Geetha’s determination to pursue her interest in chemistry resulted in her moving from southern India to Northern Ireland.
A wonderful future
Geetha grew up with her grandparents and cousins in India with childhood dreams of becoming a medical doctor. Geetha had a challenging childhood, with the loss of her mother at age ten and in an education system favoured towards castes, her dreams were shattered. Despite this, she balanced her school work with caring for her blind father and disabled cousin as well as housework duties at her relatives’ house.
“I had made loads of friends at school and my school teachers have all played a significant role in keeping me inspired about a wonderful future.”
Studying at university, Geetha’s interest in chemistry blossomed. “I’d always been interested in chemistry, and during my first degree, quickly realised I’d made the right choice. I didn’t just stick to the syllabus, but did laboratory projects on the side.” Geetha received merit scholarship from the Central Government of India for her undergraduate studies. Her interest in applied science led her move to Avinashilingam University, an institute dedicated to the education of women, where she was determined to pursue her love for research rather than follow the normal path into teaching.
When Geetha had started her MPhil, arrangements were made for her to marry her husband and she moved to Karaikudi where he and his family lived. “I was lucky that Karaikudi is home to the government-backed Central Electrochemical Research Institute (CECRI) laboratory. I was even luckier that my husband’s parents encouraged me to continue with my studies.” Geetha’s mother-in-law insisted that she continue her career and looked after their first child whilst she studied for her PhD.
Attracted by electronic materials for device applications, Geetha joined CECRI as a project fellow and two years later, started her doctorate studies with Dr. D.C. Trivedi. With no fellowship opportunities, he paid for her studies to support her research enthusiasm but Geetha also had to work part time on a zinc-alkaline battery project sponsored by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. To obtain a full-time fellowship, Geetha worked hard to get two publications and defend her research at the Council of Science and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Delhi, India. Awarded Senior Research Fellowship from CSIR in 2004, Geetha’s dedication had paid off.
East to West
After Geetha finished her PhD in the synthesis of conducting polymers using ionic liquids, she took up a postdoctoral position at Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) with Prof Kenneth Seddon in Belfast sponsored by Astron.
"I shall never forget the forty minute telephone interview that I gave sitting in the corner of my living room in Karaikudi. I was at an immediate disadvantage to express things through words alone but someone on the other end trusted my words and offered me the position."
Geetha found many differences between her old life in Southern India and her new life in Northern Ireland. “Culture, tradition, climate, food and people were all very different than where I came from, but as a scientist I wanted to link these variables with common aspects. While I enjoy watching Bharathanatyam dance programmes, I encouraged my children to learn Irish dance.”
Geetha admires an apt quote highlighting these aspects:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
(The Ballad of East and West, Rudyard Kipling,1889)
Not only has Geetha experienced geographical diversity, she also had a chance to enjoy a varied research experience in chemistry, from electrochemistry to petrochemistry. Currently senior research fellow at QUILL and team leader of PETRONAS, a sponsored project, Geetha along with her team has worked on HycaPure Hg™; a product that captures mercury species in natural gas. Their efforts have been recognised by four IChemE awards in 2013, the Nicklin medal, and a “2014 Teamwork in Innovation” award from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Geetha was recently shortlisted for the Asian Women of Achievement award in 2014 in the professional category.
With her underlying interest in the medical field, Geetha is currently developing a novel medical device that can prevent and cure hospital-bound urinary tract infection. She was presented the L'Oréal - UNESCO Outstanding Woman in Science award in 2012-2013 for her work and has used this as a platform for her outreach activities. As a CHEMNET and SENTINUS ambassador she enjoys sharing her experiences with young scientists, especially women: “It is an honour to talk to young people about science.”
Without Geetha’s challenging childhood she may not have grown into such an ambitious and dedicated chemist but she also recognises the vital role her family and her husband have played in her career.
“He has taken care of the children while encouraging my career. I always remember what my mother-in-law told me when I started my PhD: my research is important, and as I had done so much to achieve what I have already, the family would always be there to support me. I have been given a golden opportunity, and I intend to make the most of it.”
Words by Geetha Srinivasan and Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Geetha Srinivasan
Published October 2014