“Science is still a boys’ club”, says ‘NRI of the year’ Dr Shinjini Kundu
She speaks to us about overcoming gender biases and being an Indian American under Trump
On paper, Dr Shinjini Kundu’s achievements seem like an exaggeration. Not only is she one of the world’s youngest Md-PhD scientists, she has developed technology that could possibly diagnose diseases as early as three years before the symptoms manifest in the patient and she actively works towards the inclusion of more women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math).
— TEDxPittsburgh (@TEDxPittsburgh) June 4, 2017
In between that and inspiring budding scientists via her TED talk, she also performs Indian classical dance at various events, including one at NYC’s Madison Square Garden.
Now that she is in town to receiving the ‘NRI of the Year’ award (from Times News network), I finally had the chance to ask her where she had procured the Time Turner from.
She laughs and denies its existence (which is exactly what someone who has one would do, just saying), instead attributing her long list of achievements to an exceptional ability to focus. “I love everything that I do and that’s something that constantly motivates me. Yes, it’s a tough balancing act to have a lot of different things going on at the same time. I just like to keep focused on my goals and try to accomplish them one at a time, as effectively as I can.”
Instead of dolls and pink plastic kitchenware, Shinjini grew up taking apart computers with her dad, who was a computer engineer. This obviously helped her decide what she wanted to do later in life. “(At first) I was interested in computer and electrical engineering like my dad. But when I entered college, I took a class on medical imaging devices and I realized that electronics can be used in patient care and to hasten the diagnostic process. That’s when I became interested in the medical side of things,” she says on her decision to pursue biomedical engineering. While her parents were supportive of her career choice, they were skeptical about her pursuing an MD PhD, “Initially my parents were surprised because they realized it meant that I’d have to spend a long time in school,” she says, adding that her sincerity finally won them over.
It’s inevitable that we breach the subject of gender disparity in her field. The Economist reports that the one area where women are still facing daunting career obstacles is STEM. Shinjini backs up the claim. “In my graduating class, there were only 4 (female students), in a class of 20. I only had two female engineering professors in college, so you can see that the gender disparity very much exists,” she says.
The glaring inequality in numbers, she feels, is due to the fact that women feel discouraged to enter these fields. “From the outside they can see that it’s male dominated and they may not be able to find a good female role model who has been able to accomplish the kind of career that they aspire to have.”
Speaking from her own experience, Shinjini describes the engineering field as a ‘boys’ club’. “You feel like you’re the only woman and you have all these men who get along well with each other, they have their inside jokes, and they work on the problem sets together and it’s very easy to feel excluded from the environment.”
One of her earliest experiences of casual sexism happened in college. “This girl came up to me (and make note, she was not an engineering student), and asked ‘why do you study so hard? It’s so easy for women in engineering because the men just take care of them’. I was so shocked that I couldn’t respond. I slowly realized that this is an ingrained belief this girl has.”
In Shinjini’s case, her gender was not the only parameter she was constantly judged by. “Age can be a big impulsive bias that people have,” she says. Because you don’t see many 25-year-olds holding double degrees and a PhD, respect was hard to earn. “I would notice that a lot of people would address a colleague, who looked a little older, who also had a Phd as ‘Dr so and so’ and they’d call me by my first name. In graduate school, there was a class that was taught by two professors, one was much older than the other one who had just got a PhD. They referred to the older professor with a ‘doctor’ before his name, but they addressed the younger one by his first name.” The only solution, according to her, is to constantly be assertive.
Even if you’ve been living in a cave for the past few months, it would be difficult to escape the fact that the current US administration doesn’t exactly have a track record of supporting minorities. Being an Indian American, Shinjini knows her ethnicity adds another difficulty level to her career.
But, she says, you have to fight past these stereotypes and live your own life. “Whenever you’re trying to enter a field where you’re a minority, either because of gender or ethnicity, these kind of implicit biases will follow you. It’s important to know that it reflects more on them rather than on you as an individual. You should just keep moving forward.”