A look-back on my journey – Candid with Prof. Ruchi Anand

1)What is it like being one of the top women scientists in the country? How do you think we can bridge the gender gap in the scientific community?

There are many good women scientists in the country and the number is only increasing in every field. I believe it’s the societal pressure that has held them back for so many years. Conventionally women have been restricted but in recent times the barriers are definitely breaking.

Just see our department in retrospect, when I joined IITB, I was the only Women faculty member in the Chemistry department but now the number has increased to 4 and I’m no longer the only one. I believe it is taking time but hopefully in the future years, we won’t even be discussing this thing.

2)In a video interview to ACS, you mentioned that outreach to other young girls is something that you found very enriching. Could you share your experience of outreach?

I never realised I would get so involved in it. It was a program to motivate high school female students to take up science. We had leading women scientists from all across the fields who gave very motivating talks. We chose girls from non-metro cities to be a part of this venture. We had a candid chat with the girls where we talked about our personal lives as well.

We also arranged for various lab visits across disciplines as well. It was a really fun time and connecting with them directly was something that I personally found very satisfying and got to reflect a lot too. I am still in touch with girls through a WhatsApp group and some of them said they never knew such a world of science even existed.

3)Do you think it is important to be a studious student throughout in order to become a good researcher?

Let me break the myth. It’s a big NO. I was never a studious student myself but that doesn’t make us any less as researchers. I had a lot of fun during my journey. I felt I had a little edge as my father was a scientist himself so I was quite aware of the potential of science.

         Good old Ph.D. days at Cornell 

4)Can you talk about your school years? Was the competition stiff for you as well?

I hail from Dehradun and thankfully the schooling system is excellent there. I always studied in a good school but for my high school I was shifted to the best school just because the people from there made it to IITs. 

However, I blatantly confessed to my father that I wasn’t interested in engineering. I was always very fascinated by biology but didn’t really fancy cutting and slicing living creatures.

The competition was cut-throat at the new school as everyone was in a race to get into IIT without explicitly knowing why. 

5)What advice would you give to students with regards to their career choice?

Most people get opportunities along their career to make a switch. Many people enter a profession which they might not like initially but with time opportunities do come. Make the best use of them.

Talking about my own journey, it wasn’t really a straight path either. It was only during my PhD at Cornell that I got the liberty to take up biology courses as per my liking and that when my interests evolved and I made a switch from hardcore physical chemistry to interdisciplinary regime. My initial background was centered on only chemistry and I actually had quantum mechanics in my master thesis.This knowledge though helped me a lot later in life.

Sometimes what you think is bad for you is indeed a good exposure in the long run. I would like to advise young fella’s to stay broad-minded and open to everything in life.

6) Most students at the BS & M.Sc level find the decision of pursuing a PhD quite daunting, given the tenure of commitment required towards a doctoral program. What message do you have for those students who are uncertain about such a commitment? 

I pose a counter-question to these students, say if you opt for a job .It is a blind dart you’re playing there as well. Perhaps you might not like what you are doing, or sometimes you might not even know what you’re getting into. 

What I’ve observed in our society is that most people like to brag about the package which their children get from these companies and the word of mouth is really far-reaching. It is these packages which are the driving forces and not the jobs themselves.

Research is never black and white. It’s more like StarTrek. You get a problem and then you’re free to choose whichever method to solve it. 

I believe some undergraduate research exposure is crucial before you sign up for such a commitment. I can tell most people are not looking for 10 pointer students to induct in their lab rather it is people who would have had some failures along their journey and made a comeback. Research is full of ups and downs and it is only the tough ones who survive the journey. But in the end you are your own master free to research what you like.

If you are an explorer, then I strongly advise going for a doctoral program ahead. 

7)What is the philosophy that you follow in your lab with regards to research? 

First of all, I must tell you that research is all about challenges and failures. Analyzing your failures along the way. Most undergraduates don’t really like it as you fail and they’re habitual of getting an instant result. The policy that I follow in my lab is that ultimately students have to explore EVERYTHING BY THEMSELVES.

In our lab, we take a problem from biology and apply biochemistry, biophysics and whatever else required to solve it. We don’t really try to confine ourselves and I believe science should not have any boundaries. 

We try to collaborate with various other groups across the country and outside as well to solve a problem.

9)What was the major difference that you observed in the research environment during your time at Cornell Vs your Master’s at IITK?

The verticals between different fields are no longer there. I took up courses in various disciplines at Cornell and the good part is they trusted me with my decisions. I believe that really went a long way for me. 

        Candid picture in a candid article 🙂

9)What do you think will be the next big thing in your field?

The current boom in structural biology which has revolutionized the field is Cryo-Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM).  It is an imaging technique to visualize biological molecular assemblies. As I speak I am writing a proposal for a big sum to get this facility in our institute. Let us hope we get it soon.

10)How does work-life balance work out for you? Does it get strenuous being a mother on top of being involved in various other activities?

When I moved back to India, I was going through a slump in my life as the transition was a little hard. But I felt If I could do well in India, I would be sending out a message across borders. 

Even now when I travel abroad, the respect we receive is beyond words. However, when I became a mother, I became even more productive.

I feel when you have many things to do, you get more productive. I should also mention that my husband is very supportive in this regard too. 

11) Talk about the travel experience you get being a researcher or elsewise?

I am involved in a lot of committees and get invited to a lot of talks both outside and within India. I have travelled across the globe after coming to IIT. Many times in conferences I’ve met many eminent scientists from across the globe who share similar interests and it has led to many healthy collaborations as well.

Regardless I enjoy travelling on my own as well as with my family and friends. I love the Himalayas. I try to make an annual trip. This year we had planned to travel to Chopta in Uttarakhand but unfortunately got cancelled due to the pandemic. I truly feel the Himalayas are the most beautiful mountains and ought to be explored more. 

       Dinner Table talk with dignitaries at a conference 

12) What is it you’re looking forward to in your tenure ahead? Considering all the significant awards, fellowships, responsibilities being already awarded to you 

These things come with time and they do make you feel good but I don’t believe science is solely about these accomplishments. The driving force for me is doing better science every day. I would probably stop doing science if I was to count my awards as the sole accomplishments. The biggest joy is when you discover something small and eventually  showcase it to the world. 

When I get an email from people who follow up on my work and compliment me for my efforts, it makes my day. 

13) What hobbies do you like pursuing in your free time? 

I love dancing, I used to go for Tango lessons back when I was a student. It stopped for a while but then I have picked it up again as they started in the Institute. I strongly encourage students to take it up. It’s a beautiful dance form. 

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