Excelling Against all Odds
Women representation from Kashmir in the scientific field and research is far less, but young Kashmiri women are increasingly pursuing PhDs in science, undertaking cutting-edge scientific research, and taking up fellowships abroad to gain work experience in reputed labs. Here’re stories of four such young women scientists and researchers who have chosen their respective fields of scientific research and excelled, both in and outside the state, and also abroad, despite difficult circumstances that hamper their growth and research work in Kashmir
‘AT TIMES EVEN REACHING THE LAB IS A PROJECT IN ITSELF’
Dr Hina Fayaz Bhat, 31, is currently working as Assistant professor and Junior Scientist in the division of Biotechnology at Faculty of veterinary sciences and animal husbandry in Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST). Before joining as a permanent faculty member in 2014, she worked in the institute as an INSPIRE Faculty in SKUAST. INSPIRE Faculty award is one of the most sought after and competitive Post-Doctoral fellowship of department of Science and Technology (DST), India. In 2013, Dr Hina was the first women scientist from J&K state to qualify for the DST-INSPIRE-Faculty award in Bio-medical sciences.
Her current engagements include teaching at the veterinary Faculty of SKUAST and advising some Masters and PhD students at the university, in addition to her research projects. She is also a member of scientific associations like American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Biotech Consortium India Limited (BCIL)) and member editorial board/reviewer of a few science research journals like Insights in Breast Cancer, Scientific Journal of Cardiovascular Disorders and Annals of Medical Case Reports.
Dr Hina is also the principal investigator of two national research projects and Co-Principle Investigator of one NASF-ICAR (Indian Council for Agricultural Research) with accumulated budget of over 3 crore approved by central funding agencies like DST, Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), India & ICAR, in addition to a few more projects which are waiting for approval. She is heading one proteomics lab at her division and has been granted funding by central funding agency Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB-India) for conducting training programs, workshops for young researchers in proteomics field.
“My primary research area is focused on cancer signal transduction while I have also been working on elucidating the proteomics of some local luxury fibers like Pashmina, as well as finding novel utility for some of the low quality animal fibers, normally considered as municipal waste in the state and to convert them into novel products with prospective biomedical importance,” she explains her research area.
“My current primary interest and post-doctoral study lie at the intersection of cancer biology, fiber proteomics, and molecular biology. I am interested in understanding the differences in the signalling pathways between cancer and normal cells and study cancer cell invasion and migratory properties,” she says. “My secondary interest lies in understanding the molecular mechanism and cellular contexts that govern the development and proteomics of animal fibers and their value addition.” She plans to develop some novel animal fibre derived products and study their biomedical and cosmeceutical applications.
Both of her research fields are relevant to Kashmir. Dr Hina says the current surge in the number of cancer patients in the valley is tragic. “The disease needs a thorough study in the patients of the valley as it is highly varied with the population genetics. The major challenge in cancer therapy is to inhibit the spreading of tumor cells from primary tumor sites to those particular organs where metastases are likely to occur,” she explains. “The aim of our work is to develop a strategy for understanding this spreading process and screening drugs with anti-migratory potentials to investigate their effect on cancer cells.”
Dr Hina says her work related to the local animal fibers would contribute significantly to the scientific knowledge and pave the way for “further investigations to provide more information in the public domain gene banks as almost no data is available about the rare and economically important fibers of Jnk.” She says the research work will be helpful in exploring some innovative products development as well as help in value addition of low quality animal fibers.
Working in Kashmir hasn’t been easy for Dr Hina. “There are times when even reaching the work place (lab) seems like a project in itself,” she says remembering how during her PhD days in the summer uprising of 2010, sometimes experiments in her lab would take longer time and reaching home on time was difficult. “Being a woman adds to this misery. To work in these circumstances as we are facing here, it’s been a challenge to keep my lab working.”
She says things become all the more difficult if you’re a working woman in Kashmir. “But then you have to learn to live with these things if you really want to succeed in life,” she says, adding that having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to make a career in science can make it work. “With the grace of almighty and support of my family and extended family, I’ve been able to come through it all.”
Dr Hina says although the work scenario for women has drastically changed from what it used to be in Kashmir, “there still is this cognitive bias towards women working in Kashmir.” She says the statements like “yim ladies kya chei karaan..?. kiheen!” (What do these ladies do? Nothing!) can be still heard in work places. When it comes to women, she says the problem is “people are more judgmental and cherry pick the facts to back up what they believe to be true.”
Dr Hina plans to continue working on her current research projects and also collaborate with medical colleges, hospital administrations in future. She would also like to work on another project based on valley’s population based cancer studies in addition to the work on development of some novel biomedical, cosmeceutical products.
She believes the best hope for improving the science education scenario in valley is to make people aware about many opportunities available in the scientific fields. “Our perspective of Science as a subject is narrow as a result many youngsters and graduates can’t think beyond MBBS, BDS and a few other subjects as science,” she says.
