Interview: Stem Cell Biologist Deepa Subramanyam Says My husband Is My Biggest Champion

woman in science

Do you know what is a stem cell and how it develops into different types of cells that help in curing diseases? Do you know what is translational research? Do you know how difficult it is for women scientist to break the glass ceiling? Do you know the story of one of the most successful and inspiring women in science in India? Meet Deepa Subramanyam.

Deepa is a stem cell biologist at the National Center for Cell Sciences in Pune, who has done groundbreaking research on molecular movements in the embryonic stem cells. In her words, her lab “Works on understanding how molecules move within cells, and whether these movements dictate the fate of a cell.”

In a conversation with us, about what inspired her to explore the molecular movements in the embryonic stem cells, she said, “Development is a fascinating process and embryonic stem cells are a great tool to study developmental processes. Understanding the role of molecular movement in this context will help us understand in even greater detail the intricacies of development.”

Born and brought up in Uttar Pradesh, Subramanyam completed her graduation in Biochemistry in Coimbatore and an integrated M.Sc and PhD at NCBS in Bengaluru. SheThePeople.TV reached out to Subramanyam to know about her research and her life struggles in the discriminating society and the inequalities women in science face. 

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Bringing Change

Every new research has the ability to bring change in society. Be it the discovery of a light bulb or a study on how the pandemic has affected women differently. Speaking about how her research will bring a change in science and society, Subramanyam said, “Nowadays everybody seems to want to do translational research – which is a good thing, but one must realise that without the foundation of basic research, translational research cannot progress.”

“It is also important to engage with the public and help them understand what scientific research is all about. I enjoy mentoring students and explaining my science through outreach talks to school and college children,” she added. 

Translational research involves applying basic knowledge of biology to create new therapies, medical procedures and diagnostics.

Deepa Subramanyam, Stem Cell Biologist

PC: Deepa Subramanyam

Family As Pillar Of Strength

We live in a society where there is still a large gender gap in the literacy rate, with many women deprived of higher education. The gender-bias is rampant especially in the traditionally masculine and male-dominated fields like Science. A 2016-17 report, supported by NITI Ayog states that while one-third of science graduates and postgraduates are women, only 15 to 10 percent of tenured faculty at institutions are women. Women’s abilities are always undermined and discriminated against in the male-dominated society. 

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Being a part of this society, Subramanyam defied all the gender barriers and stereotypes by becoming one of the most successful women scientists in India. What made it possible for Subramanyam was the support of her family. Unlike many families in India who discriminate against their women, her family never enforced stereotypes and always encouraged her through her journey. “They are my rock. I am what I am because they have encouraged me to grow and to take on any challenge.” 

Discrimination At Workplace

However, she still had to face discrimination on the basis of gender at the institution where she worked. Sharing her experience she says, “Exclusion from a lot of meetings, exclusion from social gatherings, being told multiple times (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) that it is hard for a woman scientist to survive since she has to take care of her home and children.”

Subramanyam acknowledges and agrees that science and academia are male-dominated and discriminate against women scientists, not only in India but across the world. She says, They are gender-biased throughout the world, and India is no exception. I find that a lot of male scientists in India are completely insensitive to their female colleagues and are frequently dismissive of them. Behaviourally also, I find that many male scientists in India refrain from discussing science with a female colleague and tend to avoid them.”

“That being said, I also have some wonderful male colleagues who are actively trying to break down such barriers,” she also adds.

Who also supported her through her struggles as a woman scientist in India was her husband. She met her husband for the first time at NCBS where they both were pursuing their PhDs. Later on, they got married and moved to the University of California in San Francisco to pursue their post-doctoral degrees. Subramanyam’s husband is also a scientist (neuroscientist) at IISER, Pune and the biggest support in her life.

On Motherhood

Along with being a successful woman scientist, Subramanyam is also a mother. It is definitely not easy for her to juggle between motherhood and work. But, with the support of her husband, she is acing both the roles.

“My husband, who is also a scientist, is my biggest champion. My parents and in-laws have always lent a helping hand when either my husband or I have to travel for work, and also during both periods of maternity leave when I still went into work for a few hours every day. We also depend heavily on the institute daycare during the school year,” she said.

Subramanyam confidently credits her family and her husband for being the biggest support in her life struggles and journey.

Message For Aspiring Women Scientists

So, how can women in science inspire other aspiring women? Deepa Subramanyam shares an inspiring message for all the aspiring women scientists, “Just remember, that you do not need to use other people’s yardsticks to measure your ‘success’ or ‘progress’. As long as you are doing the best that you can, given the circumstances, be happy with yourself.”

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