Children aspire to be like their role models. But, Tista Prasai Joshi in her childhood could not find any role model. For girls to have a strong role model in their gender was so rare then.
But, the times are now changing and a few women who have broken the barriers and stereotypes or some others who have made significant achievements in their field are being recognised. Hence, today, Tista Prasai Joshi today is proving to be a role model for others. Some have even called her the ‘Marie Curie of Nepal’.
Joshi is currently working as a researcher at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). More precisely, she is currently researching organic arsenic-based compounds and their residue in the water resources of Kathmandu that determine the residue of elements or metals in the water that hamper human lives. She hopes her research can contribute to changing the face of the Kathmandu waters.
Turning dreams into reality
Tista Prasai Joshi first reached NAST as a research student in the early 2000s and that is where her dream to work and make a difference took shape. “When I first came here [at NAST], I would be in awe of the scientists working and daydream about me working here one day. I would imagine myself making important discoveries and contributions to society.”
In 2004, she formally joined the prestigious institution and began her journey. “I was the happiest when my dream became a reality.”
Whereas most people, in particular, most women in Nepal, would stop after getting a degree, Prasai geared up for more. “I had just finished my MSc in environmental microbiology when I came to NAST. But, since my childhood, I had heard of people doing double masters while my mother would always say that people who read a lot are good people and respected a lot,” expressive Tista Prasai Joshi says, “So, I had always fixated on getting another degree so I did my MA in anthropology in 2005. After that, I combined my degrees and started researching in the field of microbiology.”
But, she was not ready to stop there. “In 2013, I went to China to pursue my PhD in environmental engineering from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.”
And since the day, she has been continuing her research in the laboratory and enjoying her time doing her work.
Tista Prasai Joshi, today, is one of the few women researchers in Nepal who have been doing research on the water resources of Nepal and how to make the water system better. A recipient of the OWSD award, Prasai has set up a state-of-the-art research lab at NAST with the USD 50,000 grant she received and is mentoring four other young female students in their research and PhD.
She is also pursued by researchers across the world to guide them or present her findings on international platforms.
The motivation to keep going
In a time when girls were discouraged to study, Tista Prasai Joshi found herself fortunate to have had that environment where education was highly valued. “My parents were high achievers, were both working while my relatives were all educated and in good positions. So I was always encouraged to read.”
Not only her parents, she shares she got the immense support of her husband and her child. “In a time when a woman after being a wife, a daughter-in-law and a mother not getting the support might have been normalised, I got their support and I am thankful.”
“My husband is also a researcher and we worked days and nights together or individually. This continued even when I was pregnant. Many people would tell me to rest adding work could be secondary,” Tista Prasai Joshi says, “But my research required by constant attention. So even when I was hospitalised and the doctor said I needed bed rest, the first thing I told her was that I could not do that and needed to go back to work soon.”
Her son was in grade one when she left for China to pursue her PhD. “It was hard to leave him behind but I told him that I needed to go study and I needed to write a lot of papers. And excited, he told me to go and ace my degree. Every time on the video calls, he would ask me if I wrote my paper and if I got the first position. His excitement was my motivation.”
Apart from her son, the Chinese researchers also continued to motivate Tista Prasai Joshi to this day. “My time there was educational and life-changing. Chinese government and universities prioritised research, which is why the universities and researchers are well equipped and enjoy the full flexibility to work solely in their research. Even the older researchers would work till late there in full energy. With a thorough understanding of their work, they aim to make a difference. I still remember their energy and always work to replicate that today here.”
Leaving an impression
Tista Prasai Joshi can be seen working diligently in her lab even after office hours. Believing in simple living, Prasai’s world consists of her family and her work. But many times, she has faced the (indirect) pressure of being a woman, be it for getting married, having a baby, adding her husband’s last name or spending time taking care of the in-laws.
“Because I am very much involved in my work, I get to hear comments from my relatives that I should take a break, that I should focus more on home and not spend so much time in office. But, my immediate family has been very supportive and I focus my energy there. People continue to comment, but they don’t bother me.”
Having said that Prasai acknowledges that many girls and women, even today and from educated families, still struggle to get the chance to pursue higher studies or shape their individualities. At NAST itself, she accepts that the women staff is only 36 per cent and says the number should increase.
Meanwhile, Tista Prasai Joshi shares she wants to continue working at NAST as long as she can. “I have an emotional attachment to this place and I would like to work here, in the place where I started my career.”
Having achieved so much already, Prasai believes Nepal next needs to focus on local-level education and research. “In any aspect, education or water preservation, Nepal’s grassroots levels are detached; we need to make them aware and educate them, hold discussions so that they can turn their problems into solutions.”
Being one of the few women scientists in Nepal, Tista Prasai Joshi feels happy to have encouraged even one soul with her achievements. “When my son, my niece and research students working with me say that I inspire them, it brings a smile on my face. If I can encourage others and uplift their careers, with my expertise, I hope to continue to do the same.”
“If we want to encourage more women in STEM, it should be incentivised; there should be job security and no age bar for people to engage in research or apply for awards.”