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Robert Neubecker

I grew up in the slums of India. Now I’m a scientist

I scrambled up a ladder to the tin roof of our house, clutching a book about the evolution of animals. I was 10 years old, and I’d just finished cooking dinner for my entire family—a task that was my daily responsibility. From my perch, I could look out at the slum where we lived in a small town in India. But that wasn’t what drew me to the roof: We didn’t have any lamps in our house, so I needed sunlight to read my book. I didn’t know it at the time, but that study routine was my ticket to a career as a scientist.

My father—a laborer—didn’t let me attend school initially. I was always jealous of my younger brother when he set off to school each day. So, one day, when I was 5 years old, I followed him and hid under the teacher’s desk. She noticed me and sent me home. But the next day, she called my father and told him that he should put me in school. Much to my delight, my father said yes.

I had a passion for learning, and—despite the hunger pangs I went to school with most days—I quickly shot to the top of my class. When I was 10 years old, my father sent me to a better school outside our neighborhood, one that was mostly attended by students from wealthier families. I was at the top of the class there, too. But I was treated poorly by classmates who saw me as a child of the slums. I also suffered from embarrassment during biology labs because I was very short—due to malnutrition, I suspect—and I had to stand on a chair to see into the microscope.

When I graduated from high school, I wanted to become an engineer. My father was eager for me to attend university, but he told me I couldn’t study engineering because it was for boys; he said I should study food science instead. My initial reaction was that food science was the last thing I wanted to study. After a childhood preparing meals for my family, there was nothing I hated more than cooking.

I enrolled in a food science program anyway, and I quickly discovered that food science wasn’t so bad after all. It was a real science—something akin to chemistry—that involved hypothesis testing and experimentation. Soon enough, I was hooked.

While attending university, I lived in a hostel near campus, paying my tuition and living expenses with the help of student loans my father secured for me as well as my side job as a research assistant. My room had a lamp, and I was thankful every night that I had light to study under—something I have learned to never take for granted.

In the years that followed, I received a Ph.D. in food engineering and was appointed to a faculty position—milestones that felt far removed from my beginnings in the slums. But shortly thereafter, I began a collaboration that brought me back to my roots. I worked with a company that wanted to tackle malnutrition in India’s slums. When representatives from the company first approached me, they said, “You’d need to go to the slums and talk with people”—thinking that I’d never done that before. “That’s no problem,” I replied. “I grew up in the slums.”

I hope others can take inspiration from my story and realize … they, too, can persevere.

As part of my work with the company, I modified the ingredients in a traditional Indian flatbread called chapati, which I’d made every day growing up. I realized it was the perfect vehicle to introduce more nutrition into the diet of poor people, because it was a staple eaten at every meal. I experimented with the ingredients and landed on a recipe that replaced wheat flour with cheap, locally grown grains that contain more minerals, protein, and dietary fiber.

Other researchers laughed at me when I started to work on chapati because they didn’t think there’d be much science, or innovation, associated with it. But I’ve since proved them wrong. My work has won numerous national and international awards, and companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies have all sought my expertise.

In my life, I’ve faced poverty, hunger, and discrimination. But I didn’t let them hold me back. I pushed through the obstacles and learned lessons from them that helped propel me forward. I hope others can take inspiration from my story and realize that—despite the challenges they may be facing—they, too, can persevere.

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