By Riley DeHority and Sam Zlotnik
Content warning: This article discusses suicide.
“Science is constantly marginalizing certain identities. There are certain people who get to do science and there is a certain kind of science that gets done.”
Sayantan Datta came to this understanding over time, first while studying science as a student and a researcher, and then while writing about it as a journalist. While their formal education taught them to think of science as unbiased and apolitical, Sayantan saw how casteism, transphobia, and other systems of oppression are just as active within science as outside of it.
Riley DeHority chatted with Sayantan to learn more about their journey as a neuroscientist and journalist, and their involvement in community-building efforts for trans academics in India. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Could you talk about your academic journey and how you got where you are today?
In India, after grade 10, you have to make a decision about specializing in a subject. I chose science, but I’m not very sure why. I was interested in it and I was good at it, but I was also interested in literature. And I always thought that I’d probably go for literature. But also, there’s a major push to pursue science in India. You know, parents often push you to study science because there’s a kind of respect associated with studying sciences as compared with other disciplines. So I guess it’s a combination of all these things that made me take up science in grades 11 and 12.
I studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology along with English and Hindi as my language subjects. When I was finishing my school education, I was preparing for the entrance examination for pursuing medicine. I was at a coaching center for some time to prepare, and it was in that brief six or seven months when I realized that this kind of very prescriptive approach to science was definitely not working out for me. So that’s when I decided that I’d do research instead of medicine.
But nonetheless, I did sit for the medical entrance tests, and I didn’t get through. And then I joined Presidency University, which is one of the oldest institutions in Kolkata. That’s where I really got access to understanding how scientific research works and what studying science beyond its direct applications looks like. I was finally being shown that it’s fine to do science even if it just answers a question and nothing more.
That’s also when I really got attracted to neuroscience. Particularly because in the early days of my undergrad, the brain was quite fascinating to me. There’s so much mysticism associated with the description of the nervous system that I got quite interested in it. So I did two internships, one in Presidency University itself, and then a summer research fellowship in the Benaras Hindu University through the Science Academies in India.
Presidency was offering a master’s in life sciences and I thought I’d continue and do that, but in 2016, which was my third year of undergrad, a Dalit PhD student called Rohith Vemula died by suicide on the University of Hyderabad campus. Just in case you want clarification, India has a caste system, and Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi people are the most marginalized. So Rohith Vemula was pursuing his PhD in biochemistry and was discriminated against because of his caste, which eventually snowballed into Rohith changing his PhD from biochemistry to casteism in the sciences. And unfortunately, in 2016, Rohith Vemula died by suicide as a result of his ostracization on campus.
Rohith left an open suicide letter, which was quite hard hitting. That was one of the documents which for the first time exposed me to how science is fiercely political. For a long time, the way I was made to approach science was to think of it as something that is apolitical, that is objective, that is outside of society. It’s happening in a lab and as long as you understand the scientific method and you can come up with a good question and a good hypothesis, you’re doing science. But Rohith Vemula’s letter struck a chord really hard, in the sense that it became clear that there is nothing apolitical about science.
Somehow that letter made me feel like I needed to come to the University of Hyderabad to understand the political locus of science better. And at that time, the University of Hyderabad was starting a new master’s degree in neural and cognitive sciences.
So my interest in neurosciences and my newfound understanding of how science is political came together in my move to the University of Hyderabad, where I pursued my master’s in neural and cognitive sciences. And that was interesting, because there’s no way to study cognitive science without knowing some philosophy, some psychology, and some history. So that expanded my understanding of science from something happening in the lab or the field to something happening in a larger historical and social structure.
And then, for my master’s thesis project, I went to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Hyderabad. I decided to continue with my PhD there and I spent about two years trying to do my PhD, which bombed, so I finally quit last year to pursue journalism full-time.
When you were first learning about casteism in science, were you coming at it from a place of caste privilege? Were you entering that space out of curiosity, wanting to educate yourself, or wanting to fight that system?
So in Kolkata, it’s constructed as if Kolkata doesn’t have caste, which is absolutely untrue. I mean, caste pervades the lives of everybody in India; there’s no bigger identity that influences our lives than caste.
But I come from this ambiguous caste background. The way caste is maintained is through marriage and property, right? So people of one caste marry within the caste. And through that, property, privilege, and power is also passed from the parent to the child. So what caste privilege essentially means is the sociocultural capital that you get because of your parents’ caste.
Now, one way of unsettling this is inter-caste marriages. So, if people marry outside of their caste, then this caste structure gets a little unsettled. So, the reason why I say I come from an ambiguous caste background is because as far as I’ve been able to figure out, my grandfather’s caste is not known. We do know that his father took up our current surname, my last name, but we don’t know what his exact caste location was. There is a possibility that he was from a marginalized caste location; otherwise, why would one change their surname? We also know that my grandfather married a Dalit woman. So my father’s caste is already ambiguous. And then my father married a Savarna woman—Savarna would be an oppressor caste or privileged caste. And on all sides of my family, there have been many inter-caste marriages.
So essentially, it’s difficult for me to place myself at a clean boundary of whether it’s caste oppression or whether it’s caste privilege. But I can’t deny the privileges that my last name brings with it.
Could you tell me more about how you got started with journalism?
