmos, takes place at 6pm, Wednesday 14 March 2018, in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre, Trinity College. To reserve a free place: https://mappingtheheavens.eventbrite.co.uk

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