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Making no bones about it: An interview with paleobiologist Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan

Harini Barath

Paleobiologist Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, currently head of the Biological Sciences Department, University of Cape Town, South Africa, was in Bangalore to attend the Commonwealth Science Congress in November 2014. Science communicator, author of two popular science books, and a vocal advocate for women in science, this multi-faceted scientist chatted with about her science, passions and interests. 

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan
Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan  (Photo: National Research Foundation / South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement)

Paleobiologist Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, currently head of the Biological Sciences Department, University of Cape Town, South Africa, was in Bangalore to attend the Commonwealth Science Congress in November 2014. Winner of the Third World Academy of Science Prize for promotion of science (TWAS sub-Saharan African Prize for Popularization of Science), former President of the South African Women in Science and Engineering, South Africa’s Woman of the Year in 2005, and author of two popular science books, this multi-faceted scientist chatted with about her passions and interests. 

Not many people are familiar with paleobiology. Could you tell me about the field and your work in particular?

I’m a paleontologist, and a biologist. The particular area that I work in is called paleobiology. I use my understanding of bone structures of modern animals to make extrapolations to the fossil record. 

When fossils are found, people try to identify and understand the fossil itself. But my research goes beyond that. I want to try and understand something about the animal when it was living — how long did it take to grow, what kind of factors affected its growth, did it have any disease, was it male or female. 

If you look at the modern ecosystem, you can find animals, you can measure them, you can weigh them, you can do all these things, but for fossils, all you have are the bones. So I try to get as much information as possible from the bones, and one of the things I do is to look at the microscopic structure of bones. We can look at the histology and from that, we can make deductions about biology. 

Besides your work, you have also invested a lot of time and effort in promoting science to a larger audience. What drives you?

My second book is called . This book is about is the history of life on earth from a perspective of the African continent. It’s like a big picture story. The book was aimed at the high school level but can also be enjoyed equally by adults.One of my very big interests is to promote science through different platforms. To that end, I give lots of popular level talks to various audiences — children, women’s groups, societies — and I have also written many popular articles. While I give many science talks, I also often talk about women in science, getting people interested in science and about how to communicate your research effectively. I have also written two books to popularize science. 

After almost 150 years of studying African dinosaurs, there hasn’t been a book about them. Most children are crazy about dinosaurs and yet when I talk to kids and ask them name a dinosaur from Africa, they don’t know. That’s what made me think that I must write my first book, ” “. 

Kids have so much information about the prehistoric world, it is unreal. They know the geological time, they know about predators and prey and the names of so many dinosaurs. Many of those who carry their interest in science further and become botanists and physicists start off with a love of dinosaurs. When children are excited about science, they enjoy it. Through that enjoyment, at that level, you can stimulate an interest in broader science. That is really what drives me — not to get everybody to become paleontologists, but rather to get people excited about science. 

You mentioned that you give talks about women in science. You have also been the President of the South African Women in Science and Engineering for 5 years. What are the issues unique to women in science in Africa, if any?

South Africa certainly has unique issues. As you know, our country has the legacy of the apartheid. So for me, as an Indian woman, growing up in South Africa meant that there were certain restrictions — which universities I could attend, what I could do. If you look at the numbers of black women in science in South Africa, they are very few. In fact, in the University of Cape Town, which is one of the best universities in the country, I am the only full professor in the faculty of science who is a black woman. So, it was very, very restrictive.

I notice you say it was restrictive. Are things different now?

Certainly. Over the last ten years, maybe, there’s been very quick change in terms of the numbers of women in senior levels. This is mainly because of the government initiatives in promoting women. There’s a lot of money given to women in science now. 

That is very heartening to hear. Are there particular measures that helped bring about this change?

When I was studying it was very difficult to get a bursary, it was very difficult to get fellowships. One had to study on loans. But today, the good thing is that there are fellowships targeted particularly for women, and targeted particularly for black people. If you are a woman and/​or black person and if you do well, you can very easily get a scholarship to study. It has made a huge difference. If you talk to many of the students, you will see that many of them were able to come through the system simply because of scholarships to come into university. 

The South African Women in Science and Engineering also has its own fellowships, particularly for women entering post graduate studies, because we realized that there was a gap at that level. It seemed like it was difficult for girls to continue to the honors level, but once they were in the field, to get a masters bursary or a PhD bursary was easy. 

What is your advice for young women scientists embarking on their careers?

Many women think that they have to choose — that it has to be an either-or situation. Many of them think that there’s no way I can be a good scientist — because you don’t want to just be a scientist, you want to be good — and be a good mother. And that’s what needs to be promoted — the idea that women actually can do both. The way to do that is to talk to women who have kids and find out how they balance their lives and tell that to the younger people. 

When I used to be a member of the South African Women in Science and Engineering — I joined when my child was three months old and I used to take him to the meetings in his carrycot — I would sit and talk to these other women. I was a young academic and I learnt so much about how others coped, how they managed. I learnt the ropes of academia from these other women. Not so much from the people in my Department — the learning curve for me happened outside the Department. The network that you meet through a women’s organization can be invaluable. It is really important to have that platform. For me, my personal growth as a woman and as a mother actually happened in that forum.