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Three Indian-origin women make their mark on the prestigious Australian AFR-Westpac 100 Women of Influence
Veena Sahajwalla, Nalini Joshi and Ranjana Srivastava, have been named on the 2015 AFR-Westpac 100 Women of Influence list. Nominated for outstanding work in their respective fields, and the ability to inspire those around them, they join 400 of Australia’s most inspiring women, including 2014 overall winner, Former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, who have been honoured since the awards began in 2012. A gala awards evening celebrating the winners will be held at Sydney Town Hall on 15 October.
Chosen by a 10-member panel, the 100 winners have been selected in 10 categories, including board and management, social enterprise, business enterprise, public policy, innovation, diversity, young leader, global, local, regional as well as cultural influence.
Awarded for Innovation
Growing up as a Mumbaikar, the humble rag picker sifting through rubble in the streets offered Veena Sahajwalla the most invaluable lesson in entrepreneurship and resource management – one person’s trash, quite literally is another’s treasure. It was an eye-opening experience and one that paved the way for an exciting career in material sciences.
Working closely with industry partners to develop the fundamental science underlying sustainable materials and technologies, the IIT Kanpur alumna has been instrumental in bridging the gap between pure research and its applications in real life, not only putting Australia on global map with a world-first invention, but also securing valuable funding in the process.
The Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, Scientia Professor and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology at the University of New South Wales (SMaRT@UNSW), Sahajwalla feels honoured to be named in the AFR-Westpac 100 Women of Influence.
“There are so many women achieving results and making impactful contributions in a huge diversity of fields,” she told Indian Link.
For Sahajwalla, who has a Masters from the University of British Columbia and a PhD from the University of Michigan, all materials, whether natural or processed, are a resource, a valuable starting point for something completely different. The options in resource management and recovery, she believes, are limitless for those equipped with critical thinking skills and a curious mind. Advocating sustainability, her infectious enthusiasm leaves an indelible mark on listeners. “Why should we junk “waste”, when there is value attached to it?”
Her utopian vision embraces a waste-free future, a refreshing philosophy in today’s alarmingly consumerist world.
Professor Sahajwalla’s flagship invention – “green steel” – revolutionised the iron, steel and ceramic industries by incorporating “end-of-life” plastics and rubber in the steelmaking process, thereby cutting costs and making the industry more sustainable.
Examining waste at an elemental level, Sahajwalla demonstrated that heating materials at high temperatures triggered the evolution of carbon properties. She proved that recycled plastics and rubber could replace coal and coke in the electric arc furnace (EAF) steel-making process, radically changing the prevalent perception of carbon compounds. Her innovative approach has also prevented millions of rubber tyres from clogging landfill, drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Australia’s largest manufacturer, OneSteel, has now tied up with UNSW’s commercial arm NSi for sublicensing Sahajwalla’s patented technology.
Well known for her roles on the Australian Climate Council and popular ABC show The New Inventors, she has won many prestigious awards since her move to Australia, including the Eureka Prize, NSW Scientist of Year, Nokia Business Innovation Award, Australian Innovation Challenge and Banksia Environmental Foundation GE Innovation Award.
Besides numerous keynote addresses and speaking roles worldwide, Sahajwalla has actively espoused the cause of engineering among youngsters, particularly women. Ironically, she was the only female in her batch at Indian Institute of Technology. That certainly did not dampen her lifelong enthusiasm for the industry.
“It is great to see these efforts recognised and to encourage future generations of women to achieve their own goals and paths and not be bound by any stereotypes,” she said.
A Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and Institution of Engineers Australia, Sahajwalla has also championed the cause of commercially relevant and financially viable research and development.
SMaRT@UNSW, which she heads, brings together researchers from the faculties of Science, Engineering, Built Environment and ADFA to work with industry on the development of innovative, sustainable materials and manufacturing processes.
Having tackled waste rubber and plastics, she is now looking at utilising glass, and other components from old cars. Rather than sourcing primary materials, she is keen to work with complex waste products and mixtures that typically end up in the junkyard or rubbish tip. Ever the alchemist, she is determined to find sustainable solutions in resource management.
