Renowned Indian seismologist and professor of Earth Sciences at the IISC in Bengaluru, Kusala Rajendran was recently honoured with a National Award for her pioneering work in the field.
Growing up, her society did not encourage girls to reach their full potential, but despite encountering patriarchal barriers, seismologist Kusala Rajendran broke the proverbial glass ceiling and was recently honoured with India’s first ever ‘National Award for Woman Scientist’ for Ocean Sciences and Technology and Atmospheric Sciences Technology by the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences.
Born the ninth child in a family of 10 — four boys and six girls-in Kerala, Kusala completed a five-year undergraduate course at St. Teresa’s college in Kochi, graduating with a major in chemistry, and minors in physics and mathematics in 1976.
"I was fascinated by organic chemistry and dreamed of becoming a cosmetic chemist. By this time, my father had died, and it fell on my mother to provide for the higher education of her three youngest children. Any chance of continuing my studies seemed unlikely," recalls Kusala, adding, "Then came a turning point. My sister, a structural engineer, was working for the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) in Roorkee. She assumed responsibility for my education, and I applied for admission to the University of Roorkee. Chemistry was my first choice, but my sister and her husband, also a structural engineer at CBRI, suggested switching to geophysics."
It was to be a life-changing decision for her. "Still entertaining notions of becoming a cosmetic chemist, I attended the opening geophysics lecture that was both enthralling and years ahead of its time. I decided to switch to the geophysics programme. Government-funded scholarships for a three-year Master’s programme were available and the job prospects were good. Nine students were admitted that year, including three from Tanzania. I was the only woman among them," she recalls.
Kusala is often asked how culture in India and elsewhere limits the possibilities for women in science. "Most women of my generation are inextricably bound to the cultural and social values they grew up with. Assuming a high-level administrative or leadership position involves remaining subservient in the family sphere while assuming an equal or leading role in the workplace. I see similar anxieties expressed by women in command-driven and male-dominated areas such as the armed forces. Hearteningly, the younger generations, raised by increasingly urbanised and educated parents, are less inhibited," says the noted geophysicist.
After doctoral research from the University of Carolina in 1992, Kusala moved back to India the following year. In September 1993, 10,000 people were killed and 30,000 were injured by the Latur earthquake, whose epicenter was near Killari, a village in Maharashtra-an area with no known history of earthquakes.
"Once I got into this field, I was excited about working on earthquakes. A global phenomenon that affects lives and poses great challenges made it appealing to me. I mostly work on understanding the physics of earthquakes, especially those happening along the Himalayas and the Andaman-Nicobar regions. I have worked on earthquakes in other parts of the country like Latur, Bhuj etc., as also on how tsunamis are generated," says Kusala, who has been a professor of Earth Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru since 2007.
"I tell my students that earthquakes are the natural outcome of several processes that have shaped the earth for millions of years and they will continue to occur. We have to accept them as inevitable, and learn to live with them. Also, without plate tectonics, there will be no earthquakes and no life either!" says Kusala, adding, "Earthquakes cannot be predicted with precision as they are the outcome of multiple processes operating on different time scales which are not in the realm of our direct observation."
Kusala admits that her students keep her motivated to pursue her research. She says, "I like to engage with young minds, so full of ideas, questions and aspirations. I like to see them evolve as good researchers. I also love to teach. Teaching keeps me active and up-to-date with the research in my area. Keeping up with research is closely tied to working on the best problems with my students."
With great pride, she adds, "I have been able to inspire some of the finest undergraduate students at IISc to take up earth science-related areas for research."
So, outside of her academic life, what keeps her busy? The seismologist says, "If I had a yard, I would have loved to do gardening. Each summer, I visit my son Rahul and daughter-in-law in Cleveland, USA where I immediately start working in the garden. Other than that, my work keeps me so busy that along with running the home, I barely get time to do other things which I like such as reading, writing on issues etc. Truly, the days are too short to do everything that one wishes to do."
One of my most vivid childhood memories is standing with my father, holding his hand, beside the river near our ancestral home. I was just six years old. "Just as small streams fill this big river," he told me, "little events make for a full life."
Sources of inspiration
Although Kusala had no mentor, there are a number of figures who have inspired her — among them C.N.R. Rao, a renowned scientist and founder of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. "At 83, his unending enthusiasm for science is inspirational. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is another source of inspiration. During her youth, she aspired to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a brewmaster. She even graduated with a master brewer degree from Melbourne University in 1975. However, brewing was not considered a woman’s profession in India at the time and she was forced to abandon her dreams. Undeterred, Mazumdar-Shaw later went on to found Biocon Limited, which became India’s largest biopharmaceutical company," cites Kusala.