For female students, she says, there are many women oriented programs and scholarships and fellowships in science which can be applied for to make a career in science. “The only thing you need is a strong will and an urge to work hard,” she says. “In science you can’t expect early outcomes as in other fields but if you keep working hard, you’ll get success.”
‘GIRLS NEED MORE SUPPORT IN OUR PART OF THE WORLD’
Sahar Saleem, 31, was attracted towards science from her school days. She says she was lucky to be taught by a few good science teachers in school who kept their mind occupied with information and questions that made students like her curious to know more.
“I was fascinated about how the human body works like clockwork. Things like which organ works the most, how much does the heart work in comparison to the kidney, and how everything inside us is controlled and other questions always came to my mind,” she says. “That led to me reading more and becoming interested in Biology in particular.”
After completing her schooling from Mallinson Girls School in Srinagar, she opted for B.Sc Biochemistry course in Women’s College, Srinagar. After graduation, she was selected for M.Sc Biotechnology in the Department of Biotechnology in Kashmir University.
In 2012, she went on to join the PhD program in the same Biotech department in Kashmir University. She had also qualified Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) in 2011, CSIR-UGC NET in 2012, and also CSIR-UGC JRF in 2012. From 2012-14, she worked as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) and then as a Senior Research Fellow (SRF) in the Department of Biotechnology, Kashmir University while pursuing her PhD till 2016. She has more than 11 publications in international journals, including two book chapters to her credit.
After completing her PhD in November, 2016, she applied for the DST-INSPIRE faculty position, a Department of Science and Technology of India sponsored award. The result was declared in February 2017 and she was the only candidate selected from Jammu and Kashmir in the Biomedical Sciences.
From December 2016 to April this year, Sahar worked as a researcher in Washington State University in the Department of Molecular Sciences, before joining Division of Biotechnology, SKUAST, Kashmir as a DST-INSPIRE Faculty. In SKUAST, she’ll have to set up a lab which is mandatory under the INSPIRE award.
“The unflinching support of my parents was pivotal for the pursuance and completion of my PhD,” Sahar says, now working as a INSPIRE faculty in the Shuhama campus of SKUAST since May this year. “Every parent should support their children, especially daughters so that they can opt for higher studies and pursue their dreams. Girls need more support in our part of the world. The priority of every parent should be education of their children, especially girls.”
Sahar’s field of research is related to cancer signalling and therapeutics. “We try to investigate what changes take place in the internal machinery of a normal cell that changes it to a cancerous cell,” she explains. They investigate changes that take place in certain protein signalling pathways in breast cancer cells and how these changes lead to the development of malignancies. “When we elucidate the role of certain proteins in the development of malignancies and understand their role, better therapeutics/drugs can be developed for the cure of the disease,” she says.
She wants young female postgraduates and researchers in the college and universities of Jammu and Kashmir to work hard, aim high, and excel in their chosen fields. “When you work hard, avenues open up for you and scientific research is such a vast field that once you enter this field, the world is your oyster,” she says, adding that the science graduates and PhD scholars can also apply for many fellowships which are on offer outside the state and also in foreign universities which can help provide much-needed exposure and research experience. “You can work anywhere in the world and make a difference.”
“ONE HAS TO BE READY TO ACCEPT FAILURES’
Munazah Fazal Qureshi, 32, a resident of Soura, Srinagar, recently submitted her PhD in Life Sciences from the School of Life Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her area of research was behavioural and molecular neurobiology. Her work involved studying how sleep facilitates memory formation and what could be the molecular mechanisms underlying it.
It wasn’t easy for Munazah though to leave her home, her parents behind, and dig her heels alone for many years in New Delhi to complete her PhD from JNU.
She did her Masters in Biotechnology from University of Kashmir in 2008. Thereafter, she joined the same department for her M.Phil degree. But due to some domestic problems, she had to stay back at home for about eight months during which time she could not fulfil the requirement of her M.Phil program.
“Eventually I had to leave the course,” she says. It was very discouraging and she felt her career had come to an end. “I was home again and felt bad about my life. But as it goes your family is all you need,” she says, adding that her parents, sisters and her brother encouraged her to get over her bad phase. She started looking up again for Ph.D programs and applied in different universities outside Kashmir.
In 2010, she came to Delhi and sat for PhD entrance test for JNU and National Brain Research Centre (NBRC). She could not get through NBRC, but she made it to JNU for her PhD. “Things were falling back in place. I had a whole new ladder to climb however in a place which was very different both culturally and socially from my own,” she says. The biggest challenge was to leave her home, her parents, behind.
“My leaving home would mean that my mother had to take care of everything and also shoulder my part of responsibilities,” she says. “This wasn’t easy on her to be able to take care of my dad who was not keeping good health and run the house too. But she took it all on herself and let me pursue my career without a sigh.”
Eventually, with the support and motivation from her family, she moved to Delhi and joined her PhD program in School of Life Sciences in JNU. Subsequent years involved a lot of hard work and struggle. “Research in science is itself a struggle,” she says. “One has to be ready to accept failures and then you have accomplishments too. Overall it has been a mix of failures and eureka moments and as I look back I see my growth not just as a researcher but also as an individual.”
