We all love inspirational stories of how ordinary humans triumph over the odds to achieve remarkable things. I would like to share one such story that has touched me deeply.
You might have heard about the sanitary pad situation in India – most women there don’t use them (only 12%, according to a 2011 survey by AC Nielson). There is a great stigma surrounding menstruation in the country, with reports of rural villages isolating women during their menstruation, and girls having to stop school due to these isolation practices.
One brave man stepped forward to address this problem, and started a social revolution in the process. A former school dropout and odd-job worker, Arunachalam Muruganantham was placed on TIME’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2014, gave a TED talk in 2015, and was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India. A 2013 documentary about him was entitled “Menstrual Man”.
Arunachalam Muruganantham at his TED talk
I will leave you to the juicy bits (sounds like a bad pun but it is not intended) of the story, while I do a breakdown of Mr Muruganantham’s journey towards his invention of a machine that makes sanitary pads. As an inventor, I thought he adopted methods and an attitude that embodied the spirit of scientific inquiry.
A note on scientific inquiry:
The National Science Teachers Association defines scientific inquiry as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.”
The above does not give the reader a very clear idea of what scientific inquirers do, so perhaps the figure below presents a clearer model. It lays out ten activities that scientists engage in throughout the scientific process, in any pattern that suits their own needs. Mr Muruganantham’s work includes all these activities and is a good real-life model of a scientific inquirer.
Activity Model for Scientific Inquiry (Reiff, Harwood, and Phillipson 2002)
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY WITH THE MENSTRUAL MAN
|1||Identify the problem||How can he make a low-cost sanitary pad so that his wife will buy and use it (instead of old dirty rags)?|
|2||Make preliminary observations||He made the following observations:
|3||Make prototype, conduct pilot tests and collect data, all in the face of intense social ridicule||He conducted the following initial experiments to test his prototype cotton pad:
|4||Study existing products, even if it meant great sacrifice||He collected used sanitary pads from women to observe how they work. He laid them out in his backyard, and his mother stumbled upon the gory sight.|
|5||Seek help from experts, even when it is beyond one’s means||He sought help from the following sources:
|6||Encounter huge obstacle||After he finally found the solution to his problem – cellulose fibres from pine wood to improve absorbency of the pads, he was thwarted by the high cost of the machine available to make the product.|
|7||Invent own machine to make product||He spent 4 years conducting further trials and experimentation to develop his own simple, low-cost machine.|
|8||Self-Actualisation||Success at last! Now to begin the long journey of empowering the poor women in his country to earn a living by making their own (biodegradable) sanitary pads.|
A KEY INGREDIENT IN SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY: DOGGED PURSUIT
In the process, his wife left him, his sisters ostracised him, and even his own mother packed her bags and ran away from him. He was even forced to leave his village. Basically, everyone thought he was mad and/or possessed. Yet he soldiered on, and in a span of 7.5 years, came up with an invention that has created jobs for women across 26 states in India.
The inventor demonstrating his machine
WHAT MAKES THIS AN INSPIRATIONAL TALE
What makes this man’s actions exceptional, for me, is Step 8 in the table above. His work did not stop after he obtained the desired results. Nor did he seek self-glorification, but he went about helping the poor, teaching them the simple science behind the making of sanitary pads and using that to improve their lives. (Note: exactly what goes into commercial sanitary pads is a fiercely protected trade secret by profit-guzzling companies, so it remains largely a mystery to the public) I think he is in a state of self-actualisation as he has carved out his own mission in life towards this greater good, changing lives while staying humble and true to his roots.