8 Incredible Indian Women Scientists Who Have Achieved So Much Despite Many Odds

On National Science Day today, let's learn about 8 incredible Indian women scientists who have overcome truly difficult odds.

In a nation that is plagued with inherent patriarchy, we hardly get to hear about contributions of women scientists because they are often not represented. Many women scientists, however, are breaking the glass ceiling in a male-dominated society.

Whether inventing vaccinations against dangerous viruses, spearheading lunar missions, or preserving the Mandarins, these women scientists in a society that only worships men’s contributions are not just cis women, but also identify as trans and non binary persons.

On the occasion of National Science Day, presenting to you a list of Indian women scientists who have made significant contributions to STEM fields and who serve as role models for all young women.

The ground-breaking cancer biologist

Dr Bushra Ateeq

Dr Bushra Ateeq is a cancer biologist who has done ground-breaking research on genetic abnormalities that cause prostate cancer. She also works as associate professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Her expertise lies in cancer biology, cancer genomics, and molecular oncology. 

Dr Ateeq has received numerous honours for her contributions to cancer biology, including the Ramachandran-National Bioscience Award for Career Development and the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology in Medical Sciences from the Indian government. In the year 2021 Dr Bushra Ateeq was selected for the prestigious Sun Pharma Science Foundation Research Award. Due to her immense contribution in oncology she was featured in Indian Women in Science 2020-2021 by Life Science.

Theoretical Particle Physicist and ardent supporter of women in science

Dr Rohini Godbole

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One of 3 daughters, Dr Rohini Godbole was born in a small hamlet in Pune, and is now a theoretical particle physicist, co-editor of the book Lilavati’s Daughters, a science communicator, and a staunch advocate of equality for women in STEM. She works as a professor at Indian Institute of Science and specialises in elementary particle physics, field theory and phenomenology.

Rohini has been working relentlessly to educate several individuals about women in science, as well as she is debunking the popular idea that science is only for men. During many of her TEDx talks, she discusses the institutional and organisational inequities that women scientists undergo and she addresses how to overcome such biases.

She recalls one such incident – when pursuing PhD, several distant relatives prophesied that if she sought a PhD, no one would marry her. Rohini, on the other hand, was unfazed, and she not only completed her PhD, but also received several honorary awards including the Padma Shree and Stree Shakti Award for her immense contribution in the field. In the year 2021, she was awarded the Ordre National du Merite, one of France’s highest honours bestowed on distinguished individuals.

Eminent mathematician who combated prejudice

Dr Rajinder Jeet Hans Gill

Rajinder Jeet Hans Gill, a mathematician, exemplifies how a little girl from the small hamlet of Mohe in Ludhiana could one day become a pioneering mathematician. Her areas of specialization include geometry of numbers, Diophantine approximations, non-homogeneous indefinite quadratic forms. She is currently a member of Women in Science initiative established by Indian Academy of Science.

Women had fewer opportunities to pursue science in her town, and girls were not permitted to attend school. Her parents, on the other hand, were supportive, and she had to spend most of her early childhood days studying at home rather than in school. In the later years her uncle, a Naib Tehsildar, staunchly opposed women’s education, and it was only after her repeated appeals by her father that he agreed to allow her to attend school on the condition that she had to wear a turban and pretend to be a boy. She sported a turban to class.

Later when she enrolled in Government College for Men in Ludhiana to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics. All of the teachers were men, and some of them believed that women couldn’t or shouldn’t do mathematics. She took it on as a challenge to demonstrate to them that women can accomplish everything they set their minds to.

She further won several awards, including the Narasinga Rao Gold Medal of the Indian Mathematical Society and Srinivasa Ramanujan Birth Centenary gold medal in ISCA.

A horticulturist helping farmers save Darjeeling oranges from being destroyed by viruses

Natasha Gurung

Natasha Gurung is a horticulturist who grew up in the hills of Sikkim dreaming to improve the hill agriculture of North East India. She works for Kalimpong branch of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and she is on crusade to preserve the Darjeeling mandarins – oranges –  which are being damaged by viral infections, and save the economy of the local farming communities.

