- When Dr Soumya Swaminathan, then director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), took over as deputy director general (programmes) at the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017, it was a first for any Indian. Subsequently, as the chief scientist at WHO, hers emerged as the pre-eminent voice of science across the world throughout the Covid pandemic.
- In March 2020, India had isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus, laying the ground for development of Covaxin. The credit belonged to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune, led by its director Dr Priya Abraham.
- Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) scientist Dr Tessy Thomas is often referred to as India’s “missile woman”. Project director for the Agni-IV and Agni-V missiles, Dr Thomas was the first woman to take up these roles.
Indian scientists have played a pivotal role in shaping the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, both at home and abroad. Many of them were women in leadership roles in the country’s apex body for medical research — the ICMR.
However, Indian women have been busting myths about girls being “more suitable to study humanities” since much before the pandemic.
When Dr Swaminathan took over as ICMR director general (DG) in 2015, she was only the second woman to hold that office after Dr G.V. Satyavati. When Dr Renu Swarup took over as secretary of the department of biotechnology in 2018, she, too, was the second woman to hold that office.
Of the 27 directors in various institutes under the ICMR umbrella, 11 are women.
The PLACID trial expanded the scope of India’s and the world’s understanding of convalescent plasma therapy by establishing that administration of plasma from a recovered Covid patient does little for the treatment of another. The lead author of that study was Dr Aparna Mukherjee, head of the Clinical Trial and Health Systems Research Unit at ICMR.
Women hold key positions in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), working on satellite launches and the Mars Mission. For example, Gaganyaan — the human space flight programme — is led by Dr V.R. Lalithambika.
In Going Viral, his book on the development of Covaxin, ICMR DG Dr Balram Bhargava recalls the day when the virus — which had the entire world on tenterhooks for over two years — was finally isolated at NIV, Pune.
“If there were ever a competition for deceptive looks, SARS-CoV-2 would win hands down. ‘It’s a pretty virus!’ exclaimed Dr Priya Abraham, director, NIV, whose researchers at the institute were the first team in India to identify the virus under an electron microscope and decipher its genomic structure,” Bhargava writes.
But identifying “pretty viruses” was just one facet of the fight against the virus.
Dr Shalini Singh at the National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research, Noida, set up the country’s largest high-throughput viral diagnostic facility, capable of delivering 10,000 RT-PCR test results a day — under the most stringent lockdown conditions.
Under the supervision of Dr Shanta Dutta, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases in Kolkata carried out multifarious activities including kit validation, kit distribution and various multicentric vaccine trials.
In Delhi, Dr Nivedita Gupta became the face of the ICMR after the retirement of Dr R. Gangakhedkar, former head of epidemiology.
In March 2021, the ICMR brought out a special edition of its newsletter to honour the women who had led the fight against Covid from the front.
“…The contribution of women scientists of ICMR has been invaluable. Women scientists have led and were involved in every step of all the process which has made India’s remarkable comeback possible,” the newsletter said.
“From isolating the strain, developing diagnostic tools, preparing guidelines, public health advisories, training staff, employment of technology, coordinating international efforts, overseeing local executions and following up on all Covid-19-related developments, women scientists have expanded the scope of research at an unprecedented pace,” it added.
But the ICMR is not the only organisation that saw women take the lead during the pandemic.
Virologist Dr Gagandeep Kang has been seen as one of the most credible voices on vaccines throughout the pandemic. Even after her resignation as director of the Faridabad-based Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute early on in the pandemic, Kang remained a voice of sanity and science as she returned to Christian Medical College, Vellore, citing “personal reasons”.
‘Early 1990s, 2000s were not easy’
Kang is the first Indian women scientist to be elected fellow of The Royal Society — a fellowship of some of the world’s most eminent scientists. But, she said, for 20 of the 30 years that she has been in the field, nobody listened to her.
“The 1990s and early 2000s were not easy. It was difficult to get heard, it was as if there is a drag that you feel keeps pulling you down. I had three disadvantages — I was a woman from a medical background doing research and also from a private institute. It was a constant battle arguing, trying to decide what to put forward, what not to, understanding that some things antagonise people,” Dr Kang told ThePrint. “It was a very real challenge.”
