The science of equality: Women scientists are battling odds to reach the top
When the Mangalyaan blasted off into space in November 2013, it also launched into orbit a pioneering group of space scientists, who captured the popular imagination as India’s rocket women – exemplified by a viral photo of scientists laughing and celebrating the event.
Young scientists such as Moumita Dutta, Ritu Karidhal and Minal Rohit spawned numerous articles and even a book, all while working diligently towards India’s next big space project: the second lunar mission or Chandrayaan-2.
Dutta, who was part of the team of 500 scientists that launched the frugal mission, worked at the Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre. She was a student when she read in the newspapers about India’s maiden moon mission, and was inspired to work for the space agency – just like her colleagues who came from myriad backgrounds and worked for months to make the mission a success.
Then, in 2017, renowned medical researcher Soumya Swaminathan made global headlines when she was appointed deputy director general at the World Health Organisation. Swaminathan, who was working as a secretary in the health ministry and was the director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (the second woman to hold this post), pioneered tuberculosis research in India and her elevation marked an important step for Indian women scientists at the global level.
Swaminathan is best known for her work in the detection and prevention of tuberculosis, which kills upwards of 400,000 people in India every year – the highest in the world. She pushed for interdisciplinary research and shifted the focus to clinical trials, especially among vulnerable and underprivileged population.
“To achieve the End TB goals, we need two things – focus on doing and implementing better with the tools we currently have and developing new tools (vaccines, diagnostics and treatment regimens). Scaled up molecular diagnostics where every person with suspected TB gets a molecular test (which also checks for drug resistance) could be a game changer, as it would make earlier diagnosis of TB a reality,” she said.
Earlier this month when physicist Aditi Sen De won India’s top science prize, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Prize, she made history by becoming the first woman to win in the prestigious physical sciences category.
All these are more than individual achievements. These events spotlighted the extraordinary potential of women in science, but also focussed attention on the deep roots of exclusion. Abha Sur, a science historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that any evaluation of merit in science is completely biased by caste and gender. “The culture of scientific institutions is both hierarchical and competitive. The constant need to prove oneself in a hostile atmosphere erodes self-confidence and leads to higher attrition rates among women in STEM fields,” she argues.
She also points out that science had been used throughout history to justify inequitable social relations -- and draws a link between the attitude of colonial educators during the British Raj and upper-caste educators now. “Thus, while scientific methodology invariably catches random errors and logical fallacies of individual scientists, it is much less attuned to catching shared conceptions and biases of the scientific community...the eerie similarity in the modus operandi of the colonial government a century ago and the largely upper caste educators of today should give us pause.”
Despite louder conversation about women in science, almost none of the women in the news come from marginalised castes or genders, and a case filed by mathematician Vasantha Kandasamy against IIT-Madras for discrimination, which ended in 2016, showed the bias of caste runs deep within supposedly progressive institutions. Sur points to the portal, Death of Merit, which has extensively chronicled the discrimination and bias that forced several Dalit students, many of them first-generation students, to depression and suicide. A Niti Aayog survey in 2017 showed 81% of women working in scientific institutions were from the general category, and the most common reason for women giving up their careers was marriage and childbirth. HT profiles some leading scientists who overcame the odds:
Aditi Sen De – Quantum visionary
On the banks of the Ganga in an idyllic tree-lined campus about 15 kilometres away from the bustling roads of Prayagraj, Aditi Sen De is locked in a global race.
A professor of physics at the Harish Chandra Research Institute, the 44-year-old needs just a computer and high-speed internet to work. But her research has the potential to revolutionise banking, revolutionise cryptography and change the face of computing as we have known it for the past four decades.
De works on quantum computation, a challenging and vastly-promising field that has the potential to speed up computational processes exponentially and break encrypted data. The only problem: No one knows exactly how to build a quantum computer.
“Internet banking, online transactions and for that matter keeping any data secure is based on the premise that our current computers cannot solve large prime factorisation problems. For example, if I ask you what are the prime factors of 6, you will say 2 and 3. If I ask the same for a figure like 210335937, you will not be able to tell me, a computer will. But there are numbers that even our present day computers cannot solve for and we need quantum computers for that,” says De.
“This has large impact over communication, especially secured communication.”
The origins of her work date back to a watershed speech delivered by physicist Richard Feynman in 1981, where he urged scientists to look beyond computers that work on classical physics laws [think Newton’s laws of Physics that are part of all high school syllabi] – why should we work on classical laws when the nature doesn’t, he said – and instead focus on quantum systems.
Computers around us work on a system of silicon transistors that store information as bits – either in the state of 0 or 1 –on a binary logic analogous to an on-off switch. But quantum computers use qubits – either a proton or an electron – that can exist as O, 1 or any superposition of any possible combination of 0 and 1.
