I grew up in the slums of India. Now I’m a scientist
I scrambled up a ladder to the tin roof of our house, clutching a book about the evolution of animals. I was 10 years old, and I’d just finished cooking dinner for my entire family—a task that was my daily responsibility. From my perch, I could look out at the slum where we lived in a small town in India. But that wasn’t what drew me to the roof: We didn’t have any lamps in our house, so I needed sunlight to read my book. I didn’t know it at the time, but that study routine was my ticket to a career as a scientist.
My father—a laborer—didn’t let me attend school initially. I was always jealous of my younger brother when he set off to school each day. So, one day, when I was 5 years old, I followed him and hid under the teacher’s desk. She noticed me and sent me home. But the next day, she called my father and told him that he should put me in school. Much to my delight, my father said yes.
I had a passion for learning, and—despite the hunger pangs I went to school with most days—I quickly shot to the top of my class. When I was 10 years old, my father sent me to a better school outside our neighborhood, one that was mostly attended by students from wealthier families. I was at the top of the class there, too. But I was treated poorly by classmates who saw me as a child of the slums. I also suffered from embarrassment during biology labs because I was very short—due to malnutrition, I suspect—and I had to stand on a chair to see into the microscope.
When I graduated from high school, I wanted to become an engineer. My father was eager for me to attend university, but he told me I couldn’t study engineering because it was for boys; he said I should study food science instead. My initial reaction was that food science was the last thing I wanted to study. After a childhood preparing meals for my family, there was nothing I hated more than cooking.