I had some writing experience from my school. There are these two newspapers in India that had school editions. And when you are in school, you can write for those newspapers without payment, just to get exposure to how a newsroom works, how to take an interview, and stuff like that. So I had that experience and I continued to write during my undergrad and my master’s. When I was in undergrad, I was looking at queer issues in popular culture. I wasn’t politically aware enough to write something good, but I persisted with the idea of writing.
Then when I went to TIFR [Tata Institute of Fundamental Research] for my PhD, about a year into the program, I realized that it was not working out for me. It was not working out for a couple of reasons: my relationship with my advisor was not going great; my project was going nowhere; it was too stressful and taking up too much of my bandwidth; and it was almost viscerally changing me as a person. My mental health was in shambles. I mean, none of these are narratives that are particular to me. I’m certain many PhD students all over the world have similar things to talk about.
So around a year into my PhD, I knew that it would be easier if I quit and either found a new PhD or a different thing to do. And because I was already writing, that seemed like the next possible alternative. Then, a conference was happening in the University of Hyderabad, which was called Pressing for Progress. It was organized by the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association. And they had this eclectic set of people who were coming in talking about science and politics, science and culture, and really critiquing science as an institution and science as a method.
And that’s where I met the co-founders of the Life of Science, Aashima Freidog and Nandita Jayaraj. And at that point, they were going around multiple institutions in India, science universities, institutions, colleges, to really map out narratives of women in science. And to understand what problems women in science face, rather than doing a survey or a few interviews, they had taken this approach where you literally visit an institution and spend hours with a couple of women scientists, you see their labs, you talk to their students. So they were mapping out these narratives and giving us really, really thorough, deeply researched narratives to work with, and I was very interested in that project.
My consciousness was developing and I was thinking about how I was the only openly trans person in the lab when I was doing my PhD, and how my lab for the longest period of time had only Brahmins, which are the highest in the caste order. So I was thinking about these things, and then Rohith Vemula’s death was already there at the back of my mind. And in the meanwhile, many other Dalit students died by suicide in various science institutions.
So I got interested in the question of how your location in society based on your gender, sexuality, and caste impact where you do science, what kind of science you do, and in general, can you even do science? How can we as queer and trans people who are coming from marginalized caste backgrounds, or with disabilities or neurodivergence, be able to do science?
So during the second year of my PhD, the Life of Science was looking for a coordinator for their next season of publication. I happened to apply, and then I worked with them for six months. At first, I worked as the coordinator, and I did my first few comics on the lives of transgender persons in science and engineering. I also did a survey-based report that was probably one of the first reports of its kind on problems faced by transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary persons in science in India.
I really enjoyed working with the Life of Science, so I asked them if I could continue being a part of the collective. So now I’m working with them to develop the collective in a sense, to sort of broaden its horizons and take on more and more complex questions, and also developing my own skills as a science journalist.
Let’s talk about your involvement with trans and nonbinary scientists in India. I know you’re a part of a Whatsapp-based collective of Indian trans academics. Was that related to the survey work you were doing?
I definitely didn’t create the group, but I was one of the early members. It really started when more and more people in academia started talking about their identities as trans. This was actually before the survey. In fact, the survey was inspired by it. Through that Whatsapp group, I got to know that there are quite a few trans people in science, and we were constantly talking about the kind of problems we faced and the kind of science we’d like to see.
Very diverse conversations were happening amidst other larger conversations about being trans or being in a transphobic space and community building and support systems. We had some professors talking about how we can navigate institutional problems, like if I enter an institution as a trans person, and I need gender-neutral accommodation. How do I navigate that battle with the institution?
Now the collective stands at a fairly large number. The way people join the collective is through word of mouth. And it’s not a science limited group; it’s a trans academia group. So if I know somebody who’s trans and in academia, I reach out to them and say, “Hey, here’s this collective, do you want to join it?” And that’s how the collective takes in new members.
At the moment, the plan of the collective is to do a couple of things. One is community building: to tell people they’re not alone and there are other trans people in academia. Another goal is to connect people to more senior academics, people who have completed their PhDs or are faculty in certain institutions.
Let’s say I want to apply to Harvard for my PhD. If there is a faculty who has done their PhD or postdoc at Harvard, then they can provide guidance. And if I enter an academic institution and I want to understand how to navigate some bureaucratic or administrative battle, then these people can help me. So the collective is serving whatever purpose comes its way in the sense that when somebody raises an issue, or raises a question, there are people who are able to answer.
So after you did your survey, what came up as goals that people needed? What were the priorities that you identified in the survey of what resources people needed the most?
There were certain broad categories that came up. One was the question of infrastructure, which included things like gender-neutral washrooms and gender-affirming health care on campus.
And then there were larger demands regarding curriculum and pedagogy. In a biology class, if you’re talking about the reproductive system, it will always be spoken about in a very cis-hetero-patriarchal way: there’s a male body and a female body and the male and female body do something that leads to the birth of a male or a female child. Queer, trans, intersex people get eliminated from this discourse completely.
And then you also see sex being spoken about as something permanent. You were born as a male, so you have to be a man and these are your biological coordinates of being a man, and these are the things that you’re expected to do as a man. So a large chunk of the respondents in the survey also mentioned that changing the very nature of how science is taught in classrooms can help trans people feel more affirmed and more welcome.
Thanks for sharing all of that. So to finish up, how can people find your work and, if they’re interested, get involved with these communities that you’re a part of?
The easiest way would be to send me an email at email@example.com. If they’d like to be a part of the trans academia collective, or to speak and brainstorm, they’re welcome to write to me.