May 2, 2019

Professor Samhitha Raj: Embracing transdisciplinarity

May 2, 2019

While microscopes are her favorite, pen and paper characterize another aspect of Raj.

The road to the lab

In a house tucked among Mysore’s iconic palaces and temples, a young girl was bending over, trying to breathe life into her portrayal of a lotus – her hometown’s traditional flower. This scene, far from being an anomaly, soon became a signature of the house, leading the girl’s parents to be confident that their daughter would pursue art.

The girl, now in her twenties, finds herself indissolubly linked to biology, a discipline whose embodiment of artistic creativity often proves elusive to many.

Born to a pair of doctors in Mysore, a royal city steeped in Indian tradition, Professor Samhitha Raj enjoyed a happy childhood alongside supportive parents. That probably explains her undaunted advancement towards the male-dominated field of science in a country where academia is still ridden with discrimination on the grounds of caste and gender.

“My parents didn’t discourage me from going into science,” Raj said, her eyes sparkling with pride and gratefulness.

Raj’s enthusiasm for science, particularly mathematics and biology, was spotted early and nurtured all the way through university as she opted for a degree in Bioengineering. Yet, it was not long before she realized she had a propensity for scientific thinking, at which point she decided to follow the calling of biology in the next phase of her life.

“I got my undergraduate degree in Bioengineering because I like biology and I love math, so I wanted to combine the two. But then I realized I didn’t think as an engineer. I thought more as a scientist,” Raj said.

This momentary insight led to a career of longevity. From that moment onward, Raj dedicated herself to understanding the core of biology, which, for Raj, began at themolecular level.

Professor Samhitha Raj

During her six years at the University of Michigan, where she worked as a graduate student, Raj conducted research into the role of thyroid hormones in modulating DNA methylation in the development of the vertebrate brain, a topic that has enthralled her ever since.

Albeit guided by her burning passion, Raj’s career path was no bed of roses. Raj recollected falling victim to sexual harassment during her stint at an Indian research institute, which hindered her from focusing wholeheartedly on her project.

“I felt no gender-based disparagement in terms of opportunity,” Raj asserted. “But the inappropriate behavior of some male colleagues at that institute reflected badly on my experience as a female scientist.”

Beyond the lab

A scientist by profession and an artist by instinct, Raj was also a journalist, though for only a while. Upon graduating from JSS Science and Technology University, she made her foray into journalism by attending a few courses that spanned a total of one year. Reminiscing about this unique endeavor, Raj concurred that adding the journalism chapter to her all-science storybook was a wise move.

“My whole pursuit had been science, so I wanted to try and see what journalism was like. As part of the practice, I had to redefine what I had done previously to make science a topic understandable to everybody,” she recalled. An ability to communicate sophisticated scientific findings to the layperson was what Raj acquired from those journalism courses, extricating her out of the ivory tower that isolates researchers from the outside world.

Take a look back at Raj’s history, and none should be surprised that when she talks about writing, she doesn’t solely mean writing on paper. Since university, Raj has tried writing into space, and now considers bringing it into her classroom.

“During my years at college, I choreographed classical Indian pieces,” revealed Raj. “I’ve talked with Jill about the possibility of a class that combines yoga and Indian dancing. We will see.”

In the wake of her cross-field experiences, transdisciplinarity appears to have permeated Raj’s life and mediated her choice-making mindset. Last September, from the other half of the globe, Raj traversed oceans and fields for a job interview in Vietnam.

The interview turned her life, as a scientist, upside down. She was co-opted onto the team of Founding Faculty Members at Fulbright University Vietnam, the country’s first non-profit liberal arts institution.

While the term ‘liberal arts’ brings music to the ears of creative artists and social scientists, it, in the conservative’s eyes, is a curse on the career prospects of natural scientists. Hanging in the air is the question of how a natural scientist may make a mark in a university where the laboratory goes by conspicuous absence, and education is interpreted as an integrative project rather than the in-depth exploration of any predetermined discipline.

This problem, however, doesn’t seem to demoralize Raj. The lotus in the lab remains optimistic about what the future holds in store for her, possibly because she sees transdisciplinarity as a vehicle for scientific fluidity.

“The university will support me in whatever ways it can. And personally, I have to make a choice. I made the choice that to me, teaching science is a little bit more important than doing research work,” Raj smiled. “I love collaborating with other faculty members here to get different perspectives, and the transdisciplinary learning is really what I’m looking forward to.”

In Module 5 of the Co-Design Year, Raj instructs the Grand Challengescourse with KinHo Chan, a Fulbright neuroscientist. Set against the backdrop of a tumultuous century, the course strives to harness a common ground between disciplines in identifying, analyzing and tackling pressing issues ranging from climate change to genetic engineering. So, instead of experimenting with microscopes, Raj is having fun experimenting with the big wide world. 

Dang Thi Hoai Linh

(Student of Co-Design year)

  • Photographer : Nguyen Nhu Phuong Anh

Related Articles