15 Indian Women Scientists We Should Be Proud of
On 24 September 2014, two hundred and ninety days after the Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) probe was launched, its successful insertion into the Mars orbit was confirmed by the Mission Control, Bangalore, a feat that involved the efforts of scientists, such as Minal Sampath, Ritu Karidhal, and Nandini Harinath. In spite of working neck-to-neck with men, such as K. Radhakrishnan, M. Annadurai, and B. Jayakumar, they merely gained any attention or acknowledgment from the masses. Similarly, the names of most of the female scientists of India are barely taken along with the famous male scientists, such as C.V. Raman, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Satyendra Nath Bose.
Here are some Indian female scientists who have made us proud with their achievements, and overcome a lot of social hurdles:
- Janaki Ammal (1897–1984)
Janaki Ammal is considered to be the first woman scientist of India.
Education: Janaki Ammal was possibly the first woman to acquire a Ph.D. in Botany from the USA, and one of the few Asian women to be awarded D.Sc by the University of Michigan. She chose to study Botany against her family tradition of pursuing an education in Fine Arts.
Research and Achievements: Her chief area of research included plant genetics. Her first contribution was a hybrid species of eggplant. She went on to develop hybrid varieties of sugarcane and corn between 1932 and 1934. Her work on the classification of plant species in the early 1950s is very significant in the history of botany. In the later years, her research was more focused on the medicinal plants of India and she also created a garden of medicinal plants, a few of which had been developed by herself, in the Centre of Advanced Study Field Laboratory.
Awards and Accolades: She was an elected fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences and was awarded the Padma Shri in 1977.
- Kamala Sohonie (1912–1998)
Kamala Sohonie, a pioneering biochemist, was the first woman student of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Education: Sohonie pursued her B.Sc in Physics and Chemistry from the University of Mumbai. She acquired her M.Sc degree from IISc, where, she pursued her biochemical research with full determination and paved way for women’s admission into the institution in spite the chauvinistic attitude of her superior C. V. Raman.
Research and Achievements: During her Ph.D. programme in the Cambridge University, England, between 1936-1939, she discovered an enzyme in the potato tissue, which is important for the production of energy in all living organisms. In the late 1940s, she conducted research on the nutritional aspects of legumes, and later, on three groups of food items which are consumed by the financially challenged section of India.
Awards and Accolades: Her work on “Neera”, the sap extracted from various toddy palms, as a low-cost dietary supplement for the malnourished children and pregnant women in tribal areas of the country won her the Rashtrapati Award.
- Asima Chatterjee (1917–2006)
Education: The first Indian woman to have a Doctoral degree in Science from an Indian university, Asima Chatterjee was inspired by her father’s interest in Botany, and pursued her B.Sc, M.Sc, and Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of Calcutta. She worked under the mentorship of notable scientists, such as Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy and Satyendra Nath Bose.
Research and Achievements: Chatterjee is noted for her work in natural products chemistry and plant-based medicines. In the early 1950s, she did her research on anti-epileptic drugs and anti-malarial drugs in spite of ill-equipped laboratories and meager financial assistance from the government. She has also extensively worked on and written about the medicinal plants of the subcontinent. Her work led to the development of the anti-epilepsy drug Ayush-56 and other antimalarial drugs.
Awards and Accolades: She was awarded DSc (honoris causa) by several universities, and nominated as the member of Rajya Sabha from 1982 to 1990. Moreover, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1975 and became the first woman General President of the Indian Science Congress Association.
Asima Chatterjee was also the founder of the Department of Chemistry at the Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata.
- Anna Mani (1918–2001)
Education: One of the most notable physicists and meteorologists of India, Anna Mani graduated from the Presidency College, Madras, and won a scholarship to study Physics at the IISc, Bangalore in 1940. She also pursued a degree in Physics from the Imperial College, London, specializing in meteorological instruments.
