From tropical South India to physical chemistry at FAU

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Dr. Aswathy Muttathukattil, CBI, Postdoktorandin TechFak. (Bild: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

In our series of 22 reports, we present a panorama of female researchers from various qualification levels and academic positions, ranging from students to W3 professors. With their individual career paths, the female researchers in STEM subjects act as role models to encourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career, giving interesting insights into their careers to date. The MINT experts also share aspects of their private lives.

Postdoctoral researcher Aswathy Muttathukattil From tropical South India to physical chemistry at FAU

Dr. Aswathy Muttathukattil comes from Kerala, speaks Malayalam, and has dedicated herself scientifically to physical chemistry. Kerala is a tropical state in southwestern India with a population of 33 million, green landscapes, palm trees, and beaches on the Arabian Sea; the language Aswathy speaks alongside English looks as beautifully written as a garland of flowers. She grew up privileged, the 31-year-old FAU postdoctoral researcher says, and when she speaks of her homeland, her eyes light up. She comes from a large, supportive family and enjoyed free access to education. That’s not a given for girls in India, she points out, but it is in the state where she grew up.

Raised in a liberal and cosmopolitan way

The daughter of a photographer and a housewife was raised in a liberal and cosmopolitan way. Her parents – even though they are not academics themselves – gave her the freedom to realize her dream and study. ‘Already during my school years, I was fascinated by various scientific ideas such as the uncertainty principle or the theory of evolution. I also love solving mathematical problems.’ That’s why she chose a STEM subject for her further studies. And so, at the nearby University of Calicut, she was able to earn her Bachelor of Science in chemistry and her Master of Science in applied chemistry. Because she received a scholarship from the Center for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), she then went to the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore as a junior researcher, and completed a doctoral degree in chemistry, specifically on the topic of ‘the phenomenon of protein folding and aggregation.’ As she explains: ‘Essentially, it was about how proteins found in saliva have a certain structure that helps it to break down food.’

Eine Frau sitzt an einer Treppe und hat eine Tasse in der Hand.
Dr. Aswathy Muttathukattil, CBI, Postdoctoral Researcher TechFak. (Image: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

A bold move to Europe

After successfully defending her dissertation, she looked into international universities because, ‘I really wanted to go to Europe because of the history, the culture and the many opportunities on this continent.’ It was a bold move, as Aswathy Muttathukattil has been married since 2016. But her husband, an engineer, supported her in her endeavor. The 31- year-old looked into different options and found out that research was being conducted at FAU on exactly the area where she wanted to explore and expand her expertise. So after a successful application, she came to FAU as a postdoc in February 2020. Thanks to FAU’s Emerging Talents Initiative (ETI), which supports excellent young scientists in applying for external funding, she received funding for a research project. At the Institute for Multiscale Simulation in FAU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Nanostructured Films (IZNF), Aswathy Muttathukattil is meanwhile working on the self-assembly of nanoparticles. But the beginning of her postdoc period was difficult: She had barely arrived in Germany when the pandemic gradually paralyzed life. For the Indian scientist, this meant a lot of time working from home, little opportunity for social contact – and homesickness. But she overcame this tough time and now raves about her work, especially its interdisciplinary nature. ‘My background is in physical chemistry. In my doctoral thesis, I worked on simulating biomolecules like proteins, using principles from physics.’ And now she is using similar physical principles to study and optimize new materials.

‘I work at the intersection of chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, and computer science.’

FAU, she says, offers just the right environment for scientific collaborations. She has also benefited from the ARIADNE mentoring programme. Here she received helpful advice and networked with other young female scientists. ‘I also like that the university is located in central Europe, in beautiful Bavaria. If you want to take a short break after strenuous research work, there are many great places to visit in the surrounding area.’ And in spite of having been a vegetarian for many years, she has even learned to appreciate schnitzel, as well as the many good types of bread.

Impressed by the open discourse about the role and position of women in society and science in Germany

Eine Frau fährt in Winterkleidung Fahrrad.
Dr. Aswathy Muttathukattil, CBI, Postdoctoral Researcher TechFak. (Image: Giulia Iannicelli/FAU)

‘In my home country, a gender discussion simply doesn’t take place,’ Aswathy Muttathukattil regrets. Young women in India are often well educated, she says, but then don’t have the opportunity to pursue a professional career. ‘Most women are socially pressured to marry early and have children,’ the researcher describes. ‘Opting out of this expectation is possible, but very uncommon. Many women don’t have the chance to live self-determined lives.’ She feels privileged to be able to live freely in Europe and have the option to stay here. And where does the 31-year-old see herself in ten years? ‘I can well imagine living in India as a professor or, if my husband has the opportunity to work here, continuing my career in Germany as well.’

Perseverance is the key!

As a woman in a male-dominated STEM subject, she wants to prove herself by doing a good job and reach out directly to as many young female researchers as possible to encourage them: ‘Leave all self-doubt aside. Perseverance is the key!‘

This article is part of the brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Headerimage The Sky is the Limit
Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”

Diverse, inspiring and innovative, the brochure “The Sky is the Limit” introduces female researchers in STEM subjects from the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Sciences in a series of varied interviews.

Other interviews are available on the Research website.

Download the brochure “The Sky is the Limit — Female STEM scientists at FAU”

The publication is the result of collaboration between RTG 2423 FRASCAL and the Office of Equality and Diversity. Dr. Susanne Stemmler conducted the interviews.