Ilina Singh: "I Knew I Wanted To Study Science But Realised I Couldn’t Name A Single Scientist Who Looked Like Me"

Ilina Singh: "I Knew I Wanted To Study Science But Realised I Couldn’t Name A Single Scientist Who Looked Like Me"

Alisha Fernandes

We often look for inspiration and wisdom from our elders, but very often in this, our modern world, it is to be found in young minds like that of Ilina Singh. All of 16, going on 17 (sorry, I couldn't resist!) and focused on working towards a career in science, she decided to take it upon herself to seek out and celebrate accomplished Indian women of science. This past International Women's Day, we sat with her for a conversation about how her maiden book, The Gutsy Girls of Science came about.

Excerpts:

1. Let's get the most obvious question out of the way. You're a teen and in high school. While most people your age are having fun and doing what teens do, what made you want to write a book, and more importantly, write this book?

I think being a teen in school was exactly the reason I wrote this book. Grade 10 is the time the world expects you to “grow up” and decide your subjects for senior school. I knew I wanted to study science but realised I couldn’t name a single scientist who was like me–Indian and female. In fact, Marie Curie was the only female name my friends could come up with. So, since I was stuck at home during the lockdown anyway, I researched online and found that the women existed–brilliant and brave–but they were hidden figures for children like me. I read their amazing stories. They were courageous and led such rich, exciting lives that I felt their stories needed to be told to young students, but also women in general.

I started by painting their portraits. I sent their picture to the Prime Minister and to my utter delight, he replied with a letter appreciating my art and my intention to write a book about them. When the leader of 1.3 billion Indians supports your idea, it gives you wings and all my doubts vanished. But I wanted the book to be a fun conversation, not a lecture. That’s why it has a breezy tone and includes quizzes, puzzles, and other exciting activities.

Author Ilina Singh at UNESCO
Author Ilina Singh at UNESCO

2. I read an article in which it was said that girls can't become what they don't see. I love that statement because it shows the importance of representation. Can you elaborate a little more on the importance of representation to young girls?

I see bias firsthand when I am one of the few girls in my math society sessions or coding classes. Interestingly, the situation flips in my art hobby class, which has hardly any boys. My grandmother shared that she really wanted to study engineering, but it was not considered appropriate for girls at that point in time. We’ve come a long way now. My mother is an engineer, but there appears to still be a tacit understanding that math and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects are too tough and perhaps better suited to boys.  Science education needs to be made more fun and engaging and there must be more female role models introduced early, especially during the critical age of 13-17 years when girls decide their subject choices.

I remember being very excited by the famous women of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who helped put Mangalyaan in space. They looked so comfortable in their skin with their gajras and sarees and shattered all caricatures people have in their minds about the absent-minded white-haired man people tend to picture when they think 'scientist'. I want to see such women in my school textbooks. So, in a way, this is the book I wish someone had written for me.

I hope not just young girls, but also their parents and teachers take away strength and a sense of discovery and pride when they read The Gutsy Girls of Science. The last page in the book is a blank page asking a young reader can paste their photo – I want this to be the catalyst that launches a dream career in science. I wish a copy would be given to each school library and perhaps a chapter included in school textbooks.

The Gutsy Girls Of Science by Ilina Singh
The Gutsy Girls Of Science by Ilina Singh

3. Tell us a little about the women you have chosen to profile in this book. How and why did you choose them?

Eleven gutsy women who loved science enough to fight for their place in the sun…that sentence sums up the reason for choosing these trailblazing women. The government of India had recognised the contribution of these 11 scientists on National Science Day 2020 and established chairs in colleges after them. I asked myself why I had never heard about these “hidden figures” of India?

From cytogeneticist, Archana Sharma and botanist, Janaki Ammal to mathematician, Raman Parimala, physicist, Bibha Chowdhuri, chemist, Asima Chatterjee and several others; the book is a celebration of their lives and the wonderful world of science.

4. The name 'The Gutsy Girls of Science' is so great. Is there a story behind the title?

Thank you, I love the name too. It really says it all. I was really moved and inspired by the rich lives the women scientists had led. Since many of them were the first in their field, battling the existing prejudices in society to make their contributions in their chosen fields. They were bright but also very brave to stand up to the naysayers. And they did it in style, with wit and panache. The phrase “no guts no glory” popped into my mind and that led to the title.

16-year-old author, Ilina Singh
16-year-old author, Ilina Singh

5. Finally, tell us about Iliana's Art Throb and its purpose?

My initiative, Ilina’s Art Throb, seeks to use art and science together to bring about change. For example, books, especially textbooks, really shape our worldview, so I would especially like women to be better represented in books for children and teens. They need to have more active roles and interesting things to do. I combined my love for writing and coding to create a machine learning tool, www.ilinasartthrob.com to point out whether a story is gender-biased or not so that parents can select what their children should be exposed to. I have also used ML to identify tigers from wildlife sanctuary camera data. This won me the national Google Code2Learn Contest last year. One of my previous art projects was selected by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for their mental health awareness film in which I starred in the lead role.  I feel art and science are just two ways to experience our world and make it better and the future is female!

Follow @malinisgirltribe on Instagram for more content like this and download the Girl Tribe by MissMalini App to join our Girl Bosses community.‌