Research and Achievements: In between 1948 and 1958, she contributed significantly towards the standardization of diagrams of various instruments to make India self-sufficient in meteorological instruments. She manufactured several instruments to measure wind and solar energy and ozone in the atmosphere. With the help of these instruments, she set up a network of stations to measure solar radiation, wind velocity and depth of ozone.
Awards and Accolades: She was the Deputy Director General at the Indian Meteorological Department, and was associated with several organizations, such as the Indian National Science Academy, American Meteorological Society, International Solar Energy Society and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). She received the INSA K. R. Ramanathan Medal in 1987.
Apart from being a famous scientist, Anna Mani was a fierce ‘satyagrahi’. Strongly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals, she wore khaki throughout her life.
- Aditi Pant
Education: A noted oceanographer, Aditi Pant was the first Indian woman to explore Antarctica. She did her B.Sc from the University of Pune and got a scholarship to study Marine Sciences from the University of Hawaii. She did her Ph.D. thesis on marine algae from the Westfield College, London University.
Research and Achievements: She conducted a wide-scale research on the Western Coasts of India from 1973 to 1976 while working in the National Institute of Oceanography. Thereafter, in 1983, she worked as a part of the Indian Antarctic Programme, studying the physics, chemistry, and biology of the Antarctic food chain, yielding great results. In 1990, she joined the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune and studied the enzymology of salt-tolerant and salt-loving microbes in the marine food chain. Her work involved a lot of traveling and discomfort, especially due to the gender bias prevalent at the time, but she persisted and went on to make a name for herself in the adventurous profession.
Awards and Accolades: Aditi Pant was honored with the Antarctica Award by the Government of India for her contributions to the Antarctic program.
This oceanographer’s career choice was inspired by the book The Open Sea by Alistair Hardy.
- Rajeshwari Chatterjee (1922–2010)
Chatterjee was the first woman from Karnataka to pursue a degree in engineering.
Education: Rajeshwari Chatterjee did her B.Sc and M.Sc from the Mysore University and conducted her research in Communication Engineering at IISc. In 1946, she was chosen for a scholarship by the Government of India to pursue her studies abroad. She acquired a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering in the University of Michigan followed by a training of eight months in the Division of Radio Frequency Measurements at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington D.C.
Research and Achievements: In 1953, she joined the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering at IISc as a faculty member. Meanwhile, she along with her husband, Sisir Kumar Chatterjee, started conducting research in Microwave Engineering, the first of its kind in India. They also built a microwave research laboratory. Mrs. Chatterjee became a professor and was selected as the Chairman in the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering, where she taught electromagnetic theory, electron tube circuits, and microwave technology.
Awards and Accolades: She won the Mountbatten prize for the best paper in the Institute of Electrical and Radio Engineering (UK) and the J.C Bose Memorial prize for the best research paper in the Institution of Engineers.
- Paramjit Khurana (b.1956)
Khurana has been working all her life to produce all-weather crops that played a very important role in the later phase of the Green Revolution in India.
Education: Currently, working as a professor in the Department of Plant Molecular Biology at the University of Delhi, Paramjit Khurana is well-known in the fields of Plant Biotechnology, Molecular Biology, and Genomics. She pursued higher studies at the University of Delhi and later became a Research Associate at the Michigan State University.
Research and Achievements: She conducted research on wheat and silk biotechnology, and genetically transformed the Indian wheat for resistance against several stress factors. She also developed mulberry hybrids to withstand salinity and drought conditions. Apart from that, she also developed effective hybridization processes for withstanding stress conditions in crop plants, such as rice, tomato, and mulberry.
Awards and Accolades: Khurana is a recipient of the ‘Certificate of Honour’ awarded by the Gantavya Sansthan on International Women’s Day (2011), and Professor Archana Sharma Memorial Award of the Indian Science Congress Association in 2011–2012. She is also a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
- Sulabha Kulkarni (b.1949)
Education: Kulkarni is an Indian physicist, specializing in the fields of Nanotechnology, Material Science, and Surface Science. She earned her B.Sc, M.Sc, and Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Pune and did her post-doctoral research on gas-solid interactions using surface science techniques in the Physics Department (E20) at the Technical University, Munich, Germany.
