Q&A with Sneha Malde

We speak to a recipient of the L’Oréal-Unesco UK & Ireland fellowship for women in science

August 28, 2014

Sneha Malde is a postdoctoral research assistant in the University of Oxford’s physics department. In June, she was awarded a L’Oréal-Unesco UK & Ireland fellowship for women in science. The fellowships, which have been running since 2007, support outstanding female postdoctoral researchers in life, physical and computer sciences, mathematics and engineering.

Where and when were you born?
Nairobi in 1980, but I grew up in suburban London and went to a girls’ school from the age of seven.

How has this shaped you?
At school the message given to us repeatedly was that there was nothing a woman couldn’t do as long as she worked hard enough at it. I didn’t realise this at the time, but that kind of belief in yourself is incredibly powerful. It is certainly one of the reasons why I’ve always pushed myself to take the challenging route.  

What do you view personally as the challenges facing women in science?
The work-life balance is particularly hard in a research science career. The time when you are looking for a permanent job and need to be at the top of your game often coincides with starting or having a young family, which means that you are trying to give 150 per cent to work and to your home life simultaneously.  

Are funding bodies/policymakers doing enough to encourage women to undertake ambitious academic work in science?
I’d like to see more schemes that allow for part-time work or flexibility. These could make the difference between a woman staying in science research or leaving.

One of the important options of the fellowship’s funding is to help with childcare costs. Has childcare been an issue with which you have had to deal?
The issues with childcare and my career are twofold. First, there is the simple cost of full-time nursery care – it swallows half my take-home pay for one child. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a second child would result in a career break from which it would, in my field, be incredibly hard to return. I don’t understand why this isn’t at least a tax-deductible expense. The second is that to be most effective I need to travel to Cern and to conferences, but I don’t want to be continually leaving my child, especially as I’m still nursing. I am using the fellowship funding to pay for my child to travel with me – and for someone to look after him in the day. It is a real privilege to have the funds to be able to do that, and has already made a difference to the opportunities to which I can say “yes”.

You were a trainee accountant and are now a physicist. That’s quite a career swerve, isn’t it?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left university so I started work in the family accountancy practice. The subject matter of both jobs is entirely different, but on a day-to-day basis the two jobs are quite similar. Minimising the tax your client pays is not that different from working out how to make a measurement that will have the smallest error.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My grandfathers both left India in their early teens to find work in Kenya so that they could support their parents and siblings. I can’t imagine the hardships they must have endured, or how difficult it must have been to leave village life in one country for city life in a different one at such a young age. I hope that I have a fraction of the courage that they must have had.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
The first day, walking into the common room after my parents had dropped me off. I was nervous but started talking to a girl sat on the sofa who just exuded confidence. Little did I know that I had just met one of my closest friends. We had a lot of adventures around town doing the usual student things. She’s still the person I want to talk to when I face something difficult.

What keeps you awake at night?
My son. He never sleeps longer than two hours in a row. I’m told this doesn’t last for ever. I’m waiting to be convinced.


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