"The idea of 'Equity' that is being celebrated and emphasised in this year's International Women's Day is crucial," Dr Mahima Swamy, Principal Investigator and Sir Henry Dale Fellow, School of Life Sciences, Dundee University, tells iGlobal for this Women’s Day special feature.
"It means that each person must be considered on their individual merit. If a woman has achieved something, they've achieved it through much higher bars and barriers. Therefore, you must recognise that their success is worth that much more. The career achievements of a mother of three, for example, who has also given birth and cares for her family, should not be held to the same bar as a man. One can't simply look at the objective criteria of how many awards have been won or how many papers have been published within academia," she explains.
Dr Swamy has recently been chosen to join the prestigious EMBO Young Investigator Programme. Based within the university's Medical Research Council Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit (MRC-PPU), Dr Swamy heads a research group investigating the immune responses in the intestine. A crucial part of Dr Swamy's work is the study of inflammatory bowel diseases and how these can be prompted by the body's immune system attacking the gut lining in the absence of infection.
"One of the things that you realise is that for every woman who makes it to some level of success, it's important that you show. That you stand forward and say, okay, look, it is possible. And if I can do this, then you can do it too. But at the same time to appreciate that not everybody has the same path and not everybody has the same aspirations as well, and we must find what is right for ourselves as individuals," she said.
Here, we delve deeper into the British Indian scientist’s career achievements and her inspiring journey from India to the high echelons of academia in Britain…
What drew you to this field of work?
I grew up in Bangalore until attending BITS Pilani (Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani) for my integrated bachelor's and master’s in Biological Sciences. From age five, I liked to study insects, and ever since have been interested in biology and life science. But I never wanted to go into medicine.
I got interested in the immune system of the body during my graduation. I'm keen to understand how the gut talks with the immune system.
Please share more about your Indian connect.
Although I was born in Bangalore, my parents have travelled a lot. So, my origin was always a little bit mixed. My father is a chemical engineer working in many different places. Although I was born in Bangalore, I have lived in various countries, like Latvia and Indonesia, since birth.
After finishing my undergrad, I went to Germany for my PhD. Later, I moved to the UK, married, and lived here for ten years. My parents have always been supportive of my career and everything.
Who would you say is your biggest role model?
My mother. She is a science and maths teacher, and I've grown up seeing her working wherever she went with my father. So, this sense of being a strong, multitasking independent woman has been instilled in me from a young age.
What stands out for you among your many achievements?
I hope the biggest, most significant achievements are yet to come. But one thing that we reached almost serendipitously was the discovery of a new protein involved in Celiac disease. It is a disease that affects one in 100 people, and the percentage is much higher where people have predominantly high wheat consumption, like in northern India.
In Celiac disease, your immune system starts to attack your gut wall. So, we studied the gut's immune cells to understand what they were responding to. We discovered that this one protein seemed to be very high only in cells that were getting actively destroyed. This has been a breakthrough, and now we're exploring whether the drugs targeting that specific protein can be used to treat Celiac disease.
The only way to treat Celiac disease right now is to be on a gluten-free diet for life, which is quite complex, and patients can get frequent gluten contamination. So we're hoping that this discovery will make life easier for patients with Celiac disease.
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What has been your experience in academia as a woman of Indian heritage?
Academia is a traditional field, one of the oldest professions. And because of that, it has been a traditionally male-dominated field also. But even now, out of 25,000 professors in the UK, only 6,000 are female, and around 500 women are of colour. So yeah, you do notice these things. I notice that I'm the only woman of colour where I work. But most of the time, it doesn't matter in science. But there are times when it is brought to your attention by other people, in not a pleasant manner.
Although it is changing, there is much to do in this context. I'm working with the Race Equality Charter of the University of Dundee because I believe that this change is possible. We're working on fostering transparency in promotions and eliminating microaggressions and subconscious racism or bias.
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What advice would you give other women interested in pursuing a career in your field?
If you're passionate about something, you should do it. That's what has changed for women. Before, we were told that there were specific rules we should follow. Now, if you really care about something, you should do it. You can push past the barrier. It is hard but not impossible to have a family life and manage the intense pressure of an academic career.
I have two children, and I have achieved this where I am right now. This is possible with strong family support, good mentorship, and passion.
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What does International Women's Day mean to you?
International Women's Day is also my parents' wedding anniversary, so I definitely celebrate(laughs).
Honestly, it should not be only one day that we think about these issues. But if this day gets people thinking about it, that makes a difference. I appreciate the idea of equity this International Women's Day embraces. It isn't, after all, the same bar for everybody, and it's an important message being put forward.
*Info: Dr Mahima Swamy