There is little question that the perception of mathematics as a male domain remains strong. Women continue to be underrepresented in not just mathematics, but science and engineering-related careers as well. This is particularly the case in India. (Image above from Left to Right: Dr Parimala Raman, Prof Neena Gupta, and Dr Sujatha Ramdorai)
On National Mathematics Day today, which falls on the birthday of legendary mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, we celebrate five Indian women who’ve made their mark in the field.
Parimala Raman: She is known globally for her contribution in the field of algebra and is a recipient of multiple national and international awards, including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology (1987). Well-recognised for her solution to the second Serre conjecture, Parimala’s area of research includes algebra with connections to algebraic geometry and number theory. In 2010, she received one of the highest global honours in mathematics when she was chosen as the plenary speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians.
In 2020, the Government of India announced the establishment of 11 Chairs in the names of Indian women scientists at institutes across the country. She is the only living person on the list.
According to the Nobel Prize Series by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, “She has been credited for achieving many firsts in the field, including publishing the first example of a nontrivial quadratic space over an affine plane at a young age — an achievement that is said to have surprised even the experts in the field. She is also credited for several elegant publications often supporting or overturning long-standing conjectures in algebra.”
Neena Gupta: Earlier this year, she became the third woman and fourth Indian to receive the prestigious 2021 DST-ICTP-IMU Ramanujan Prize for young mathematicians from developing countries. The award is administered by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) alongside the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, and International Mathematical Union (IMU).
A scholar par excellence and professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, she won it for her remarkable work in affine algebraic geometry and commutative algebra. In 2014, she won the Young Scientist Award of the Indian National Science Academy for her solution to the Zariski cancellation problem. She is also a recipient of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award (2019) in the category of mathematical sciences.
Sujatha Ramdorai: A professor of mathematics at the School of Mathematics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Dr Sujatha Ramadorai is a recipient of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the ICTP Ramanujan Award (the first Indian to win this award) as well.
“Dr Ramdorai has worked in the areas of the algebraic theory of quadratic forms, arithmetic geometry of elliptic curves, the study of motives and noncommutative Iwasawa theory. Her initial work was on the algebraic theory of quadratic forms. She then went on to work on the arithmetic of algebraic varieties. She has substantial contributions to the non-commutative Iwasawa theory, a theory developed by Japanese mathematician Kenkichi Iwasawa that combines tools from algebra, number theory and representations of Galois groups,” states the Nobel Prize Series.
This explainer goes on to add how “Dr Ramdorai’s work has implications in the fields of complex geometry, topology, number theory and cryptography.”
Mangala Narlikar: A bigwig in the field of mathematics, her interests in the subject range from real and complex analysis, analytic geometry, number theory to algebra and topology. Over the years, she has published several scientific papers like “Theory of Sieved Integers, Acta Arithmetica 38, 157 in 19; Mean Square Value theorem of Hurwitz Zeta Function; Proceedings of Indian Academy of Sciences 90, 195, 1981; Hybrid Mean Value Theorem of L-Functions; Hardy Ramanujan Journal 9, 11-16, 1988; and so on,” as per The Better India report.
More importantly, however, she has contributed immensely to generating interest among laypeople in the subject through various articles in publications like the Scientific Age, where she would break down concepts in a language everyone could understand. This created an interest in the subject amongst her readers.
Going further, she told TBI, “I started teaching children of my domestic help and later even joined an NGO that taught girls living in slums for free. While teaching them, I realised I have the calibre to make them understand Math in a simple yet fun way. That led me to Balbharti, the Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production & Curriculum Research centre with my proposal to make contributions in the school textbooks.”
Not only did she go on to write books but also made concrete changes to the way textbooks are published. The books that she wrote were sold for just Rs 10 so that every child could afford them. As for textbooks, there were more pictures and interactive problems. Appointed chairperson of Balbharti, she made several significant changes in the state vernacular curriculum, particularly the simplification of the names of numbers.
“In Marathi, for example, 32 is called ‘Battis’ wherein the ‘tis’ (30) comes later. It is confusing for a child. In English, the same number is written as ‘thirty-two’ so it is easier. Now, schools have the option of either calling it ‘battis’ or ‘teen-don’,” she said.
Kavita Ramanan: A professor of Applied Mathematics at Brown University, she has a BTech in chemical engineering from IIT Bombay followed by an MSc. from the American varsity. Prof Ramanan’s academic career has taken her from technical staff at Mathematical Sciences Center at Bell Laboratories to Associate Professor at the Mathematical Sciences Department of Carnegie Mellon University. She was made the Roland Dwight George Richardson University Professor of Applied Mathematics at Brown University in 2018.
“Prof Ramanan’s research interest lies in the field of probability theory, stochastic processes and their applications. She has pioneered new mathematical techniques for the study of networks of randomly evolving interacting processes and the development of tractable approximations that provides insight into a range of random phenomena arising in wireless communications, chemical reaction networks, the spread of diseases, neuronal networks and phase transitions in statistical physics. She has also made fundamental contributions to the theory of large deviations, which allows one to estimate probabilities of rare events and its applications to high-dimensional data analysis and asymptotic convex geometry,” notes the IIT-Bombay Alumni page.
Besides founding the Math CoOp, a group that develops open-access math presentations for students from elementary school to undergraduates, she has also been elected Fellow of Institute of Mathematical Statistics (2013); American Mathematical Society (2018); Institute for Operations Research and the Management Science (2018); and American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (2019). Her achievements are truly staggering.
There are other honourable mentions like the later Prof Priti Shankar, Dr Bhama Srinivasan and Professor Ajit Iqbal Singh as well. A common strand found during our research for this article is the support they received from their families and friends to pursue a high achieving career in mathematics. There are many other young women mathematicians like them looking to make a mark, and with the great examples set before them, it won’t be long before they shine as well.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)