Breaking free on International Women’s Day
In conversation with Dr Soma Biswas

Dr Soma Biswas is Associate Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

She did her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park. After that, she worked as a research faculty at the University of Notre Dame, close to Chicago. Then, she moved back to India, and worked for some time at GE Research, Bengaluru, and then, joined IISc.

She works in the area of computer vision and image analysis, pattern recognition, digital image processing, video processing, and multidimensional signal processing.

In this interview, she speaks to Poornima, J. D., Consultant at ARTPARK, IISc. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Photo credit: Selvam Raja, Project Associate,
Centre for Continuing Education, IISc

Poornima: What does freedom mean to you?

Soma: Freedom can mean different things to different people at different points in their life. Because we are researchers here, I will talk about what freedom means in this context. For us, freedom really means to pursue work in areas of our choice. It can be short term goals, which will give us results right away. It can be very, very long term also. Other people may not believe in you; but, you are still free to work in those areas. Maybe sometimes you feel that if you succeed, then, it will have a big impact in, say, everyday life of other people, or maybe in your country or society. And it’s okay to fail. That is what freedom really means to me.

Freedom also has different other meanings. For example, I am not constrained when I am working. Ours is not a regular job in which we are only working when we are in the department or in the office. I get the best ideas when I am walking around in the campus. That is also what freedom is – what you are working on, and when you are working on it. I think, for researchers, freedom also means that you are able to free your mind, because you continuously keep on reading what other people are doing in your field. That is very important for you to stay up-to-date. It can have very different impacts on your mind. For example, you can get very scared or frightened also that people are doing or working on so many things. How are you are going to make any impact in that area? Sometimes, it can be the other way around, in that you can also feel that there are so many big people who are working on so many nice things. So, your mind can get constrained by those ideas, and sometimes it’s very difficult to think beyond those.

To be a successful researcher, you have to break away.

Your mind needs to free, irrespective of what other people are doing; you need to understand that, but keep your mind free so that you can think widely and come up with nice ideas and pursue your work.

Poornima: As you said, freedom is to express ourselves freely and keep our mind open to ideas. Education is closely related to freedom. It gives you the freedom to express your thoughts openly. What motivated you to pursue your education and a life in science?

Soma: I really liked maths and science when I was small. In school, especially those science experiments in which you can check whether things which are written in your book are right or wrong. But having said that, truthfully, I never really planned my career as it turned out to be. I tried to focus and do well in what I was doing at that point of time. When I was doing my undergrad, I tried to do well in that. When I was doing my Master’s, I just tried to concentrate without really thinking too much beyond, because many times, things are beyond our control.

When I was doing my Master’s project – that was the first time I really understood what research is because we are given a problem, but after that, we were free to explore; we were free to try out things, and, at least our advisor told us that it’s okay if things don’t work out; you can just report whatever you have tried out; that’s okay. Most of the things that we tried did not work; that was the first time we were trying anything. Every time we failed, we understood what can be done next. And finally, when things did work out a little, we were so excited. I think this whole journey was trying something, failing, and no one scolding you or scaring you that you are doing something wrong, and then you finally get to do something which really works. When I did that, I really liked that journey and then, I decided to pursue my Ph.D.

Poornima: Education is everyone’s right. But, we also have this concept of gender bias, which is there everywhere – in education, work – it is prevalent. Have you ever faced this? How have you tackled it?

Soma: I have heard from many people first-hand that they have faced a lot of gender bias. Luckily for me, neither in my family nor in my school life, college life, I have really faced something that I thought was a big gender bias. I must have been very lucky. In fact, in our undergrad and Master’s, there were so few girls that we were actually given privilege treatment. Whether that is good or bad, I don’t know. But, I never really faced anything very serious. I feel like if I had faced anything of that sort, the way I would have handled it is to focus more on my strengths, my abilities, and to really work even harder and show that I can do it, so that people on the other side can actually see and understand that the way that they are thinking is probably not right. It’s always good to show and prove rather than just say something.

Poornima: Actions speak louder than words… Nowadays, everyone is so focussed on their work that they forget about important things like health and family. How can a woman handle her career–life balance?

Soma: This is a very important question, and I think every woman has to answer this to themselves. Everyone will handle it in their own way. I can tell you the things that I personally try to do, and I think that really helped me in my life. The first thing is if you have a very supportive and understanding life partner or spouse, it is extremely useful because then, they can not only help you in your day-to-day household duties, but I think, more important, it’s a big mental support that you know that you have someone who really understands your work, your work pressure, and accordingly takes care of the other duties that you are supposed to handle. But that is something that, most of the time, we cannot choose; many times, that is beyond our control.

One of the things which is in our control is to prioritize what we want to do at that point, and it can change; it can change even during one day. For example, if I have a deadline tomorrow or I have some urgent work that I have to submit, then I will maybe focus on my work 100 percent; maybe let whatever is happening in my house take its own course, and not worry about it. At other times, I can make up for it. I can spend quality time with my family. It is very important to separate these two because many women always have this guilty feeling. When you are working, you feel that you are not spending time with your family. And when you are actually spending time with your family, you are going over your emails and checking how much work is left. That does not really help anything. It is better that when you are working, you focus on your work. You can’t be doing multiple things at the same time. When you are with your family, spend your 100 percent; concentrate on that. All of us have our own struggles and we have reached here after a lot of struggles.

It’s absolutely okay to not feel guilty about what you are doing. It’s also okay to not be perfect all the time.

But it’s important to prioritize depending on the situation and to give your 100 percent for that.

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