India’s Brave New Women Scientists

Kolkata, West Bengal (Women’s Feature Service)
When her male colleague packed his bags and wandered off to the Maoist belt of West Midnapore in Bengal, 30- year-old scientist Paushali Bal, an M.A. in Sociology and a Ph.D in Epidemiology, felt disadvantaged in being a woman for the first time in her life. “The area was not considered safe for a woman scientist needing to stay there for a long period of time. So a male colleague got the chance,” says Bal, adding, “It was accepted that I was competent and totally up to doing the job, but in some situations, a woman is perceived as a risk by the powers that be.”

Science is often perceived as a dry, sanitised, black-and-white sort of field, where emotion and humour have little role to play. But these brilliant women scientists are far from being “nerds”.

Bal’s research is on HIV/AIDS amongst sex workers, migrant workers, injecting drug users and street children. “Science is not as sterile as it’s perceived to be. For example, I don’t just focus on things like how sharing of syringes can spread HIV, but also study in depth the behaviour of street children who take drugs,” she says.

Bal, who has been working as a research scientist for over eight years at the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED), Kolkata, says being a women has never come in the way of her career, except for some minor security concerns.

It is increasingly becoming apparent that women scientists are finally making their mark in a hitherto male-dominated field. The prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, 2010, had nine awardees, of which three were women. Considering that in the 52-year history of these awards only 14 women have won this coveted prize out of 463 scientists, this year’s list clearly indicates that women scientists are now capturing greater recognition for their work.

Interestingly, it’s young women who are making waves with their outstanding research – the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, instituted by the Council of Science and Industrial Research (CSIR), is given to scientists below the age of 45. Although the award is normally given in seven disciplines, this year, outstanding work could be identified only in five – Biological Science, Engineering Science, Chemical Science, Medical Science and Physical Science.

Computer scientist Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay, a Professor at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute, was one of the three women who got the award this year.

Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay receiving the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for 2010

Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay receiving the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for 2010

“I give full credit to my parents. They motivated me constantly so that I could devote myself to seeking out the molecular mechanisms that underlie cancer, which got me this top science prize,” says the 42-year-old scientist, who uses computer science methods to locate and analyse the functions of micro-RNAs, a group of molecules responsible for causing several diseases, including cancer.

Professor Bandopadhyay says her husband, Professor Ujjal Moulik, who teaches computer science at Jadavpur University, has been her inspiration and support, helping her to balance home and lab simultaneously. “Recognition in science doesn’t come quickly. It takes years of hard work and total commitment before accolades come your way. It’s tough for women to continue scientific research for a long time, mostly because of social and family commitments. But just because the number of women in this field is less than satisfactory, there is no reason to think that there is injustice or discrimination against women in the scientific world,” she says.

The mindset of the family and the social circle the women grow up considerably affects their career choices, Professor Bandhopadhyay points out, adding, “From childhood, girls are often pointed towards things like marriage and caring for the family. They are hardly encouraged to take an interest in science and engineering. If they fear Mathematics or Physics, it’s accepted as normal for girls. No effort is made to eradicate the source of that apprehension. In fact, they are often brain-washed into believing that science is not a girl’s cup of tea!”

The mother of a 10-year-old adds, “I think the focus has to start from school days. The women have to rise above preconceived notions and not fall prey to regressive indoctrination. They work hard to look after their children, that same hard work they can put into science too. That’s what I always tell my students. Being a woman, I did not face any problems. There was no advantage either. I had to work just like my male colleagues.”

The award to three women scientists this year has encouraged several young girls. “I received many phone calls after getting the award. Even students whom I do not know called me. That is really very encouraging,” says the brilliant scientist who does not practice any religion but feels inspired by the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda and Ram Krishna Paramahansa.

So do scientists need to have extra grey matter? “Scientists always think innovatively. They try to find new things, so their brains always have to be active. Scientists think constantly. Maybe that’s what marks them out from other people,” says Professor Bandopadhyay, whose favourite pastime is to relax on the banks of the Ganges at Belur Math, close to her home.

“If someone asks me to sing a song, I will be an absolute failure. It all depends on individual ability and I don’t think I have an extraordinary brain just because I am a scientist,” says Dr Reshmi Pal, 33, MBBS and Master in Public Health. Pal is researching into arsenic related diseases, cervical cancer and Malaria at NICED. “The threat of cervical and breast cancer is a burning issue in India. These are the commonest diseases among women. Few know that the Human Pappiloma Virus (HPV) – that triggers cervical cancer – is sexually transmitted from men to women. The death rate is high but if proper steps are taken it can be prevented. My study is largely focused on these issues, besides arsenic poisoning and malaria, two major problems in eastern India,” she says.

So why are scientists often stereotyped as being eccentric or socially inept? Dr Dipika Sur, 56, MBBS, MD, who is one of the leading scientists handling the Clinical Trial of India’s indigenous Cholera Vaccine ‘Shanchol’ under NICED, says, “We use our brains in our fields but that doesn’t mean people in other fields have less intelligence. It also does not mean that we would be inept in a social situation or in handling family commitments. Look at my work for example. The entire project is aimed towards the benefit of the poor, who are the biggest sufferers of cholera. The trial is being conducted on a 1,10,000 population in Beleghata area of Kolkata, whose confidence and trust required to be won before the trial could start. Social ineptness would not have made it possible,” points out the eminently successful field scientist.

Dr Sur also champions the success of women scientists. “It’s true that earlier their male counterparts dominated the scientific community but one has to take into account the fact that men have been in the field longer. Women entered later, but are now definitely rising above the norm.”

Referring to the three women scientists who got the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award Dr Sur observes, “Their success has encouraged women scientists tremendously. I always feel proud when women achieve something.”

Science is often perceived as a dry, sanitised, black-and-white sort of field, where emotion and humour have little role to play. But these brilliant women scientists are far from being “nerds”. They are very modern women, balancing career and family. They are also sensitive and committed individuals, ready to take on new challenges and conquer new frontiers.

This article has been written by Ajitha Menon for Women’s Feature Service (WFS) and has been published here based on an arrangement with WFS.
Ajitha Menon is a senior journalist from Kolkata focussing on development issues.
Article and images copyright: Women’s Feature Service.