Natasha observed that farmers were receiving low yields which resulted in the shrinking agrarian economy. In order to help the farmers, she began discovering and identifying the superior genotype in the Kalimpong area and started producing high variety crop in huge quantities. This is not the same as genetic modifications, but creating superior hybrids that can resist the viruses. Natasha Gurung also aims to distribute the crops and train farmers on technologies that will prevent diseases from affecting their harvest.

A beacon of hope among women scientists, and a public health advocate for trans people

Dr Aqsa Shaikh

Overcoming the stigma, Dr. Aqsa Shaikh, a trans doctor based in Delhi, has inspired several individuals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Aqsa Shaikh is the only trans woman in charge of a vaccination centre in the city, as well as one of the few researchers working on the Sputnik V vaccine trials.

Aqsa Shaikh manages the transcare COVID-19 campaign to raise awareness about the challenges the transgender community has had while accessing healthcare during pandemic. She has been an outspoken advocate for public health of trans people, and also a member in Delhi government’s panel investigating transgender issues.

Currently Dr Shaikh works as as an associate professor, and also serves as a nodal officer at Hamdard Institute of Medical Science and Research.

Dalit, non-binary, pansexual researcher on Neurodivergence and navigating intergenerational trauma

Rachelle Bharati Chandran (pronouns Ze/ Zir)

Despite inherent biases in the academic system, Rachelle Bharati Chandran are doing some remarkable work. Ze are a social crusader who have spoken out against the hostile atmosphere for Dalit women in scientific fields and also points out how casteism is very much prevalent in academia.

Rachelle Bharati Chandran is an independent Dalit non binary, pansexual researcher whose work highlights on generational trauma, construction of Dalit sexuality and neurodivergence. Zir also address the enormous stigma that comes with being dark-skinned and non-binary, since ze had to bear the consequences of humiliation and ridicule by the society.

Rachelle Bharati Chandran have breached the unspoken dichotomy between the arts and sciences through zir love for poetry and science, demonstrating that one’s interests do not have to be limited to the fields in which they work.

Woman scientist who fought to mitigate air pollution

Dr Priyadarshini Karve

Dr. Priyadarshini Karve is an award-winning scientist who is on a quest to help rural women lead a better lifestyle.

Despite being born in Pune, Priyadarshini grew up in Phaltan, a small hamlet in Maharashtra where she witnessed the effects of air pollution on farmers and animals. She also understood that people battling indoor air pollution are usually poor, who live in a congested home. Thus began her quest to convert organic waste into fuel. In the last two decades she has developed several clean cooking technologies that has helped several women, and she has helped in the replacing of several thousands of polluting stoves with sustainable ones.

In order to combat air pollution Priyadarshini designed the Bharatlaxmi stove and 500 households from Nandal village in Satara district got the stove in in 2013. The village had decreased smoke by 80% and fuel consumption by 30% all thanks to her.

She is also the founder and CEO of Samuchit Enviro Tech, a company that aims to reduce air pollution by burning agricultural waste. Dr Karve has devised several sustainable solutions of waste management. She is the winner of the UK based Ashden Award for Renewable Energy in 2002, the World Technology Award in 2005, and the Sahyadri Hirkani Award 2011.

The Planetary scientist who dreams of reaching for the stars

Dr Kuljeet Kaur Marhas

As a pregnant divorcee in her early days in Ahmedabad where she works now, Kuljeet Kaur Marhas is an award-winning planetary scientist, and her work sheds light on a topic that we’ve all contemplated often – where do the elements that form our universe come from?

Kuljeet explains how scientists like her use a process called nucleosynthesis to piece together the mystery of our galaxy’s evolution. She is currently working as professor at the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad, and has worked as a visiting scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in the year 2015.

Like many other women scientists, Kuljeet had it a lot tougher both personally and professionally during her initial years working in the Physical Research Laboratory. She had to juggle throughout as a single parent, and professionally she is the only person working on “experimental indirect astronomy” in the country.

Kuljeet is grateful for her father; she recalls him telling people that his daughters aren’t cut out only for the kitchen, which really motivated her. In the year 2013, India’s Department of Science and Technology awarded her the Women’s Excellence Award. She was conferred the Devendra Lal Memorial Medal in San Francisco in 2019 for her ground-breaking discoveries in earth and space sciences as a planetary scientist.

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