On the Trail of Women Scientists

Updated on Jun 22, 2016 06:27 PM IST

Science writers Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra are lab-­hopping across India to document research done by women scientists

You might see her the next time you hit the highway: a woman driving a 1999 model Maruti Omni. She looks quite ordinary at first sight, but actually, she’s out to slay a dragon.

Since this is the 21st century, the dragon 29-year-old Aashima Dogra wants to destroy is not a creature whose death will have PETA baying for her blood. Dogra, a science writer, aims to destroy the dragon of gender bias in science. This is why she and Nandita Jayaraj, her 27-year-old partner and fellow science writer at The Life of Science project, are travelling around the country, going to all sorts of labs and institutions, from the well-known to the never-heard-of, seeking women scientists whose research they can publicise.

“Illustrators at the children’s science magazine we both worked at always sketched scientists as bearded men,” says Dogra. “We want to change this perception through our stories. We need to bring to the fore positive stories of the success and struggles of women,” she adds.

The Life of Science project was Jayaraj’s idea and she’d had it for some years. So when she quit her job at the magazine in December 2015, as did Dogra, they pooled their savings to work on the project together.


A report by the The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2015 pegged the percentage of women in research, science and engineering roles in India at just 15 per cent.

A bias does exist, Jayaraj acknowledges. “If you go to any college, at the undergraduate or postgraduate or PhD level, almost 40 per cent of the candidates are women. But if you go to the top levels it will be 10 per cent,” she says. “But the purpose of The Life of Science is to hear it from the horse’s mouth. We want to talk to more people before we draw any conclusions.”

Dogra travels the country in her aged Maruti Omni (“which breaks down a lot”), as she visits institutes. “Then I ask for female researchers or sometimes I just walk around reading name plates on the doors and if it is a Miss or Mrs, I walk in and request an interview,” she says.

While Dogra is currently based in Dharamsala, Jayaraj works out of Bangalore. “Since I have a home here, it is convenient,” says Jayaraj. “If I have a trip planned somewhere, I try to find out what is happening there. When I go home to Kerala, I try to do stories around smaller institutes. Since we can’t afford to jet off anywhere, we’ve had to improvise a little bit.”

Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj plan to turn The Life of Science Project into comics to make the stories of women scientists accessible for young readers.
Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj plan to turn The Life of Science Project into comics to make the stories of women scientists accessible for young readers.


Sharing their stories on their website thelifeofscience.com every week, Jayaraj and Dogra have so far profiled women from not just the big cities, but also small towns like Kalimpong (West Bengal), Aluva (Kerala) and Hassan (Karnataka).

They met horticulturalists Natasha Gurung and Husnara Sharma in Kalimpong, near Darjeeling, who are working to genetically improve Darjeeling’s mandarin fruit.

Then there’s Nidhi Singh, a climate change and disease research scholar in Varanasi; Kavita Shah, dean at Banaras Hindu University, who developed, among other things, an enzyme-based sensor of the brain chemical dopamine that will help give proper dosage to those with Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s diseases; Radhika Nair, a cancer biologist working out of Thiruvananthapuram, who is researching why cancer cells spread; and Dr Kusala Rajendran, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, who studies earthquakes.

While the interviews highlight the work done by these women, they also put their personal struggles in context. For instance, Dr Monica Bhatnagar, a microbiologist at the severely underfunded Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati University in Ajmer, who along with her husband, comprises all the staff of the microbiology department. The couple trains their students in “wine-making, mushroom farming, bio-fertiliser plantation and producing algal biofertilisers” to ensure they find employment once they graduate.

Bhatnagar has invented a type of hydrogel, which can be used as an effective wound dressing. But given the condition of her university, she is yet to develop it as a marketable medical product.

“The kind of background you come from makes all the difference,” believes Jayaraj. “More than 50 per cent of the people we interviewed have been lucky to have family support and come from academically and socially progressive backgrounds.”

While some interviewees have been open about the struggles of being women in science, others are guarded. “Sometimes women scientists at the top are very diplomatic, say nice things about their superiors and credit the right people,” says Dogra.

Jayaraj and Dogra also plan to turn the project into comics. “Many people tune out when the science bit comes in,” says Jayaraj. “Illustrations would make them more readable.” Adds Dogra: “We not only want to change the perception of older people, but also shape the perceptions of younger ones.”

From HT Brunch, June 5, 2016

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