Hard work plus determination equals success for mathematician Dr Sushama Agrawal
When she was just nine years old, Dr Sushama Agrawal was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye problem. This led to her slowly losing her vision, but not her purpose in life. Motivated by a will to succeed, she chose a subject—mathematics—that was a challenge in itself. Today, she is a lecturer at Ramanujan Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics, University of Madras. She teaches MSc and MPhil students and also supervises MPhil and PhD students in their dissertations and theses. "I do not think of this as a major achievement," she says. "I just did what I wanted to." And this is precisely what she wants to carry on doing: "working sincerely and guiding scholars".
Dr Agrawal’s journey has been marked by many highs and lows. The making of the mathematician can be traced back to her college days, where she secured a first division in BSc as well as MSc. She then qualified for the UGC-CSIR Junior Research Fellowship examination. She received a fellowship from the National Board for Higher Mathematics and went on to complete her PhD in Mathematics from the Institute of Technology, Chennai, in 1996. She was the first visually challenged person in India to receive a Doctorate in a Science subject. A feat that did not go unnoticed; she even received a letter of appreciation from the then Prime Minister of India, Deve Gowda.
As the next logical step in her life, Dr Agrawal began applying for teaching jobs. This was not an easy task, she soon discovered. She wrote for national and international journals and also presented papers at prestigious conferences across the world.
Six years later, in November 2000, Dr Agrawal was appointed lecturer at the Madras University.
For her, life now is a perfect blend of professional and personal happiness. Her husband is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. They have a daughter who is doing her postgraduate studies. Life is also hectic—she keeps herself busy attending symposiums and seminars, participating in short-term courses, travelling abroad and delivering guest lectures. She has been recognised for her contribution to the subject of mathematics and has received many awards, including one from the All India Confederation of the Blind.
If her choice of career has been unconventional, so is her spare-time activity. A firm believer in the alternative forms of healing, Dr Agrawal practises homeopathy, Bach flower remedies and acupressure on her friends and family. As for her role model "Mahatma Gandhi," she says, without a moment of hesitation. Inspired by his ideals, she has read My Experiments with Truth and seen The Making of the Mahatma.
Dr Agrawal has never let her disability get in her way. In fact, at times she has even considered it an advantage—"I get an opportunity to interact with so many young people who volunteer to read to me," she says in an aside. She considers herself a normal person, and this, she stresses, is the key to her success. "I have never felt advantaged or disadvantaged," she continues, acknowledging that it was her disability that helped her reach her present position. Grateful to her husband who encouraged her, her family and friends who supported her, Dr Agrawal, 46, looks back to a life that was, at times, complex and complicated. Yet she never gave up and, somewhere along the way, she mastered the winner's formula.