by Ankita Jain

Dr. Tista Prasai Joshi advocates for participation of more women in science. She is a scientist at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology where she has worked for more than 18 years. Her research work associated with water quality and treatment has appeared in many leading journals, such as Water Research, Chemical Engineering Journal, Journal of Hazardous Materials, Science of the Total Environment, Chemosphere, RSC advances, Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering. Dr. Tista delivers guest lectures to undergraduate and postgraduate students on water microbiology, water pollution, and treatment technologies at Tribhuvan University colleges. She also facilitates and mentors the master-level research works in water-related projects.

Dr Tista is on the editorial board of various national and international journals, and an active member of various scientific communities. Besides academic research, she is active in community, government and industrial consulting. She has been awarded the UCAS Excellent International Student Award 2017, the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award in Biological Sciences from the Asia Pacific region in 2019, and UNESCO-OWSD Early Career Fellowship 2019.

In conversation with WOW’s Ankita Jain, she talks about the representation of women in science in the country and lending her voice and agency to encourage more women in the field.

Why did you choose science?

I have always been fascinated with living things and the natural environment since my childhood. I have always been curious about how life exists. In my school days, I found some answers through science. However, as I progressed in my studies, I understood that we still do not know about many of the natural mysteries, and that we need research. I wanted to be a science knowledge generator and as a scientific research contributor, I saw myself contributing to improve people’s lives. This got me into science as a career choice.

What were the challenges and milestones in your career?

In developing countries, as with every young graduate, my first challenge was to find an appropriate platform for my career. After finishing my Master’s degree, I got the opportunity to work on water related research activities at Nepal Academy of Science and Technology as a junior research fellow. I think this was the first milestone. Then, for almost a decade I worked full time for NAST and also some colleges as a part time lecturer. But I felt that my capacity as researcher was not progressive. Meanwhile, I had applied and enrolled for Ph.D. in one of the leading environment research institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences called Research Centre for Eco-Environmental Sciences in Beijing, China. My mentor was an academician and very well-known for his contribution to water purification. This was a great opportunity as I learned how to conceive research ideas and execute it independently. Though there were a lot of challenges like language, culture and being away from home, it was the second milestone in my career. For this, I was awarded Excellent International Ph.D. Student Award from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

After returning back home, I continued my service with NAST. Following my research in 2019, I was honoured by the prestigious Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) – Elsevier Foundation Award from Asia and Pacific region in the field of Biological Sciences. And consecutively, I got another grant – the UNESCO-OWSD early career fellowship – in the same year. I was working in the lab, publishing research papers and communicating in the science arena but this award gave me public recognition. This, I believe, to be the third milestone in my career. There is tremendous pressure to maintain my track record and address the expectations of my colleagues and students. There are a lot of challenges too. Doing science is not easy in developing countries like ours. Science and scientists are not prioritised in our country. We are facing many obstacles and hurdles particularly in research. The main challenges are the minimal funding for research, struggling for advanced equipment, and availability of trained human resources. Besides, as a woman, I need to balance my work and family.

What does it mean to be a woman in 2023? What needs to change?

For me being a woman is a pride, a responsibility. As a 21st century woman, I feel myself more powerful and capacitated to cross all kinds of barriers compared to my mother’s generation. However, it is not enough. I dream every woman and girl in this country could enjoy equity and respect both in their profession and at home. Better education, appropriate job opportunities and economic independence should be fundamental rights for every woman.

Most panelists and experts in seminars and workshops are still men. How can it be made more inclusive in the science field?
I see it. However, it does not matter whether women or men are experts. Experts are experts, it has nothing to do with gender.

However, it shows that either women are not empowered to be there or they are ignored even while being competent; both are unacceptable. In the first case, we need to attract and facilitate more women to join STEM and nurture future women experts in the field of science. In the second case, awareness regarding wider acceptability of women as leaders or experts should be encouraged. Women should come forward breaking all the stereotypes.

Do you think it is important for the younger generation women to have women scientist role models?

It is absolutely important. Children are the future. They must have the opportunity to grow in an equitable society that respects women. In science, we require more women role models who can inspire the younger generation. It helps to have equal participation. Boys will accept that girls are competent, and girls will develop the confidence that they can do it. For example, I am inspired by Madame Marie Curie and many other role models in science. However, this is not a one-day job but a lengthy process.

How can women get better representation in science?

It is a well realised issue that there is underrepresentation of women in science. According to UNESCO data, women represent only 7.8% of the scientists in Nepal. Such a small representation of half the sky is worrisome and also humiliating. In my opinion, appropriate policies and urgent actions are highly demanded to ensure better representation. Immediate and long-term action plan are required. For immediate action, identify the women scientists within the country and abroad, recognise and bring them into the mainstream. For the long term, invest in STEM education for girls.

when the career of a young woman researcher peaks is also the time of child bearing and child rearing; what was your experience like?

Absolutely true. I am not an exception. When I was starting my career in NAST, I had a baby. The balance between work and responsibilities was a big challenge. When he was seven years old, I had to leave home for my Ph.D. I knew he was in safe hands with his grandparents but I was a mother and it was really difficult to do what I had to. Finding balance is more important than choosing either between career and family.

A lesson in equality you imbibed in life.

Mutual respect, fairness and duty.

How do you use your voice and agency to have more women in your field?

I prioritise girls in my lab and this is, I hope, a powerful message to my colleagues and organisations who know me. I advocate for participation of more women in science. I try to raise my voice in every appropriate forum wherever I get the opportunity. I think time is changing and slowly our voices are gaining gravity.

A cause that is close to your heart and why?

Research to contribute for the betterment of human beings. Another cause is mentoring the coming generation in science.

How can we have more men understand why equality is important?

We have to change our mindset. Equality helps to create a healthy and wealthy society which is very important for sustainability. I think history has proved that women are equally capable. Everybody knows this but you have to come out of your patriarchal mindset.

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