At first impression, Dr Samia Subrina seemed a bit nervous and shy, not the typical confident, charismatic media personality you hear about every day. Obviously, as a scientist who spends a significant portion of her time in the lab, she never had much use for talking to the media or developing a charismatic presence. But looks can often be deceiving.
Because behind the curtains of her nervous chuckle and organic simplicity, is an inspiring woman, a brilliant scientist, and one of the leading experts of nanotechnology in Bangladesh.
You may know her from the recent reports of Bangladeshi scientists who were enlisted in the 6th edition of the Asian Scientist 100 list. Dr Samia Subrina was one of the three scientists included in the prestigious list.
To put things in perspective, the Asian Scientist 100 List celebrates the best and the brightest scientists in the entire Asian region from a range of scientific disciplines. Only six (06) Bangladeshi scientists so far have been included in the prestigious list.
Dr Subrina is currently working as a professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) at the Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology. In 2020, she received the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the developing world for her research on the uses and property of nano-particles.
But what inspired her to become a scientist?
"I was a student from a science background and always wanted to learn more about the mysteries of the world. So, I decided to become a scientist. My father was also an engineer. So that also eased my transition into an engineer and later a scientist.", Dr Subrina said while reminiscing her childhood.
Subrina received her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degree from BUET and later went on to pursue her PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Riverside. What was different about academia in Bangladesh and abroad?
"Well, in Bangladesh, we often do not have the necessary equipment to pursue the research we want to, since we do not have the infrastructure or funding. In the USA, you do not have that kind of a problem.", said Dr Subrina.
If things were so much better in the US, why did she return to Bangladesh? She definitely had opportunities to work there as well, right?
"Yes, I did. But I also wanted to do something for our country. After all, the government spent a lot of taxpayer money on me as a public university student. I had to repay the favour to the people of my country.", replied Dr Subrina with a smile on her face.
But repaying that favour would not be easy. Women in Bangladesh often find it difficult to pursue any career, let alone a career in the scientific arena. So, how supportive was Subrina's family in her journey as a scientist?
"My parents were more than 100% supportive in my journey as a scientist. As my father was an engineer himself, he supported me in every step of my journey.", Dr Subrina replied.
A supportive family is great, but the greatest challenge in practising science in this country would be the sheer death of economic opportunities, a minuscule level of funding and lack of appropriate administrative and infrastructural support. Dr Subrina agreed.
"There are lots of deficiencies in the research arena in Bangladesh. There isn't enough funding or facilities for advanced research. For example, there aren't any well-equipped fabrication labs in Bangladesh that we could use to make necessary instruments for our research. So, increasing funding is essential to attract more students to pursue research as a career option."
However, she was optimistic about the future of academia in Bangladesh, particularly in BUET.
She also shed light upon the ever-augmenting crisis of brain drain. Our most brilliant minds are going abroad for advanced studies and most of them never return. Dr Subrina blamed the lack of incentives and funding in Bangladeshi for graduate students to not pursue a career here in academia.
Dr Subrina's research interest lies in the field of nanotechnology, particularly in modelling thermal transport of nanomaterials, modelling and characterising the electronic properties of nanomaterials, device and material characterisation as well as renewable energy. But why pursue nanotechnology. Was there any particular reason?
"I was always fascinated by nanotechnology and how the property of matter changed simply because its size was drastically reduced to a minuscule amount. Nanotechnology is a nascent, exciting field in the global scientific community right now. So, I wanted to study more about nanotechnology in my studies."
Dr Subrina also talked about her plans for the future. Nanotechnology is still a relatively under-explored field in Bangladesh. There's very little practical work going on. So, she is focusing on the academic aspect of nanotechnology for the time being. But she is optimistic that nanotech will flourish in Bangladesh in the upcoming years.
Being a female researcher in predominantly male academia, women often face uncomfortable scenarios, societal pressure as well as systemic discrimination. Did Dr Subrina have any similar experience?
"Although I haven't faced any systemic discrimination on an administrative level, being a female scientist in a traditionally male-dominated field is, to be fair, an awkward experience. Whenever I won some accolades or got recognition for my contribution, people would tell my parents that they have gotten a son in me. As if I could only become equivalent to men only when I achieved something great. For them, they just needed to be born.", Dr Subrina replies.
"Even during my convocation ceremony, a couple of Indian parents were talking to my parents and they basically suggested that I finally became worthy of a man once I graduated grad school. Furthermore, I often found that people do not like taking simple orders from a woman. But they have no problem following the same orders when it comes from a man.", Dr Subrina felt a little disgruntled with the reality.
It was time to end the interview. Finally, I wanted to know what her advice would be to upcoming scientists and researchers.
"Being a scientist is difficult and requires a lot of hard work and passion. There are lots of difficulties in our country. For example, there is barely enough funding to go around and there isn't sufficient infrastructural or administrative support. But I would suggest that you must not lose patience and must hold onto your passion."