MY EXERTIONS OF BECOMING A PHYSICIST
I, Malti Goel, was born in the little town Pilani in the house of Mittals. Pilani in India is known for being the birth place of famous industrial Shri G. D. Birla, and the home of the premier Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS). I studied up to higher secondary school in Birla Balika Vidya Peeth in the science stream. I was privileged to have studied science, as my elder sisters had taken arts subjects, which were considered more suited for girls. There was, however, a shortage of women science teachers. In my 3rd year of higher secondary in school we were lucky to have a physics teacher who managed to teach a course of three years in just one year.
I passed higher secondary at the age of fourteen years. That is when I read a news item about the eminent scientist Dr. Jayant Narlikar. Dr Narlikar was working on the Theory of the Steady State Universe along with Prof. Fred Hoyle in Cambridge, U.K. and there were speculations that they were potential Noble Prize candidates for their innovative theory. I dreamt of becoming a Physicist. In 1965 on completing graduation, my first choice was physics for post-graduate study. Prof Shiv Yogi Tiwari, then Head, of Physics asked in the interview; “Why physics? Your mathematics is also good and why not follow in the footsteps of your father” My father Prof. S. R. Mittal was Professor of Mathematics at the Institute and Vice-Principal.
Making it Happen
With the determination to do my doctorate in physics, I did really well in my M.Sc., beyond anybody’s expectations. Credit is due to our physics teachers (including Prof. Ashok Parthasarthy, who was doing research on Quark theory in the UK) who were highly motivating and encouraged us to do our best in the Institute. I secured the first position in M.Sc. physics and was a Merit Scholarship holder. However, a different story was being interwoven for me in the universe and soon after the examinations were over, I was to get married in an arranged ceremony. Prof Tiwari announced the result of my being first in the class to my future husband at the marriage venue.
After marriage I moved to Delhi, the capital city of India. One could easily get lost in this mega-capital city with great crowds, roads full of vehicles, and air that was polluted. Life was no longer the same, and I had no knowledge of social customs and people’s expectations. During my M.Sc there were no girls in the class with whom I could share my thoughts and feelings. Now my name was changed from Mittal to Goel. Everything including the dream to do a Ph.D was left behind. In those days my education was my only asset.
I had started teaching in a school at the initiative of my father-in-law, who was a very forward-looking person. One year passed and during one of my short visits to Pilani to meet my parents, my father suggested that I contact Prof S, C. Mathur at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to seek his guidance. Prof Mathur advised me to appear for the entrance examination, similar to GATE these days. I was selected for a one year post graduate diploma at IIT Delhi in Solid State Physics. In those days, girls’ higher education was not encouraged, especially after marriage. As expected, there was some resistance but also acceptance on the home front, but I was fortunate to join IIT Delhi.. Physics was not very common with girls, so I was the only girl in the class of twelve. I got first position again and that strengthened my case to persuade my family that I should be doing a doctorate. At registering for the Ph.D, I found that choice was limited because of my married status. I was interested in theoretical physics, but did research on Electrets in organic solids as an experimentalist. I was awarded my Ph.D degree in 1973 under the guidance of Prof. P. K. C. Pillai, an extraordinary person with high intelligence, yet very gentle.
Being passionate about research, I devoted my time to post doctoral research. My two children were born during this time. As Research Associate in the Center for Materials Science at IIT Delhi, I studied electrical and mechanical properties of polymers and composites, a new field of research worldwide at that time. But destiny was somewhere else. After almost ten years of na—na (no, no) I joined the Government of India, Ministry of Science & Technology as Senior Scientific Officer. I then realized that despite doing very frontline research, which was finding quick application in industry, and also having a good number of publications in journals of high international repute, the time had come to say goodbye to research, which meant no more prizes.
It was indeed the most significant phase of my life, but not hassle free. Besides being a Scientific Officer, I was a mother, a wife, who was also a strength to her husband in his business pursuits, and a daughter-in-law. I was multi-tasking, wearing different masks at different hours of the day. In this challenging phase of my career I had to prove myself in the work related to promotion of physical & atmospheric sciences research & education in various institutions across the country. I was feeling important in meeting with most eminent scientists and technocrats of India and learning at the same time. My knowledge of physics helped me to quickly identify critical research issues in atmospheric science and also in dealing with inter-disciplinary subjects and inter-sectoral issues in energy and its complex relation with climate change among others.
In hindsight, the change in my career from research to management with its ups and downs, was a commitment to the Nation. Accomplishment of goals in projects related to advancements in science & technology especially in fields of materials and minerals, atmospheric science and carbon sequestration, have been gratifying.