Indian Statistical Institute (ISI)

How 2021 Ramanujan Prize winner Neena Gupta is busting myths in Mathematics

Suha Roy
Suha Roy
Posted on 17 Jan 2022
16:07 PM
ISI professor Neena Gupta is the youngest recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (2019).

ISI professor Neena Gupta is the youngest recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (2019). Source: Neena Gupta; FB

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Breaking the stereotype wasn’t something Neena Gupta thought she would ever do when she graduated from Bethune College in 2006. But cut to the present — the mathematician, now 37 years old, has become the fourth Indian to receive the 2021 DST-ICTP-IMU Ramanujan Prize, smashing a commonly-held discriminatory belief that girls can’t do Maths.

In a chat with Edugraph, Gupta, a professor of Theoretical Statistics and Mathematics Unit, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) Kolkata, talked about her formative years and journey as a young academic in the world of Mathematics.

Edugraph: Congratulations, ma’am, on receiving the Ramanujan Prize in 2021! How did you come to choose Affine Algebraic Geometry and Commutative Algebra as a specialisation and how long have you been working in this area?

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Neena Gupta: We’re given some time to decide our specialisation after MSc. I was interested in Number Theory — it’s still one of my favourite areas — but there wasn’t any professor teaching that at ISI. My next area of interest was Topology. I was reading papers on that area as well as on Algebra. Eventually, I realised that Affine Algebraic Geometry and Commutative Algebra is the field in which I wanted to specialise. Then I asked one of my seniors and my guide for suggestions, and they advised me to follow my intuition and strength. I have been working in this area for the last 13 years.

You’re still the youngest recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (2019) for your work on the Zariski Cancellation Problem. How did you feel after receiving India’s most prestigious award for science and technology?

Neena Gupta: I’m really overwhelmed by the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award as it’s one of the biggest achievements for an Indian scientist. I felt the same after receiving the Ramanujan Prize, which brings with it international recognition. Of course, it’s really nice to receive prizes but they also put a lot of pressure and responsibility on your shoulders, inspiring you to work relentlessly on what you do best.

How do these awards inspire you to go the extra mile and in turn to inspire others?

Neena Gupta: Now it’s just not me continuing research — I have to go along with my students. I guide them as well as learn from them every day. This is a continuous mutual learning process. The awards that come in between are helpful because they help researchers feel that someone is recognising their work. Such recognition is very important not only because they inspire us to follow our passion but also set rewarding examples before young researchers.

Where did you go to school? And where did you pursue your passion for Maths after school?

Neena Gupta: I completed my schooling from Khalsa Model Senior Secondary School. Next, I did my BSc in Maths from Bethune College, after which I got enrolled in the MMath course at Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. My professors from Bethune College and ISI were always very helpful. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to follow my passion without their encouragement.


How did you opt for a career in Maths after school? How did your teachers help you realise your vision?

Neena Gupta: When we were studying in Class XII, everyone was eager to crack either the engineering or the medical entrance exams. At that time, I came across a senior who was pursuing Maths (Hons) from Calcutta University. She explained the graduation course structure to me and that convinced me to follow my passion. I took admission to the same course at Bethune College, one of the oldest and renowned colleges for women in Kolkata.

My teachers at Bethune College were very encouraging. In fact, one of them told me about the ISI entrance exam and asked me to sit for it. My brother submitted the form for me on the closing day of the entrance form window!

Exactly when did you realise that you wanted to pursue the field of research?

Neena Gupta: I got an offer during campus placement at college and was really elated. But when I told one of my professors about it, she immediately told me that I should go for higher studies instead of doing a job in the industry. That was the first time I came to realise I could actually contribute to the subject. I got a fuller picture of the vast and complex world of a research career when I landed at ISI.

Who do you consider as the pillars of your success in your journey as a mathematician?

Neena Gupta: I got enormous support from my guide, Prof Amartya Kumar Dutta, who is also from the same field. Prof Sashi Mohan Srivastava and Prof Goutam Mukherjee were also always there for me. Other professors like the late Somesh Chandra Bagchi and Debashish Goswami kept me focused on my job and helped me out in case of any difficulty.

Apart from them, I have drawn inspiration from the works of mathematicians like Shreeram Shankar Abhyankar and Shrikant Mahadeo Bhatwadekar.

Did you face any roadblocks in the course of your journey as a woman mathematician?

Neena Gupta: Looking back, I would say that I didn’t face any obstacles during my journey. But maybe I’m just lucky to have a very supportive family! My parents were always with me throughout my PhD and postdoctoral courses. My husband is also a source of immense support as he takes care of our kid when I’m at work or have to attend some seminar or conference.

We don’t see too many girls pursuing Maths. What do you think is the reason for that?

Neena Gupta: I feel that most girls don’t opt for a research career in Maths as it takes a long time to settle down. The whole thing is very uncertain even after the completion of the PhD course and a couple of postdoctoral research papers. Other than this problem, I don’t think that there is any scientific basis for girls not studying Maths as a subject. When someone tells me that Maths is not for girls, I feel even more determined to prove myself.

What would be your advice to students who want to pursue a career in Maths?

Neena Gupta: Maths requires a lot of patience and dedication. You should not opt for a career in the subject unless you are ready to immerse in it. Unless you discover the passion for Maths — this is true for any science subject — it is better not to go for it because the subject demands full commitment.

Maths is a vast field with a lot of unanswered questions. There is a lot left to do in this complex world. What we can do is try to contribute as much as we can with our little knowledge.

Last updated on 17 Jan 2022
18:40 PM
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