Profile with Nanda Rodrigues

Nanda Rodrigues (India & Trinity 1984) is the Head of Scientific Business and Administration at the Medical Research Council in Harwell, Oxford. She holds a D.Phil. in Biochemistry from the University of Oxford, an M.B.A. from Oxford Brookes University, a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from St. Xavier’s College and an MSc from University of Bombay.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Nanda Rodrigues: It has to be Oxford.  I came in ’84, and apart from three years out in London, I’ve lived in Oxford. I’ve lived there more than anywhere else in the world, and now it’s home to me.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite film genre?

Nanda Rodrigues: It depends what time of day, and what I’m watching. I’m a Trekkie though— I love science fiction.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Nanda Rodrigues: I was a research assistant, back in India before I came here.

Rhodes Project: What piece of technology could you not live without?

Nanda Rodrigues: If you ask me today, it’s my iPad. I didn’t have it until two months ago. My boss gave it to me, and now he says I’m really attached to the iPad! I take it everywhere, even to the toilet. Two months ago I was quite happy living without it. But now that I have it I think, oh my God, how did I survive?

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be later in life?

Nanda Rodrigues: A scientist. I always knew. I do a lot of career advice now, and I always tell people that you have to have a calling to want to be able to discover the whys and hows of the world – the answers to biological questions like, “How did we come into being?” or “What is life?” Those things have always bothered me from the beginning; that’s how I knew I wanted to be a scientist.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Nanda Rodrigues: The best part of my job now is helping people to achieve their potential and to make a difference. I don’t do any active research anymore. You reach a stage where you have to facilitate more than do it yourself. It’s about making things happen, making things better. So the best part of my job is being able to help people, actually. And also meeting challenges; I always tell my boss, “It’s not a problem; it’s a solution waiting to be found.” That’s how I look at it.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?

Nanda Rodrigues: Today, there are still so many questions unanswered in terms of medical research.  We found the sequence of the genome ten years ago now, and we thought that would give us all the answers, but it only raised more questions. So ultimately it’s going to be a long way ahead before we can find cures and solutions to understand how genes work. That I think is the main challenge of this century— to find out gene function.  And it can’t be done in isolation. In the past, one scientist in a little laboratory could think of great ideas. Now it’s gone global in a sense. We need people to work together because all of these things require resources and a lot of effort from different countries, and government, and funding institutions. So now the challenges are about working together—looking in the same direction, getting different consortia to work together. One part of my job recently was going to India, for example, and getting the Indian scientists on board on an international project. You have to take all the strengths that each person brings to the table and work around those, so that becomes a big part of my job now.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to be a scientist?

Nanda Rodrigues: You have to have the calling. You have to be serious about it. There will be the glass ceiling – I tell them that. It’s not an easy road ahead, whatever you do, so you really have to be interested in what you’re doing. The satisfaction that you get out of what you do is so immense, but you shouldn’t be there for the money. If you want to go somewhere and make money, maybe this is not the place. You might make money if you are successful, but you don’t do it for money. You do it because you love it. So if it doesn’t inspire you, I wouldn’t go this way. 99% of it is perspiration and 1% is inspiration. There will be many frustrating days. But the fulfilment that you get out of one answer to the question you asked is so great and so immense that it’s worth all the effort you put in.

We have PhD students that I provide pastoral care for and I go to schools and colleges to give career advice, that’s part of our engagement portfolio. What is lovely is when we get 10-year-old students coming here, we try to teach them the science we do in lay-speak, and some years later they come here to do their PhD and they say, “I was here as a school kid, and I wanted to become a scientist after that!” It turns out, that’s how we churn out our PhD students and scientists of the future is to get them while they’re young and really show them what a difference science has made to all our lives. It’s more important that we inform people and they make that choice knowingly, because in the past I don’t think I even knew what I was going in for. For some time I wanted to be a doctor, but now I know that would have been a completely wrong decision.  We really need to tell our younger generation what it is they’re going in for. I think people who have been there need to pass on the wealth of information and experience they have.

Rhodes Project: What would readers on our site be surprised to learn about you?

Nanda Rodrigues: That I am a miniaturist. I spend my spare time making miniatures of whatever I see. I do little miniatures of everything. I love doing that, it gives me great pleasure and they make great keepsakes of important occasions in your life.

Rhodes Project: What is one of your proudest accomplishments?

Nanda Rodrigues: I had to think hard about this one as I think others around me are very proud of what I have accomplished as a scientist, as a human being, as a manager.  I in turn am proud when my daughter gets a prize at school, so I think it’s better to be humble about what one achieves oneself -- it could never have been done without the input and encouragement of your family, friends and colleagues.

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