For the love of science
Science cannot exist in a silo. It requires extreme dedication, collaboration, and fundings, along with a long term vision. Many scientists of Nepali origin do not want to risk their career by returning back to Nepal where the science and technology research realm lacks in terms of both infrastructure and mindset. In the meantime, Dr Prativa Pandey, Founder of Catalyst Technology, went abroad for an opportunity to learn from the best teachers at leading institutions so that she could come back to Nepal to apply her learnings and make an impact through science and technology.
An inquisitive person since her early childhood, she would always break and make things at home. She was bothered by the education and examination style of the country that heavily relied on memorisation and wished for change. Recalling her childhood, she says, “My love for Science and Mathematics started around the class VII and still continues.” She went to the US after high school to pursue a higher degree in science and mathematics and finished her PhD from Northwestern University, Illinois in 2013 and also worked in a US-based company as a research scientist. Before returning to Nepal and starting Catalyst Technology, she was leading research groups in Singapore.
Currently, Pandey is busy with research activities, start-up, home, and her child. “It’s been a challenging and great learning experience to be juggling all three at the same time. My OWSD (Organization for Women in Science for Developing World) Fellowship research and Herveda Botanicals, all-natural skincare product line based on scientific research and indigenous knowledge, are probably taking the biggest chunk of my time for now. I am grateful for all the support from my family that has enabled me to embark on this journey,” shares Pandey.
She started doing research in Universities since her first year of college. The research was a perfect match to quench her insatiable curiosity and passion for science. Then the next natural step for her seemed to pursue a PhD where she could explore the breadth and depth of the world of scientific research and so did she. She went to graduate school for a PhD Degree and to do research in drug discovery and nanotechnology.
Leaving the country as a teenager during her formative years and returning after a decade definitely came with reverse cultural shocks, biases, and uncharted territories for her. “Now, I think I am used to my ‘New Normal Nepal’ where I have learned to navigate the system, choose my battles, and be more patient. I have a newfound understanding and appreciation for Nepali culture and tradition while being very critical about certain socio-cultural biases and outdated and illogical beliefs. ” She further adds, “This mindset shift from complaint to commitment has helped me stay focussed and keep pushing forward despite all the systemic challenges that exist both as a woman and an entrepreneur in Nepal”.
She found that the concept of scientific research consulting was still a very foreign idea in Nepal. “I started Catalyst to fill the void of that missing platform to bridge industry, academia, and government. We have been able to successfully work with the government in policy and research and also support academic research through this platform,” she reveals. Herveda Botanicals, a natural skincare product line, is also a research result done at Catalyst Technology to bring research as a product to the market through four years of research on relevant Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAPs) and indigenous knowledge in Nepal.” Her research is also focussed on the value addition of MAPs of Nepal.
Recently Pandey was awarded the OWSD Early Career Fellowship 2019, through which she is conducting research in the valorisation of citrus fruits in Nepal by extracting bioactive compounds that have potential nutritional, preservation, and medicinal properties, at Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology. While sharing on how big of a help the fellowship is for her research programmes, she states, “In science and technology field which is predominantly represented by men, these kinds of recognitions add credibility to women’s technical capacity has opened new avenues for me to do national and international scientific research collaborations. The funding also acted as starter seed for my research idea. I have also been recognised with other awards and given key roles in science and technology committees since receiving the OWSD Early Career Fellowship.”
She also got an opportunity to be a speaker at an International Assembly on International Day for Women and Girls in Science 2020 at the UN headquarter in New York, USA where she talked about the broader implications of her research in Nepal and how collaborations are important. “Overall, it has really broadened my horizon to support the science and technology environment in Nepal,” shares Pandey.
When asked about what makes one a good scientist, Pandey answers, “I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this. But, some of the common traits in most of the scientists are curiosity, hard work, critical thinking and passion for science and technology.
“I think if one builds these traits over time as a student and in life in general then one could become good in any profession including as a scientist.”
Pandey is also mentoring younger generations and resonates with the sentiments of a lot of science students and professionals whom she mentors in Nepal. Talking on how we can strengthen the science and technology in Nepal, she says, “We could increase budget in science and technology education and research, investing in startups, incentivising Nepali researcher diaspora to return or collaborate, and improving the quality of education from school level by adopting new methods of learning and teaching. There is no argument on the fact that we need a paradigm shift in how we learn, teach, and perform research activities in our schools and colleges”.
The journey so far has been fulfilling for Pandey with lots of learning and unlearning, taking risks, strengthening personal and professional relationships, understanding Nepal’s context, and putting forward her best efforts. She is definitely a catalyst, speeding the process of science and technology in the country.
Text by Yunish Dahal
Photo by Hritik Shrestha