Vidya Venkataramanan

Vidya Venkataramanan is a PhD student studying environmental sciences and engineering within The Water Institute at UNC. Her research focuses on understanding the application and effectiveness of sanitation behavior change interventions, specifically Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS).

Vidya Venkataramanan poses for the camera.Photo courtesy of Vidya Venkataramanan
August 17th, 2016

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I wanted to become a journalist covering international affairs, or work for a United Nations agency like UNICEF or the UNHCR (for refugees). Coming from a family of engineers, people usually smiled and said, “How cute and idealistic.” Later, that turned into wanting to become a documentary filmmaker, and I almost headed in that direction. I even started off college in film school!

Describe your research in five words.

“Improving rural community sanitation projects.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose research as a career path.

While working for a public health organization in India, I entered the hamlet of a very poor and highly discriminated against pig-rearing community to understand their priorities and challenges relating to a disease called Japanese encephalitis. I spent a few hours hearing people’s stories; walking around with people to observe the water, sanitation, and hygiene situation; and doing participatory exercises with them to better understand their social-ecological situation. I realized that this type of qualitative research fed into my journalistic desire to capture people’s experiences and give voice to those who may not get asked often enough about what they want and how they live.

What’s an interesting thing that’s happened during your research?

I visited two villages in northern Laos that, given the rainy season, were only accessible by boat on the Mekong River. The local project staff told me it would take 30 minutes by “speedboat” one-way to each village. Excited, I headed to the river bank, but I didn’t see any speedboats in sight. Instead, I saw a few wooden canoes with small motors attached to them. Five of us crammed into the boat. For safety, we were given three life jackets and, for some reason, two motorcycle helmets. I chose not to disclose that I couldn’t swim since my other colleague was already deathly afraid of water. It ended up being an unforgettably gorgeous (and uneventful) journey on both days that we did it. A week later, at the southern tourist town of Luang Prabang, I was walking along the same Mekong River and boatmen kept pestering me to take a scenic boat ride — been there, done that! [block:views=story_art-big_art_2]

What advice would you give to up-and-coming female researchers in our field?

Even if you don’t plan to have a field-based career, try to get as much field experience as you can because nothing teaches you more about the realities on the ground and the potential practical and policy implications of your work. I would argue that traveling and meeting the people you want your work to impact is also a vital part of your research, and it’s a humbling experience. Listen to people, and be open to new experiences and ideas because you never know where your research will take you. Always question “evidence” and assumptions that are taken for granted. There are still a lot of unanswered questions in this field or else we would have solved these problems long ago!

UNC Research is proud of every scientist on this campus, but we are especially excited to promote our female researchers in 2016. Each week this year, we will publish a short Q&A feature on one of them — whether she is an undergrad, PhD candidate, or full professor. Please click here to make a recommendation.

Check out our 2016 Women in Science Wednesday Infographic!