PROFESSOR NALINI JOSHI
Awarded for Innovation
Being recognised as a Woman of Influence means a lot to Nalini Joshi. As a Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow and the first female professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, she is not just a passionate advocate of her discipline, but would like others to embrace maths just as she does.
“I hope that this recognition will enable me to spread my message about mathematics more widely in Australia and elsewhere,” she told Indian Link. “I would like to tell everyone how human mathematics is. It is not an esoteric and elitist pursuit, but a beautiful creation of the human mind, which has turned out to be useful in all walks of life.”
As an academic, Joshi is concerned that the popular perception of mathematics has changed over the decades. A lot of anxiety has been generated because mathematics has become somehow tied to a sense of performance in people’s minds. For example, school principals are reluctant to offer the opportunity to study mathematics to students whom they think may not be star performers because their results may reflect on the school’s marketability. But Joshi believes maths should be offered as an opportunity to anyone who wants to do it.
“Young children see the fun in mathematics straightaway. It is easy to show them through patterns, colours and games, how enjoyable mathematics is,” she said. “We need to support both students and their teachers to continue to see it this way until they gain enough skills to become more confident.”
The socio-political upheaval in Burma brought the Joshis to Australia back in the 1970s. Independent and free spirited, the world of numbers always fascinated the young Nalini.
“My father was in the Burmese army and I grew up near jungles with wild animals. I had the freedom to explore all day long so long as I went to school and that’s what I actually seek every time I look at mathematics; it’s an adventure, an exploration, forging new paths into territories nobody else has looked at before,” she explained.
As a medical practitioner, Joshi’s father wanted her to follow his footsteps and so she did, enrolling in medicine briefly, only to transfer to pure sciences, much to his chagrin.
Browsing through her high school photographs recently, she realises that she was one of only two Asian faces.
“I was the only one who could be described as having a different skin colour to the others. Surprisingly, this never occurred to me as a point of difference, growing up in Australia as an immigrant. I knew I was different, but I thought that was because I was an avid reader, with my face in a book most of the time, and very interested in unusual things, particularly science and space travel,” she remembered, nostalgically.
At university, Joshi found her true passion. Completing a science degree with first class honours, Joshi went on to win the Sydney University medal in applied mathematics. She then moved to Princeton to complete her PhD.
After stints around Australia and overseas, she returned to the University of Sydney in 2002 as Chair of Applied Mathematics. Soon after she was appointed head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, once again becoming the first woman to hold the position.
Joshi was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and has held a number of positions with the Australian Mathematical Society, including its presidency. She was Chair of the National Committee for Mathematical Sciences and board member of the Australian Mathematics Trust.
“While it takes courage and determination to succeed in most things in life, I think it took more resilience to become a successful academic, while also happening to be a woman who had children,” she admitted.
Ironically, Joshi once dreamed of being an astronaut as the physics and chemistry of celestial objects and its navigational dynamics mesmerised her.
Professor Joshi’s research specifically revolves around asymptotics and integrable systems, particularly the French mathematician Painleve’s six classical nonlinear equations. Quite like Joshi, Painleve was an aviation enthusiast. What distinguishes order from chaos? How can we identify systems that are integrable and only have ordered solutions? These are some of the challenges that have absorbed her analytical mind over the decades.
“Amazingly, the ideas on integrable differential equations also extend to difference equations, and even to extended versions of cellular automata,” she explained. In fact these equations have important uses in many scientific fields. They can model interactions of nuclear particles, describe the behaviour of light in optical fibres and predict the motion of massive waves observed in the Andaman Sea, she added.
As a natural extension, her research has forged strong connections in the realm of mathematical biology. As director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology she worked on problems involving cellular automata, predicting HIV/AIDS-infected T-cell numbers in lymph nodes.
