1. What does your everyday work entail?
I am a senior researcher in the field of Bioprocess Development. That involves research and development (R&D) into generating production processes for microorganisms or products made by microorganisms. I handle a portfolio of research projects that span across the development and production of animal probiotics, speciality enzymes and reagents for use in pharmaceutical based R&D.
In addition, I manage a research team of researchers, engineers, analytical chemists and technicians. I also supervise Masters students and train interns and in-service trainees in the field of Bioprocessing
2. What career path led you to your current work?
I was fortunate in my career path. I was studying towards my National Diploma in Biotechnology, and needed to find a company that would host me in order to complete my in service training or work experiential learning. I was interviewed by the CSIR and started my training in January, at their facility in Modderfontein, Johannesburg. I guess I impressed them significantly, as I was then offered a studentship to do my Bachelor of Technology (BTech) through the Durban University of Technology (DUT). Once the BTech was completed, I proceeded to do my Masters in Technology (MTech). Due to the quality of my work at the end of my Masters, my supervisors suggested that I apply to the University to upgrade my Masters to a Doctoral degree. This was approved, and I’m currently awaiting the outcome of my thesis examination, for my PhD in Biotechnology.
Not only was I fortunate to land myself at my ideal place of employment for the last 12 years, but I also have an employer that supports and encourages further study.
3. How did you decide to move into this career path?-was it a certain person or moment which initiated it all?
I was a keen and avid Biology (not physics) student at high school. I can recall having a chat with my biology teacher at [the age of] 16 about becoming a Microbiologist, prior to us submitting application forms for tertiary studies the following year. I guess it’s something I always wanted to do – [I] didn’t know back then that I would actually be in that exact same profession!
4. Was there ever a time that you recall wanting to change paths & what convinced you to continue on your chosen path?
I changed Universities and not career paths per se. After completing my matric year in 2002, I went on to study towards a BSc in Biological Science at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN). My interest in the sciences was waning, my performance was mediocre and I was not happy with my choice in degree. I then had the torrid task of explaining (practically begging) my parents to allow me to change degrees after wasting a year, to then pursue a degree in either Biomedical Technology, Radiography or Biotechnology at DUT as these were not offered by UKZN.
After missing the application dates and entrance exam for Radiography and Biomedical Technology respectively; Biotechnology was the only option left for Ghaneshree.
My parents (grudgingly) agreed to support me during this change and made me aware that it was the only change they would support before I had to stop my further education, due to financial constraints. I would otherwise have to find myself alternate employment and possibly study part time at my own expense.
But as all good stories go, she tells me that after a two year period of studies, she successfully completed her diploma cum laude! – Thus gaining the confidence of her parents and proving that she had found her true passion.
5. Give us a brief description of a normal/extraordinary 24hours in your life. (You can choose one 😋)
We do have an extraordinary work schedule because our lives are essentially governed by the growth of microorganisms. We don’t know if they’re: (1) going to grow at all, (2) will they grow fast or slow?, (3)will they make the product I require?, (4) if they do, then by how much?…so typically, this will not happen in an 8 hour day.
Therefore, I certainly do not work an 8 to 5 job! We work shifts, and sometimes weekends and public holidays. Every day is normal and extraordinary as we work in such a dynamic environment with multiple research projects
6. Name the one thing which excites you about your field of work.
I love the fact that I don’t have a routine, no set tasks on a month to month basis. We have R&D projects that have a particular duration, and my main role is to ensure that my team and I deliver on these projects, on brief, on budget and on (or before) time.
I still have a huge passion for the sciences, and have even crossed over from the more biological sciences into the more classical engineering aspects. There is such a huge scope for biotechnology, in the human health, animal heath, agricultural and chemical sectors. We are even finding applications in areas we never once considered in the past. The possibilities are endless.
Also with the impending change as a result of industry 4.0, the future is even more exciting.
7. What has your experience been like being a women in STEM?
Actually, as a student, I never really considered gender as major factor in my work or study environment. As noted in the university classes, more females tend to study and pursue the biological sciences route in comparison to men, unlike the engineering field (but I believe that that status quo has also changed).
It’s certainly encouraging to know how so many women have pursued and excelled in this field knowing the constraints and challenges that are present
8. Do you find that there are still barriers within the STEM field?
Now that I have matured in the field, I can say that I am sensitised to the fact that they do exist. As I have only had one employer (Advantages and disadvantages of course), I have not had first-hand experience with this, because I am in such a gender neutral organisation, where ethic, skill and competence supersedes gender.
