Updated: May 5, 2020
Puja Jasrotia, a Marine microbiologist at university of Florida shares her inspiring journey with our readers in a bare it all rendezvous with Nidhi Tayal. Not to mention that our children can learn a lot from her.
Q You are an Indian by origin, settled in the US with incredibly successful a career. Tell us something about your background Puja.
I was born and brought up (majority of my life) in Delhi, India. I did my schooling from Kendriya Vidyalaya in Delhi, BSc (Home Science) from Institute of Home Economics (DU) and MA (Social work) from Delhi School of Social Work (DU) in India. I proceeded to pursue MSc (Soil and Water Science) from the University of Florida and PhD (Biogeochemical Oceanography) from Florida State University in USA. I currently work for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as an Environmental Manager of the Molecular Biology Laboratory. I have lived in USA for past 16 years with my husband and have two kids and one furry baby dog.
Q OMG! you have an educational background in Home Science but unfortunately, Home Science is often rated as a finishing school for women getting ready to be married and settle down. How come this subject brought you to Marine microbiology?
I loved my 3 years' studying various aspects of Home Science. See, that is a big misnomer that this is a prep school for grooming girls for marriage. Yes, it may have been true in early years, but it’s a very competitive program worldwide now and I attribute my mastery of different sciences. I was a practicing social worker in India and did my internships with Blind Relief Association, Kids of construction workers (through an NGO) and in urban slums around river Yamuna in Delhi. After receiving my social Work degree, I went to work with The Independent commission for People’s rights and Development (ICPRD), Delhi for two years travelling across the lengths and breaths of the country doing policy advocacy, women capacity building and mobilization at grassroots, networking and building alliances. I got married and before I could make sense out of what had happened, I was uprooted from the only life I had known and was established in a small college town called Gainesville in Florida. My husband, a researcher suggested I volunteered in the research laboratory so that I could explore new avenues. Since that day, I have not looked back. All this time I had not fully explored the underlying quality I possessed- my CURIOSITY. I volunteered in the laboratory for six months and the Professor was so impressed by my grasp of scientific principles, work ethics and quest for knowledge that he offered me to join his laboratory as an MSc student. I used microbes as indicators of changes in chemical properties and nitrogen cycling in the water. I decided to work in a research lab for some time to get that clarity. I worked with a marine microbial ecologist and a great science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) advocate at Florida A&M University, USA. She was not only my supervisor (a lifelong friend now) but also an inspiring example of how to do meaningful science, lead successful projects both in laboratory and field, and all this while being the perfect mom! So, you see, my quest for knowledge has been never ending and lifelong. I learn about a field of study (soil and water science to marine microbiology to environmental remediation to pollution assessment and restoration), master it, and apply it to my next learning experience. Stay tuned for what I am doing up next!
Q What exactly are you required to do as a Marine microbiologist? Share with us the details of your average day at work.
As a marine and environmental microbiologist, I learned so much about the different processes that not only influence the environment around us, but also ultimately impact the biggest issue of our generation – global climate change. The field of research is ever changing with innovations and new discoveries coming out every day. Our research work focused on how diatoms influence marine biogeochemical cycling specifically, the carbon cycling in different oceanic environments. For my PhD, my research focused on the assessing bioremediation potential of native microbial communities in a radionuclide (Uranium) and chemical (Nitrate) contaminated terrestrial subsurface. I have been to multiple sampling trips both on land and oceanographic cruises where we had to spend couple of days in the ocean, collecting water samples from different depths of the marine waters, conduct preliminary experiments on the ship itself, and store the samples for further experiments in the laboratory- around the clock. Similar experiments were also conducted where I stood in chest-deep estuary for the entire day and had the worst sun burn of my life. Another time during one of these diel- studies (collecting samples round the clock for 24 hours to study the changes in microbes and nutrients in water), we had to sit outside the ocean at a research facility the entire night. In the laboratory the entire day can go setting up experiments, starting your instruments, gathering data, interpreting/analyzing results and writing reports. After nearly 15 years of being in academia and environmental and marine research, I wanted to take my research to the next level, solving real world problems. I took a position at the helm of environmental monitoring and regulation, the Florida department of Environmental Protection (DEP). My work focusses on Microbial Source Tracking (MST) by utilizing the molecular biology technique of quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) to investigate and distinguish potential sources of fecal indicator bacteria in the environment. DEP is a very nurturing environment where scientists are not only focusing on protecting our natural resources but also working diligently in adapting new scientific technologies and innovations to become better stewards of our environment.
Q With so much debate going on wrt global warming, environmental hazards, high levels of pollution, how can a person like you contribute towards society by making people aware of their follies and working towards saving the marine life?
My contribution in this field is two-fold. Firstly, I am heaving engaged in research-based decision-making processes that impact the use of our environmental habitats such as the beautiful beaches in Florida. By safeguarding public health, and disseminating this information to the common public, the message on the health of our environment is transferred to the grassroots level. Secondly, I am linked with a local NGO called ReThinkEnergy. The overall goal of this advocacy group is to create awareness among the people on how our daily lives impact the environment and to use simple reformative actions such as reuse, recycle and reduce our carbon footprint on earth...
Q How do you juggle between home and work? With two growing kids, a home and a demanding career...what keeps you going? What are the perks of working so hard?
I will not claim that this is a trivial task! I gave birth to both my kids while pursuing MSc and PhD degrees, respectively. I had a very steep learning curve going from Home science to social work to environmental science to marine science and I was very hard on myself when I didn’t understand any subject matter. But I persisted because I had a deep love for acquiring new knowledge and loved what I did. So, waking up every morning, I look forward to going to work, contribute my intellectual knowledge in solving the real-world problems, and going to bed every day knowing that I am fulfilling my role as a human being protecting our environment and the mother earth and at home, being a role-model for both my kids.
Q What will be your advice to young girls willing to take up an 'out of the box career' like yours?
The world of science is enormous. If you have the passion, the dedication to follow your dreams and the commitment then even the sky is not the limit! In today’s world, genders have lost the historical dichotomous roles and responsibilities, so never let that be a limit to your mind’s imagination. Even if you have a tiny spark in you, talk to your parents, teachers, and counselors and share your thoughts. In today’s world there are such diverse scientific fields you can be in whether it’s research, industry or universities. Try them out because you never know what will inspire you and pave the way for your future career. Find people you enjoy working with and work on what you enjoy doing most. Hard work and diligence are the keys to getting anything accomplished. AND MOST IMPORTANT – STAY CURIOUS!!!!
Q Your message to the society is...
Women are working in different fields of study including Stem; however, they are still under represented in all STEM fields. They need to be exposed to STEM education and role models from early childhood, as that is when the impressions are formed, and students acquire the knowledge about career choices. They need to see the connection between science, technology, engineering, and math and how these tools are implemented in real life to solve societal problems so that connections are made earlier between the classroom learning and careers to pursue. Dream women dream... We need one triumphant fist at a time to break that glass ceiling and it all starts with your dream.