Research and Achievements: She has worked extensively on metal, semiconductor and nanoparticles, metallic multilayers, hard coatings, gas-solid interactions, metallic glasses, and so forth. She has authored several papers on these and several books on nanotechnology. She was responsible for introducing a course on Nanotechnology at the Post-graduate level.
Awards and Accolades: She has won several awards and fellowships, both at the national and the international level, such as the Materials Research Society of India (MRSI) Medal (2005) and the Bharatiya Stree Shakti “Women and Technological Innovation National Award (2007).”
Sulabha Kulkarni has been nominated as a member of the Standing Committee for promoting women in the field of science by the Ministry for Science and Technology, Government of India.
- Bimla Buti (b. 1933)
Bimla Buti is a leading expert in Plasma Physics, which deals with plasma, the fourth state of matter. She also founded the Plasma Science Society and was the Director of Plasma Physics at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy.
Education: Bimla Buti earned her B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees at the University of Delhi, and pursued her doctoral degree at the University of Chicago.
Research and Achievements: Specialising in the field of Plasma Physics, Bimla Buti served as a professor at IIT, Delhi, where she started a new section for Experimental Plasma Physics in the Physical Research Laboratory. Shortly after, this section was spun off as a separate institution known as Institute of Plasma Research, under the supervision of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy. During 1977–83, she became an Associate Editor of IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science, USA. She founded the Plasma Science Society and worked there as its president. In her research career, she has interpreted several natural phenomena with the properties of plasma.
Awards and Accolades: She became the first Indian Physicist Fellow of Indian National Science Academy (INSA). In 1994, she was awarded the INSA-Vainu Bappu Award.
- Kalpana Chawla (1962–2003)
Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-born woman to go to space.
Education: Chawla did her Bachelor’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Punjab Engineering College and her Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas, Arlington.
Research and Achievements: In 1988, she began working at NASA, where she worked on take-off and landing operations of space shuttles. She held a Certified Flight Instructor rating for airplanes, gliders and commercial pilot licenses for single and multi-engine airplanes, seaplanes and gliders. She went for her first space mission on the Columbia Space Shuttle in 1997. Her second space mission on the same space shuttle became her last when the Columbia Space Shuttle blew apart on its way back home, above Texas, taking with it the lives of seven astronauts, including Chawla. She was a part of numerous experiments on space science, advanced technology development and astronaut health and safety.
Awards and Accolades: She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honour, USA, and several institutions and places have been named after her.
- Shubha Tole (b. 1967)
Education: Shubha Tole studied Life Sciences and Biochemistry at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She did her M.Sc. and Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology and her post-doctoral research at the University of Chicago.
Research and Achievements: Tole’s work is in Neuroscience, and she has been working to elucidate the mechanisms behind the development and the diseases of the mammalian brain. Her most significant contribution to the scientific world was her discovery of the gene, Lhx2, that controls parts of the brain during early development. For this, she won the Infosys Prize in the Life Sciences category. She is currently investigating the details of the early developmental stages of the brain. She has published papers and written a number of blogs to motivate young students in the same field.
Awards and Accolades: She has won several other awards and accolades, like the Wellcome Trust Senior International Fellowship (1999), the Swarnajayanti Fellowship from the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India (2005), the National Woman Bioscientist Award from the Department of Biotechnology of Government of India (2008), and the Research Award for Innovation in Neurosciences (RAIN award) from the Society of Neuroscience, United States (2008).
Apart from being a famous neuroscientist, professor and Principal Investigator at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, Shubha Tole is also a Kathak dancer. She finds the art as engaging as designing a science experiment.