Munazah has been a recipient of many awards including Budur Krishna Murthy Travel Award by Indian Society for Sleep Research for attending a conference organized by Asian Sleep Research Society held at Kovalam, Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala in 2014, where she was also declared winner of Young Scientists Colloquium for the best oral presentation by the Indian Society for Sleep Research. In 2015, she was also awarded DAAD, A New Passage to India fellowship by the University of Würzburg, Germany, for three months research stay in the university.
Following her PhD, she is looking for some post-doctoral opportunities. Eventually Munazah would want to return home to work as a researcher and a teacher. In Kashmir, she says, there’s a challenge to nurture scientific research amidst the ongoing turmoil. “It is not always possible to be able to give what we are capable of and stand at par with other states,” she explains, adding that limited working hours is the biggest drawback in Kashmir to carry out scientific research in labs. “Outside Kashmir, even the girls can work till late hours in university labs and institution while in Kashmir you can’t stretch work hours beyond 5pm. This limits output of our young and bright researchers and scientists and we get a little sluggish too.”
For young female science graduates and PhD aspirants from Kashmir, Munazah has a message: dream big and think outside the box. “Women are strong enough to handle life at both professional and personal front,” she says. “Have faith in your strength and yourself. Everyone has got two hands to work with, and we are no less than anyone…”
‘YOUR HARD WORK GIVES YOU COURAGE TO NEVER GIVE UP’
Dr. Durafshan Sakeena Syed, 32, was always intrigued by science since her early years. Soon after her graduation, she was selected for a postgraduate degree in Department of Law and Biotechnology. Given her love for science, it wasn’t a hard choice to choose biotechnology.
She pursued her MSc. in Biotechnology from Kashmir University from 2006-2008. Her professors were instrumental in encouraging her to leave her comfort zone to explore various scientific ventures. Soon after completing M.Sc., she joined Prof. Veronica Rodrigues laboratory at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (NCBS-TIFR), Bangalore, as a Junior Research Fellow from 2008-2009. There she was introduced to the world of neurobiology.
Durafshan appeared in the all India level entrance examination for admission to PhD program at NCBS-TIFR and Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. She was selected in both the institutes and eventually joined Prof. K. Vijay Raghavan’s laboratory at NCBS-TIFR as a PhD student in August 2009.
During her PhD, she studied the mechanisms underlying the development of motor neurons required for walking, using fruit fly as a model organism. Walking, a rhythmic motion, is an outcome of coordination between precisely connected neurons and their target leg muscles. “We discovered the signaling mechanisms that direct the precise positioning of motor neurons in the central nervous system and their connections with specific leg muscles, thus enabling an organism to perform regulated movements,” she says. “Given the conservation of developmental mechanisms across taxa, these results could be of general importance for understanding the basis of neural circuit formation.”
Currently, Durafshan is working as a postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Julie Simpson’s lab at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) in USA. She’s studying how brain regulates choice among actions and generation of sequential movements.
Being a woman was never a hurdle for Durafshan to excel in science while she was studying in Kashmir. However, leaving Kashmir and her family behind and taking up research outside the state was a bit challenging. “I have a very supportive family though,” she adds. “My parents being teachers always valued education.”
Her PhD demanded a lot of effort, time, and patience. “It would have been impossible without the support from family,” she says. “But there is always lots of social pressure in Kashmir. Many people don’t encourage that you leave the state for a long duration, and there are lot of hurdles that come your way. But then you remember the hard work you have done and that gives you courage never to give up!”
Durafshan believes the MSc. program in Kashmir University is excellent for graduates. “I have met people from various prestigious universities in India and a student from Kashmir University is capable of giving them a tough competition,” she says. “However, students lack research exposure in Kashmir. Universities in Kashmir should encourage students to do six months dissertation projects in various research institutes so that they learn the basics of research and it also helps in developing connections that provides an opportunity to pursue PhD in India or abroad; or how to develop collaborations while doing PhD in Kashmir university.”
At the college level in Kashmir, she says many science undergraduates don’t even know that they can opt for an integrated PhD in some prestigious institutes in India, directly after B.Sc., thereby saving a lot of time. “Educational tours to research institutes, inviting Kashmiri scientists to give research talks, career counselling in colleges would result in the awareness that is lacking among college students in Kashmir,” she says. For female students in particular, she says there are various scholarships they can apply for pursuing research in science. “Many scholarships also take into account if one has to take a break for a certain period due to family considerations.”
She says college students can opt for small dissertation project in a research institute or in Kashmir University during their winter vacation, or ask for permission from the college during course work. “Talk to your seniors for guidance and counselling and keep yourself updated about various research institutes and fellowship exams,” she says. “All information is out there on the internet.”
Her advice for female science students and graduates in Kashmir—“stand up on your own by dint of your hard work, look for various research opportunities outside the state and don’t always wait for help… Learn to do it yourself.” She’s herself done that throughout her career in science. “All you need is persistence and patience, and you’ll find opportunities everywhere.”