One of Lipi Thukral's favourite quotes is by American televangelist Robert Schuller: "Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future." The context is her "hope" for an improvement in the status of science in India.
"My past years of scientific investigation suggest that one can do great science in India as long as we do not relegate it to second place," says Thukral, who has been working as a computational biologist at the CSIR Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi, since 2012.
Thukral has just finished a short-term deputation to a laboratory in Germany. She had done her PhD there - from the University of Heidelberg in 2011 - followed by a short postdoctoral at the University of Southampton, UK.
"I used to hate standing up and doing experiments, absolutely abhor it. I thought that there should be some other way I can contribute."
There is a common perception that biologists can't code and that's alright because they don't need to, anyway. Computational structural biologist Lipi Thukral's academic journey was founded on the busting of that myth. "From the beginning, we are told that descriptions define biology. But that's not how it is anymore. To convert our descriptive training to analytical training is a challenge but definitely a required skill for those of us doing science in 2016."
Thukral makes an instant impression. She greeted me at the lobby of the swanky IGIB South Delhi campus with a firm handshake and a smile, warm and confident. I had to quicken my pace to keep up with her as she led me around her lab before we settled into an empty conference room to talk about her life and the events leading up to her becoming one of the youngest faculty members at the institute.
Arachnologist Elizabeth V. Mathew was trekking through a forest in Tamil Nadu accompanied by men that she did not know very well. Though focused on her search for rare spiders in their natural habitat, Elizabeth was also wary about her personal safety. "I just had to trust that the men's intentions were honest. In the chance that I was wrong and they wanted to harm me, then not even a trace of me would be found. It's all part of the game. You have to be careful and accept that we're not as free as men are."
Not very far away, Jis Sebastian, a wildlife ecologist who was in Kerala after years of studying gibbons and bears on her own in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir, found herself in a similarly discomfiting situation. "The forest officers told me straight away - you're not supposed to come alone, bring somebody, bring your parents or your relatives. I just said I'm not bringing anybody. This is my own business. I am capable of coming alone and I will go alone."
The patriarchal mindset of the man as the primary breadwinner has some toxic manifestations. Dr Lipi Thukral, a computational biologist at Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, told us about how she has faced resentment from male colleagues in the past just because she earned as much as them. "The problem is that I am compared sometimes to the wife of a fellow male colleague," she said, protesting against her income being seen as the secondary salary in a family. As a result Lipi's fellowship was considered to be too much. "This is the kind of computation everyone does and I find it hilarious. I'm not to be compared with your wife! I'm the one with the PhD!"