Shilpa Kancharla

Interview by Parisa Shah. Photographs by Alice Wilder

Shilpa Kancharla is a DJ at WXYC, a research assistant at a physics lab, and a firm lover of science and learning. She recently gave me insight into her pursuits and her South Asian cultural heritage.

Parisa Shah: How did you get involved in doing research or a physics lab? Do you feel as if women are intimidated by pursuing hard sciences?

Shilpa Kancharla: I emailed literally everyone on the UNC Physics & Astronomy Department website. Literally everyone. Not a single person was left behind. Getting into research is super competitive at this school, given its reputation for being a highly-functioning research facility and all. I definitely do think women are intimidated by it. From my personal experience, men who I’ve come across have asked me why I’m pursuing such a male-dominated field. Once, a guy asked me what my major was and I told him I was studying applied mathematics, and he said “Wow, isn’t that a little hard? Shouldn’t you try something easier?” Whereas to my male friend who was studying BME (biomedical engineering) he said “Dude that sounds awesome!” I cannot conclude my gender was the variable that made the difference, but I can’t help but think it had some influence.

PS: How do you think women can get more involved in research?

SK: I would say stepping out of your comfort zone is the first step. Be willing to take risks. I encourage any women, or anyone I know for Shilpa Kancharla that matter, to get involved in research because I think it’s a great way to contribute to the society. People think the sciences are hard, and I definitely do agree…but at the end of the day, overcoming the obstacles presented in any field of science is what makes working so hard worthwhile.

PS: What about physics interests you?

SK: Physics interests me because I have a deep passion to learn how the world works, from a microscopic scale to a macroscopic spectrum. How can we explain what we experience? Physics is perhaps one of the only ways I know that can explain what goes on in my world. The fact that the ground exerts a force on me is mind blowing. How can something bereft of motion or life do that? Just the study of forces makes me force myself (no pun intended) to question the physical properties of the universe and why it does what it does. I would also have to say my father played a large influence on my interests as well. When he was my age, he studied mathematics, physics, and mechanical engineering at his university in India. He grew up in a village all his life, and his passion to pursue what are supposedly “difficult” subjects makes me feel like I should be able to do so much more than him given the fact that I live in America and have so many resources around me.

PS: How does being a female DJ affect the ways you perform? Is there a mold you feel as if you’re expected to fill?

SK: When I first went to my DJ interview, I didn’t actually think I would be selected. When we think of a stereotypical DJ, we think of some dude in the sidelines at a nightclub playing Billboard’s Top 100 Singles. The guy is probably white and a cis hetero male as well–not always, but that’s typically what’s depicted in media. I had that in  mind when I went to the interest meeting and interview and I knew it was a crapshoot. I was told that only 15 or so DJs get accepted every semester, and at the interest meeting over a 100 people showed up and I heard that more than 150 people turned in applications this semester. I’m a nervous person by nature, so hearing that was a little nerve wracking. Nonetheless, I went into my interview, and I just told them how I felt about making playlists to share with everyone. And the interviewers were like “Hell yeah, she’s in.” Being a female does not invalidate my selection of music or opinions of music as some believe. I mean, what’s in selecting and playing music as long as you’ve got a passionate mind and soul? I’m just expected to play the music I like, and I think I’ve successfully lived up to that job description so far.

PS: What kind of music do you play during your show? Any cultural influences?

SK: I definitely try to play music by female artists as well as focus on world music. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Indian music, from classical to filmy jams. I remember having some of my non-South Asian friends in the car once, and a Bollywood song came on. They all were like, “What the hell is that? Play Miley Cyrus!” I’ve also had other girls tell me that they’d prefer if I was “less Indian, and more American.” I don’t know how I could’ve done that, given that my Indian immigrant status is an integral part of my identity.

Listening to Indian music, or indulging in anything “too Indian” basically became a guilty pleasure that I could only experience when I was around my family or by myself. Upon arriving to UNC, I realized that it was more than okay to be different and explore what the world has to offer. I not only was more open about my Indian heritage, but I also began to learn about other cultures through music. I discovered groups like Sigur Ros from Iceland, Die Antwoord from South Africa, Tarkan from Turkey, Kageyama Hironobu from Japan, and so on. I’m still learning about more artists to this day. I’m enjoying this expansion, that’s for sure. I try to make eclectic mixes to play on the radio, and making the playlist itself is where all the fun is.

PS: What are struggles you face as a woman of color at a primarily Caucasian institution? Do you ever feel marginalized?

SK: I think that women of color generally share the struggle that they are not taken seriously. Every time you speak out against something that has offended you, you seem to get labeled as an angry ethnic woman who rambles on and on about how life just isn’t fair and how things aren’t your way.

Somehow, I feel like I’m expected to quell my voice and allow white feminists to speak for my struggle. Though they may mean well, they do not know my struggle as a woman of color. I do not need people to speak for me, but rather support me in endeavors for being heard, as I think there is a fine line between the two. Sometimes I think trying to relate my experiences to other people can be hard, because my experiences, at least, have always been very different from other people’s.

I’ve always had trouble relating to others, and I often feel a disconnect with many people, especially upon topics involving my ethnicity…cultural appropriation being one of the biggest ones! People are always like, “It’s not that big of a deal and you can’t tell people what to do.” In reality, history has been one group of people telling other people what to do, so I’m not sure how to respond to that remark. In summary, as a woman of color, I often struggle in getting my voice heard or just being understood in general because I feel that a lot of what I have to say can easily be marked off as trivial and uninteresting, simply because not a lot of people have experienced the same things as me.