Women scientists lead the way

LAB LESSONS

Women scientists lead the way

ABOUT TIME Women scientists in India are getting greater recognition for their work. The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for 2010 has three women awardees.

When her male colleague packed his bags and wandered off into 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 Paushali, 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.”

Her research is on HIV/AIDS among sex workers, migrant workers, 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.

Paushali, 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 woman has never come in the way of her career, except for some minor security concerns.

It is increasingly becoming apparent that women scientists are 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 winning greater recognition for their work.

Young and focused

IN FOCUS Computer scientist Prof Sanghamitra BandyopadhyayInterestingly, it is 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.
“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.

Sanghamitra says her husband, Prof Ujjal Moulik, who teaches computer science at Jadavpur University, has been her support, helping her 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 in which the girls grow up affects their career choices, Sanghamitra says. “From childhood, girls are often pointed towards 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’. No effort is made to remove their apprehensions. In fact, they are often brainwashed into believing that science is not a girl’s cup of tea,” she observes.

“Girls have to rise above pre-conceived notions. They should not fall prey to regressive indoctrination. Women 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,” she says.

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 did not know telephoned me. That is really very encouraging,” says the brilliant scientist, who is inspired by the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna  Paramahamsa.

So, do scientists need to have extra grey matter? “Scientists always think innovatively. They try to find new things, so their brains have to be active. Scientists think constantly. Perhaps that’s what marks them out from other people,” says Sanghamitra, whose favourite pastime is to relax on the banks of the Ganga at Belur Math, close to her house.
“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), who holds a Master’s in Public Health.

She is researching 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,” she says.  

Nerds? You must be joking!

Why are scientists often stereotyped as being eccentric or socially inept? Dr Dipika Sur, MBBS, MD, who is one of the leading scientists handling the clinical trials of India’s indigenous cholera vaccine ‘Shanchol’ under NICED, says: “I can only tell you that my entire project, which is aimed at improving the health of the poor, calls for a lot of social interaction. The trial is being conducted on 1,10,000 people in Beleghata area of Kolkata, whose confidence and trust I was required to win before the trial could start. Social ineptness would not have made it possible.”

She adds, “One has to take into account the fact that men have been in the field of science longer. Women entered later, but we are definitely making our mark.”
Referring to the three women scientists who won the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, she says: “Their success has encouraged women scientists tremendously. I always feel proud when women achieve something.”

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