She said she hopes she may have made it easier for the women scientists who worked with her throughout her career.
Referring to five young women scientists she mentored under the Women Lift Health Programme, Dr Kang said she still encounters questions from women about how to get heard.
“In science, there is a constant discounting — you know nothing, a room full of men will tell you. Till it comes to a point when these women no longer regard themselves to be as competent as you know them to be,” she said.
Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute, of which Dr Kang was director at the beginning of the pandemic, is a government institute under the scope of the department of biotechnology.
For much of the pandemic, Dr Renu Swarup was secretary of that department. A geneticist by training, Swarup has a different take.
“I joined the service in 1989 and, since I was from the biological sciences, there was always a fair share of women in my class in college and university. There were difficulties but no different from any other professional in the field, not just for a woman. Science management as a career was just picking up,” she told ThePrint.
“It has been a very exciting journey,” she said. “I have always looked upon myself as a professional and I have been treated as one. As a woman, of course, there are societal and cultural issues. For example, if you are working late in the laboratory, you expect a car to drop you, there are concerns about security. But I always set my own benchmarks, my own milestones.”
She said policies such as the provision for maternity and childcare leave, a conscious effort by institutes to set up creches and to have couples posted in the same city, wherever possible, have ensured that professionals in various science disciplines can maintain the right work-life balance.
Among the most renowned names in the country when it comes to missiles is perhaps that of Dr Tessy Thomas.
But there are many others fuelling India’s space and defence ambitions, much like the Hollywood film Hidden Figures, which portrays three African-American woman scientists who powered National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during America’s space race with the then USSR in the 1960s.
The Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) in Bengaluru, known for spearheading cutting-edge research in astronomy and astrophysics, is led by Dr Prof. Annapurni Subramaniam. The dean, Dr Anupama G.C., is a senior professor at the institute, which has a reputation for being led by strong women scientists over the years.
In 2021, when the institute completed 50 years, 46 such women were profiled in a publication.
The preface read: “Among many accomplishments, gender diversity has been an important part of the institute’s legacy. Over the years, IIA has maintained a healthy gender balance and produced a large number of women scientists in the country. Many of them have gone on to make exemplary careers as astronomers, scientists, technologists and educators.”
India’s plans to put a human in space are being spearheaded by Dr V.R. Lalithambika. In her earlier stint at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, she worked extensively on ISRO launch vehicles.
Mission Director of Chandrayaan-2, Dr Ritu Karidhal and her colleague Dr Nandini Harinath, were also part of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) — when ISRO put a satellite into orbit around Mars.
In 2014, after the success of the MOM mission, a viral photograph of women celebrating the feat prompted ISRO to clarify that while the photo showed only the women who were part of the administrative staff, many women scientists had worked on the project.
In 2016, when BBC profiled these space scientists, among them was Dr Anuradha T.K., then Geosat Programme Director at ISRO, now retired.
“For this senior-most woman officer at ISRO, the sky is the limit — she specialises in sending communication satellites into space that sit at least 36,000km from the earth’s centre. The scientist who has worked with ISRO for the past 34 years first thought about space when she was nine,” the BBC wrote about her then.
Indian women have broken barriers in science and beyond, but that does not necessarily mean that the social obstacles in their careers have ceased to exist.
There is much ground still to be covered despite the fact that the stream of women entering various science disciplines has been growing bigger over the years, said Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director of Science Gallery Bengaluru.
“At the end of the day, how science gets socially organised draws from how society is organised. If there are biases or misogyny for women breaching traditionally ‘male’ domains, that will infiltrate into science too,” she added.
“There is a steady increase in the number of women entering science streams but biases creep in when there is a larger social assessment of anything beyond just the science — leadership qualities, for example.
“In all my conversations with women scientists, I have been repeatedly told that career timelines and life timelines do not match for women, especially if you are planning to have a baby. Some years back, there was a scheme for re-entry of women scientists after a break, but one needs to see how successful that is,” Phalkey said. “But there is also the larger question of how science changes when there are women in decisionmaking positions.”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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