Adding to an already stellar CV, most recently, Joshi was appointed to the newly created Commonwealth Science Council and became the 150th Anniversary Hardy Lecturer, awarded by the London Mathematical Society.
DR RANJANA SRIVASTAVA
Awarded for Global Influence
Increased life expectancy and complex treatment options, available these days through rapid advances in medicine, have complicated the decision making process, not just for patients but doctors as well, concedes oncologist Ranjana Srivastava, who has a fellowship in medical ethics. For the multi-award winning author, speaker and educator, the best medicine invariably begins with a good chat. To this end, she has repeatedly advocated effective communication as a core component of healthcare training.
“My nomination to AFR-Westpac 100 Women of Influence is a humbling experience,” Srivastava told Indian Link. “The recognition is a wonderful way of spreading the message and broadening the reach. Women in medicine are often being recognised for research, so it is great for a clinician to be recognised. It clearly demonstrates that humanity and ethical practice are finding importance in our society.”
Srivastava says she hopes for more equitable gender representation in surgical specialities, and that recognition such as this will show women that an enduring career in medicine is more than possible.
Exploring the moral and ethical challenges of modern medicine, both as a doctor and writer, she has actively sought to improve communication between patients and health-care providers in the increasingly grey areas of access to end of life care.
Her books, Dying for a Chat: The communication breakdown between doctors and patients, Tell Me the Truth: Conversations with my patients about life and death and So It’s Cancer, Now What? The Expert’s Guide to What You Need to Know offer a frank, unbiased and empathetic analysis of the palliative care issues engulfing medical fraternity.
Dr Srivastava’s writing has won her various awards. She received the Australian Human Rights Commission Literature Prize, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and her story Ode to a Patient won the Cancer Council Victoria Arts Award for outstanding writing.
Spreading the message of purposeful, needs-based communication, she is a columnist for The Age’s Melbourne Magazine, writing prolifically on humanity, ethics and medicine for a host of international publications including New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Time, The Week, New York Times and The Guardian.
“Besides engaging with a large audience, writing is a very cathartic experience, allowing me to have perspective, revisit the situation I have faced and examine how better I could have dealt with it,” Srivastava explained.
A regular at The Adelaide Festival of Ideas, The Sydney Writers’ Festival and The Wheeler Centre, Dr Srivastava is also a prominent speaker on medicine, society and humanity at community events and in the media.
Born in Canberra, Dr Srivastava was initially raised in Bihar, before receiving a global education in Britain and the USA, returning to Australia at age 17 to pursue medicine at Monash University. Receiving the Faculty Prize for Psychiatry, alongside first class honours, she subsequently trained at various public hospitals in internal medicine and medical oncology, before accepting a position at her Alma Mater. Srivastava was recently named a Monash ‘Distinguished Alumnus’.
“Coming from a non-medical family, I was always taught to be independent, fair minded and resilient,” she explained of her liberal upbringing. “My parents allowed me to stand on my own feet and follow my dream. My husband has been equally supportive,” said the mother of three. “I was equally lucky to have strong role models throughout my professional career as well.”
Numerous awards and accomplishments are a consistent feature of her stellar career. In 2004, she won the WG Walker Alumni Award for the highest-ranked postgraduate recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship. A fellowship in medical ethics and communication followed at the University of Chicago’s MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. Designed to nurture emerging leaders, Dr Srivastava also won a place in the Williamson Community Leadership Program.
An oncologist at Monash Health, associated with the Monash’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Dr Srivastava has taken on active mentoring of junior doctors and international medical graduates. She has since been appointed to the Victorian Government’s Health Services Review Council.
Acutely aware of socio-economic disparity, her extensive voluntary involvements include stints at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, where she provided street-based basic medical care, and Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, negotiating essential community and hospital-based services.
Through the Commonwealth Services Abroad Program, she served in Maldives after the Boxing Day Tsunami, empowering the remote community through effective self-help initiatives. Raising funds through writing, she helped facilitate the purchase of their very first community-owned medical transport vehicle, further demonstrating her ethical and globally aware nature.