I came across this comic almost a year ago and I’ve never hit the share button so fast. This comic in the most minimal way possible captures all that is wrong in the way we look at women around us – as stereotypes, as tropes, as characters that we can put in perfect little labeled boxes and not as individuals with a range of different personalities and talents. This phenomenon often gives rise to the notion that certain career paths like science are just not for women. Hidden Figures, a 2017 Academy Award nominated film based on a true story about three African-American female scientists at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) who helped launch the first American into space, successfully smashes these sexist stereotypes with such ease while also dealing with the problem of race.
In 2017 our hopes for Indian women in science are high because the past two years have given us every reason to believe so. Two years ago today, the UN declared February 11th as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Through this, The United Nations General Assembly aims to “achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls” which it believes will move us closer to gender equality and women empowerment.
There is a reason this day is specific about encouraging young girls to take up science as a career while also recognising female scientists for their contribution. According to a report on the UN website, a study conducted in 14 countries found that the probability of female students graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, a Masters degree and a PhD in a scientific field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively as opposed to male students who showed a probability of 37%,18% and 6%. This phenomenon known as the ‘leaky pipeline’ is a matter the United Nations is trying to bring attention to.
Also read: Where Are The Indian Women In Science?
So today, we take a look at those Indian women who have made their mark in the various fields of science despite odds and have been recognised for it in the years since this day was announced. We also take a look at girls of Indian origin who have been internationally recognised for their innovative ideas for solving day to day challenges.
Indian Women in Science
1. Vidita Vaidya
Dr. Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist and professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) award in 2015 in the field of Medical sciences. The SSB award is the most coveted award for science in our country and of the 509 awards given out so far only 16 have gone to women. She was awarded for her work on identifying specific receptors (of norepinephrine and thyroid hormone) that can fasten the uptake of antidepressants. She was also credited with demonstrating the role that serotonin2A receptors and histone deacetylase4 play in causing anxiety and depression. Her work focuses on the network of the brain that controls emotional responses and how environmental factors influence it. She has been very vocal about the underrepresentation of women in science.
In an interview with The Life of Science, she says it’s “Bad for science. You’ve wiped out the possibility of having a representation from all communities or caste or gender or race.” She’s also of the view that science has to be made accessible to the masses and she attempts to bridge this gap with her public talks and interactive sessions.
2. Shawna Pandya
Shawna Pandya grabbed headlines just two days ago for joining the ranks of Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams in space research. A Canadian-born Indian, Shawna was chosen to be part of the Citizen Science Astronaut Program (CSA), which is part of Project PoSSUM (Polar Sub-Orbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere), a research organisation dedicated to the study of the upper atmosphere and how it contributes to climate change. By profession, she is a general practitioner in medicine who is also trained in neurosurgery. As a Citizen-Scientist Astronaut for the PHEnOM Project (Physiological, Health and environmental observations in Microgravity) she is all set to conduct bio-medical experiments for the purpose of analysing how the human physiology operates in stressful and challenging environments.
When the US President Donald Trump, instructed women who work for him to dress a certain way, she joined several women who took to social media to show him what it meant to #DressLikeAWoman: however they damn well, please.
3. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw
In 2016, Forbes ranked Kiran Mazumdar Shaw the 77th most powerful woman in the world. She is the Chairperson and Managing Director of India’s leading biopharmaceutical company, Biocon. However, this self-made billionaire’s road to success was obviously rocky by virtue of being a woman. After graduating in Zoology from Bangalore University, she pursued her masters in Malting and Brewing in Australia. On returning to India finding a position as a master brewer was not a cake-walk because it was considered a ‘man’s job’. Later, while setting up her first office in a rented garage in Bangalore, she had trouble finding a bank that would lend her money because it wasn’t every day that a woman set up a biological business model from scratch.
Kiran Mazumdar has always run her company on the principle of ‘affordable innovation’. She has always been a proponent of affordable healthcare in poorer countries, which she has done by developing less expensive manufacturing methods or low-cost alternatives.
4. Gagandeep Kang
Professor Gagandeep Kang, of Christian Medical College (CMC) Vellore, was awarded the Infosys Prize in Life Sciences in 2016. The Infosys Prize is given out every year by the Infosys Science Foundation and is considered one of the most monetarily generous awards to recognise and encourage scientific research In India. Prof Kang was recognised for her pivotal role in studying the rotavirus that causes diarrhoea and other enteric infections. Her groundbreaking findings have explained why the existent vaccines are not efficient enough on Indians, which led to new indigenous vaccines and public health strategies being developed to combat this deadly disease. India along with Pakistan, Nigeria and the Republic of Congo, account for 49% of all deaths related to rotavirus infections and her contributions could help change this situation by saving the lives of thousands of people.
From The Younger Generation of Budding Scientists
1. Kiara Nirghin
Kiara Nirghin, a South African teenager of Indian origin, won the Google Science Fair Grand Prize in 2016. The Google Science Fair is an international program which encourages children between the ages of 13-18 to come up with innovative scientific solutions to deal with challenges that the world faces.
Kiara won the award for her project No More Thirsty Crops which is aimed at helping crops grow in drought-hit areas of Africa. With waste materials like orange and avocado peels, she was able to develop an inexpensive’ super-absorbent material’ which can retain water in the soil for very long durations, thus demonstrating it was possible to ‘fight drought with fruit’. She suggested this as an alternative to the ‘Super Absorbent Material’ (SAP) currently used in agriculture, which is non-biodegradable, costly and contains harmful chemicals.
2. Anushka Naiknaware
Anushka Naiknaware, an Indian-American teen who was 13 at the time, became the youngest contestant to bag a top award at the Google Science Fair when she won the LEGO Builder Award in 2016. The LEGO Education Builder Award “honours a student who uses an innovative, hands-on approach to solve some of the greatest engineering challenges.”
Her project Smart Wound Care for the Future tries to find the least stressful way for large wounds to heal. According to Anushka, the healing of a chronic wound requires certain moisture levels and currently, these wounds need to be undressed every time to check the progress of healing. She developed a sensor that detects the moisture level in the wound from outside so the doctors know when it’s time to redress it. This idea would mean quicker and less painful healing of chronic wounds, a simple solution to a frequently overlooked yet distressing medical problem.
It is interesting to note that the ratio of boys to girls who win awards at the school level is not as skewed as the numbers in the world of professional scientific research which points to the aforementioned ‘leaky pipeline’ problem. For this, we need to make sure that girls from a young age are assured they are just as capable as their male counterparts. Their scientific brilliance needs to be encouraged and channelled because there are certainly numerous budding Marie Curies out there who could very well change the world as we know it.