STARS OF STEM: JAYA BANERJEE CHATTERJEE, CHEMISTRY PROFESSIONAL & TEACHER.

IN HER OWN WORDS.

Growing up, I would visit science museums and planetariums. I would read biographies of famous people.

It always bothered me that I didn’t see any women represented in either context. My mom was my best friend and mentor at the time and I would pepper her with questions.

“Why are there more male doctors, engineers, scientists and mathematicians, than female doctors, engineers, scientists and mathematicians?”

“Why is that most women who work are teachers?”

I may have struck a nerve that day with that question. Despite several offers to teach locally, my mother chose to be a stay-at-home mom to me and my brother. She patiently explained that women had to make some tough choices in life. They had to balance a personal life —and a professional life. And society doesn’t make it so easy for women to prove themselves professionally.

On balance, I never entered the kitchen. And she ensured that I stayed out.

The male members of my family were in cahoots with her to see me succeed. My father and a few of my uncles were engineers. One of my grandfathers was a doctor in the military. We would spend days exchanging stories about math and science. In our conversations, banal everyday items became things of wonder.

We talked about the use of fluoride in the toothbrush. Why earthen tumblers keep water cool? Why two sides of a triangle added together always exceeded the third side?

“Don’t stand under a tree in the evening,” one would admonish. “Trees release carbon dioxide!”

Together, we fixed the fuse of electrical outlets. We oiled the gears of a bike. We talked about the machinations of a pressure cooker. My father’s friends would tease saying he was raising his daughter more like a son. He paid them no mind. My growing mind was becoming more aware of how chemistry made life colorful — -and meaningful.

I took up Chemistry in college. I did my Masters in Organic Chemistry. Upon graduation, I started teaching science at a public high school in West Bengal. Eventually I became head mistress. While there was healthy competition in the sciences at the college level, the divide between men and women became apparent as I moved up the ladder. My mother’s words came back to me.

“Society doesn’t make it so easy for women to prove themselves professionally.”

Select senior male teachers would say I couldn’t teach science since I was a woman. Very senior male members of the school were very explicit that they did not want a female Head of the Department and Headmistress.

I wanted to get my PhD. So eventually, I crafted a lifestyle where I taught school on the weekdays. I started looking for work in the lab on the weekends.

There were hurdles there too.

When I expressed an interest in doing research in the field of organic chemistry, I heard flimsy explanations as to why I couldn’t. “Organic chemistry reactions are too long. You might not be able to commit to seeing them through.” or “How could a woman stay late in the lab after hours? What dangers could she encounter?”

Ultimately, I did spend six years in a Chemistry lab.

When I had my baby, the lab became a breeding ground for criticism. My male counterparts would ridicule me if I had to leave early to tend to my family.

I was one presentation short before I left India. I didn’t get my PhD. My advisor sent me off, saying “You’re leaving for the US anyway. You won’t need your PhD.” When I started looking for work in the US, it became apparent WHO I knew was more important than WHAT I knew. At every turn, I had to prove my worth. How unique I was. How indispensable I was.

I became depressed.

Today I am a Chemistry teacher at the Woodbridge Township School District in New Jersey. I ask girls to come to the head of the class to do a demonstration or read out an answer. I encourage parents to enter their daughters into science fairs at school. I even encourage a healthy competitions among siblings. I encourage reading more. Exploring more. And I get alot of positive feedback because of it.

It heartens me when my students express their desire to be like me ‘when they grow up.’ Many of them are grown up now and have gone on to have successful careers in medicine, technology, and engineering. They have become science teachers and professors like me. They make me so proud.

After teaching for 14 years, I would say I’m a woman in transition. I want to get back in the lab and pursue the colorful world of chemical reactions again. I want to help underprivileged girls. I want to see more South Asian women in STEM fields.

And —I want to complete my PhD.

Thursday, June 25th at 6pm, sixteen South Asian women, including Jaya, take to the ramp for STARS OF STEM. Read more here: http://www.lady-drinks.com/starsofstem/ We are celebrating, illuminating, and elevating the women who occupy the jobs of the future.By attending, you also help a young girl from the Boys and Girls Club Newark aspiring to study in a STEM field. Buy your tickets here http://bit.ly/1JOsrcy

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