New Trends and Possibilities in STEM

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By Deba Priya R

Posted on February 13, 2024


11 min read

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Pursuing jobs and hobbies in STEM subjects presents both possibilities and obstacles for girls and women. Gender inequality persists in spite of advancements, with women being underrepresented in numerous STEM fields. Girls and women continue to make important contributions to STEM fields, influencing the direction of science and technology with their commitment, encouragement, and acknowledgment. Dr. Deepa Khushalani, an enthusiastic Materials Chemistry professor at TIFR, discusses her passion for science and how it may improve the world as well as the opportunity it presents for motivated, intelligent students.

What is STEM?

STEM is basically an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. These I suppose are the more quantitative subjects as opposed to qualitative subjects such as liberal arts, humanities, social sciences etc.

What role do you think women should play in STEM?

Women should play the same role as men in STEM fields. This entails studying diligently, gaining a deep understanding of the subject, pursuing it with enthusiasm, and using it as a path to a worthwhile profession. Both sexes should strive for equal representation, meaning they perform their roles with the same efficiency, quality, and output. This is essential for earning respect in society. True equality and respect come from performing tasks correctly, understanding principles, adhering to disciplines, and doing so out of genuine interest. Everyone, regardless of gender, should know that life is precious, and it’s crucial to find something you’re passionate about and pursue it wholeheartedly.

Have you seen or experienced a difference in the way you are treated, while working as a woman in an academic environment?

I noticed more discrimination after entering the workforce. As a student, I didn’t perceive much difference between myself and the boys in my class. The teachers treated us equally, and especially since there were many females in my class, there was an inherent sense of equality. However, upon starting my professional career, I began to notice bias in how my male colleagues were treated compared to myself. There are fewer women in my profession, leading to a clear sense of being a minority and facing bias.

Were you intimidated by a predominantly male field?

It’s evident that being a minority often leads to feelings of discomfort. For instance, imagine one Indian person being surrounded by 20 exclusively white individuals, or vice versa. In such situations, the minority individual feels intimidated. Similarly, being a woman in a predominantly male field comes with its challenges and discomforts, which we must acknowledge as part of human nature. However, it’s essential for each generation to strive for change and work towards ending minority status. Women must refuse to take a submissive role and actively seek recognition and fair treatment. This requires effort and determination, as there’s no quick fix for achieving equal representation. Without proactive measures, future generations will continue to face the same challenges.

What are the new trends and possibilities in STEM education?

There are many new trends and possibilities in STEM. There are so many directions, but the most important part is that the desire to pursue a direction should come from inside. You should take a path which appeals to you individually. You should not take a path by someone else’s recommendation or for money. You should do what you are passionate about.

Note that STEM education continues to evolve, and several emerging streams are gaining traction: Some new directions are:

Data Science and Analytics: With the increasing importance of data in various industries, data science and analytics education is becoming more prominent. This stream focuses on teaching students how to collect, analyze, and interpret data to derive insights and make informed decisions.

Cybersecurity Education: As cyber threats become more prevalent and sophisticated, there’s a growing need for cybersecurity education. This stream equips students with skills in cybersecurity fundamentals, ethical hacking, digital forensics, and risk management to address cybersecurity challenges effectively.

Biotechnology and Bioinformatics: Biotechnology and bioinformatics education focuses on the intersection of biology, computer science, and engineering. Students learn about genetic engineering, genomics, computational biology, and bioinformatics tools to address challenges in healthcare, agriculture, and environmental science.

Robotics and Automation: Robotics and automation education prepares students to design, build, and program robots and automated systems. This stream covers topics such as mechatronics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and human-robot interaction, enabling students to develop innovative solutions for various applications.

Quantum Computing: Quantum computing education introduces students to the principles and applications of quantum mechanics in computing. This emerging field explores quantum algorithms, quantum cryptography, and quantum hardware design, offering new opportunities for solving complex problems more efficiently.

Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR): AR/VR education focuses on immersive technologies that blend digital content with the physical world. Students learn about virtual reality development, augmented reality applications, and spatial computing, opening up new possibilities for education, training, and entertainment.

Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Design: With growing concerns about environmental sustainability, education in environmental engineering and sustainable design is gaining importance. This stream covers topics such as renewable energy systems, green building design, waste management, and environmental policy to address environmental challenges effectively.

These emerging streams in STEM education reflect the changing landscape of technology and society, providing students with opportunities to explore new areas of interest and prepare for future careers in diverse fields.

In your opinion, what is the future of girls and women in STEM. How might we help girls have more confidence in their STEM education?

I think the future of girls in STEM education is bright and promising. With increasing support, awareness, and initiatives to promote gender equality, girls are breaking barriers and excelling in STEM fields. Their talent, passion, and determination will continue to drive innovation and contribute to India’s technological advancement.

