In honour of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8, we asked women in environmental sciences to answer questions about what it is like being a woman in STEM. The following is a compilation of questions and answers from the questionnaire with Manasa Sharma, a first year PGR Student and Leverhulme Critical Decade for Climate Change Scholar at the University of East Anglia.
What was your favourite subject in school and why?
English was always my favourite subject in school because of my passion for reading, listening to, and telling stories, and it has had a lasting impact on me, particularly in my poetry writing. It taught me the power of language, the importance of structure and how words can evoke emotions in others. The subject provided an outlet for my creativity and imagination, allowing me to explore different worlds and characters through the written word. Additionally, it also helped me improve my communication skills and develop a love for language that has stayed with me to this day.
How have your beliefs, motivations and aspirations changed over time? When did a career in STEM become a priority or choice?
As a person who is interested in policy relevant science and global change biology, my beliefs, motivations, and aspirations have evolved over time. Initially, I was fascinated by the scientific method and the idea of discovering new knowledge. This curiosity led me to pursue a career in STEM and focus on understanding the complexities of the natural world. However, as I delved deeper into my studies and learned more about the impact of human activities on the environment, I realized the importance of bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and policymaking. This realization motivated me to focus my career on policy relevant science, where I could use my scientific background to inform decisions that have a positive impact on the world.
What is/was your PhD topic?
My PhD project, "Windows into future climate risk: Informing adaptation policy in the global south," is focused on agricultural systems and smallholder farms in India. The goal of this project is to understand the potential impacts of future climate change on these critical components of the food system and provide policy makers with actionable information to help them develop adaptation strategies. Given that smallholder farmers in India are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, it is crucial to understand the risks they face and how best to support them in adapting to changing environmental conditions. By using a combination of observational data, numerical models, and social science research methods, my project will provide a comprehensive assessment of the risks faced by these farmers and inform policies that can help them become more resilient to future climate change.
How did you get into your current field? What is your academic background?
My journey in the field began with a master’s degree in Biotechnology from M S Ramaiah University of Applied Sciences in Bangalore, India, which I graduated magna cum laude in August 2021. During my master's, I focused on the potential impacts of climate change on avian species in the Eastern Himalayan forests and how it could lead to extinction. This project involved building models to simulate the effects of warming scenarios on the behaviour, survival, and flock reassortment of these species. Before starting my PhD, I worked as an Educator and Science Communicator for three years in collaboration with NGOs and Ed-Tech Start-ups. In this role, I conducted research on pedagogical frameworks for Global Citizenship Education and STEM education, and developed climate education modules for implementation in Indian schools.
What are the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome? Do you feel that your academic career would be easier/harder if you were male?
As a woman in the field of science and academia, I have faced a number of obstacles in my career so far. One of the biggest challenges has been navigating the gender imbalance in the scientific community, where women are still underrepresented in many areas of research. This can create an environment where it is more difficult to be taken seriously or to receive equal recognition for my work. I am grateful to have had some amazing mentors throughout my academic and professional journey who have provided guidance, support, and encouragement. These individuals have not only helped me to overcome obstacles and grow as a scientist, but they have also been role models and sources of inspiration.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
From my point of view, there are several changes that are needed in the scientific system to make it more attractive to women in science and to encourage diversity in the field. Growing up in India, I have seen first-hand the challenges faced by women in pursuing a career in science, especially within a male-dominated academic environment. One of the most pressing issues is addressing the unconscious biases and discrimination that exist within the scientific community. This can be done by providing unconscious bias training for academic leaders and creating a culture of inclusivity that values diversity and promotes equal opportunities for all.
Do you have a female role model?
Yes, I have several female role models who have inspired and supported me throughout my academic and personal journey. My supervisor has been an incredible mentor, guiding me through my PhD research and providing encouragement and support along the way. I have also been inspired by the leadership and compassion of the former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Arden, who has shown us all the importance of empathy, kindness, and strength in the face of adversity. I have been deeply influenced by countless women artists and writers who have touched my life and kept me going through difficult times. Their creativity, resilience, and passion have served as a source of inspiration and motivation, and I am grateful for the impact they have had on my life. I believe that having strong female role models is essential in helping women pursue their dreams and overcome challenges. These women have shown me what is possible and have instilled in me the confidence and determination to follow my own path and make a positive impact in the world.
What advice would you give to other women beginning their PhD journey?
As a woman pursuing a PhD, I would advise other women who are just starting their own journey to be confident in their abilities, embrace challenges and failures as opportunities for growth, and seek out supportive networks and mentors. Remember that every PhD journey is unique, and that it is important to find what works best for you. Be kind to yourself, stay focused on your goals, and don't be afraid to reach out for help and support along the way. Protect your peace and maintain a healthy work-life balance. It is important to not engage with individuals who bring negativity into your life and to not allow others to dictate your actions or decisions. Pursuing a PhD can be challenging, but it is important to remember that you have the power to set your own rules and priorities. Focus on what is important to you and don't let external factors distract you from your goals.
Do you have a network of women in STEM around you to share knowledge and remind you that you are not alone? If so, how did you go about creating that network?
Yes, I have a network of women in STEM around me, who have been a source of inspiration, support and encouragement throughout my academic journey. Creating this network was a gradual process that started with connecting with like-minded individuals through different academic and professional forums. As my experience and expertise grew, I became more involved in various STEM organizations and events, where I was able to connect with a wider network of women in STEM. ARIES DTP and UEA have also given me an opportunity to connect with women in STEM.
If you could go back and change one thing in your STEM path, what would that be?
If I could go back and change one thing in my STEM path, it would be to incorporate interdisciplinary learning earlier on. I realized the value of interdisciplinary studies much later in my academic career. Had I incorporated this approach earlier on, I could have benefitted from a broader understanding of the intersections between various disciplines, which would have made me a more well-rounded researcher. Moreover, I could have approached my research with a more comprehensive perspective and potentially come up with unique solutions to the problems I was trying to solve. In my opinion, interdisciplinary learning helps bring fresh perspectives to the table, and I believe that incorporating it earlier on in my STEM path would have been a valuable experience.
Do you have any plans for the future, both in your academic and personal life, and do you feel that there are any barriers to these plans?
After completing my PhD, I have aspirations to either start my own policy consultancy or work as a policy consultant for intergovernmental organizations. I believe that my research expertise, experience in education and science communication, and understanding of policy and decision-making processes, equip me well for this career path. However, I am aware that there may be barriers in my way such as limited job opportunities, fierce competition, and potential biases. Nonetheless, I am optimistic about my future plans and will continue to work hard to achieve my goals and make a positive impact in the field of climate change adaptation and sustainable development.