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When Passion, Persistence and Brain Power Pay Off

Dr Mallika Suresh, an alumna of Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light begins the Agnes Blackie Fellowship at Te Whai Ao — Dodd-Walls.

When Passion, Persistence and Brain Power Pay Off
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5 minutes
Anna Verboeket

This is the story of a girl from Tamil Nadu, whose brilliance and love of science has led her to a fellowship with some of New Zealand’s finest researchers to help predict global weather.

Next week (1 July), Dr Mallika Suresh takes up the Agnes Blackie Fellowship at Te Whai Ao — Dodd-Walls Centre for photonic and quantum technologies in Dunedin. It’s a world away from where she grew up near Chennai, formerly Madras. The daughter of a teacher and an engineer, she found science intrinsically fun and as a teenager would spend hours with her dad soldering electronics onto circuit boards. She admits to reading storybooks under the desk during other subjects at high school.

“Growing up our teachers always told us we had to choose between medicine and engineering, we weren’t advised to take both biology and maths. But I was very stubborn about wanting to do both.”

That led her to apply to the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER) Trivandrum, a leading academic institution where she could study all four sciences including maths, before specialising in physics. She particularly enjoyed conducting laboratory research for her master’s, where she worked in setting up a fabrication unit for making tiny glass spheres on the ends of optical fibres similar to the tiny disks she makes for her research today.

“I found optics really fun, you could make set ups and deconstruct them again easily, so it felt like playing with Lego.”

Mallika says the gender split in the early years at IISER was pretty much 50/50, but when she specialised in physics, female percentages began to dwindle. She found that although society in south India was more equitable than in the north, a fair amount of sexism still existed. After finishing her master’s Mallika began applying for scholarships abroad, some of which had the application fee waived for women.

“A lot of the young men in my class would say how unfair it was that the application for those scholarships were free. But these were the same men who were surprised that I would travel to Delhi by myself without a father or a brother, because it was dangerous for women on public transport who were often harrassed.”

Mallika acknowledges that her parents were more liberal than many in allowing her to pursue her dreams of international study and says she has a lot to be thankful for. Her second academic “big break” after IISER came when she was accepted for a scholarship, which allowed her to study for a doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (MPL) in Germany. It coincided with a bad case of imposter syndrome, something she’s experienced throughout her career and knows that many women working in male-dominated fields often feel.

“I thought, I’m not actually smart enough to be here, they’re going to figure it out, they’re going
to chuck me out. It happens often actually, even as I take up this new role, because I feel like I’m still catching up with everyone else. But (I’ve learned to live with it) and I found at the end of my PhD I had a lot more confidence.”

One day while working with short pulses of laser light at MPL, she heard that a German-born physicist from the Dodd-Walls Centre was visiting while on sabbatical from New Zealand. Her innate drive and infectious enthusiasm for what she does came to the fore again.

“When I heard Harald Schwefel was there, I showed him my experiments in the lab and said I’d really like to work with you afterwards if you think that’s possible. He was positive and when I contacted him again at the end of my PhD he invited me to come to Dunedin to further develop a type of optical sensor.”

Applications to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment for Catalyst Seed funding and a Smart Ideas grant then followed, enabling Mallika to work with Associate Professor Schwefel and colleagues in climate science studying the atmosphere. Together they have been working on demonstrating a tiny light-based sensor to detect weak radiation from gases like ozone, which affects our wind and weather systems. So far, they’ve managed to demonstrate the principle of the device with a known source of the radiation. The next step is to improve the device to pick up such radiation signals from gases.

The device is for use in space, where a NASA satellite which has been measuring the ozone layer for years is about to come to the end of its life. Because the sensor that Mallika and the rest of the team are working on is so small, it is less expensive and easier to launch than a traditional satellite replacement. Mallika believes the scientific challenge of putting such a device up in space is probably too great to overcome with funding from just the two-year fellowship but believes she can at least make useful components for this new sensing and measuring tool.

“The NASA satellite is dying. If we can produce a novel device, then we can talk to our collaborators at NASA, and they might pick it up to continue the work and actually send the sensor to space. It’s lighter to deploy than current sensors, making it more convenient than the one on the bus-sized satellite that’s up there now.”

Mallika’s intelligence, energy and ambition have taken her around the world and now into space, but it hasn’t been an easy journey as a woman, and a woman of colour. Looking back on her career to date she says she’s been lucky enough not to have been disadvantaged by her gender or the colour of her skin.

“For me it’s mainly the small things, like sexist jokes which might remind me I’m not like the others around me. But you know, a couple of people have said to me ‘Oh, you’re the diversity double whammy, a brown woman, that’s why you got in’, implying I didn’t get my position or win this fellowship on my own merit.

I know that those remarks stem from insecurity in others, but they can still have an impact. Now aged thirty-ish, I know it’s important to speak up when presented with racism or sexism, because it’s not just about me, but those women, or people who aren’t white, who follow after me. I have a lot of very supportive people around me. I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have without them.”

Given that ten percent of the Agnes Blackie Fellowship’s focus is on outreach, the Dodd-Walls
Centre can be confident of Mallika’s positive communication about both science and diversity.

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