Interview with Rama Govindarajan

Monsoon physicist talks through her journey resisting pressure to be ‘ladylike’ and becoming the only woman of 54 in chemical engineering class

January 20, 2022
Rama Govindarajan, dean of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Banga­lore

Rama Govindarajan is dean of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore. An expert in fluid dynamics, she has won awards including the 2007 Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award for her original contributions to the field and the Outstanding Scientist award of 1996 given by India’s National Aerospace Laboratories.

Where and when were you born?
New Delhi in August 1962. I lived in Chennai between the ages of nine and 17 and was back in Delhi for college.

How has this shaped you?
Delhi is a cosmopolitan city. I made friends from different states who spoke different languages. I learned Hindi, Tamil and English at a young age. I then learned to adjust to life in Chennai, which was a completely different city. I also learned to adjust in a completely different school – a girls’ school.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was the only woman in a class of about 54 in chemical engineering in IIT Delhi. I owe who I am to IITD; it opened my eyes to immense possibilities in my future. The freedom that living in a hostel on campus brought was unimaginable. I got leadership opportunities such as being the house secretary of the hostel. I started in IITD as a very quiet and underconfident yet rebellious person, and emerged happy and reasonably well adjusted. I made many close friends for life.

You work on cloud physics and the Indian monsoon. How did you get interested in this topic?
I work on many areas in fluid mechanics. I got into it by chance, while trying to make a career in Bengaluru. I love the fact that it is a very old subject with so many open questions. I like its immense diversity. I like the possibility to pull out universal principles and simple but illuminating physics. I like the applied mathematics aspects and the connection to real-life problems. I also like computing and doing simple experiments. Cloud physics and the Indian monsoon are especially important to understand in the context of climate change.

During your career, you’ve had to fight gender bias – what did you experience, and how have you dealt with that?
In the olden days, gender bias was more explicit. My school and teachers tried to make me “ladylike” and to focus more on homemaking skills than on other subjects. I learned to rebel against the former and benefit from the latter. Decades ago, I faced discrimination in terms of unfair job and promotion interviews, in being blocked from facilities and opportunities available to men, and once in a while in comments from colleagues. I learned the art of repartee, to fight directly for my rights, and did win some of these battles. It made me braver and more confident.

Have you been involved in advocating for other women in science?
I have attended many meetings of women in science. In these and elsewhere, I strongly advocate for speaking up and speaking out against sexual harassment and against unfairness. I speak for equality and symmetry of treatment. I speak for recording interviews and the discussion thereafter. I advocate for improving the gender ratio in science. Families are the most important place to begin the battle for equal nutrition, equal opportunities and equal aspirations for the future, for children of any gender. I advocate for equal treatment of sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, where differential treatment is even more stark than for sons and daughters. I encourage young women and men to work towards these goals, whether or not they are in science.

What has changed most in higher education in India in the past five to 10 years?
There are many new institutions where good research is going on. Partly due to the larger numbers and partly due to bigger aims, there is more talent and productivity among young scientists in the country than before. Perception about India as a science hub is slowly but surely improving. The change is over a longer time, maybe two decades.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
The following may be too much to do in a day, but I would increase the number of students being admitted to university by a big factor. This would increase the number of highly educated people in India, and would ease the excessive competition among students to get into reasonable colleges. I would bring in explicit LGBTQ-friendly measures. I would make the syllabus broader, more modern and more flexible, to include sufficient exposure to arts, humanities and social sciences for science students and vice versa. Projects by students on climate change mitigation and the protection of the environment, and learning about ethics and democratic values, would become compulsory.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
So many things. I wish we had many lives to walk down many roads. In my dreams, I have set up a chapati factory. The business plan is ready down to the uniforms. If I mustered up the courage, I would love to be in politics.

What do you do for fun?
I dance Bollywood-style. I’m not good at it, but love it. I like travelling, spending time with friends, long walks and treks, sudoku and binge-watching movies online.

What would you like to be remembered for?
My research training of students and postdocs. I try to prepare them for becoming scientists who ask important questions, rather than answer questions already posed by others. I rarely pose a completely defined set of problems that students can turn into good papers. Instead, I define an area where there are several open questions, and suggest some broad directions. When students come back with ideas, I nudge them to focus these into sharp questions worth answering. I would also like to be remembered for giving talks that are accessible to all young students; I’m still trying to get there.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Martin Schmidt has been appointed president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Currently provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he will join the New York research institution in July, succeeding Shirley Ann Jackson. Professor Schmidt took his undergraduate degree at Rensselaer and has worked at MIT, where he is also Ray and Maria Stata professor of electrical engineering and computer science, since 1988. Professor Schmidt said that MIT had been a “remarkable home” but that there was “really something special about being given the opportunity to lead your undergraduate alma mater”.

Simon Chesterman will be the first dean of NUS College, the National University of Singapore’s new liberal arts college. The institution, a merger of Yale-NUS College and NUS’ University Scholars Programme, will open in July. Professor Chesterman, currently dean of the Faculty of Law at NUS, will also take on the role of vice-provost (educational innovation) at the university. He said he was “excited at the chance to work with my colleagues and our students to build NUS College into Singapore’s first true honours college”.

Julie Brunton has joined the University of Bedfordshire as pro vice-chancellor for education and student experience. She was previously associate dean of teaching, learning and student experience at Sheffield Hallam University. Bedfordshire has also appointed Andrew Church, formerly associate pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Brighton, as pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation; and Adrian Dutch, formerly director of global, recruitment and admissions at the University of Westminster, as pro vice-chancellor for international.

John Iredale is the new interim chair of the UK’s Medical Research Council. He will hold the post on secondment from his role as pro vice-chancellor for health and life sciences at the University of Bristol.

Ash Roots has been appointed chief digital officer at the University of Exeter. He previously held the same role in BT’s consumer unit.

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