Thus, theoretically, if we increase the number of qubits, there is an exponential increase in the processing power of the system. But this is where quantum physics comes up against the constraints of the physical world.
“Yes, people around the world are trying hard to build a quantum computer, they have built a few qubit-functional quantum computer, but there are lots of difficulties like scalability and proper physical systems where one can build quantum computer. Quantum communication is already a reality, ppl have demonstrated it over thousand kilometers or so, they are now trying to build between many senders and many receivers. This is also the main focus on my research,” says De.
Across the world, tech giants such as Google and many countries are racing to build a functional quantum computer. Wired Magazine reported earlier this month that Google has built a 72-bit machine and IBM a 49-bit device – both in anticipation of the deluge of data that will need to be processed when the Large Hadron Collider, which was instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012, is upgraded by 2026.
But no one yet has been able to demonstrably prove that a quantum machine is better processor than a comparable classical machine. The reason: Noise or disturbance [which could be physical, temperature or sound waves] that introduces errors. This is where De comes in.
“When we build classical computer, we have to find a proper material so that it works, similarly for quantum computer, one has to find proper quantum mechanical system, where it will work properly. This is one of my research areas. As for noise, we know that the computer has to kept in a properly cool place, otherwise it will go wrong,” she says.
A giant leap in processing speeds also means faster breaking of encryption, which is the pillar of secure banking. “Currently, no country in the world has a quantum computer. But when anybody does, they will be able to break all the codes protecting our data today. So, we need to work towards creating our own quantum computer as well as codes that cannot be broken by a future computer,” De says.
Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay – Gene Detective
Imagine you have a stack of pencils, and you have to sort them in bunches. This can be done by taking up any of their features – length, colour, thickness of the nib – and stacking them together.
This process, called clustering, is easy enough when the data points can be visualised. In two-dimensional space, one can just look at the plot and physically see which sets of data points belong together and which do not.
But what if each data point has a thousand different features attached, and needed to be plotted in a 1000-dimensional space that one cannot visualise? Physical methods wouldn’t work then, and one would need computer algorithms to sieve through large troves of data and find patterns.
This is at the heart of Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay’s research. The first woman director of the Indian Statistical Institute, Bandyopadhyay’s work centres on creating sophisticated optimisation tools that have wide application in the fields of computational biology and disease identification, and control.
Bandyopadhyay was formally trained in physics and computer science but turned to biology while working with a student on a project.
“I was not good in biology in school, because it was too much memorising. But the student and I were working on micro RNAs, which work on fine tuning the balance of different proteins in cells, and play a critical role in many diseases – including almost all types of cancer.”
This was 2003-04, and the field was not very developed. “I started learning basic biology that I had all but forgotten. I bugged him every day, he would keep explaining. After 6-8 months, I didn’t forget any more. “
Bandyopadhyay and her team started applying methods of optimisation, clustering and pattern recognition to biological processes, especially those involving gene expression – a measure of how much product or mRNA [ a type of nucleic acid that acts as the messenger of the DNA] a gene makes.
“We used gene expression (which varies over time and given conditions) data of people at different stages of cancer and lay that out as datasets. Through this, we can find patterns linking gene expression and stages or types of cancer. We can find some genes specific to particular types of cancer.”
“Once your prediction confidence is high, you may use the signature patterns of the genes you identify to determine the stage of cancer in an unknown patient. Through such studies, we were able to identify new markers. It is important to keep looking for newer and newer markers. Many don’t succeed because biological systems are still not completely understood.”
A recipient of the SSB Prize and the Infosys Prize, Bandyopadhyay credits the rigorous training she received at IIT-Kharagpur for her success. “We would work till 2am and then attend classes at 8am because some teachers would lock the doors at 8.05 am. It is where I got my first grey hair.”
Twice in her life, she faced a dilemma – first when she didn’t want to leave her mother to go to IIT because of a family tragedy. “But my mother pushed me, she wanted what is best for me.” And, the second is when she received several job offers after applying out of self doubts. “He told me to not run after money, do your work and money will follow. I think I have done well.
A trained Indian classical singer who often sits down with her harmonium and a lover of detective novels, Bandyopadhyay thinks there is no conscious bias against women in top scientific institutes but that women face many constraints.
“Fighting your loved ones, when negativity comes from them, is very difficult. That is when most women fall off radar. But when a woman sees another succeeding, it gives her the confidence not only in herself but also to fight the system.”
Rohini Godbole – Universal Explorer
Matter is all around us. It is made of molecules, which in turn is made of atoms. Atoms constitute a nucleus and electrons. Nucleus is made of protons and neutrons, which are made of quarks.
What’s beyond? And, how do they interact with each other? These questions animate physicist Rohini Godbole’s research that has remained at the frontier of high-energy physics for close to four decades.
