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No gender bias in science: Tessy Thomas

No gender bias in science: Tessy Thomas

Hyderabad: She sees no paradox in a woman working to develop Agni-V, the indigenously developed, 5,000-km range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile that some would call a weapon of mass destruction. Scientist Tessy Thomas, who guided the team behind it, calls it a "weapon of peace" and says there is no gender discrimination in science.

Associated with all the Agni series missiles, Thomas led the Agni-IV team as project director for vehicles and mission and was project director (mission) for Agni-V.

"There is no gender discrimination in science because science does not know who is working for it. When I reach there for work I am no more a woman. I am only the scientist," Tessy told IANS in an interview here in the wake of the Agni-V launch last week.

A rare woman in a male bastion, the 49-year-old scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) played a key role in making India's most potent inter-continental ballistic missile.

The sari-clad Tessy recalls that women were two to three percent of the scientific community at DRDO in the past. "Now they are 12 to 15 percent. This difference has come about in 20 years."

Tessy says the successful launch of Agni-V was a dream come true for over 2,000 scientists who were working for last three years. "It was a great moment. We have many scientists working on different technologies."

After Agni-V, she has set her eyes on Multiple Independent Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRV). "We are thinking of a new technology for MIRV system. We have done Agni-V with single re-entry vehicle. We are now thinking of multiple RVs."

She says another woman - her mother - is an inspiration for her, but she also misses her father. She was in Class 8 when her father, an accountant, suffered a paralytic stroke. He remained confined to his house till his death in 1991.

"I really miss him because he was the one who said yes when I opted for engineering. He was there at every step of my decision till I started my career," Tessy told IANS.

"My father was good at mathematics and was a very knowledgeable person. My mother is a qualified teacher but she never went to any school for teaching. She put in all her effort in teaching all six of us - five girls and a boy."

"My mother had the will power to look after my ailing father as well as all of us. Today she is 75 and as a mother she inspires all of us," said Tessy about Kunjamma Thomas, who lives in Alappuzha, Kerala.

While her siblings became engineers, managers and bank officers, Tessy rose to dizzy heights as a defence scientist.

"I was like any other common child who used to go to school, enjoy life, come back and play like a village child," she recalled with a twinkle in her eyes. It was during her school days that she went on picnic to Thumba rocket station on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram.

"From my school days I wanted to do engineering for reasons I don't know. I completed my engineering and took up M Tech in guided missile," said Tessy who joined the DRDO in 1988.

Among scientists, father of India's missile programme A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is her inspiration. "When I joined in 1988, Dr Abdul Kalam was a director of DRDL (Defence Research and Development Laboratory) and was the one who directed me to join inertial navigation group."

She feels balancing the jobs of a homemaker and a scientist is challenging. "It was tough when my son was in school. I like cooking. I enjoy it. I used to get up early morning and do cooking for the whole day, come back in evening and serve dinner," she said.

Her son Tejas, named after India's indigenously developed light combat aircraft, is now doing his final year engineering in Vellore.

Tessy also enjoyed the support of her husband Saroj Patel, a commodore in the Indian navy, now posted in Mumbai. "We know about commitment to each other and that is how it worked."

Does Tessy, named after Mother Teresa, see a paradox in a woman working to develop weapons of mass destruction? "There are women in military and in all services. How does it matter?" she replied.

On the contrary, Tessy considers missiles as "weapons of peace". "If you are strong enough, nobody will dare to touch you. If you have a stick in your hand, nobody will come to beat you because you will retaliate. It is as simple as that. It is not what I want. It is the country's requirement," she signs off.


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