Dr. Sweta Chakraborty Interview

Dr. Sweta Chakraborty (@swetachak)

What is your job?

I am a risk and behavioral scientist. I assess threats related to the planet warming and its many ripple effects including water scarcity, food security, and infectious disease outbreaks. I advise governments on adopting evidence-based policies and also communicate about science/risks to the public so these policies are widely supported.

What was your STEM journey?

I started with an undergraduate degree in Decision Science and went on to get my PhD in Cognitive Behavioral Science. I continued with a postdoctorate at Oxford University before returning to the US and teaching a course on “Carbon Management and Decision Science” at Columbia University. My STEM journey has brought me to communicating STEM to the public and to those elected officials who represent them, and championing to get young people excited about STEM. We need young people, especially women and black/brown communities, to not just pursue STEM subjects, but to also pursue careers in STEM. It’s the only way we will find the diverse, creative solutions we need to solve the climate crisis!

When did you first realize you wanted to do STEM?

 As an undergraduate I took as many different classes across subjects as possible because I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. As I explored, made friends, talked to my professors, and tuned into the world’s biggest challenges in the news, I realized pursuing a STEM field was not just great opportunity for my career, but also necessary to help contribute to the world and to our collective future.

Who were your role models growing up?

I admired legendary journalist Barbara Walters as a bold, fearless female on television. I related to her as a woman, but I didn’t see any female scientists on TV who looked like me. I have decided to become the role model I couldn’t see growing up. Now young, brown girls have access to more female scientists like myself, as well as to powerful success stories like Kamala Harris. It is critical for young people to see and hear these stories for hope and motivation.

Did you ever want to do anything else?

I always wanted to be on TV! I couldn’t act or sing, but I could communicate science, and I’ve managed to merge the two. Beauty, fashion, entertainment, celebrity and science are NOT mutually exclusive. All of these can and must be merged. We need to make science cool and reach as many audiences as possible. There is no reason celebrities and influencers shouldn’t be campaigning for the climate.

Have you ever had any major setbacks (in STEM or otherwise)?

Absolutely! I didn’t get tenured track professorship at Columbia University because my field was considered too “multidisciplinary.” Even a school as reputable as Columbia can find itself stuck in archaic practices not aligned to the reality of what we need going forward to solve major global challenges. We need to break down silos and have different disciplines share information and work together, the same way we need diversity in STEM. I was incredibly disappointed at the time, but in every setback there is an opportunity. I moved from academia into science policy and media communication and it’s been incredible for my career.

What’s one thing you’d like to change about the STEM community?

We really need to share information, communicate and collaborate across STEM disciplines and ensure that the social sciences are included as part of “S” in STEM. We also need to help scientists improve communicating their research to the public and feel confident in making recommendations to policymakers.

Is there a problem with sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination in general in the STEM community?

The STEM community, like most fields historically comprised of the western patriarchy, are still confronting systemic exclusion of marginalized communities. The tide is turning, awareness is increasing, and there are increased opportunities for the prerequisite education required for historically marginalized groups to succeed in STEM. There is still a long way to go, but these are the right questions to be asking.

What’s your message for young teens wanting to do STEM?

Find your STEM niche and passion. Passion cannot be taught or learned and you cannot go wrong pursuing what in STEM you love the most.

What is your favorite science joke?

I don’t need to look at more data. What I’m feeling with you is already statistically significant…said no behavioral scientist ever!

What is your most embarrassing moment in your life?

I pronounced “paradigm” as “paradigim” at one of my first early academic conference talks. I was told after the fact and was mortified!

I was also the Season Finale of Nicklelodeon’s “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” and definitely was not!

What is your favourite food?

I grew up eating Bengali food, which is mostly comprised of fish given Bengal’s geographic location. I have an affinity towards seafood, but until we can harvest marine proteins more sustainably, I am limiting my seafood intake. I find Asian cuisines like Thai or Malaysian the most palatable for most plant-based eating.

What can be done to make STEM more diverse?

We must talk about diversity in STEM as a necessity as opposed to a nicety. It is a diversity of experiences, perspectives, and vantage points that will surely lead the the creative solutions we need to solves our world’s most pressing challenges.

How has your identity impacted your career in STEM?

I identify as an American national, but an ethnically Bengali woman. Regardless of where you are in your career, your identity comes with you. I sometimes felt very American when I was working in the UK, and sometimes very Bengali female when on a panel of white men. I’ve always taken my identity as a positive differentiation. It’s our differences that brings the value.

huge thank you to Dr. Sweta Chakraborty for joining us today! Be sure to subscribe to receive more STEM-related content coming to your inbox.

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Samhita Vinay