A career defying traditions on 3 different continents

Being a female scientist in a male oriented culture was a challenge for Professor Pratibha Gai. However, she managed to study on three different continents and have an international career, and became a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate in 2013. The diversity of cultures she met working in India, Europe and in the United States have played a great roles in the making of her career and achievements.

DiscovHER - Your career has a unique transcontinental twist; can you elaborate on this and how it has influenced your work?

Pratibha Gai - My education and scientific career spans three continents, Asia, Europe and America. I have travelled a great deal in these continents visiting and giving talks at schools, Universities and Institutions that have outreach programmes.

To achieve the best scientific education and become the best scientist I could be, I applied and got accepted in top Universities in the UK and USA. I was offered a studentship and a scholarship to Cambridge. It was my dream to go to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, since I had read about many scientific discoveries there. However I came from a male-oriented culture where over three decades ago my conservative parents, from a middle-class background, found it very difficult to accept my going several thousand miles away for science education. I may have been the first female (or one of the first females at any rate) from India to get a PhD in physics from the Cavendish Laboratory! I was accepted as a proper scientist in Cambridge.

After my PhD, I pursued research at the University of Oxford and established my own group. For new challenges and opportunities I changed continents again and accepted senior scientific positions in the United States of America. My scientific research there in the development of novel electron-optical instrumentation was universally acclaimed. I arrived in York, UK, to take up positions as Founding Professor of Electron Microscopy and Professorships in Chemistry and Physics.

D/H - How did you live this cross-cultural experience?

PG - The very cosmopolitan Nanocentre we created in York has trained more than 100 science students, both female and male, within a few years. Interactions with students and staff from different parts of the globe and society have been illuminating and rewarding. These amazing experiences have enabled me to travel a great deal internationally and see for myself the issues facing women scientists in different parts of the world.

D/H - Did you face any significant hindrances while pursuing your career in science?

PG - Being several thousand miles away from home and without my parental support system in a new country with new ways can be very daunting. So my experiences are very different than, for example, a person who does not have to go through the change of continents in pursuit of a scientific dream.

My research on the nature of imperfections in compound semiconductors as a student in Cambridge is still used around the world. I also met my husband in Cambridge.

D/H - What do you consider to be the biggest challenges facing women in science? How do you perceive the cause? Is it worth fighting for?

PG - The cause of women is absolutely worth fighting for. Women have humanised science and have changed the working environment to be much more civilised for both men and women scientists, and especially for female science students. Attitudes are changing rapidly and it is now possible for women be recognised as accomplished scientists.

Although in some parts of the three continents I have been to, and I am sure in other parts of the world, there are still big life choices facing women in trying to establish themselves in science. In the UK and Europe societal expectations about what is better for women to do, often do not include scientific studies. Women scientists need to set high scientific goals for themselves and strive for scientific excellence. The greatest achievements have been the participation of women in science and to be part of new instrumentation, process developments and discoveries leading to new medicines, new energy sources and a cleaner environment for all humans.

Women scientists in senior positions act as role models for girls to take up science as a career. After all, women make up 50% of the population and more girls and women in science means more benefits to the world. That is the vision.

D/H - Finally, what do you think is the most crucial challenge for science as a whole?

PG - Based on what I have personally seen as a global scientist, I would say that the provision of educational and equal opportunities to all women, especially in science, is the most urgent challenge.

More about Professor Pratibha Gai:

For Women in Science

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