Women in STEM Series – Dr. Anusha Shankar

Picture of Dr. Anusha Shankar in the snow.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Anusha Shankar

Meet Dr. Anusha Shankar, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She is one of four women of color we are featuring in this blog series, dedicated to highlighting the complexities, struggles, and beauty of being a woman of color in STEM.

Anusha’s interview gave us unique insight into her life as an Indian ornithologist. We discussed everything from her upbringing to her hopes for the diversification of her field. Hearing Anusha’s perspective allows us to acknowledge the resilience and talent she holds while also reflecting on the ways in which race and gender affect how people experience their careers.

For nearly the last decade, most of Anusha’s work has been studying energetics in animals, such as hummingbirds and rodents. We asked Anusha to tell us about the path she took to her science career. She went to many schools as she grew up, which she credits giving her an outgoing personality. She got her Bachelors in Zoology in Chennai, her hometown in India. Then stayed in India to do a Masters in Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Pondicherry University, before coming to New York to do her Ph.D. at Stony Brook University. After graduating she did a postdoc at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studying diurnal rodents and how they got seasonally depressed, before moving into her current postdoc at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, studying how hummingbirds use torpor to save energy at night. Anusha is interested in how her studies of animals might impact human health, for example, for understanding seasonal depression and cryotherapy during surgeries.

Below is a partial transcript of her interview describing her experiences in a predominately White field.

What excites you the most about your field of work? 

During the pandemic when I’m stuck at my desk it’s really hard to always remember this: but I love being outside. I was in the field once in Arizona. We were using a thermal video camera to watch a hummingbird at night and looking at how its body temperatures were changing. So I was literally watching a hummingbird sleeping at night and then I went out and I saw the Milkyway up in the sky. It was such a surreal night at 2AM and I wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t my job, you know. I just get to go to such interesting places and see animals do fascinating things—all these things that we’re sharing the planet with and we’re not paying enough attention to them!

Were there any people you looked up to or experiences you had growing up that influenced your decision to pursue a career in STEM?

I think the main people I have to credit are my parents. A lot of my friends did feel pressured in India to become engineers or take more mainstream career paths. My dad especially was just like “I kind of wanted to be a musician but my parents didn’t really think that was a stable career option, so I ended up doing the mechanical engineering/computer science that I do now. But I want you both (me and my brother) to do whatever you want and just do it really well.” And I think that support that I got from my family—as a solo Indian woman going to Ecuador to the forest to do her fieldwork—was not a normal thing. And my grandparents, and my aunts, and my uncles, and my parents were just like “What are you doing? That’s crazy but awesome! Keep doing it!” And they never stopped me, it was just exciting that I didn’t really seem afraid or seemed scared to do those things.

But at every stage, I think I had different people shaping my path. It wasn’t always a very linear path, it wasn’t something I always knew I wanted to do, it wasn’t always something I knew I could do. But at each stage, there were people who encouraged me along.

As part of her work as a science educator, Anusha visits classrooms and teaches students about science in partnership with National Geographic. We asked about her experience in these classroom settings. 

What differences do you find between students of different races and genders in how vocal they are and how they are supported by teachers?

I’ve been paying attention recently because I just gave one talk to really young audience, and there was this teacher that tweeted about the talk and said that representation is so important and I’m so glad that I can show my non-White students, especially female students, that they can be these other things. And she was trying especially to indicate to parents that want their children to follow traditional career routes that it’s possible to do other things.

I have been noticing that a lot of these teachers will choose students of color or female students to ask questions first. I think they are very aware now and more deliberate about having their students have equal voices.

What challenges do you face because of your race and/or gender in your workplace? Does it detract from the quality of work in your field?

I wasn’t aware of what microaggressions were for a really long time until a journalist student at Stony Brook actually interviewed me and asked me the same question. When I was growing up as a kid and came and lived in the US for a while I was definitely made fun of for some very Indian things that I did or wore. And obviously I have a very different level of confidence now than when I was like in the third grade but I haven’t experienced as explicit things in academia or as a PhD student. There are a few things like “I’m really surprised your English is so good” like it’s literally the only language that I have ever been able to read and write in my life. 

It was harder [in] Long Island. There are instances when you’re standing on the road waiting for a bus and people would yell things out at you when they’re driving past you in a car. And I think that there’s a general sense of not feeling welcome in that neighborhood or region that was sometimes difficult.

But I don’t know if I can say that I’ve faced discrimination because of my gender or race like explicitly within my department. I’ve felt equal and supported compared to my lab mates. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. There’s no history of Indians in the US beyond maybe 100 years ago. We don’t have the history of slavery that Black people have and I think we kind of merge all of the people of color into one category. Like I will not know and face the kind of discrimination that you [referencing Black interviewer] might in this country. Indians… I think we’re kind of a racial minority in the US but we don’t face a lot of the discrimination that many other people of color might face—in academia at least.

What do you think needs to change in academia/STEM in order to create a more inclusive environment? What does your perfect workplace/field look like? Have you seen any notable changes related to diversity and inclusion in your time working?

I really like my advisor here at Cornell. [They have] been deliberate about wanting people to nominate others for awards. We very rarely take the time to recognize people for their achievements on all scales. It’s much easier to criticize people for what they’ve done wrong than to take the time and appreciate and reward them for doing things right. One thing we can so easily do with so little effort is to be more aware of how we’re giving awards at societies, or at conferences, or in the department, or at the college level, and make sure equal representation and recognition of people across races and genders for the achievements for what they’re doing. And that’s signaling to the rest of the community that we appreciate people of all races and genders.

The perfect workplace or field—obviously it must be much more representative. There’s gender diversity in biology, especially in lower stages. And sometimes it’s the opposite, there’s many more women than men. But the problem is the attrition as you go higher up in the hierarchy towards professors. And that’s because of so many reasons but I think if we support people through the pipeline and identify what the problems are, and why they’re leaving at disproportionately higher rates at each stage of the pipeline. I know for sure that Black students don’t graduate Stony Brook as much as White students do. And then at the next stage it’s going to happen even more—and that’s true for women, and it’s true for people of color in general at each stage. So we really need to signal to younger students, but also for the sake of the older stages, to keep them. It’s not an easy problem to solve because it’s a circular problem, as we’re finding when we’re working in these DEI committees. 

Anusha’s experiences provide us with an important perspective as we contemplate ways to make STEM fields more inclusive. We asked Anusha what advice she had for parents and teachers to support young BIPOC students interested in STEM subjects. She said she asked many questions when she was younger—so many, in fact, that she was afraid she annoyed her parents and teachers. She thinks that “Losing curiosity is one of the saddest things about the standard way of growing up. And we shouldn’t lose that curiosity, we shouldn’t stop asking questions.”

She encourages parents and teachers to give kids the opportunity to see scientists and participate in real science, for example, Explorer Classrooms, Skype a Scientist, and participating in science fairs or summer research programs. Anusha believes, “it’s even more important if they don’t want to go into STEM… keeping this mentality of questioning and curiosity regardless of their career path.” Anusha’s parting words carry truth and a call to action that the K-12 Education team stands by: “If people go outside and pay attention to insects and trees and how the leaves are shaped, and how the sun moves, and just have some curiosity about everything in the natural world, it will help tackle all kinds of problems that we face in society.”

Thank you to Dr. Shankar for being willing to share her story, and to Cornell Lab student employee Victoria Varlack for conducting the interview and writing this post!