Soumya Swaminathan is 'the scientist WHO speaks for us': Shobhaa De

Quick! When you hear the word scientist, which gender springs to mind? Be honest! I confess I am a victim of gender stereotyping when it comes to jobs like surgeons, engineers, pilots and astronauts. I grew up during an age and in an environment that placed working women in neatly labelled pigeon holes marked ‘female’; scientist definitely fell into the ‘males only’ category.

It is but natural then, that so many decades later, I remain in absolute awe of highly accomplished women who are indeed changing the world, one major achievement at a time. Women like WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan. I only got to know of the articulate and attractive, Chennai-born, Geneva-based Soumya (62), after watching her fielding complex Covid-19 related questions on TV. I was mesmerised by her personality—the short, stylish, silver-grey hair; those handwoven, one-of-a-kind tunics, saris and stoles; the discreet bindi, and of course her erudition. Soumya says that we need more women role models in science. Indeed we do!

Soumya’s softer approach works far more effectively than a cold presentation of stats. Her interviews are balanced and reassuring without running away from tabling hard truths. After developing a major fan-girl crush, I started to read up on her and was not surprised to discover she attributes her success to her parents—agricultural scientist dad and educationist mom. It is no wonder, their bright daughter won a prestigious science scholarship at 15 and there was no stopping her after that. It sounds like an enviable childhood, filled with fascinating interactions with legendary intellectuals, including Sir C.V. Raman, who visited their open-to-all home.

It is only when a girl is exposed to such an invigorating and liberal environment that a Soumya rises and shines. Today, her own family continues the tradition, sharing their lives and triumphs across three continents. Her husband, Dr Ajit Yadav, is an orthopaedic surgeon in Chennai and lives there with his son. Their daughter studies in the US. This is a truly progressive, modern Indian family, which relies on weekly Zoom calls to stay in touch, share laughter and offer unconditional support to one another. Soumya prefers to walk to work in Geneva, though her elevated status at the WHO comes with a chauffeur driven car! She points out that “hypertension is the largest risk factor for premature mortality globally”, adding that “less than 20 per cent people have it under control in most low-to-middle-income countries”.

Soumya is fortunate to have struck the perfect balance that clearly works for her and her family. Not too many women in India, or, for that matter, across the world, enjoy such a precious privilege. The pandemic has highlighted just how vulnerable and easily dispensable working women are universally. It is women who have taken the worst hit, it is women who were issued marching orders first, and it is women who are bearing the brunt while they struggle to pay off loans and contribute financially to their families.

If more parents followed the splendid example of the Swaminathans, we would no longer automatically associate the word scientist with a man. So long as we keep those blinkers on, it will mean the end of millions of female dreams. Soumya’s Twitter followers are a sizeable 103.1k and growing. She tweets in her personal capacity. So far she has restricted herself to disseminating valuable medical information and retweeting other scientists and doctors dealing with the pandemic. But I would also love to know something about Soumya’s life beyond the laboratory. Please treat this as a ‘farmaish’, Soumya!