As for promoting confidence in girls – I think Indian girls can boost their confidence to pursue STEM education through various means:

Role Models: Exposing girls to successful female role models in STEM fields can inspire confidence and show them that they, too, can excel in these areas.

Supportive Environment: Creating a supportive environment at home and in schools where girls feel encouraged to explore STEM subjects without fear of judgment can build their confidence. It is important that both parents and teachers together realize that they have a very important role to play in this.

Hands-On Learning: Engaging girls in hands-on STEM activities and projects can help them develop practical skills and increase their confidence in their abilities.

Mentorship: Providing mentorship opportunities with women in STEM professions allows girls to receive guidance, advice, and encouragement from those who have already paved the way.

Peer Support: Encouraging girls to connect with other like-minded peers who share their interests in STEM can provide a sense of community and empowerment.

Challenging Stereotypes: Addressing and challenging gender stereotypes and biases surrounding STEM fields can help girls feel more confident in pursuing their interests regardless of societal expectations

As a professor, how are you going to inspire the next generation of women in science? Can you explain the importance of role models?

First of all, role models are important. Seeing someone who looks like you or shares similar experiences succeeding in science can be incredibly motivating and encouraging for aspiring female scientists. Overall, role models serve as beacons of inspiration, guiding the next generation of women in science towards success.

I will not presume to be a role model. I don’t think my abilities rise to the status of being a role model for anyone. I am just trying to share my learnings and experiences as best as I can with the younger generation. I am just hoping others don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made.

What are some of the shortcomings in how STEM is being taught and how can that improve?

In STEM, a big problem is that many people just copy what others are doing. They see something happening in other countries and think, “We should do the same thing here.” But we need to be leaders and come up with new ideas. In India, the problem is that from a young age we are taught to just follow what others tell us to do. Many parents/teachers ask of their students to simply follow their instructions and not to question them. This affects everything as a result. Later on, as we grow older, there is a tendency therefore just to repeat actions of the older generation.  This gets reflected in our lives, from how we act with our family to what we do at work. This applies to everything, not just work or school. We even copy what we see in music, TV, and movies. It is important to teach students to have original ideas and to encourage the students who show initiative and courage to do so. It is not easy and there are always chances of failing, but it is such an important skill to have.

As a chemist what motivated you to go into this career?

I work as a professor at TIFR. There are a few things I enjoy about my job. One is the atmosphere of being at a research institute.  When I was a student, I would love seeing professors’ offices filled with books, I imagined it was an environment where constant learning was happening. Another aspect I appreciate is the flexibility of our work hours – it’s not a typical 9 to 5 job, and I find that appealing. I also like the fact that as professors, we’re constantly learning and growing; every day presents new challenges and opportunities for research, teaching, and discovery. I remember a particularly exciting moment when I was a BSc student, I was doing a short term project and my supervisor tasked me to perform a chemical reaction and he stated that that no one had ever attempted this before. It made me realize that I was the first person on Earth to combine those two chemicals, and that feeling of exclusivity was truly exhilarating. Despite not being particularly skilled in chemistry, I always admired my chemistry teachers, and that’s one of the reasons I pursued a career in research.

What do you think are the barriers that prevent achieving gender equality in the workplace?

There are many barriers to equality that we need to overcome. Women should be encouraged to pursue their passions, and men should support them. It’s about accepting people for who they are and allowing them to follow their dreams, whether it’s writing poetry or going up for space exploration. However, breaking down these barriers isn’t easy. It requires patience and collaboration. There are various challenges, such as egos and prejudices, that we need to tackle one step at a time. It’s important to remember that we all rely on each other, and seeking help doesn’t mean we’re less capable. We need to work together to open doors for everyone, not just a select few. Simple solutions, such as quotas in education or for job placements, don’t solve the underlying problem. We need to give women respect for their work. Respect is earned through hard work and professionalism, which should then lead to advancement in careers. Ultimately, we need to focus on treating everyone with respect, regardless of gender, and it is so important to value all their contributions to society.

Do you have any advice for women beginning their careers in the STEM fields? Possibly something you wished you had known when you first started?

I think it is important to develop resilience, avoid being overly focused solely on a narrow vision of your career. It’s essential to aim high, to aspire to lead or achieve great things. Dream big, aim for the stars, and believe in your ability to reach them. Whether it’s aspiring to lead an institute or being the CEO of a company, ambitious dreams drive success. However, simply dreaming isn’t enough. It requires understanding the environment, navigating politics, and honing the necessary skills. Take initiative, showcase leadership qualities, and seize opportunities for growth. Being passive won’t propel you forward; you must actively pursue advancement in your career from the start. Many women tend to settle for just having a job, content with a paycheck. But from day one, think ahead, set goals, and cultivate ambition. Men often do this instinctively, so it’s crucial for women to embrace ambition as well.