International Women's Day

INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR ROHINI M. GODBOLE

Professor Rohini M. Godbole is a theoretical particle physicist and professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India. She has been working in the field for forty-two years after receiving her Ph.D. in 1979. She is currently a professor at the Centre for High Energy Physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India.

How did you get into the field of particle physics?

I don’t think I knew I wanted to go into particle physics when I was at school. When I finished school, I was in the top thirty in my state. Some government representatives interviewed all of us, but I think I was the only one who said I wanted to do a Ph.D., although at the time I wanted to do a Ph.D. in Mathematics or Sanskrit.

There was an exam that was an analogue of what is now KVPY (Kishore Vaigyanic Protsahan Yojana i.e. Young Scientist Incentive Plan) called the National Science Talent Search Examination. 250-300 students from around the country were selected on the condition that we would study pure science. About 30-40 of us went through three years of summer school. It was around this time that I started to learn about different fields of science.

I did a BSc; I used to think I would do either physics or mathematics and I chose physics for a very simple reason: in mathematics, it’s difficult to get a job, but in physics, even if I don’t stay in academia, I could get a job. My entry into physics was quite by chance. I went to IIT Bombay to do a Master’s. There, I had a professor who was a theoretical physicist. At that time, nuclear and particle physics were at the top of the heap and if you were worth anything, you would research these subjects, so that was it! He (my professor) was amazing. He is the reason I’m in particle physics. He opened my eyes to this world where you start with a few hypotheses (just like mathematics), and you build a story. The difference between theoretical physics and mathematics is that in theoretical physics, you build a picture that actually represents reality. And that was it, I got hooked. This was in 1974, and I’ve been in love with the subject ever since.

The 70s do seem like a very exciting time to get into particle physics, I do know that it was a pretty big time for the subject.

That’s right, and I think I was very lucky because I got into the subject at exactly the right time. 1974, when I started my Ph.D. in the US, was considered somewhat of a watershed moment in particle physics. I was present at a university close to this lab where a huge discovery was made: the J/psi particle. This was called the November Revolution. It happened in Brookhaven National Laboratory and I was doing my Ph.D. at Stony Brook, about 10-15 miles away. I think from then, the ride began and I can share where it ended, in the most exciting manner. When the Higgs Boson’s discovery was announced, I was actually at CERN, and in fact, I was giving a lecture to students about what the standard model was all about. The ride began at one point with the November Revolution and ended with the discovery of the Higgs. It wasn’t my journey, it was the journey of the subject, but I was lucky to be in the field at that point and be in the field forty years later when the Higgs was discovered.

What are you doing in the field right now?

In particle physics, we’ve come to a stage where the research is very global. The same issue gets looked at by hundreds of people and everybody has their own take on it. Now we have a complete understanding of the fundamental constituents of matter and what the fundamental forces among them are. You could say that the subject is over, done and dusted, now everyone can move on but unfortunately, that’s not the case. The laws of the standard model have a bearing on some big puzzles: what happened in the first three minutes after the universe was formed? How did matter get formed at all? What is happening right now at the centre of a black hole? There is dark matter in the universe, but what is it? When we realize that the laws of particle physics have implications for all of this, we say “okay, if I’ve got the right description, I should be able to understand and explain aspects of these things that happened in our universe.”

What’s amazing is that from the big bang theory, you can calculate the ratio of protons to photons in the universe. One of the most important things that we cannot explain is while I can calculate the ratio of protons to photons, I cannot quantitatively explain why the universe is made up of only protons and not antiprotons. You may have read about this, it’s called the matter-antimatter asymmetry. The basic laws of nature are symmetry between matter and antimatter. The early world was only energy and energy does not distinguish between the two. These are the kind of puzzles that the communities of astrophysicists and particle physicists are attacking together. This subject is called astroparticle physics and it’s partially what I’m working on from the particle physics side but not so much from the astro side.

When a community doesn’t understand something, they come up with hundreds of ideas, test them against experiments, and then we learn what is right. For example, there are at least a hundred different ideas of what dark matter is right now. Some experiments can be carried out in colliders at CERN or in deep underground detectors at Gran Sasso in Italy. Theorists like me try to see how these dark matter candidates will manifest in these experiments.

