Joseph Biden and Half the Sky

images (2)On the 25th of July, present United States Vice President Joseph Biden visited IIT Bombay, as his last port of call in his tour of India. In an event heavily publicised by all forms of media, a few questions still remain. Why exactly did IITB get onto his schedule? Why the Earth Sciences department? Why five female PhD students, and not faculty? InsIghT presents a detailed report.

Correspondents – Anshul Avasthi and Paul Samuel, InsIghT Editorial Board

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Having come here primarily to study the role of Indian women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, Vice President Biden was advised to make a convenient trip to IIT Bombay, situated in the metro of his last port of call – Mumbai. His visit included a trip to a number of research labs concerned with nanoelectronic and geoscientific research, followed by a closed-room discussion with 5 female PhD students in the Earth Sciences Department. Mr. Biden’s motorcade got all the attention it deserved from the bystanders who were there despite stringent security arrangements, only to catch a glimpse of his convoy. In the wake of the VVIP’s visit, last Thursday saw the Institute’s security measures bring a significant chunk of the Academic area to a near-standstill for the first half of the day – evoking an exasperated response from faculty members affected by the venues chosen by the Vice President’s staff. The first among these was the VMCC auditorium, where he met the Director and Deans and was handed the customary souvenirs. Thereon, Aditi Kothiyal (a PhD scholar at IIT Bombay) who was pre-selected by the White House Staff to be his guide, accompanied him all along the journey.

Though the Director had suggested a female faculty member for this role, the Vice-Presidential Staff were keen on having a student take up this responsibility.

Also present were both the foreign ambassadors of the United States & India – Nancy Powell & Nirupama Rao.

Mr.Biden thereafter visited the Nanofabrications laboratory in the Annexe of the Electrical Department, where he spent some time studying the world-class instruments in operation. The Nanofabrication Lab at IIT Bombay is one of the two Centres of Excellence (CEN) in Nanoelectronics in the country and is also among a handful of other such facilities in the world. Quite excited upon emerging from his first lab visit, he began to explain to the ambassadors how sensors to detect RDX were being developed in those labs. A short walk down the Infinite corridor, the VP along with his entourage reached the Earth Sciences department, where he was scheduled to meet four other PhD scholars besides Aditi.

Contrary to reports published in most national dailies, the department was chosen as the rendezvous point simply for security purposes – offering a short, secluded and roofed path from the Nanofabrications laboratory.

Infact, the VP’s staff was keen on including the Bamboo Lab in IDC to the itinerary but couldn’t, since it did not fulfill the security requisites.

Before the closed-door meeting, Biden visited the Geochemistry and Geochronology laboratory, stopping there for a full five minutes to discuss the recent advances in geothermal energy with the researchers present there, says Trupti Gurav, a Ph.D scholar in Geothermics. Biden again advocated the employment of renewable energy sources (offshore wind, solar, geothermal) for civil & domestic energy needs, having urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the same just days back. He also mentioned USA’s mission to commit to clean energy despite having assured access to oil for almost another century. At the Geochronology lab,when Prof. Pandey explained how Mumbai is insulated from volcanic attacks for a really long time, Biden jokingly considered migrating to Mumbai – given that his Indian ancestral roots would also enable him to run for the post of Prime Minister.

Just before going in for the closed door meeting with the 5 Ph.D scholars, Mr.Biden paused for a brief press statement.

“We are looking at India’s future. I mean it”

He said, citing the oft-used quote “Women are half the sky”. Ambassador Nirupama Rao politely added that the phrase stems from an old Chinese proverb which roughly translates to “If the sky were falling, women would hold up half the sky.” On that note, Biden bid adieu to most of his entourage, commencing the meeting .

The five of them – Aditi Kothiyal, Shikha Agarwal, Vibha Jayaraj, Asfiya Contractor and Rimi Chakrabarti had been chosen after submitting a written application, participating in a personal interview with the White House staff at the US Consulate and going through thorough background checks by the United States Secret Service (USSS) and the Mumbai Police. After their selection, they went through intense preparatory sessions where they discussed likely talking points at length. Even so, the objective of Biden’s visit remained hazy right until they finally met him.

