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A Scientific Temper, an Artistic Temperament: Two Women Out to Educate India

Two researchers with an artistic bent of mind, Nina Sabnani and Ipsa Jain, talk about women in STEM fields, inspiration, and promoting science through art.

By Manvi Pant

What is it like when your work straddles the worlds of both science and art? We speak to two women of science who are also artists on the exciting exchange of ideas they work with daily.

Professor Nina Sabnani

Artist, filmmaker and professor at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay

After extensive work in the field of animation and ethnography, Nina Sabnani has observed a bond between art and science. “There is a bit of both in each other, and both require a lot of imagination,” says the artist, filmmaker and professor at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay.

Born in Ahmedabad and raised in Baroda and Jaipur – cities with their own unique blend of art and culture – Nina’s natural curiosity, sharp intellect and profound understanding of the world helped her bring different elements together in her films, illustrations and storytelling.

“I love exploring the dynamics between words and images. Ethnography frames the methodology of my working and I make films and illustrated books that deal with stories and art practices,” she explains.

Nina Sabnani in front of a mural depicting rainwater harvesting

Nina has collaborated with different communities, trying to make scientific principles accessible through art and animation. One of her multi-institutional projects was about rainwater harvesting and its accessibility to rural Rajasthan. They showcased it through a wall mural created in collaboration with scientists, geographers, NGOs and local artists.

In another, they created animated films about air pollution and its impact on young asthma patients in Delhi. “The exciting part was to deliver the information in an engaging way,” she says.

But the project she relishes most was one in which she had teamed up with a Bhil artist, Sher Singh from Bhopal, and her former students Piyush Verma and Shyam Sundar Chatterjee to make an animated film, Hum Chitra Banate Hain.

“It breaks a popular myth of why the Bhils paint. Through this project, I got the opportunity to understand a proud community that has immense wisdom and generosity of spirit and an amazing understanding of nature,” she shares.

A scene from the film Hum Chitra Banate Hain on Bhil art

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are popular career choices for women. Yet, in almost every part of the world, women are underrepresented in this field.

Nina admits she feels a void and stresses that this domain, like so many others, should not be restricted to a particular gender: “Women have played important roles in STEM but they tend to be marginalised because of the notion that science is beyond their pale. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

She agrees that a lot of it has to do with social conditioning and messaging, but the pushback is more prominent within less privileged communities. “These families cannot afford to educate all their children and preference is given to the male child. These notions are changing slowly, but there is still a long way to go.”

Thankful for all the support she received, Nina says her goal is to find an exquisite balance between life and work, and to “blur these boundaries.”

Dr Ipsa Jain

Science illustrator with a post-doctorate from Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

One of Ipsa Jain’s defining memories that propelled her to take up a career in science was a visit to the National Dairy Research Institute in her hometown Karnal, Haryana, on Science Day.

“I was in class eight but very curious about the biological world already. There were so many exhibits at the institute but what really caught my eye was this electrophoresis gel experiment by a Ph.D student who also later showed us how to hand-operate a micropipette. The experience was mind-blowing. That was the day I knew my future lay in science,” she recalls.

After finishing her Ph.D from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in molecular biology and oncology, she did her post doctorate at Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Bengaluru.

Ipsa with participants at a science illustration workshop at IISER Pune

She now freelances as a science illustrator and communicator. “My work includes creative and stylised representation of biological science to generate interest in the public. Using the bookmaking process as a tool, I contemplate about representation and perception of scientific images,” she shares.

Research suggests that women make up only 28 percent of the workforce in STEM domains, and less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women.

Ipsa shares her own observations: “In IISc, in biological sciences especially, there are a lot of students who are women and ones who don’t conform to a particular gender. But just after they finish the Ph.D, something happens. The difference gets steeper in post-doc and declines even further at the Principal Investigator level.”

Bold enough to go against the grain, demand her space and pursue her passion, Ipsa feels extremely grateful to have an encouraging family and life partner.

Ipsa’s illustration Melanocyte (Copyright Ipsa Jain)

But she admits that not all women in STEM fields have that kind of support system, and those who have to balance families and professional priorities face acute internal pressures. “Also, if one takes a maternity break, then re-entry gets tough because there are limited fellowships,” says Ipsa.

While Ipsa is a scientist by training, she calls herself an artist in spirit. “Both the fields try to inquire, question, and find solutions. Both require patience, trial and error and random accidents to happen. But the process of a scientific experiment is more stringent and scrutinised. Artistic process, on the other hand, is fluid and reserves some space for personal bias and interpretation.”

In 2016, she founded Ipsawonders, a beautiful platform that uses art and aesthetics as a vehicle for science storytelling. “In case of academic drawing, I am faithful to science and research, and bring in a lot of detailing into the matter. In science storytelling, I don’t intend to incorporate a lot of information. I create images to engage with people in a way that they remember and build trust upon.”

First published in eShe’s July 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

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