Accomplished author and researcher, Professor Deepa Khushalani has been a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry for more than 10 years and now leads the organisation’s West India Section. While working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, she has been leading a successful RSC outreach programme, promoting careers in chemistry to thousands of young people in the region, especially those living in rural and economically deprived areas.
Deepa is passionate about sharing her love of science – both in the way of how it can change the world for the better and the opportunities it offers for bright, hardworking students.
“I think I always gravitated towards science as opposed to arts,” explains Deepa. “Being able to understand the environment around me was always fun. And obviously my parents were very encouraging. They liked the fact that their daughter was going into science!
“I was good at all three subjects – biology, chemistry and physics. But I actually ended up getting my lowest O-level mark in chemistry. I pursued it further as it was a challenge! And I ended up getting a PhD out of it, so there you are!”
After completing her Bachelor's degree at The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Deepa went on to do her PhD at the University of Toronto and then moved across the Atlantic for her postdoc at the University of Bristol, England. Following this, she took up a position as a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at the University of Kent. It was during her time in the UK that she first began to interact with the RSC.
“I’d been aware of the RSC for some time; I’d used RSC journals during my PhD. When I moved to the UK I started to attend RSC meetings and events, which were fun and also quite empowering. I obtained funding to attend a workshop - because I was a new faculty member and they were looking to support young women in science.
It [RSC membership] allowed me to network, which is really important, especially when you’re switching from being a student to an independent researcher. I needed to assert myself and gain visibility.
Since returning to India, where she has been working for 15 years as a researcher and professor, Deepa turned her attention to encouraging young people into chemistry, with help from the RSC.
“There are five RSC sections in India, and I chair the West India Section. The members of the committee are all volunteers, with separate full-time jobs, and we want to share our passion. For our committee, we have agreed that our RSC funding will be used exclusively for what we believe to be most important – outreach events and teaching workshops catering to fundamental concepts in chemistry. We plan and organise around 10 events every year, choosing really inspiring speakers to engage with the students. These talks and workshops are designed to motivate students, whether they’re in high school or at university, to pursue chemistry as a career. We can get anywhere from 200 to 1,000 audience members at each event and we try to reach remote areas as much as possible.
“It’s fantastic that the RSC has given us the opportunity to run this programme. Many of these students, even those doing Bachelor’s, will have minimum exposure to a laboratory, as some colleges are not capable of having large experimental facilities. We therefore try and organise some events where we carry kits, like a lab in a suitcase, so that we can demonstrate real science experiments to the students and find innovative ways to inspire them."
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As part of this outreach activity, Deepa is particularly devoted to emphasising the place that women have in this arena by ensuring their voices are heard. Sexism is something she has experienced first-hand, especially since pursuing her career in academia.
“While studying I was aware there were a lot of women alongside me and equality in the lab was expected and normally present. Therefore, it was always important to me to be solely a good academic, to be a good scholar. But immediately after I got a faculty position, I suddenly felt that scholastic excellence was not enough, there was a bias that was prevalent. The minute I sat on the other side of the table I was aware that my gender had, on average, a negative impact.
“You have to tolerate it, and importantly keep working through it. Otherwise you would be angry and frustrated all the time. It affects all parts of your life. You pay a heavy price, mentally speaking.
“My way of fighting this issue is by doing the job I do, doing it well, and showing others that this is the norm. I ensure that women are always represented in all the events we run. I don’t make a big thing of it, I just make sure it happens.
“I also make a point of talking about things from a female perspective. I present myself as a woman, being as authentic as I can. I have to deal with house issues, with groceries and responsibilities that come with family life. I bring that into the conversation in a matter-of-fact way. When I talk about how I’ve overcome my own hurdles, I tend to get the most interaction. The students realise that it's a normal human being up there; they can relate.”
As well as being a role model for future scientists, Deepa is also acutely aware of the external pressures that people face growing up in India.
“There’s an expectation that people have to do certain jobs because of finances and family expectations. Even a 50 year old man is not independent, he's bound by what his parents, his grandparents, his wife and children want. I hope that by doing this outreach we can help young people to realise that there is a better life out there, if they want to work towards it. Everybody comes from different backgrounds, everybody has a different story. But the main thing in life is that you should have passion, and you should do things because your heart is in it and aim to avoid compromising on your dreams."
The great thing about working in science and research is that it gives you a fantastic opportunity to travel. It’s allowed me to appreciate what different places have to offer and broadened my horizons. You quickly realise that there's no truly perfect place, but instead, different places offer different things. You can step outside your culture and see a different perspective. We need to challenge what people accept to be ‘the way it is’.
Since using RSC funding for her own outreach projects, Deepa has made sure her colleagues are aware of the support on offer too, which has resulted in further progress in making science more accessible.
“The chair of the outreach committee at the institute secured £2,000, a decent amount of money when you convert it to rupees, to contribute to his national outreach services and also aid in a monthly forum to enable discussions around interesting scientific topics, called ‘Chai and Why?’ It’s an inclusive event designed to cover exciting subjects like global warming, nanotechnology and space exploration in a welcoming environment so anyone can participate.
“I must say, the range of funds available from the RSC is fantastic. I was particularly impressed by the support available to parents and carers to cover childcare while attending conferences. It’s a forward-thinking concept that will no doubt help many women because to be a productive scientist, it’s not only about how much time and money you have to run your lab, but also the resources you have to look after your family. Kudos to the RSC for that.”
Now at TIFR, Deepa’s focus is on the formation of better photocatalysts and to make novel materials for devices such as solar cells and batteries, to help the world rely less on non-renewable energy resources. Vital work that is aiming to have a global impact.
“I'm positive and hopeful about the future. And I think it's vital to have that attitude. Sustainability is a big talking point in the media and obviously it’s very important to those at school and college level. We all have a part to play in ensuring a better future - scientists, the government, the general public, businesses. With the right people empowered, I think change will happen.”