One of this year’s Distinguished Alumni, Dr. Vaidehi Narayan obtained an M.Sc. degree in Chemistry from IIT Madras in 1981 and continued on to get her Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry from the Institute in 1986. Subsequently, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Exeter (UK), the University of Southern California (USA), and the California Institute of Technology (USA). She then became the Director of Biomolecular Simulations at the Materials and Process Simulation Center at California Institute of Technology, and a Visiting Associate at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Since 2006, she has been a Professor of Molecular Immunology at Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope National Medical Center (USA). Publishing under the name N Vaidehi since her time at IIT Madras, Dr. Narayan has over on hundred peer-reviewed articles and invited reviews to her credit. We were glad to be able to conduct an informal interaction cum interview with her.
The first question raised: what prompted you to shift from chemistry to molecular biology? “I think that these days, science has lost boundaries”, Dr Vaidehi says. She goes on to explain that she uses techniques in computational physical chemistry to understand the molecular underpinnings of our immune system.,. It’s a team effort, she tells us, and the immunology department has faculty in as diverse areas of expertise as mass spectrometry, biology, and NMR. “So I haven’t really shifted focus”, she says, “I develop computational methods and apply them to molecular immunology.” She jokingly tells us that the fact that she teaches cell biology, despite having no knowledge of it whatsoever when leaving IITM, is proof that anybody can cross boundaries and learn other fields of science.
We ask Dr Vaidehi how she came to discover where her interests lay. “My first choice was to study Mechanical engineering, but my mother didn’t allow it”, Dr Vaidehi tells us. Nor were her second and third choices – BSc Maths and Physics respectively – accepted. Finally, she settled on Chemistry. But then, she says fondly, the professors at IITM opened her eyes. “They taught even physical and organic chemistry in a logical way, so you didn’t have to learn anything by rote,” she tells us. She mentions Professor CN Pillai and Professor K.K. Balasubramanian, who taught organic chemistry, and Professor MS Gopinathan, who sparked her interest in quantum mechanics. She pursued quantum mechanics without regard to job opportunities and the like. “Maybe it was a naïve decision”, she says, “But now they want people who know quantum mechanics in pharma. Things change; the important thing is to do what you like”.
She tells us that her thesis work on quantum mechanics at IIT looked only at atoms. “I would look at people on the road, and wonder, ‘how is this relevant to them?’” And so, Dr Vaidehi looked for postdoctoral opportunities to work with proteins and larger molecules.
She speaks nostalgically of the amount of time she spent in the computing center. “There were only card readers back then, no terminals. You had to punch cards and submit the deck as a job, and then wait two hours only to find out that you’d made a small mistake in typing the job control language. If you worked in computational research you had to live at the computer center!” She tells us fondly that she made a lot of friends in the CS department. They would run jobs for her, as the queue was arranged in such a way that your job got done faster if you were in computer science.
We speak a little more about Dr Vaidehi’s time at IITM. She recalls for us several small details of her life – the way that people had to get up early on Holi to get to the lab, so as to not get caught in the celebrations; the excitement on Hostel Day, when all the girls dressed up because boys could enter the hostel; the pizza place within the campus; the trips to Velachery to drink tea; Liu’s Waldorf, a Chinese restaurant (which exists outside the main gate to this day!) which was, back then, the location of all celebrations.
She tells us that there was a one is to ten girl to boy ratio – about forty BTech girls, thirty in MSc, and thirty or forty PhD students; a hundred to a hundred and twenty girls, all told. “There was only one girl in Mechanical Engineering; everyone called her the ‘Mech Brain’, no one knew her real name!” she says with a laugh.
Dr Vaidehi was part of the student council of the chemistry department, called “Resonance”. Each year the second years on the council would choose first years to take up the positions. The council would, among other things, organise lectures and get together once a month and discuss student related issues; no faculty involved. These issues were later taken to the faculty if required.
At this point, an interesting question is raised: how do Indian post doc students fair abroad? It’s harder to get grants here, and we leave with less papers for the length of our tenure, after all.
“I’m one of the associate editors of an international journal, and they always send me any publication from India – even if it’s not in my field of expertise – because I understand their circumstances,” Dr Vaidehi explains. “If they’ve done fewer experiments, what I look at is if they’ve over interpreted their data; it shouldn’t be very speculative.” Dr Vaidehi admits that selecting postdocs is very competitive, and that people often filter by the number of papers an applicant has published. “But I’ve had failures, where I think a person will do very well as a postdoc fellow but they don’t, and postdocs who don’t perform to my expectations – and people who do much better.” She explains that she has a system where she interviews students, and has her fellows do so as well; she doesn’t base her assessment solely of what’s on paper. “You can still do good science if someone gives you a chance, and more and more people are doing that,” Dr Vaidehi asserts.
We now ask her to tell us about her work as an educator. She explains that she first started volunteering in her daughter’s school in California, because students were not inspired to do science. She had them do hands-on experiments based on the unit they were learning. “So for example, each student sowed seeds; some use water, some coke, and so on, and we observed the results on the plants’ growth.” She adds that CalTech ran a program called SEED – Science Elementary Education and Development – on government funding, and that under it she and others developed hands-on experiments for children and carried them out using the grant money.
“It’s so much fun when students learn science hands on instead of learning Newton’s law by rote, when you actually do stuff”, Dr Vaidehi says passionately. “After my daughter graduated I continued working with the children because I liked the reaction I got.”
She tells us that many educational institutions partner with high schools in underprivileged neighborhoods. High school education is free, paid for by property tax, she explains – which means that good neighborhoods have good schools, but underprivileged ones do not. She also worked with children from under-privileged minorities,. “Children think that engineering is very hard,” she says. “But you make them build something, and tell them that by doing so they’ve become engineers, and they get the feeling that they can do it too. That’s the kind of thing I continue to do.”
She confesses to another motivation behind working with children. “In academia, reviewers can slash down your article, criticise it ruthlessly; on those days I go to the school. No matter what, they still like to see me!”
“I often go through my hospital too; I walk through the hospital and I see the small kids, and I think that this is why I do this. It keeps me grounded and centered.”
We proceed to talk a little bit about stereotypical gender roles. Dr Vaidehi states her opinion, that there is a great deal of societal pressure in India for a woman to behave a certain way, and that the expectations of a working woman in a household are more than those of a working man. She admits that this was part of her motivation behind settling in the United States. She expresses her wish for a more equal division of labor among Indian families.
We conclude our conversation with Dr Vaidehi’s message for the students: “Pursue your passion; success will come by itself. Because you like what you do, you’ll do it well and you’ll be successful. And make every day happy, you don’t know when it’ll all dissolve.” In the words of John Lennon, “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”