Swati Sen – One of the First Female Postgraduate Students at Churchill

This article was published in the Churchill Review, Vol 59. Swati Sen, now Swati Sen Mandi, was one of the first female postgraduate students (1972- 1975) at Churchill College.

When I arrived at Churchill College, Cambridge, in June 1972, Michaelmas Term had not yet started; there were hardly any students around. With the start of the new term, this College which had been a men’s college for so long, would go mixed. Appropriate facilities, including fitting of long mirrors in rooms ear-marked for female students, were being carefully considered. Even under such administrative hustle and bustle, I never felt without friends! This was because of the affectionate guidance of my PhD Supervisor, Dr Daphne Osborne who, in addition to running a Cambridge University Laboratory on Huntingdon Road, was the First Woman Fellow of Churchill College.  

A learning experience  

Dr Andrew Tristram (the Senior Tutor for graduate students at Churchill College) was very caring with regard to academic activities as well as social development of graduate students in the College. It was with his help that I, through my application and subsequent sanction of a Gulbenkian Fellowship, could fulfil the financial requirement for availing of a Graduate studentship. For facilitating interaction among the freshers, Dr Tristram often invited graduate students to wine and cheese parties at his residence. With the kind catalytic role of Dr and Mrs. Tristram at such parties, my uneasy feeling (resulting from me being new to such gatherings) soon transformed into a learning experience in a foreign culture. I enjoyed the evenings! Such occasions as well as my later visits to the College MCR gave me an opportunity to make friends, albeit with an initial pinch of apprehension on both sides! With time, better understandings developed and I could make some very good friends. I still cherish fond memories of some of my Churchill friends as well as some from my laboratory at the ARC Unit of Developmental Botany on Huntingdon Road (set up by Professor P. W. Brian, the then Head of the Botany Department at the University).  

Fond memories  

I also warmly recall the helpful guidance I received, when needed, from the administrative staff of the Graduate Office in College as well as from Miss Walker, the then Office Assistant in Dr Tristram’s office. The Bedmakers, whenever I came across any of them, as well as the Porters in their lodge at the College entrance, always offered smiling greetings whenever I went in and out of the College that included going out to pluck strawberries from the farm across Storey’s Way. Formal Hall dining on special occasions, with Fellows of the College at High table, was an experience that I warmly cherish. On a daily basis however, the College Dining Hall, serving dinner in cafeteria style, was indeed welcoming after a long day in my Molecular Biology Laboratory. Unfortunately, although my laboratory was at a short walking distance through the College backs, I often ended up being late for dinner in Hall! As a consequence, I had to make do with the ‘staircase’ kitchen facility.  

Making friends  

Staircase 7 was home to me during my first year at Churchill College and again as luck would have it, I could stay in Staircase 7 for the second year also. I often would sit at my window and gaze out into the extended greens on the backside of the College. From here I could also see ‘The Hepworth’ where students often came for spending a while. In the kitchen of Staircase 7, I first met Stella Harris. With time, we became very good friends and often exchanged recipes for cooking. Her would-be-husband, Tony Law, was also very friendly. When in the third year of our stay in Churchill they got married, I was invited to the wedding. This gave me an opportunity of witnessing  the rituals of an English wedding for the first time! Unfortunately, when I got married (in India) after returning from Cambridge, Stella could not come, although her kind thoughts were with me. As a reflection of our friendship, I received an English recipe book from her as a wedding gift. Subsequently, once when I was passing through London, I visited Stella and Tony in their new home.  

I also had friends from other countries viz Kathryn Cheah, a Chinese from Hongkong, Mantri Samaranayaka from Ceylon. We often used to get together for preparing dinner mostly in Kathryn’s staircase kitchen. Here we cooked some of our national dishes. This is where I learnt the rituals of Chinese New Year dinner. Kathryn subsequently married James and went back to Hong Kong. Mantri went back to Sri Lanka. I have not heard from her since.  