9. Did becoming a mom change how you experienced your field of work?
Yes absolutely. Previously, I could arrange myself accordingly to fit in my work and personal commitments. Now I have to take my daughter, Divya’s needs into consideration as she is priority #1.
Before she was born, I used to work a lot of shifts, and it never concerned me about which shift I was on; I could just go about my business accordingly. When she arrived, that changed. I could not work the nightshift anymore, as I was so concerned that she would need me at night and that I wouldn’t be there for her. Then as she got older, I wanted to be there to ensure I had some 1:1 quality time with her after I got home from work.
Like every mom Ghaneshree wanted to ensure that her little one ate a good supper and that she could have mom put her to bed as part of her bedtime routine. To ensure this schedule she requested working the morning shift (6am to 2pm). Being the only mom in her team, her colleagues tried to be understanding; initially. However, the personal needs of other team members also came to the fore, meaning that Ghaneshree had to forego the privilege of selecting a particular shift to work. With the help of those colleagues empathetic to her role as mom and researcher, as well as the support of a nanny, she was able to make the transition.
And then just when you think you have the routine figured out, our little humans start growing up and transitioning into their school phase!-once again changing her shift-work needs as well. Ghaneshree explains that balancing her work priorities, (with shift-work being part of the package) is a continuous struggle. As there are currently no exceptions for working mums in a fixed shift policy, from the employer; the team is required to reach a consensus on their own. Being the only mom means that other team members find it difficult to understand the validity of her requests.
I am not there when she [Divya] comes back from school, when she’s having dinner nor when she’s going to bed. It’s even worse when she is ill, and I cannot be there to take care of her. It is compulsory that I am on shift as the entire team is allocated to specific tasks for a particular week and we don’t have any standby cover. Physically I am taking a knock - My day starts at 4h30am and ends after 23h00 when I get home. It’s becoming a bit of a challenge. I may have to consider alternate work opportunities that do not encompass shift work. That makes me a bit sad as I have never had to consider alternate employment before, and I really enjoy my work.
10. How do you think organisational spaces could be improved upon in order to better support women in STEM?
It would be great if organisations would have some policies in place to provide some support to working mums – with shift work for working moms, as an example. In other instances, there are various other mechanisms in place that have been instituted by the organisation overall.
The CSIR has a great leave policy and have made provisions for family responsibility leave etc., but because of the uniqueness of shift work, I am not sure that they will implement something across the organisation to meet the needs of just one employee at the moment. Our Human Resources representatives did not seem to have many possible options.
Organisations tend to be as gender neutral as possible, however, it is not always ideal.
11. What do you hope to achieve within your career, whether in the short/long term?
My greatest desire is to create impact. To have made some meaningful impact in the life of my peers, family friends and society as a whole. To have lived and actually contributed to something of substance and not just go about my daily business for the pay cheque at the end of the month. My job is not a job, it’s me finding and fulfilling my passion and purpose in life. A large part of me has a keen interest in youth development, teaching, training, mentorship and development. Hopefully I can add more value to society in that aspect.
12. Would you encourage your little one & other young girls to move into a career similar to your own & why?
I do this regularly!-Especially with young girls who I feel resemble myself, growing up. I encourage every bit of enthusiasm and curiosity. I help with school projects and host and facilitate a large number of scholars keen to participate in science expos and career days, and don’t necessarily have the necessary skills nor infrastructure to do it.
I encourage the girls (and boys) if I see some sort of tenacity and resilience to survive in the field. Yes, its awe inspiring and exciting, but on some days is laborious and takes a toll on your body and mind. Studying further is almost a necessity. I don’t allow the up and coming future scientists to be disillusioned. A career in science requires further studies. Some people don’t mind it, others are completely averse to the thought. I just like to provide them will all the possible guidance and mentoring that I may not have necessarily had during those early years.
However, being a scientist (or researcher) is not a normal conventional, (boring) 9 to 5 job. Each day seldom resembles the next, and it’s that unknown that makes your brain hurt (from all the thinking) and all the more exciting.
13. Please could you give fellow STEM moms some advice on how to navigate the challenges within our field.
Chin up, shoulders back and keep moving. You are not only doing this for yourself any longer, and you have a responsibility that applies to more than just your individual self from now on. We got into this field because of interest and passion; with hard work, perseverance and dedication, we have achieved this much. We can do all of this and so much more! We’ve just got to be less harsh on ourselves, encourage ourselves more and just push on harder.
Thanks to Ghaneshree for being so willingly to be our first featured mom! Be sure to reach out to let me know what you thought of this interview. Let's share real stories (#MomOfTheMonth) about fabulous local #STEMmoms !