Interviewing Dr. Shakila Merchant

Dr. Shakila Merchant is Deputy Director of the CUNY CREST Institute and the Director for CUNY High School Initiative in Remote Sensing of the Earth Systems Engineering and Sciences (HIRES). Dr. Merchant is also the Associate Director for NOAA CESSRST. She has a passion for working with students and has conducted a HIRES program every year since 2014, impacting more than 200 students who underwent the program.

What is you background? How did you get to where you can today in your career?

I am the first generation college student from my family. Back home in India, I was the only female member of the family to do STEM and first generation college student. My dad is a high school graduate, and my mom is a middle school graduate. It was a big deal for my family to have someone to be able to pursue a college degree in STEM the field. Especially, from a background where resources were very limited, or limited to none. Having an opportunity was so much of a blessing for us, especially because my parents always wanted me to pursue higher degrees and be successful, even though my family could not afford my tuition fees or other resources, because they did not have the opportunity.  I always considered my parents as my life-long mentors; they were always supportive and optimistic that I can succeed in life. They believed in me. That really kept me going. Once I finished my bachelor’s degree, I was told that, it’s time to get married, because that’s the culture we are brought in. ‘If you get more educated, it would be very hard for you to get married’. But, I was not the kind who would live in such  societal norms. I always wanted to do something that’s different, create a new normal despite all the challenges. I never wanted to follow the traditional route.

I did well in my master’s degree. I was a university Merit Scholar; I ranked second in the whole city, at the university level. this further encouraged me to go further with my studies and I was selected into the MPhil program. I was one out of three in the entire university system to be selected, so there was no way I was going to decline. I came first in the MPhil degree at the university level. Then, I joined a federal agency at my hometown, which was a National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), which is one of the forty high-end R&D institutions, under the Council of Scientific Research (CSIR), Ministry of Science and Technology,  Government of India. I became one of their junior research fellows.

I had the opportunity to do some great research related to socio-economic impact of developmental activities that can affect our water, our air, and our ecosystems that led me to then do my PhD. My director at that time was very motivating; he felt that I had the potential to pursue a doctoral degree. I was earning while I was learning, which was very important for us, because in developing countries, you do not get PhD scholarships, even though you may be a meritorious student. Scholarships and funding is not available, unlike in this country [United States], where you have scholarships to do PhD. Therefore, I did not have any funding to do my PhD. I had to earn and do a full time job to be able to pay my tuition bills and my cost towards my doctoral degree, while help support my family.

I became a scientist at that same federal agency. I was with that agency for almost 10 years, which included the time when I completed my doctoral degree. Then, I moved to this country [United States] in 2002 because I got married, and my husband is a US citizen. I just had to start my professional journey all over again; it was like a reset button. I was new to this country. I was an immigrant. I was a woman of color with a degree from a foreign country. Life was tough and it was just right after 911, which was another challenge. Being a foreign degree and a Muslim woman, to be able to find an identity in a country at that time was very hard. The job market was very tough. I joined an organization for New Americans New York Association for New Americans (NYANA), since I already came to this country with a green card. I was able to work here, but I didn’t have a job. Through NYANA, I learnt was able to adapt to the American Job market culture, including public speaking. That was a starting point for me. I had a doctoral degree, and I was acclaimed for my professional training from back home, but I was unknown, here, nor my knowledge and expertise seem to have much value here, since I didn’t go through the US education system.

Through perseverance and self-belief, it wasn’t that hard to get the job that I have here at City College in 2002. It was more like a management job. I was a scientist doing my research and development. It was not easy for me to take the job because I felt that I’m deviating from my career goals. I didn’t have many opportunities at that time. I was like, ‘Go grab whatever comes my way and kick my way through the first door, and seek the opportunity that I have available to me. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll just take this job, try it out for two months, and then I will find another job’. I needed money and I needed to sustain myself. I started my job here at 2002 in August. It was a program that I am still apart of, NOAA Center for Earth System Science in Remote Sensing Technology. The scientific goals and the mission were very much resonated with what I was trained, Earth system science and how it impacts the society that we live in. It was very intriguing for me, even though I was managing the center; I was able to indulge in the science, and students training that was happening here. It kept me motivated.

