Sudipta’s evolution from ‘stone-carrying girl’ to top geologist

Sudipta Sengupta is by no means a ‘hidden figure’ in Indian science, but she is probably one of the few star scientists left who worked in a state university. In this report, she opens up about the big shifts in the world of geology and in her own life.
By Nandita Jayaraj
WHO? Sudipta Sengupta
WHAT? Geologist
WHERE? Jadavpur University (Emeritus Scientist)

The first female geologist from India to work in Antarctica. 

The only woman to be awarded a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in Earth Sciences. 

The protagonist in a children’s storybook. 

I worried, on that pleasant February morning, that I was about to ask Sudipta Sengupta the same questions dozens had asked her before. Thankfully, she betrayed no wariness, and not even the slightest of airs, as we strolled through her home university in Jadavpur, Kolkata. 

Structural geology is the science of how rocks change or get ‘deformed’ over time, said Sudipta. “And the structural study of a particular area is very important…whether it is a tunnel or a bridge or a dam, you have to know the structures. Can it withhold that kind of weight? Which is the ideal position for it? Is it safe? You need to know for engineering purposes… and for mining purposes! You can’t mine anything—metal, oil—without knowing the structure underground or underwater. Sometimes we also need this for groundwater exploration.”

“And then, of course, there is the academic curiosity to know the deformation history of the associated rocks, how and under what conditions the rocks were deformed or how many times they suffered deformation, the total geological history of the area…” 

An illustration by Manjari Chakravarti that appeared in the book ‘The Rock Reader’ by Veena Prasad, published by Pratham Books. CC BY 4.0

Though she spent parts of her childhood close to the mountains in Nepal, accompanying her meteorologist father stationed there, Sudipta did not think of geology as a career until much later. She had inherited an interest in physics, but just when it was time to enroll in Jadavpur University, something changed her mind. “When I came for the interview to start my undergraduate honours, a professor asked me what I like. I said travelling. Then they asked me ‘Why not do geology? It has fieldwork and you’ll have to travel a lot. Much more than in physics.’ So I said ‘OK, in that case I’ll study geology.’” She laughed good-naturedly, presumably at the impetuousness of youth.

Many steps ahead, and a few steps back

Calcutta, at the time, was the hub for geology. The Geological Survey of India (GSI) was founded here in 1851; The country’s first ever geology department had been established at Presidency College in 1892; Jadavpur University’s own department came about in 1956. In the sixties when Sudipta entered the scene, it was heady times. Yet, it was almost unheard of for girls to study geology, and Sudipta found herself only one of two in a class of 25. “Before me, I think just three women had studied geology in our university, ever. Most universities back then did not take girls for geology,” she said. As one may expect, her chosen path elicited a significant amount of condescension from those around her. “Society, and even the academic world sometimes, did not take women seriously… it was like ok study, chalta hain…” Sudipta would learn later that this attitude was not exclusive to Indians. She was a minority even in Imperial College, London, despite working under Janet Watson, the first woman to head the Geological Society. Even in Uppsala University in Sweden, where she worked for a while, she was the only woman.

Yet, Sudipta affirmed that there was not a single seed of doubt planted in her mind, even at that young age. “No, no…because I was very good at studies, I topped the university exams. That gave me confidence that I can beat all the men, that I am better than many, if not all. No matter what happens, I know I am good, [if anything] it’s your problem…”

Fortunately, encouragement was plenty at her own home. “My family was very progressive. We were three sisters. My mother used to come with me to the field where we had to stay for at least one or two months. That’s why I could do my PhD,” she said. Sometimes, they got to stay at a GSI camp and other times in small rooms in remote locations. Though her mother was close by, on the field, Sudipta would be by herself. “One young Santhal boy helped me carry my rocks. Today, I can’t imagine a young girl doing fieldwork alone in some parts of the country with a 16-17 year old boy. Sure, the villagers would laugh at me, seeing me carrying all these stones. They called me ‘stone-carrying girl’, but I never felt threatened. I never felt threatened…”

Sudipta poses next to a rock in Norway. Source: Sudipta Sengupta

That was all in the late 60s and early 70s (she completed her PhD in 1972). Sudipta noticed a marked shift when she returned to the same areas a decade later. This time, alone, but as an employee of GSI, staying at the inspection bungalows with a jeep at her disposal. Notwithstanding these perks, there were unpleasant interruptions. “Since I was a young woman alone, people would knock on the door, ask questions, that kind of stuff. During fieldwork, there would be autos and motorcycles everywhere. Some chap would annoy me. This started happening around 82-85. It grew… civilisation, modernisation or whatever… and it became more unsafe.” 

“Some places are still nice. Like in Rajasthan, we never faced anything.”

After her PhD, she spent a few years working at GSI, before leaving for the UK and then Sweden to do research. Sudipta returned to India in 1979. In 1982, she joined her alma mater as a lecturer. By now, Jadavpur University was starting to make a name for itself in the global geology circles and Sudipta was thrilled to be part of this growth. “When I was a student in JU, our group of teachers were at the beginning of their careers. When I joined as faculty, they were at the top, they were the builders of JU… JU transitioned from being just one of many to being THE university. I saw this transition happen.”

Jadavpur University continues to be a coveted destination for geology aspirants. According to Sudipta, despite her generation’s superstar geologists, including Subir Kumar Ghosh, Supriya Roy, Sukomal Chanda, Sanjib Sarkar and S.S. Deb, having retired, the foundation they built is solid. “Would I still definitely recommend JU to a young student? Oh yes, by far, by far… I think there are just two IITs, and only one or two universities that are on par with JU.” 

