Interview with Sabeena Mannilthodi : A promising Indian female researcher

Categories: Meet the researchers

EURAXESS Links India has interviewed Sabeena Mannilthodi, a woman that promises contributing to her research field and to society at large. Sabeena can already serve as role model to other female researchers. She was finalist at the EURAXESS Science Slam 2014. Sabeena showed courageousness and discretion performing in front on a non-experts audience towards the end of her pregnancy. EURAXESS Links India welcomes in this issue our sixth finalist at the science slam: little Amelia who slammed inside her young mother!

What motivates Sabeena as a researcher? Did you have any role model when you were growing up?

The fruits of scientific research have been the backbone of the all human advancements. Science has been always a better platform to fight against superstitions. Progress in science and technology helps us to lead better life style, fight against diseases, and even address philosophical questions.

As a student I found that science is a better platform to use my knowledge and energy to serve my society. These are my perceptions that motivate me as a researcher.

My real role model is Madam Curie. During my school days, her biography made an indelible respect towards dedicated and obsessed scientific research in my mind. Her passion towards science and dedication towards the society even in the most adverse days of her life was really motivating to me. Decades later, we are still enjoying the fruits of her selfless contributions to science and mankind. The same radio-active rays that took her life are now saving the life of millions of patients.


Do you think that it is more challenging for a woman being a researcher than for a man? Can you tell if India is any different in this regard?

Intellectually men and women are equal. But the number of women who have succeeded in their scientific career is far less than their counter parts. Just compare the Nobel laureates in any of the disciplines. The fact is crystal clear. Years of undisturbed dedication in a manner which include burning midnight oil in lab even in holidays are the essential part of scientific career. After marriage, it will be slightly challenging for a woman to dedicate herself to a scientific career in this manner by balancing the family life having husband and kids. But these challenges are the same for a man in research also, in our current changing society, where men and women have equal parts in all responsibilities.

In addition to that, in order to get a permanent position in this field, at least few years of post-doctoral experience are essential. The competition will be more for that depending on the reputation of the institute. So, to be a winner in that, we have to dedicate the best time (more than 30 plus) in our lives to the career. These issues are common for men and women. Hence, there are no “women specific challenges” in research, if we can build a societal mindset of equal opportunities.

Though the present society has progressed far compared to the past, where women scientists did not get entry into labs or could not receive Noble Prize because of being  female, we are far below the ideal situation. Even today, there is a false notion that women are less competitive. I strongly believe that the presence of more women in research fields is necessary for bringing more popularity to the profession of scientific research. Therefore, governments and policy makers should pay attention to create even more favourable conditions to make our laboratories a better place for women.

I do not believe Indian laboratories are any better or worse place in this regard, with respect to opportunities. However, India has been conservative and lot more has to change with respect to flexitime, easy transferability of jobs, better amenities in workplace and finally, the societal engineering to enhance the infrastructure to factor the requirements of working women.


How is life like when two researchers live under the same roof? Does your mind get to get a rest?

I feel it will be better for a researcher to have a life partner in the same field. I am married to Ameen Poyli who is a PhD student, working in Nanophotonics, at DIPC (Donostia International Physics Center), Donostia-San Sebastian, the Basque Country in Spain. He is a constant supporter of mine in all my happiness and sorrows in both professional and personal life. Life is more excited as well as challenging when two researchers share the same roof.

Our home is not a research laboratory. So, we have enough free time to be relaxed.


How will you pass your passion for science to your daughter?

I am keen to convey my passion for science to Amelia. I would enjoy introducing the joy of science to Amelia, with appropriate observations in nature around us and the stories of the rich experience of the past. However, I am open to identify her natural inclination and encourage her interest in the field of her choice.


Do you think that international mobility can contribute to having more girls and women researchers?

I definitely think so. International mobility allows motivated girl students to pursue science research in more favorable parts of the world.


Do you have any suggestion that could increase the number of female scientists and make research a job more representative of our societies?

My observation is, till undergraduate science course, the participation of girls is high. The drop out is more at levels beyond this. Following step can promote women participation in research better:

(1) Encourage self learning of post-graduate through internet, write exams on-line, augmenting the course with practical classes and examination, for a shorter period. Have such opportunities in many places across the country. If required, financial assistance for travel can also help.

(2) More number of post-graduates would do Ph.D., if they can do Ph.D. near their place of settlement. Hence, increase the number of universities where Ph.D. can be done especially in rural places.

(3) Better infrastructural facilities, flexitime and transferability of jobs, could help women to retain their research or academic jobs. If more women enter the job and “successful women scientists” becomes order of the day, the societal changes would automatically be in place.


Back to the EURAXESS Science Slam, why “Playing with Molybdenum atoms in Titanium lattice”? Tell EURAXESS Links India Newsletter readers about the live presentation that you made. What was the message that you wanted to reach out the audience attending the live finals in Mumbai last November?

The resources in the earth are limited. But the demand for materials for a better life keeps on increasing. The answer to the increased demand of new materials is in material science research. The advancements in material science research made it possible.

For bio-medical implants, currently Ti based material is used. They are not as soft as our bones. I am trying to examine the possibility of getting softer materials, by rearranging the position of atoms and playing with different types of atoms in the titanium base. The softness of a material depends on how strongly the two atoms in a material get bonded. We have techniques in materials science like the X-Ray diffraction to see how different atoms in materials are bonded with each other. The strength of the material depends on different types of ‘constituents’, which we call as ‘phases’. Transmission electron microscopy helps me to identify these phases and find out which combination will yield softness as close to bone as possible. Mathematical modeling enables us to understand the experimental observations, which has also been used in my studies. Understanding the material in the atomic scale will help to modify it for better applications in the biomedical field.  I tried to convey this message in my presentation.


How was your experience as finalist of the 2nd global EURAXESS Science Slam in India? Would you recommend the experience to other researchers? Why?

It was an excellent experience. I was able to convey my research and interests to a scientific and non-scientific community in an enjoyable way. In the future, it will definitely help me to present scientific facts in a simple manner. I have enjoyed similar thrilling presentations of other participants as well. The questions from audience were thought-provoking. The organization of the event was laudable. Experiencing different flavors will always help to enjoy the work more.

So I recommend to all my fellow researchers, to make use of such opportunities in the research life. This will help us to have fun, enjoy science and formulate better perspectives of science research.


Where did you hear about the 2nd EURAXESS Science Slam India competition? Why did you decide to participate?

I came to know about the event from my PhD supervisor. She always says a good researcher should be able to explain her research interests to anyone from a primary school student to a pioneer in the field. There are so many occasions where we need to explain our research and interests to general public and authorities. Since the Science Slam offers an opportunity to address audience from scientific and non scientific field at same time, I thought it could be a good place to start with.


Any tips that you would like to give to prospective EURAXESS Science Slam participants?

I believe that the opportunity to present our research work in EURAXESS Science Slam brings some great responsibilities on us. This includes the inception of a positive attitude in the public audiences towards science and scientific research and also instilling a scientific attitude towards life in them. If you try to appreciate this, you will enjoy the event!! It is also necessary to exhibit to the public that if we have moved from the days of Homo sapiens to Mangalyaan of today, one of the major contributions is from dedicated, not so visible, scientific research in the backstage.