I came with a mindset to be here for two months, and it’s now 20 years. I’m still part of this program, because I felt I belonged here. The college atmosphere was very welcoming. I didn’t feel like I was a foreigner, an immigrant. I felt inclusive. Working with faculty and students, students who look like me, who felt like me who had the challenges like me, gave me a purpose to use my knowledge, my training to groom the next generation students who are in the same position that I was 10 years ago. I thought that I could be that mentor for them, I can advocate for them, which I didn’t have when I was a student. I can tell them that if I can do it, you can do it as well. It’s been 20 years now, and I’m still in this job because I feel I found a place, a home for myself, I felt that I can do this, and I didn’t have to deviate a whole lot from my career. I’m still part of the STEM community. I’m able to use my knowledge and my skill sets, be it, talking to students, helping them to believe in themselves or to create programs that would help create pathways for students. They can find an easy transition from one phase of their lives to another. That was something that I did not have and I struggled. Nevertheless, because I struggled I know the challenges that sometimes you feel like you must quit, because you don’t have a mentor that can support you. I wanted to be that mentor for my students here. I’m happy to say that more than 500 to 1,000 students have come across this program. I have been able to mentor them in some way or the other day. I see them successful in life, and I feel like maybe I have contributed in some way in their professional journeys.

How did you develop your passion for Earth System Sciences?

When I started my journey, I was recruited to a polytechnic school. However, because of my family circumstances, and since it was far away from where I lived, we couldn’t afford to send me that far off. We didn’t have the transportation means or the money to buy me a car. We had to make a choice that I had to go to a school that was walkable from where I lived. I could not go to the engineering or polytechnic school. I had to compromise. I still was able to study biology, chemistry, and physics while completing my major for my bachelor’s degree. So, my career, even though I retained in STEM, was not up to me. I didn’t had a choice to choose from, I just had to do whatever opportunity was feasible to my family situations. Over the course of my life I was able to switch to environmental engineering, environmental science, during my PhD. In the past, you have to remain in a conventional major to complete your PhD, especially in India. In the U.S., I see that this is a great place where a student can have a major in engineering, but they can minor in English literature or music, you are allowed to be transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary.

I had to move from a university to IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology), which is one of the prestigious schools in India. That change through a difficult one for me, really opened up many avenues. It opened up to understanding the Earth as a whole, and environment as a whole. The nonliving interacts with the living ecosystem. I was then recruited to work for national impact. I worked on government-funded projects where I studied the impact of air pollution on the society, and how the creation of water dam could have displaced 1000s of villagers in the valley. Those were some of the projects where I had a real world experience working with people who were or could be impacted. I interviewed them, asking them questions such as ‘Do you really want this developmental activity to happen in your neighborhood? You would be homeless, you would be replaced or displaced to another habitat’. Conducting that type of interactive research, which was an intersection of science, engineering, social science, really was something that I felt I should continue pursuing. Since then, I’ve been very passionate about it. At the beginning of my job here in the U.S., I was doing complete management. Then gradually, I was able to write proposals that helped me earn funding to direct high school programs or undergraduate programs. I was able to design projects that were cross sectional, interdisciplinary, and where students can really think out of the box. Students can think, ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing, and who cares about what I’m doing?’ I was able to teach myself methods of inquiry-based learning due to the one opportunity given for me to complete my PhD and utilize that know without even realizing how much it would impact my life and career trajectory. I feel blessed that even with all the challenges in this country and on a foreign land, I was able to continue my passion. I am hoping that I would have the opportunity to continue making impact on other students’ lives as well.

What advice would you give young women who are interested in the Earth Systems Sciences?

I think from my experience, as women, we always feel that we are brought up with that notion of ‘Oh, you are a woman. You are always like the “secondary citizen” and you should wait for your opportunity’. Culturally, that is embedded in most women. My strong recommendation to everyone is to believe in yourself. I do this with my own daughter. Try to learn how to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. That’s when you are winning all battles in your life, all hurdles in your life. Never be shy and never stop advocating for yourself. Never doubt yourself. Always believe in yourself. You may fail the first time, you may fail the second time, and failure is never a bad thing. Failure is a stepping-stone to success. I learned more because of my failure than from my successes. I just want everyone to know that, that you are great, and you’re awesome in the way you are. Nobody else is like who you are. You are unique and you are awesome. You’re the best in what you do, how you feel, and how you think. People also misunderstand women for their humility. some of us, based on our cultural backgrounds, may be brought up with this culture that you should be humble, you should be down to Earth. You’re then misunderstood, ‘Oh, she doesn’t say anything, so it’s okay to dismiss her off’. I think you should stand up for yourself and never let anybody dismiss you off because your humbleness can always be taken as ‘Oh, you’re so stupid. She didn’t know her rights. I think it is important for us to recognize this and self-love. We should always respect ourselves and not belittle ourselves. I would always think that the reason why we are so distinctly apart from our male counterparts is that they never think that way. They never belittle themselves. As women, we are always trying to criticize ourselves. I think we are just genetically built that way that our brain always thinks that first accuse yourself than anybody else. I think we should stop that. We should always take pride in who we are.

Always believe in yourself, and the sky shall be your limits.

Thank you Dr. Shakila Merchant for being an inspiration to everyone around you!