From Rukhmabai (India’s first practising lady doctor, 1894), Asima Chatterjee (doctorate in organic chemistry, 1944), Kamala Sohonie (doctorate in biochemistry, 1939) to Dr Indira Hinduja (pioneer in the Gamete intrafallopian transfer, delivering the country’s first test-tube baby, 1986), India has had a rich history of women in STEM. Though girls have generally outperformed boys in academics, only few have converted them to careers. The poor representation of women in the field is considered to be a predominant reason. The pressure to conform to societal norms—double-burden syndrome—being a doting daughter, mother and wife before she excels in her career is another. Yet, despite everything, last year we saw some extraordinary women in STEM who have used intelligence and revolutionary thinking to touch communities all around.
1. Dr. Manjula Reddy
The discoveries of Dr. Manjula Reddy have changed the arc of microbiology. Her work could potentially help in creating a new class of antibiotics to combat antibiotic resistant microbes. She was awarded the Infosys Prize 2019 in Life Sciences for her groundbreaking discoveries concerning the structure of cell walls in bacteria. Reddy and her colleagues’ elegant combination of biochemistry and genetics have revealed critical steps of cell wall growth that are fundamental for understanding bacterial biology.
Dr. Manjula Reddy is Chief Scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. Through her work, she has identified enzymes that cleave the cell wall and discovered novel mechanisms by which ‘spacemaker’ enzymes function. “Despite over 100 years of research into bacteria, how a single cell achieves this rapid body-remodelling is not fully understood. Dr. Reddy’s work has provided critical new insights,” Infosys said in a release.
2. Komal Mangtani
For the senior director, and head of engineering and business intelligence at Uber, Komal Mangtani, it was not an easy ride from Surat to Silicon Valley. Coming from a conservative society where not just women, but even men who didn’t go to college Mangtani had to put her feet down to travel 200 km for college. Eventually, her family supported her and fought many battles for her.
Komal is actively part of two initiatives—Women Who Code and Girls Who Code. Both the initiatives aim at reducing the gender gap in technology and bring increased access to computer science for women. These are seeds to increase the confidence in women which Mangtani feels is a major issue despite the increasing opportunities for women.
“Men tend to carve out a brand for themselves, and they don’t let the world define them. Women, largely, just work hard and try to do the right thing every day. But sometimes that’s not enough. You need to know where you’re going and not be bogged down by failures. Have a clear purpose, and move towards it—and don’t let anyone else define you,” Komal said in an interview with Forbes.
3. Dr. Rohini Rau
In November 2019, Dr. Rohini Rau graduated from the University of Edinburgh with her masters in Internal Medicine, a stark contrast to what she did earlier this year when she helmed an all-women’s sailing team at the J80 World Championships in Bilbao, Spain. She along with her husband Krishna Kumar, a theatre and movie artist trained 32 students at an acting school in Korea to be medical clowns. Investing in the therapeutic benefits of hospital clowning Dr. Rau was part of introducing it at the Hospital for Children in Egmore, Chennai.
Dr. Rohini Rau who was always called jack-of-all-trades is the youngest Senior Resident Medical Officer at Kauvery hospitals. Though medical wasn’t the first choice she grew to love it because of her Anatomy professor Dr. TL Anbumani and she got her distinction in Anatomy in spite of taking part in 7 sailing championships during her first year of MBBS. She was also appointed as a Health Researcher for the National Geographic Okavango Humanitarian Project in Angola for 3 weeks where she became a certified Humanitarian Design Thinking facilitator for projects in Ethiopia, Nepal, Kenya and India.
Talking to the Indian Express, she says, “Manning a sailboat is a lot like handling a tense hospital room. The winds might be blowing against your favour where five boats coming at you—similar to the screaming, blood and craziness you might find while on duty attending to an accident case. You need to find order in the chaos, be quick on your feet and focus. Being a sailor has taught me to be a better doctor.“
4. Aditi Sen De
When Aditi Sen De became the first woman to be awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, India’s top science award, in the physical sciences category, it was more than a personal achievement. It was her way to show how to get past the leaky pipeline for a female scientist who had to choose between her career or her family.
