How do you solve a problem like Maria?


Maria Sklodowska, who was later known as Marie Curie, was a pioneering woman in the sciences, namely chemistry and physics, who later went to claim the Nobel prize, in 1903 (for radioactivity) and 1911 (for the discovery of polonium and radium). She was born in Poland but spent most of her adult life in France where discovered the elements polonium and radium and made key advances in radioactivity at a time women were hardly present in higher-up positions in research communities and academia. Although Maria was able to win the Nobel Price twice (sharing with her husband Pierre Curie and a fellow scientist, Henri Becquerel in 1903), these were rare occasions in which a woman won the Nobel Prize in scientific streams – chemistry, physics and medicine. Even today, Nobel prize listings for chemistry and physics are notoriously low in their recognition of women scientists although medicine has rendered iconic status to several women who have made beneficial contributions to scientific advancement and the furthering of the knowledge pool.

Perhaps key to the era of female empowerment, was the recognition of the female vote. Women’s suffrage was first achieved in 1893 in New Zealand and this was a milestone that rendered women equality of vote and which established that even non-royal lasses from peasantry were given the chance to practice the right to vote and play their role in election processes. A culture of makeshift ‘Serfdom’ comes in many forms and faces even in the 21st century world, where inequality of women is found in structures of caste and breed, in forced sexual slavery and prostitution, as vehicles of reproduction (commercial surrogacy) and as convenient and domesticated wives. Therefore the achievement of the female right to vote, which had a ripple effect in Europe and America, could perhaps be attributed as a key milestone of female emancipation and gender empowerment. In 1905, an Austrian literary figure called Bertha Von Suttner, won the Nobel prize for Literature on her own, which opened the door for the furthering of the equality of the creative arts but science unfortunately lagged behind in momentum and want.

So how do you solve the problem of Maria in the sciences? Women with the encephalization and intellectual quotients, drive and ambition, good sense and reflection and possessing drawing personalities who have what it takes to get to the pinnacle of scientific Matterhorn. There are many steps that can be takes to cultivate education in women from different social tiers – who possess the dream of empowerment through education. Free education (Like in Sri Lanka etc), awards and recognition (L’Oreal Awards etc), a good work-home balance for the families (flexi hours etc) and scholarships/fellowships enforced on a gender-equal platform are some of the mechanisms that can be utilized to ensure there are enough women scaling the heights of science.

Sri Lanka, one of the few countries to have an elected female prime minister and president, has already made strong inroads in giving women the due recognition in the education system and cultivating a strong sense of accomplishment through the provision of education. My classes in botany, biology and zoology is truly a hen house where women outnumber men by at least a factor of five and many of the high achieving students are too of the graceful and elegant gender (and I don’t mean to stereotype here). Hopefully there will be many more Marias in the pipeline within the Sri Lankan education system.

I was two days back watching “The Sound of Music” for the zillionth time probably, and this story centers on a dreamy songstress (Maria) who’s studying to become a nun, who gets derailed in her faith ambitions after falling in love with a military man-widower of seven children. Maria, even when her life takes a deviation to love, is not compromised and disheartened in her demeanor and follows her heart till an eternity. Professionally or personally, women should have a sense of Maria in them, to dream like a madwoman overdosed on heroin (not in the literary sense) and follow their hearts down the professional/personal road to discovery. You should never expect a brown paper package of ‘life’ tied-up in string gifted to your hands and one should do everything in one’s power to hold on to one’s ambition even when life gives you a rose with thorns. The take-home message here is that one should never give up on life, just because life gives you lemons once in a while.

Two Marias, one factual and one fictional, who overdosed us all on two difference areas of gender science; that women should constantly follow their professional dreams and they should not be shy to fall in love at the expense of their careers.  There is no set formula for success for a woman – work or home – only she will know that from the depths within her heart. Even Maria the scientist, never estranged herself from her homeland, teaching her daughters her native tongue ‘Polish’ and naming one of the elements she discovered ‘polonium’ after her country of birth. Therefore, wherever a woman’s journey takes her, she should never forget her humble roots, for in roots there is anchorage and in wings there are infinite possibilities, and in both there is the best of both worlds – identity and possibility; a chance to make a worthy choice to further sciences in this world without losing yourself out-there.

So how do you solve the problem like Maria? ………..Give her an education and ask her to follow her heart.  Just maybe, it is as simple as that.


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