When Dr Madhabi Islam joined the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) in the early 1980s, only a few women worked there. Not many women pursued higher education back then and naturally the number of female employees, with expertise in the field of science, was even lower.
During her time at the commission, Madhabi witnessed remarkable progress of women with some growing under her direct supervision and many others were inspired by her relentless work ethics.
Dr Madhabi and her husband Dr Tajul Islam, a retired economics professor at Jahangirnagar University, have raised three children, who also pursued higher education in various fields in science. All three of them – two daughters and a son – have PhDs in different scientific studies.
Madhabi Isam was born and raised in Kolkata. A mathematics graduate of Presidency College, she received her Master's and PhD from the University of Calcutta.
In the late '70s she went to Russia's Moscow with a postdoctoral fellowship.
"I met my husband in Moscow," Madhabi says.
Professor Dr Tajul Islam had been in Moscow since 1972 for his PhD.
It was not long after they met that they knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
After tying the knot, Madhabi returned to Dhaka with her husband in 1980 and settled here for life.
In 1982, she joined the BAEC as a senior scientific officer. Over the years, she was promoted as principal scientific officer, chief scientific officer and then a director at the Institute of Computer Science where the fastest computer in the country was installed.
"Back then we did not have universities offering degrees in computer science. I was involved in computer programming, system programming, software etc," Madhabi reminisces about her professional career at the commission.
The brightest feather in her career was added in 2007, when she was made the director-general of Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at the BAEC.
"I was the first female DG of the atomic commission," she said.
She retired in the very year she was made a DG. But she never left work.
Madhabi Islam, since her time at the BAEC, was very much into teaching. On her weekends, she taught at Dhaka University and Jahangirnagar University.
At present, she is a professor of mathematics at the American International University (AIUB).
We asked Madhabi how they managed to raise their children so well despite being a working couple with highly demanding professional responsibilities.
"Since we both are academicians, our children naturally had that influence. My elder son and daughter already have their PhDs. My son studied industrial and production engineering at Buet and did his PhD from Nottingham University after doing his Master's from Canada. My daughter studied in genetic engineering, and did her PhD in the USA; my younger daughter too is pursuing her PhD in the United States," Madhabi said.
"Both of us were very busy with our jobs, but still, instead of leaving our kids to private tutors, we taught them ourselves," she added.
Her husband Professor Islam was the pro-vice-chancellor of Jahangirnagar University at the time. He was also a member of the University Grants Commission (UGC). He retired in 2016, and is now working as head of the department of economics in a private university.
"During my time, the government retirement age was 57. But my husband retired at 65," said Madhabi.
Asked if the couple feels lonely with their children living abroad, she said, "I don't regard this as loneliness. Although my kids are abroad, I don't feel we are lonely. It is not like that. It is up to them how they want to live their lives. I have to give them space to grow and let them build their future."
Witnessing women empowerment in science
Since the '80s at the BAEC, if there is one thing that inspired Madhabi is the exponential growth of women's participation.
"The women's participation was little at the beginning. But it gradually increased," she said.
"When I joined, you may say I was the first PhD holder but gradually many more women came forward and did their PhDs," she added.
"I always told my junior colleagues that they have to prove themselves with their work. This is what I believe in," Madhabi advised her juniors.
Speaking about what influenced more women's participation, she replied, "It is the desire. When I went to Vienna, at the atomic energy commission head office, I found a lot of female colleagues. That inspired me a lot. Similarly back home five more women were inspired from me and they at a point also inspired others. This is how women's participation increased exponentially."
Madhabi said she is very optimistic that Bangladeshi women have a bright future ahead.
"As I said I was raised in Kolkata. If I compare my days there in terms of education scopes for women, things are better in Bangladesh today. Girls here can stay on university campuses to study," she said.
"Our girls now don't stay home after studies. They want to do something and thus women here are contributing directly and indirectly to the development of the nation," she added.
Asked if the couple has any plan of settling with their children abroad, Madhabi said, "Never. I never thought of settling abroad, it never appealed to me. We will be here for the rest of our lives."
She further said, "We will be busy with work here and will visit our kids occasionally. But we don't want to leave the country."