Help with my PhD  

With time passing by, I was coming to the end of my 3 years’ tenure of West Bengal (India) Government Fellowship; it was time for me to return. Around this time my PhD supervisor, Daphne, needed a foot operation. Since I needed to complete my PhD thesis write up one of my friends, David, used to drive me to Daphne at her hospital (at MRC) and bring me back after Daphne had gone through my write-up and made the necessary corrections. With further help and guidance of senior friends, viz Peter and Tristan, I finalized my dissertation and submitted it to the University of Cambridge. Due to time constraint, I could not attend the Convocation, though I would have loved to be there. I received my PhD Certificate by mail following the Convocation of Cambridge University in 1975. 

Visits from my Cambridge friends  

After returning to India viz Calcutta (now Kolkata), I Joined the Presidency College for teaching undergrads and postgrads. Subsequently, for conducting full time research, I joined the Bose Institute, Calcutta. Here I supervised graduate students in their PhD programmes. Several of my friends from Churchill College and the ARC unit visited me here: Tristan came in connection with setting up a collaborative research programme with me, Michael came to attend an International Symposium, Daphne stopped enroute attending another Conference while Peter, during his business trip to Unilever office in Bombay, took a couple days off to visit me in Calcutta. With a heavy heart I remember, Daphne and Peter have since left for their heavenly abode.  

Sharing concepts on cell molecular events in plants  

With the aim to sharing research concepts on cell molecular events in plants that I developed during my tenure at Churchill College, I visited several National Universities and Research Institutes in India. I presented invited lectures at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, and also at Universities in N E India, viz. Universities of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh as well as the ‘North Eastern Hill University’ in Shillong. In March 2016, the Director General of Drug Administration, Government of Bangladesh, Dhaka invited me to serve as a Resource Person at a workshop on Medicinal Drug Administration. 

International collaborative research  

I also participated in collaborative research internationally, viz. 

  • As a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow at U.C. Davis, 1985 – 1986
  • As a Visiting Scientist (Research Fellow 3) at the International Rice Research Institute, Philippines (1990 – 1991)
  • As a Visiting Scientist at the Department of Agronomy, Ohio State University, under the NSF programme (1991)

During these international visits, whenever possible, I stopped by at Churchill College; this gave me a feeling of ‘Home Coming’! I was thus thrilled when I got an invitation to join in the commemoration marking 25 years of admitting women students at Churchill College.  

International workshops and conferences  

During my tenure of Residency Award at the Rockefeller Foundation Study and Conference Centre in Bellagio, Italy (in 2001), I participated in interactive sessions between researchers and social scientists. In 2002 I – together with Dr C.O. Qualset (University of California, Davis), as the Joint Organizing Secretary – organised an International Symposium on ‘Plant Biodiversity: Conservation and Evaluation’. At the Bose Institute, 92 SPOTLIGHT ON… I organised Annual Workshops on “DNA Fingerprinting and Hands on Training on Medicinal Potential in Plants” for junior scientists. Participants at these workshops included young scientists from Indian Universities / Research Institutes / Pharma Companies viz Himalaya Drugs and also Professors of Ayurveda Research Colleges in Kolkata. 

Publication & award  

My interest in understanding cell molecular events in plants under normal/ variable environment led to my Springer publication (2016) on “UV Radiation in Enhancing Survival Value and Quality of Plants” that impact on humans/animals. In recognition of my interest on cell-molecular events associated with environmental variation in Biological Systems (initiated during my tenure at Churchill College and thus Cambridge University) I was awarded an ICMR Emeritus Medical Scientist position for 5 years till 2017. My studies during these years were focused primarily on cell-molecular entities/ events and their variation with change in environment. Having come a long way through my research career, I recall with warm affection the contribution of Churchill College in preparing me for entering into the international arena for developing a career in plant molecular biology research, with the PhD degree of Cambridge University flagging it off!