Off to the south pole

Just a year into her lectureship at Jadavpur, Sudipta got the assignment that would win her mainstream fame. She was chosen to be part of the Third Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica. Here she would go on to conduct pioneering studies of the geology of the Schirmacher Hills of East Antarctica. Sudipta is especially proud of this work as it built the basis for further research in that area. 

Sudipta was one of three geologists in the  expedition. Also part of the team was Aditi Pant, a marine biologist. Sudipta and Aditi are today known as the first Indian women scientists in Antarctica. Though Sudipta had female company on the ship, there was none in the icy wild, where she had to camp to conduct her research. “There was no building at the time so I had my own tent. Toilets are a major problem for women geologists everywhere. We just made do with saying this area is mine, and this part is for men.” 

With her team in Antarctica in 1983. Source: Sudipta Sengupta

A big edge Sudipta had over many of her colleagues was that expeditions in tough and deadly terrains were nothing new to her. “Many of the men, especially who came from the lab, were not used to staying out in camps. I am a trained mountaineer, not just a geologist. I’d walked in the mountains of the Himalayas, Norway, in the Arctic Circle, stayed in a tent in many places… this was nothing special.” 

A very lucky combination

Sudipta’s deep love for mountains developed early. In a TedX talk, she spoke about how while in Nepal as a little girl in 1953, she met Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary right after their legendary climb up to Mount Everest. Years later, while in her first year of undergraduate studies, she began her journey towards professional mountaineering. She was part of two all-women expeditions to the Himalayas. The second one, in 1970, would see Sudipta face some unimaginably difficult situations with a fatal accident killing two of her teammates. “One of them was our leader, only her body was found. As the deputy, I had to do the job of reporting to the police… we had to take her body to another place for the postmortem. Due to bad weather, it took time to contact her family. They asked us to do cremation there.”

The 1970 expedition was the last major one for Sudipta. Fifty years later, she wrote about it in an poignant essay titled The ascent of Lalana: triumph and tragedy. “After that, I did lots of trekking, geological fieldwork, but not very serious mountaineering. I still try to do some trekking – I only have a few years, maybe… I can’t climb difficult terrains like I could before.”

Sudipta with two of her teammates on an expedition to the Lalana mountain in the Himalayas. Source: Sudipta Sengupta

Just like mountaineering enhanced her geology, the inverse was happening too. “It’s a boon actually… a very lucky combo. Mountaineering is a fantastic experience but sometimes you have to reach within a certain time or before the weather turns… so you may see a beautiful rock and want to walk there but you can’t afford to. But now, as a geologist, you not only see scenery in general, but you see the rocks, understand it from a specialist point of view. You know how India collided with Tibet to form the Himalayas? Now, you see that! In front of you! It’s an emotional thing…”

Geology, a success story for gender balance?

From a gender balance point-of-view, the now emeritus scientist sees a big improvement in the geology discipline. “The change is fabulous,” she said, thrilled, “Today it’s around 40% women at GSI.” In 2010, the GSI acknowledged the  tremendous contribution of women geologists and issued a set of guidelines to ensure the trend continues. 

This influx could not have happened unless more women were joining geology courses for their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. While Sudipta was still studying and even when she returned as professor, there would be years and years with no women students at all. However, by the time she retired in 2006, she was elated to see that over 30% of the class comprised women. 

Compared to other scientific disciplines, however, geology is still lagging. According to the 2018-19 All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), only 36.4% of enrolled PhDs are women, whereas the average for all science disciplines is a healthy 48.1%. However, it might be fairer to compare geology to engineering disciplines, which have a similar ‘masculine’ reputation. Geology does better here as only 31.3% of PhDs in engineering fields are women. In Jadavpur University, the gender ratio among faculty members is still low – even today there are just two women professors – but Sudipta is reassured by the knowledge that whether or not they end up in academia, past students are doing really well. “Most girls studying geology go for jobs in academia, surveys or companies. Many even end up on the drilling sites of oil fields.” Sudipta also pointed out that many of the best talents were leaving to work abroad. “We lose many students that way. Foreign universities want good students from India. They give them tenure, professorship, they look after them very well.”

A GSI circular from 2010 that issued a set of guidelines they believed would safeguard the welfare of their women geologists & consequently keep their gender ratios rising.

Sudipta is unmarried and lives with her sister, also a scientist, in Kolkata. Now 74, she looks back with a renewed sense of gratitude for her life in science and the freedoms she has taken for granted. “All Indian girls face questions when they are not married. But my parents were very supportive. My father always said if you want to marry, then choose your own husband and do so. It’s your life. If you don’t marry, then that also is your decision. We won’t push you. At the time, I thought it was natural. Only later I realised how rare this was. This was 50 years ago! My father was a scientist, not just by profession but in his core. He believed in human dignity, in human independence.”

Note: This reportage is a part of season 5 of TheLifeofScience.com, which is supported by a grant from DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

Cover art attributions: The image is adapted by Ipsa Jain from an illustration by Manjari Chakravarti in the book Sudipta Sengupta – The Rock Reader (English), written by Veena Prasad, supported by CISCO, published by Pratham Books (© Pratham Books,2019) under a CC BY 4.0 license, first released on StoryWeaver. Read, create and translate stories for free on www.storyweaver.org.in

By Nandita | Published on Nov 17, 2020 in Science