A second area of my research is realizing that even though we have proof that the standard model of particle physics is the “correct” theory, we still have stories we cannot explain like the puzzles that I mentioned before. As particle physicists, we think we should be able to find the answers to these puzzles in the theoretical frameworks that have been developed in the last 100 years. This is what we normally call physics beyond the standard model. You postulate new interactions and particles, and we try different ideas for size and try to find if the ideas are being influenced or inspired by what has worked so far. We all think it exists, we want to see how we can use machines like particle colliders at the LHC to see what is physics beyond the standard model.

There are new subjects of research that are coming up in STEM as well. I know it’s hard to make predictions because things can change very quickly in STEM, but where do you think STEM research is going?

I think that’s a question many scientists keep asking themselves. Almost every century has belonged to a different subject. For me, this century really belongs to biology or astronomy and astrophysics. If I were a student now, I would most probably go into one of these fields. Somehow, the technology has developed to a stage where previously unanswered questions can be answered. There is scope for imaginative new ideas to use advanced technology to solve issues that have been around for a long time. Other than that, I would say astroparticle physics for myself, the physics of condensed matter systems, and the physics of living systems (that’s the biology I mean). The intertwining of all – physics, mathematics, biology, and chemistry – into one complex study is perhaps going to be the order of the day.

That’s pretty exciting to think about! It’s pretty wonderful to think that there could be some sort of intersection between these subjects that I think we’re taught to think about as very separate.

I think this is going to be the century where you stop thinking of things as separate strands. Because, you have to realize, in the early 1700s or 1600s there were no separate subjects. There was only philosophy, but that was physics. When Newton published his book, he said it was about Natural Philosophy but you know Newton as the one who invented physics as we know it today. So I think this is the century where things are going to be more together than they are different.

How do you think being a woman has impacted your Journey through STEM? Do you think it has impacted your life in any significant way?

That is a difficult question to answer because I am a scientist, after all. If I make a statement, I would like to give you a substantive proof for it. If I think about my own journey, sometimes I might lack objectivity. I will try, but if you ask a friend of mine, they might say I’m misinterpreting it.

Being a girl could have affected even my entry into science. I went to an all-girls school, and they didn’t teach us general science until the eighth class. Instead, they taught us home science, and I was quite happy studying home science but I realized that if I wanted to go for all these competitive exams, I needed to know general science. Luckily for me, my teachers were very supportive. My math teacher told me to come to her house and her husband used to teach science, which is how I learned science. So my entry into science was based on this one accident. I mean, it could be that I would have found science otherwise, but this is how it happened for me.

Otherwise, until I went to the US, I don’t think I was even aware that girls weren’t supposed to be in STEM. I don’t think anyone ever said that to us. I was at the top of the class in BSc, I was at the top of the class in MSc. I had boys in my class, but none of us were even aware. We were always small in number. We were three girls in a class of seventeen, but we were in the top five. Even doing my Ph.D., I don’t think it was an issue for me, but that was the first time I saw that it could be an issue.

No one really told me not to go back to India without post-doctoral experience when I made a decision to come back, but they would have said that for anyone else. I had some offers, but I said no. When I came back to India, I think the mentorship I got was affected by the fact that I was a woman.

In India, I was a postdoctoral fellow, I got a job, I continued in the field, and became a professor. I rose through the ranks as it were, but I can only see now, from a distance, that at the beginning of my journey some comments that people made or some of their actions might have been influenced by the fact that I was a woman. How did it impact my journey? That is hard to define. I would have to find another me who is a man and see how that journey goes. Every scientist has to put in extra effort to establish oneself in a field. The time it takes to establish oneself as a scientist is a difficult time filled with self-doubt. I can’t completely separate the difficulties that even a male would have faced from the ones I faced. But I can certainly think that better mentorship would have helped me to handle them more easily.

Nonetheless, I was lucky enough that I was able to overcome them. If you ask me now, I think that if I were a male, perhaps I would have had to fight a little bit less, but on the other hand, I cannot say that being a woman really impeded my journey. For what it’s worth, they didn’t stop me. Maybe the end result would have come earlier, but who knows? I can’t tell you that.