- Rama Govindarajan (b. 1962)
Govindarajan is currently one of the leading climate scientists in the country. Her work, although sounds similar to that of a meteorologist, is different from the latter in that it is based on a long-term or universal phenomena.
Education: Govindarajan is an Indian physicist, specialized in Fluid Dynamics. She earned her B.Tech degree in Chemical Engineering from IIT, Delhi, her Master’s degree from Drexel University, Philadelphia, and her doctoral degree in Aerospace Engineering from IISc, Bangalore.
Research and Achievements: Her main research interests relate to the mechanics of unstable fluids (gases and liquids). Her work is very interdisciplinary and tends to shift between several areas, such as the petroleum industry, geophysical flows, boundary layers of the atmosphere, cloud movements and hydrodynamics in ocean currents.
Awards and Accolades: She received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in the year 2007 for her contribution to the understanding of the instability and turbulent motion of several kinds of flows.
- Indira Nath (b. 1938)
Indira Nath played a key role in almost eradicating leprosy from India.
Education: An Indian immunologist, Indira Nath, specializes in Immunology, Pathology, Medical Biotechnology and communicable diseases. She received her MBBS and MD from AIIMS, Delhi, and did her research in infectious diseases, especially leprosy, in the UK, with the Nuffield Scholarship at the National Institute for Medical Research, London.
Research and Achievements: Her major contribution in medical science deals with immune unresponsiveness in man, reactions and nerve damage in leprosy and the Leprosy Bacillus. Her pioneering work is a significant step towards the development of treatment and vaccines for leprosy, especially in the 1980s.
Awards and Accolades: She was awarded the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award and the Padma Shri by the Government of India, and was the fellow of several national scientific institutions.
- Tessy Thomas (b. 1963)
Tessy Thomas is popularly known as the Missile Woman of India.
Education: Tessy Thomas did her M.Tech in Guided Missile from the Institute of Armament Technology, Pune (now known as the Defence Institute of Advanced Technology).
Research and Achievements: In 1988, she was appointed by Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in the department of design and development of the new generation ballistic missile, Agni. In 2009, she was appointed as the project director of the Agni-V missile, which was the first for a woman in the field, and the missile was successfully launched in 2011. She is a fellow in various universities, such as the Indian National Academy of Engineering (INAE), Institution of Engineers-India (IEI) and Tata Administrative Service (TAS).
Awards and Accolades: She received the Lal Bahadur Shastri Award for her contribution to the missile technology in India. She has also written several books on missile launching and rocket motors.
- Neena Gupta
Neena Gupta is considered the successor of the Indian mathematical genius and human-computer, Shakuntala Devi.
Education: Currently, an Assistant Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, Neena Gupta is one of the youngest and leading mathematicians of the 21st century India. She completed her graduation from Bethune College, University of Calcutta, in 2006 and her M.Sc and Ph.D. from the ISI with Algebraic Geometry as her specialization.
Research and Achievements: Her research on commutative algebra and affine algebraic geometry led her to the Zariski Cancellation Problem, one of the eight unsolved mathematical problems of all time, and she successfully solved the problem while doing her post-doctoral research at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in her area of specialization. Her solution to the problem has been hailed as the best solution to the ZCP.
Awards and Accolades: Gupta won the TIFR Alumni Association Award, 2013, the Indian National Science Academy Award, 2014, and the Ramanujan Prize, 2014, for this incredible feat. She was also a visiting scientist at ISI, Kolkata, and a visiting fellow at TIFR, Mumbai.
One of the things that Kalpana Chawla said during her first mission in space was, “You are your own intelligence”. Female scholars of India faced gender discrimination since the ancient times, when Gargi Vachaknavi, the natural philosopher; Rusa, the doctor; Lilavati, the mathematician; and Khana, the astrologer, had been the forerunners of the modern female scientists of India. These scientists, both ancient and modern, constantly proved their worth in terms of intelligence, which is what scientists need, irrespective of gender.