By drilling a hole into the imaging lens of an electron microscope, Pratibha developed a way of observing, in-situ, single atoms as they react.
“The logic behind science and how everyday things can be explained on a rational basis really had a great impact on me.”
Reading about Marie Curie, having excellent science teachers and encouraging parents, as well as visits to science museums, all inspired Pratibha to find out more about chemistry. However, this was not a conventional route for her to take, and winning two prestigious scholarships (a national, India-wide scholarship as a teenager, and another to study at the University of Cambridge) made her way into science easier: “It would have been very difficult without the scholarships because societal expectations for women at that time did not include careers in the sciences or chemistry. I would say that societal expectations, even today, as to what is good for women, including in the UK, do not always include scientific studies”.
Pratibha has always been curious about understanding the chemical reactions behind everyday things such as the energy we use, food and medicines we take, and all the other products that we use. Looking at reactions in detail has been her aim. She explains that chemical reactions take place at the atomic level, and, if we are to understand these reactions better, we need to look at them as they take place in the environment in which they normally happen.
“Since nobody had done chemical reactions at the atomic resolution, I wanted to do that first, before anybody else! So that was my ambition –you’ve got to have that – you’ve got to have passion, determination, enthusiasm, because this is a male dominated discipline, so unless you think outside the box, nobody’s going to notice.”
After a PhD at Cambridge, Pratibha moved to Oxford to do postdoctoral work. She then established, and became head of, the surface reactions group at the University of Oxford and began exploring ways to observe chemical reactions with the human eye. Next she moved to the US, before returning to the UK to the University of York, where she continued to pursue her goal of studying reactions on the atomic scale.
At York, Pratibha is JEOL Founding Professor of electron microscopy and of chemistry and physics, and she also created, and is co-director of, the York JEOL Nanocentre. In addition to the Nanocentre, Pratibha created a whole new type of microscope.
Electron microscopes need high vacuum and room temperature – but many reactions normally happen under other conditions. This new microscope allowed Pratibha to look at reactions as they happen, in the conditions that they would normally happen in. She described the moment she came up with her idea, and how she implemented it: “My scientific illumination came when I realised it was possible to drill a hole in the imaging lens of the electron microscope."
“It’s like drilling a hole through a person’s heart, it’s like drilling a hole through a camera.”
"It was a scary moment because if I had made a tiny mistake I could have ruined the machine but, as I tell my students, you have to take some intelligent risks to advance science. I did the calculations and I developed a prototype instrument – a mock up instrument to make sure that all the calculations were working ok – and only then did I do it on the real machine.”
The L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award
Only three people were involved in the development of the microscope – Pratibha, Professor Ed Boyes, and technician Ian Wright. Together, they built the mock up, and finally the real thing. Pratibha’s advice to her students, if they have good ideas, is “go for it, because you don’t really need big infrastructure or big resources - you can start from simple things”.
Pratibha won The Women in Science award for Europe in 2013. This award recognises the achievements of women working in science and provides funding for further work. Pratibha describes the award:
“…I think that these awards are incredibly important because they put women’s research on the global stage and give them visibility - and that’s very important for younger women and younger students to look up to and say “yes, it can be done”. This has opened up many, many things for us, not only in science but also in encouraging young students to take up science.”
Pratibha also spoke about some of the obstacles in her journey so far:
“Culturally I have come through many barriers. First of all I had to fight to become a scientist at all. I had to get a scholarship, and societally it was not acceptable to become a scientist – it was not an accepted career. Once I got the scholarship, and I got to Cambridge, I was incredibly fortunate to work with eminent scientists. I think the nice thing about science, especially for women, is that if you do good work – societally relevant and beneficial – your gender and your background don't matter and journals are open to you."
“All these other things are secondary, because all these obstacles are not absolute - they’re put there by other humans - so that you know, inside, that by hard work and determination you can overcome them; and that’s exactly the philosophy I followed. Whenever I saw an opportunity for me I took it, and that’s exactly what women need to do. If they are not happy in one place, if they‘re not advancing very fast, then, please, look around at the many opportunities, then grab them!”
Words by Jenifer Mizen
Insert Image © L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2013/Microscope Insert Images courtesy of Pratibha Gai
Other images © Howard Guest /Royal Society of Chemistry
Published October 2013