Here are two facts that will make you beam with optimism: 1. United Nations data shows that India tops world rankings in producing female graduates in STEM at 43%.
2. The latest All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report shows a narrowing in India’s gender gap in the past few years. There is a better yardstick that showcases India's progress in offering better opportunities for women in science. Today, despite facing many roadblocks, women in India are making significant contributions to the field of science, technology, math, and engineering. From winning the Nobel Prize to heading important projects at ISRO, women scientists are etching their names in history.
We shine some light on some Indian (and, Indian-origin) women who have carved out their own space in the field of STEM.
Dr. Chandrima Shaha
A biologist and professor at the National Institute of Immunology, she became the first woman to head the prestigious Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in 2020. INSA was established in January 1935, with the aim to promote scientific knowledge for the benefit of humanity and the nation. Since its establishment, this is the first time that the academy has had a woman president. Dr. Shaha specialises in cell biology and has conducted extensive research about the ‘Leishmania’ parasite which causes Kala Azar (black fever). She studied the precise mechanisms of cell death and the role that signalling pathways play in regulating cell death, leading to developments in cancer drugs. She has received awards like the Shakuntala Amirchand Award of ICMR (1992), and the Special Award for 50th Anniversary of DNA Double Helix Discovery (2003).
“I think diversity in science is very important—both men and women need to participate in research. Women, by nature, are more sincere and particular about things. They must participate in a larger way towards the country’s scientific endeavour,” Dr. Chandrima Shaha - President, Indian National Science Academy, in an interview with The Hindu.
Dr. Swati Mohan
She is an Indian-American aerospace engineer, who played an important role in the successful landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars. As the person incharge of guidance and controls operations, she was the ‘eyes and ears’ of the sophisticated spacecraft. She was pivotal in manipulating the Perseverance rover through a tricky plunge into Mars’ atmosphere. Dr. Mohan was the first to confirm the rover’s successful touchdown on the Martian surface on 18th February 2021.
A Senior Scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), she played a key role in realising the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), the first mission to reach Mars in its first attempt. Alumni of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, outer space fascinated her since childhood. She has held the position of Operations Director for many prestigious missions in ISRO. As the Project Manager and Deputy Operations Director for MOM, she was responsible for critical operations related to the orbiter leaving earth and capturing Mars orbit. Karidhal has received many awards including, the Young Scientist Award in 2007 by Shri Abdul Kalam, the ISRO Team Award for MOM in 2015, the Women Achievers in Aerospace, 2017 by SIATI(Society of Indian Aerospace Technologies & Industries (SIATI), etc. She also played an important role in Chandrayaan-2, ISRO’s first moon landing mission.
Picture Courtesy: The Better India Known as the ‘missile woman’ of India, she is a scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). She served as the Project Director for the Agni IV and V missiles, making her the first woman to lead missile teams in India. These are intercontinental ballistic missiles that have very high ranges and are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Dr. Thomas’ expertise on the solid propellant systems was critical to the development of the re-entry system of the missile, which helped it withstand great velocities and temperatures of 3,000° Celsius on re-entering the atmosphere. Dr. Thomas has been awarded in several prestigious titles, including the ‘DRDO Scientist of the Year’, in 2008, DRDO Performance Excellence Award for 2011 and 2012, India Today Women of the Year award in 2009, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence in Public Administration in 2012, CNN-IBN Indian of the Year in 2012, Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya Award in 2016, and Outstanding Woman Achiever Award by Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).
Known as the Weather Woman of India, she started her research career at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru under the supervision of Sir C. V. Raman. She researched spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies IIS and later specialised in meteorological instruments at Imperial College London. In 1948, she returned to India and joined the Indian Meteorology Department (IMD). At IMD, she standardised the drawings of around 100 weather-related instruments for production. In 1960, before the world understood the functions of ozone layers, Mani had started her work on measuring atmospheric ozone, using a self-designed instrument called ozonesonde. She set up stations across the country to monitor solar radiations and also oversaw the design and manufacture of many radiation instruments. She was instrumental in measuring wind speeds in over 700 locations across the country. The World Meteorological Organisation also acknowledges that her leadership brought India to the forefront of countries where meteorological data were used for studying alternative sources of energy.
“My being a woman had absolutely no bearing on what I chose to do with my life.” - Indian physicist and meteorologist Anna Mani, the first female Deputy Director-General of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).
At the age of 56, she became the first woman scientist from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to spend 403 days in Antarctica. She was the only woman in a 23-member-team that was sent to operate and maintain the Indian research station, Bharati, while also collecting satellite data for ISRO in November 2016. She along with her team had to undergo a lot of mental and physical tests, prior to the gruelling expedition. In order to acclimatise them for the harsh conditions of Antarctica, they were taken to Auli, in Uttarakhand, which is at an altitude of 9,000 feet and later to Badrinath at 10,000 feet. It was a great challenge to work under inhospitable climatic conditions, a feat very few scientists have achieved.
She is a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research(TIFR) in Mumbai. Her groundbreaking contributions to understanding how the brain develops in the early embryo have been recognised by prestigious awards such as the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the Infosys Prize. Her research uncovers common genetic mechanisms that control the development of the hippocampus, cortex and amygdala, providing a deep insight into the complex processes involved in building the brain. It lays a framework for future studies aimed at understanding human behaviour, cognition and emotions. In a series of developmental steps, her work elucidates what exactly happens when things go wrong during the intricate process of brain building. Her process has made it easy to map developmental disturbances causing neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism and epilepsy. Prof. Tole has used her experience as a mentor, policy-maker and senior scientist to actively engage and inspire younger scientists and to advocate for women in the fields of science and mental health awareness in academia.