Grad Student Research Profile: Urmila Unnikrishnan

Grad student research profile

Welcome to our new grad student profile!  We are excited to highlight the research of grad students working in science and technology studies, history of science, and philosophy of science.  Know someone whose work you’d like to support?  Email us!

Urmila Unnikrishnan is a graduate student at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  Working under the supervision of Professor Dhruv Raina – a CosmoLocal partner – Urmila researches “popular science literature in Malayalam (a language in South India) published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” and investigates how science is situated “in the social imaginary of the region.”  The main questions motivating her work centre on “history and sociology of science in colonial context, vernacular science, science popularisation and science and culture.”

The path to her current graduate work has not been a linear one, though she has consistently pursued an interest in sociology.  Urmila began by doing both her BA and MA degrees in sociology.  She remarks that “after my masters at the Centre for Study of Social Systems at JNU, I joined for M Phil in Sociology at the same centre. After a couple of months of coursework, I realised that I’d lost the excitement in sociology, or sociology at that centre.”

She decided to switch to the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.  The Centre has an interdisciplinary focus, and Urmila was able to do a variety of courses on “economics of education, history of education, psychology of education and philosophy of science. I also audited a course on science and society.”   The “year of rigorous course work at the centre broadened my horizons” and she found that she “was most excited by history and sociology of science. That was my initiation to the field.”

As she wrote her M Phil thesis on the social history of ethnomathematics, she contemplated “work on indigenous mathematics in Kerala, and as part of the archival work for that, I realised that Malayalam had a rich treasure of popular science literature mostly in periodicals which not many had looked into before.”  She began further exploring the history of science popularization in India, moving away from the ethnomathematics of her M Phil thesis research to her current studies.

Urmila identifies a couple of aspects of her work that she particularly enjoys.  She notes, “Like many others in our age, I was brought up in a knowledge environment where science and mathematics are deemed as ultimate forms of knowledge. But when I started reading history and sociology of science, every new reading was kind of a blow on these preconceived notions.”  However, this unlearning has turned out to be “the most enjoyable part of working on sociology and history of science.”

She has also come to appreciate the task of archival work: “being a sociology student I had no idea of archival work before I started working on the current theme. Although it was a bit upsetting in the beginning, I started to enjoy it as I went deeper into it and I love it now.”

We asked Urmila how she relates her research to the broader topic of “cosmopolitanism and the local.  She notes that “it’s difficult to delineate this relation with cosmopolitanism and the local. I believe that given my location as a scholar working on the history of science in a post-colonial context, and as an individual deeply embedded in that context, all the questions I ask and my methodology is deeply entangled with the questions of cosmopolitanism and the local in the history of science.”  Thank you, Urmila, for speaking with us!  We wish you all the best in your exciting research.