Biden was accompanied to the room by his son-in-law, Dr. Howard David Krein (a neurosurgeon by profession) and greeted each of them with a warm handshake. Once they were seated, he simply asked them what they’d like to share with him. In turns, they spoke about their research work and their life at IIT Bombay.

Since Vibha was seated to his immediate right, she began to explain her research in microfluidic device optimization for Biomedical applications. She mentioned that the principal objective of this device was to track ‘white blood cell migration’ in the event of an inflammation. Additionally, the use of this device could also be extended to follow the events of a single cell and this would help in developing a drug that could address even ‘rare cell dynamics’.

While Biden did not quite keep up with the technical details, he was assured that her work in this field would soon alter the nature of medicine and drug-action. He was also pleased to learn that her research guide,Dr.Sameer Jadhav, was a product of the highly esteemed ‘John Hopkins’ which is renowned world wide for its excellence in medical research.

He told Vibha, “When you receive the Nobel Prize, remember to call me”.

Howard, a MD, PhD in Neuroscience didn’t miss a beat – immediately spotting the potential applications the research held in areas such as wound-healing, sperm motility and scratch assay.

Biden, was pretty interested to know whether her parents were doctors or engineers. Vibha mentioned that, they are not and they don’t really grasp much of what she does. However, their constant encouragement and stimulus was the most significant factor that got her into India’s most premier research institution.

She was followed by Shikha, who elaborated upon her study of the challenges Mumbai’s diverse set of rail commuters face and her attempt to create a ‘socially inclusive design’ for transport, which helps the disabled be independently mobile in the crowded confines of a local train. Biden was curious about the alarming increase of violence against women in the Mumbai Locals and the possible preventive measures. He explained how framing the right laws and policies could have a resounding impact on societal issues and the welfare of the fairer sex.

Biden strongly asserted that a shallow attitude among men – and not a woman’s dressing sense – was responsible for rape and recalled his father’s words, “It is a cardinal sin for a man to abuse a woman.”

Upon finding out about Asfiya’s research in modelling the mechanism of conduction in polymers and her aspiration to become a professor in the future, the VP reminisced about the fulfillment he’d felt during his time as a teacher at law school, inspite of the monetary constraints the job came with.

Further on, Rimi (from the Bio-Sciences department) went on to talk about the compelling need to develop a remedy to combat the drug-resistant Malaria virus, which the WHO has been fending off for nearly 50 years. Even though a lot of effort has been put into the development of a vaccine against the pandemic, the US Army Center for Infectious Disease Research have come closest to the goal and Mr. Biden was delighted to know that Rimi was contributing towards the same cause. Howard, being a PhD holder in neurophysiology, could relate to Rimi’s plight of having to run experiments on a living system at 3am.

Having interacted with Aditi all along the journey, the VP had a pretty good idea of her research in Education Technology. She underscored the importance of employing technology to take education to the masses and expounded on the latest trends in classroom training and enhanced learning methodologies. He also mentioned that he had had the very same discussion with President Obama a few days before leaving for India. When asked about any problems that she faces, Aditi mentioned that striking a balance between work and family seemed challenging post-marriage. She found motivation in Jill Biden’s example of having raised three kids whilst completing her M.A, M.Phil & Ph.D.

Throughout the meet, his primary focus was ‘Women in STEM’ and through their answers, he sought to find ways to increase the contribution of women in the fields. His objective was to identify parameters that would help him frame new policies and laws in both countries, in a joint Indo-US Women Empowerment venture.

At this point, the Press was called in to record a statement wherein Biden asserted that there was nothing that these women couldn’t do that men could, further hailing them as India’s future. In return, the young women together gave him a mug which said, “My sister goes to IITB and all I get is this stupid mug”. Noticing the word ‘sister’, Mr.Biden got a wee bit emotional and soulfully mentioned what a great source of strength his sister has been to him.

Although most members of the IIT-B’s fraternity were unable to meet the US Vice President, Mr.Biden did leave a lasting impression on these five women,all of whom were highly motivated and proud of their work. What most impressed them was his empathy and unique ability to prevent them from feeling subordinate, despite his status as a Vice President. Given the special privileges that these young women had access to, including a closer proximity to the Vice President than that enjoyed by the US Consulate, Prof Yajnik ( Dean of Student Affairs), aptly titled them – The Fabulous Five.