Women in Chemistry — Interview with Yamuna Krishnan

Women in Chemistry — Interview with Yamuna Krishnan

Author: Vera Köster

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011) and the centenary of Marie Curie’s Nobel prize in Chemistry. Therefore, ChemViews will introduce interesting women throughout the year.

Yamuna Krishnan is Senior Assistant Professor at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, India. She already performed a remarkable career, is enthusiastic not only about bringing chemistry into biological systems as well as teaching students and she lives Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Be the change you wish to see’.

Tell us a bit about how your career has developed?

I did my Bachelors in Women’s Christian College, a small but well-known college in Madras, India. Then, I was accepted into the best PhD program for chemistry in the country at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, where the freedom my PhD supervisor gave me really allowed me to grow into chemistry in its broadest sense. As if this was not enough, I later found myself working at Cambridge University with Shankar Balasubramanian, a young and dynamic chemist, a deep thinker and excellent mentor. By just observing him I learnt a great deal in terms of how to identify and approach scientific problems.

When I was applying for positions back in India, by sheer chance I visited the NCBS – the scientific atmosphere and the quality of the people there completely re-oriented my plans and I could not picture myself anywhere else. The environment of this biology-centred institute was what enabled me to take our chemistry into biological systems.

So a series of fortunate accidents or opportunities, however you see it, is the way I would best describe how I got to where I am.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

Working with people who share a youthful enthusiasm about science. Biologists are remarkable people, and I’m fortunate that I can interact with a wide selection of the best at NCBS. I enjoy exploring the breadth of biology that is still inaccessible due to lack of the appropriate chemistry to capture its workings. And of course, the joy of watching raw students slowly and surely turn into high quality scientists.

When did your interest in sciences begin?

I have been interested in science ever since I can remember. I used to grow sugar and salt crystals, dissect flowers and dead frogs (with kitchen knives!), repeat all the little experiments at home that we used to read about in school.

In short anything possible with the resources of Mum’s kitchen and Dad’s garden.

How did you decide to become a chemist?

My entry into chemistry was an accident. I wanted to do architecture, but ended up settling for chemistry as a compromise, since my marks in Math in a particular crucial exam were not enough for me to make it into the Architecture course. I am now very happy I did not do architecture!

What has been your biggest motivation?

My biggest motivation is to improve my understanding of the chemistry of nucleic acids within the cell and enjoying that journey with my students. I cherish working with such motivated and intelligent youngsters, and at the end of every day I can’t wait to get back to the lab again and enjoy growing together as we gain control of our scientific problem.

Do you think there are still differences between men and women in chemistry?

Were there ever any?!! In my mind, there are none. I know that my parents would not have raised me any differently had I been a boy, and maybe this is the reason I see and feel no differences between men and women in science.

Have you experienced any personal struggles typical for women in sciences?

Personal and professional struggles are part and parcel of everyone’s career and I too have undergone my fair share at every stage – but I have never considered that any of them was because I was a woman. We all go through struggles, whether we are men or women.

What advice would you give other women thinking of embarking on a scientific career?/What was the best advice you have ever been given?

If you don’t struggle for something, you will value it less when you get it. The harder the struggle, the sweeter the fruit. I believe that if you want something badly enough, you will find a way to make it happen. The words I always remember are those of a dear teacher, collaborator and friend Sandhya Visweswariah who said – work is a reward in itself – it helps me through good days and bad.

What do you do in your spare time?

I do a lot of sport. I go running, swimming, I travel, read books, watch movies, go to music concerts and spend time with my parents.

What would you like to be doing ten years from now?

Gosh, I can’t think that far ahead! Things change so fast in science! But five years from now I hope to revolutionize the way we visualize proteins inside living cells. And I hope to be working with students who are as great as those I’m working with now!

What else would you like readers of ChemViews to know about you, your experiences, or women in sciences in your country or in general?

Whether you are a man or a woman, if you wish to see more women in science, to quote the great Mahatma Gandhi, be the change you wish to see.

Thank you very much for this interview.

Yamuna Krishnan, Senior Assistant Professor, National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, India, received her PhD in 2001 from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.

From 2002 to 2004, she was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK, in the group of Shankar Balasubramanian. After this, she moved back to India to take up the position of Junior Assistant Professor at the National Center for Biological Sciences.

In 2009, she was promoted to Senior Assistant Professor at the same institute.

Selected Awards

  • DBT – Wellcome Trust India Alliance Senior Fellowship Award
  • Innovative Young Biotechnologist Award, DBT
  • Indian National Science Academy’s Young Scientist Medal
  • Associate, Indian Academy of Sciences
  • 1851 Research Fellowship, Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
  • Fellowship of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, UK

Selected Publications


► see all Women in Chemistry Interviews

European Women in Chemistry
Published: 11 November 2010
ISBN: 978-3-527-32956-4
Author: Jan Apotheker, Livia Simon Sarkadi





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