I think it’s a good way of looking at it. At the end of the day, you’ve still accomplished a lot.

And I was able to do science on my own terms. It’s not just doing something, it’s also about achieving the ability to understand a complex subject. I might not be able to do that very complex bit of work, I may not be able to take a photograph of a black hole, but I understand how taking that photograph worked. As a scientist, I think one is just happy that I’m able to understand something that is deep. I am very happy with where I am, with my knowledge. I do believe there were issues somewhere along that line. But firstly, I didn’t realize them as I was going through them and second, at least they didn’t affect the academic aspect of my life.

Do you think the situation has gotten any better or worse? Since statistically, there are still fewer women in STEM than men, do you think gender disparity has become more obvious?

When I say it wasn’t obvious that my journey was impacted by gender, I should say that there is a certain unconscious bias in the minds of people, even in scientific communities. To give an example, there was a male colleague and good friend of mine who once told me “I didn’t realize you were so serious about research!” This was about thirty years ago but clearly, I was doing quite well. I’m not so sure he would’ve said the same thing to a male colleague. He didn’t realize that he was saying anything negative. According to him, he was saying something quite positive. The point is that there is a certain mindset that science research is not an important enough career choice for a woman. It is a bit hard to analyse how this bias affects a woman’s journey in science.

When we think about the emancipation of women, we think of them being a bank manager or a pilot, but very rarely do we think that science is a legitimate career for women. They can study science and educate themselves but after that, they must use that education to educate others. Why? Because by and large, that is consistent with their being able to take care of their family. That’s actually a good choice for the family and society in general, but I’m not so sure it’s the best choice for the woman. Some women might enjoy that life, which is completely fine, but for those who don’t, this underlying assumption that science is not a legitimate career for women is part of the reason why we don’t see women in STEM.

It is changing, though. I think we still have some ways to go. Among Ph.D. candidates, 25-30% of them are women. This has been the case for nearly thirty years. But if you come to places like IISc, you’ll find women making up only about 10% of the faculty. Somehow, the biggest drop in India has come between the Ph.D. and science careers, and it’s only now that this drop is beginning to reduce. There are many reasons for this drop, the invisible bias is just one. The attitude of society, as well as women themselves, that a full-fledged science career and balancing a family is not very easy is still very much the belief and influences this drop. There is a problem there because balancing career and family is something all professional women do. It’s only in science that it seems to affect the participation of women in actual scientific jobs. These differences need to be studied.

I find it very interesting what you said, it does seem like implicit bias is far more common. The image that people have of things like sexism is very outward, but I think it’s a lot more common that society has this assumption that they just haven’t thought about.

And I think many of these people are very intelligent people. So if they explicitly say “women are not interested (in STEM)”, they would realize it’s false. But instead, they don’t even realize that this is what they’re implying with their statements. According to me, this invisible underlying bias is the most difficult thing for women in STEM to handle.

How do you think that’s going to change in the next few years?

I think there’s a lot of awareness. In my generation, I can tell you that I know of some women who had to give up their careers although they were very good. There is a new suggestion in the Science and Technology Innovation Policy, which has recently been rolled out by the Indian government. They say we need to consider the idea of dual employment. This is already in place in the US. Particularly for academia, I think it could make a difference. We’ve also been saying that we could look at the academic age of a person rather than physical age, i.e. how many years after getting a Ph.D. have you been doing research?

Such things are coming up. Some forward-thinking institutions are already implementing these ideas in their hiring and promotions. I think such changes in attitudes and awareness will go a long way. I, for one, am quite hopeful that things would change for the better in the coming decade.

Is there anything that you would want to say to the women, and maybe the new generation in general, that are going to be going into STEM?

I hope it doesn’t sound preachy, but I really think it is important for one to make decisions about what one wants to do based on good thinking. You must take into account your own judgement of your own abilities, but you be the judge of what you can and cannot do and what you want to do. Don’t let others tell you what you should or should not do. Once you decide your path, even if there are difficulties, you tend not to give up because then no difficulty is too much and no obstacle is too high. You say, “I will battle through it because I want to do it.” Your own will is the most important will. Don’t let others suppress that. That’s all, and then the rest follows.

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