Editor’s note: #DesiSTEMinist is a campaign to celebrate women in the field of STEM and highlight their contributions.

Posted by Roopali Chaudhary

From a very young age, I knew I loved science and wanted to pursue my studies in the field somehow. I knew I did not like taking orders, which would have made me a bad nurse. So I aimed to go to medical school with the goal of becoming a medical doctor. By the age of 5, I used to go around calling myself, and making others address me as, Dr. Roopali. 

Up until I started my undergraduate work, I had never seen or even learnt about a female scientist. What I knew about scientists was from conventional media: they are men, they have big messy hair, they are absent-minded, and they’re anti-social – basically everything that I had observed from Dexter’s Laboratory and none of which I was. But during my undergraduate degree, I realised how much I loved doing science, asking questions, and being curious.

It is difficult to become something you cannot see. Growing up outside of India, I didn’t see many South Asian women as professors or scientists.

The only issue was that I had no idea how someone becomes a scientist, or even what a scientist does day-to-day. It is difficult to become something you cannot see. Growing up outside of India, I didn’t see many South Asian women as professors or scientists. I had no idea if it was a viable option for an Indian girl, or how my proposal to enter graduate school rather than medical school would go over with my parents. It was not easy navigating a field that neither my parents nor siblings were able to guide me in.

Also read: A. Mani Lays Down How To Fight Sexism And Queerphobia In STEM | #DesiSTEMinist

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I can now proudly say that I have an MSc in genetics, a PhD in Cellular Biology and have done Post-doctoral work in Immunology. I did eventually attain the prefix of Dr., though not in the medical profession, the conventional idea of a doctor. My time in academia, however, has not been easy – microaggressions and imposter syndrome were common (though I was not aware of either of these two terms). Many of the microaggressions came from within my community, often from my local temple. I was frequently asked the following.

“You’re still in school?”

“Do you really want to have more degrees than a man?”

“You don’t want to sound smarter than a man, do you?”

“Will you have time for your family?”

“Aren’t you worried about being too intimidating?”

These questions stuck with me while I continued my education. This led to a deep-rooted imposter syndrome. “I am not supposed to be too educated”, or “I should not sound too smart” became a common internal dialogue. All this continued until one day during my post-doctoral fellowship, I snapped. “Well…why not? Why shouldn’t I sound smarter than a man? It’s not my fault if he can’t hold up his end of the conversation.”

I realised and recognised that a part of the reason for this thinking was because, within our community, South Asian women are not as vocal about their degrees or their jobs. This could be either due to societal pressure or community expectations, or because they do not have the platform to do so. So I started a grassroots not-for-profit called Lotus STEMM that is a leadership and networking platform for South Asian women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine.

There are 3 objectives.

(1) to do outreach within South Asian communities to promote STEMM amongst young girls

(2) to give a platform for networking and leadership by giving a visibility to South Asian women in the fields, and providing free workshops for them heighten their career trajectories, and

(3) do research within the South Asian community to understand the determinants of how and why a South Asian woman/girl chooses her career.

Also read: Persisting In STEM Despite The Lack Of Visible Female Role Models: Smiti Mittal’s Story | #DesiSTEMinist

With Lotus STEMM, my hope is that young women will have an avenue to be exposed to various careers in STEMM, be it through stories of trailblazing South Asian women, or mentorship of a young graduate student to help guide her in navigating her parents, society and community pressures. These are aspects I wish I had when I was a 5-year-old Dr. Roopali, but I can help create the platform now for the future generations.

Roopali Chaudhary, PhD., is the founder & CEO of the Canadian registered NFP, Lotus STEMM, and the owner of a science-themed custom cake business called (C6H12O6)^3 SugarKube. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and email her @lotusstemm@gmail.com.


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