She is currently an associate professor at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad. De works on quantum computation, a challenging and vastly-promising field that has the potential to speed up computational processes exponentially and break encrypted data. This revolutionary mission which when built will be path-breaking for internet banking, online transaction and digital data.
5. Dr. Gagandeep Kang
On April 16, Dr Gagandeep Kang was the first Indian woman scientist to be elected Royal Society Fellow in 360 years. The Fellowship of the Society is an incredible honour in the scientific world, and Gagandeep Kang, along with the other new Indian Royal Fellows have now joined the ranks of world’s brilliant minds.
Gagandeep Kang is the executive director of Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad. Kang is a leading scientist in India and her main research focus is on viral infections in children and the testing of rotaviral vaccines. In her twelve years of schooling, Kang went to ten schools since her father was working in the Indian Railways and they were constantly on the move. She spent her holidays reading and trying to figure out the classes she missed.
Dr Gagnadeep Kang on how gender equality is vital to science for the sake of overall progress for the Economic Times said, “Much has been said about doing more to support women in science. I would argue that what we need instead are two distinct areas of focus-first, a society that values science and second, a society that supports women at work in any field, and the women in science ‘problem’ will take care of itself.”
6. Sunita Sarawagi
Sarawagi is one of the pioneers in the fields of data mining and machine learning. She works on extracting structured information from unstructured data which have a profound practical impact. She was one of the earliest researchers to develop information extraction techniques that went beyond the world of structured databases to the kind of unstructured data one finds on the World Wide Web. This necessitated the use of novel machine learning techniques for the extraction of information from natural language text.
She is currently the Institute Chair Professor in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-Bombay. She developed the formalism of semi-Markov conditional random fields for the task of segmenting out sequences of words which might correspond to ‘named entities’ such as company names or job titles which extended in practical applications such as the development of software for cleaning and structuring Indian addresses, as well as de-duplicating them.
7. Muthayya Vanitha
Another top rocket woman who made her mark in 2019 was M. Vanitha, Project Director of Chandrayaan-2 along with the mission director, Ritu Karidhal. Graduating as an electronics and communications engineer from College of Engineering in Chennai, M.Vanitha started as a junior engineer at ISRO. She worked in the laboratory, testing carts, making hardware, designing, developing before she reached a managerial position.
Vanitha, who was hesitant to take up the responsibility of project director of Chandrayaan-2, was persuaded by M. Annadurai, the project director of Chandrayaan-1, which finally got her on board. Working 18 hours every day she was resolute to have ISRO spend only a fraction of what other organisations spent on such missions.
Besides, the Chandrayaan-2, Vanitha also played a key role in the launch and success of Mangalyaan in November 2013. She is also a project director of telemetry and telecom divisions in the Digital Systems Group at ISRO, and has worked as deputy project director for TTC-baseband systems for Cartosat-1, Oceansat-2 and Megha-Tropiques satellites.
8. Roshni Nadar Malhotra
The CEO of HCL Corporation Roshni Malhotra is featured in The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women 2019 by Forbes. The perfect heiress to the IT giant is well aware of her privilege as a person. Being the chairman of the company’s CSR Committee she is also responsible for all strategic decisions for the $8.9 billion technology company.
Roshni Malhotra has spent a significant amount of time in her initiative, VidyaGyan, a leadership academy for the economically underprivileged and meritorious students from rural areas of Uttar Pradesh. She is also the founder and trustee of The Habitats Trust, a foundation working towards protecting natural habitats and their indigenous species. Roshni founded the trust with the mission to create and conserve sustainable ecosystems through strategic partnerships and collaborations with all stakeholders at every level.
For someone well aware of her privilege due to their birth, Roshini is driven to level the field by ensuring that children born without a silver spoon do not lose out on opportunities to make it big in their lives.
This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to this list are welcome in the comments section.