A Little Ladder in the Lab

Laboratories call to mind stuffy old men who spend their time making things explode and people in white lab coats measuring things and stuffing cats in boxes. This was a prejudice I was happy to let go after meeting Ismudiati Puri Handayani.

Puri lives in a suburb of Groningen. Rows of grey identical apartments loom on the horizon while walking towards her apartment. She opens the door with a welcoming smile on her face and she wears a cheery orange headscarf pinned securely with a plastic orange flower.

The apartment she shares with her friend is heavily decorated. On the couch is her friend’s little daughter, watching Futurama on a giant black TV. It is an exotic place filled with dark furniture and prints on the wall that one would never suspect was here based on the outside of the building.

Ismudiati Puri Handayani, called Puri after Indonesian custom, was born in Indonesia in 1976 in a small village in central Java. While getting a good education in Indonesia is difficult and expensive – out of reach for many Indonesians – her mother, an elementary school teacher, encouraged her to get a proper education in order to get a better future, even if it meant traveling far.

At 18 Puri started studying physics.

Although she is now finishing her PhD in physics she says that the choice was a last-minute decision. She gave two preferences, engineering and physics and after she did a national test in order to be accepted to university the state made the decision for her.

After getting her BSc in physics at the University of Yogyakarta she came to the Groningen University in 2002 to obtain her master’s. She recounts how she expected a big city and she was surprised at how quiet and small Groningen is. Now she likes it a lot, she appreciates the quiet which reminds her of the village she grew up in.

The equality between teachers and students in the Netherlands pleasantly surprised her and she feels free to talk with the teachers as she would with a friend. This stands in stark contrast with the Indonesian education system in which a teacher is higher in standing than a student and has to be treated accordingly.

Having finished her master’s, Puri worked as a lecturer at the Institut Teknologi Telkom in Indonesia. She came back to Groningen in 2010 to obtain her PhD at the Zernike Institute of Advanced Materials and is now in the process of writing her dissertation. She is in science to do research but she loves teaching too. When she is done in Groningen she will return to Indonesia to work as a lecturer as she did before.

Of the seven international students starting in Groningen in her year she was the only woman.

While she never had any problems, she had heard some of her friends struggled in their respective science departments when they had children or a family. She adds that especially in Indonesia it is still usual for women to take time off to take care for the family and men to be the sole provider for the family. She thinks women should be encouraged to study science and one of the ways to do that would be to facilitate having a family next to the job. Her friends’ problems were mostly due to the difficulty of combining work with raising a child. The reason she has never had any problems is because she is single and has no children.

She says that the people she works and studies with are nice and that although there are differences, everyone tries to accept each other. In Groningen, the only ‘trouble’ she has is in the lab sometimes, as the average height of Dutch men, who were kept in mind while building the equipment, is about 1.80 m. She carries around a little ladder in the laboratory in order to use some of the equipment.

A friend once said to her that explaining Islam is more difficult than teaching at university. 

She says some people are sometimes scared of her because of the stories circulating about Muslims but that this changes and goes away as people get to know her more. She remembers going to see an apartment when she was looking for housing in Groningen and noticing that the landlord she spoke to was scared by her Muslim attire. He loosened up after she talked to him.

Finding a place for prayer is easy in the office Puri works in but she says it’s not always as easy for other Muslims. According to her, the only difference her religion makes to her colleagues is that she does not drink alcohol.

She says her religious beliefs do not interfere with her work in science because Islam encourages to think and to study. Still, she does add that she doubts this is as easy for her colleagues working in genetics.


Written for International Journalism, taken at University College Utrecht, in Fall 2011.

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