Godbole, a professor at the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science, argues it is important to study fundamental particles and the forces holding them together because the answers they provide are universal. “Experiments conducted on earth can help us understand how energy is being created at the centre of the sun. They provide crucial inputs to arrive at the entire picture of the universe.”
High-energy physics has been pushed under the spotlight since the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) became operational in Switzerland, and led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012.
The mass at which the fundamental particle was found provided the final check that the Standard Model, a theoretical framework to describe the fundamental forces and particles, was correct.
But there are two key things that remain unexplained, Godbole says. The first is dark matter, which scientists postulate makes up 26% of the universe’s matter but is invisible an undetectable, and the other is the absence of anti-matter, which is the opposite of the matter we see around us.
“We don’t understand why the universe is dominantly matter. Where is the antimatter? We qualitatively understand where anti-matter went after the creation of the universe. But theoretical calculations based on the standard model do not produce the right number that is actually observed . So there is something beyond standard model in particle interaction.”
Godbole’s current work deals with one of the fundamental particles predicted by the standard model, the top quark, suggesting methods to measure its properties to explore physics beyond the standard model.
The LHC collider and then experiments first started to pick up steam in the late 80s and early 90s but physicists were already thinking of the next step. In the LHC, protons are accelerated to high energies for collision to observe interaction and the creation of new particles. In the next generation of colliders, electrons and positrons (which have the same properties as electrons but the opposite charge) would be smashed against each other at energies higher than that at LHC.
Of course, it was still decades before anything of the sort would be physically possible. But Godbole and her team made a crucial contribution. Due to the smaller mass, electrons and positrons lose energy with time in orbit –much more than protons. Hence it is more energy efficient for electron positron colliders to be linear and not circular like the LHC.
Godbole explains that the electron and positron are made into dense bunches of waves and collided. But when the electrons are very dense bunch – it produces an electromagnetic field. Incoming positrons also create similarly intense fields and these fields interact with each other before the positron interacts with the electron.This gives rise to unwanted reaction – known as the Beamsstralung effect.
“We were able to show the rate of such interactions increase with increasing energy. These unwanted interaction would affect the efficacy of the collider, and this observation led people to think of ways to reduce the field. At the time, we had no idea whether such a collider could be built but it affected the way next generation colliders were planned.” The International Linear Collider may take off in Japan in the next decade.
Godbole has also spent decades as a science communicator, delivering popular science lectures. “Young people should know what it is to do science – it not about apple falling on head. At another level, the general public should realise that these investigations are important because pursuit of good science raises the level of technology in society. It leads to development and progress.”
Yamuna Krishnan – Machine Maker
When Yamuna Krishnan was a child, her father would often ask her questions about the world – pouring cold water into a glass, he would quiz her why the outside of the glass frosted.
“I would have to go back to connecting principles I had learnt in the classroom. Dad built curiosity, a way of asking questions that many of my classmates didn’t have. These activities made me realise science was real.”
A machine smaller than a thousandth the width of the human hair may become the key to untangle the mystery of a bunch of neurodegenerative diseases that have stumped doctors for decades. And leading this research is Krishnan, now a professor at the University of Chicago who was formerly with the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru.
“The devices function as sensors for chemicals, they give you a measurement of the level of a chemical in a particular environment. The devices made by our lab are also designed to latch onto proteins on cells and get transported inside sub-cellular compartments called organelles. They sit there and report on chemical levels,” she says.
The process is not unlike emission tests, where a device near the exhaust first establishes base lines for normal emission, and then uses fluctuations from this basal line to determine violations.
These nano-machines are of particular use to a set of diseases linked to the lysosome, the stomach of the cell that absorbs nutrients. Inside the lysosome, there are specific enzymes for specific products such as sugars, proteins etc. If a particular enzyme has a defect, it leads to a build-up of that particular product in the cell. “This causes toxicity, first the cell dies, then the tissue, then the organ,” said Krishnan.
Each kind of defect is linked to a specific kind of lysosomal storage disease, of which there are 70 types. Nano-machines provide a way to measure these chemicals, and, therefore, predict what kind of disorder a patient has. “Our probes will be able to tell you which disorder you have, which drug works by looking at which one brings your levels back to normal, setting right the defect where it starts,” she said.
Her lab was working on Niemann–Pick diseases, which are a group of three types of disorders, and found that type C had parallels with Alzheimer’s. “We wondered whether we could use this technology to sub-type Alzheimers. We treat it as one disease which it might not be. Right now, there are many drugs failing at the clinical trial level.”
She has now set up a company, Esya, and the buzz around her lab’s work has made many proclaim that DNA nanotechnology has entered the world of precision medicine. “We need an ecosystem in India that can take basic research and quickly commercialise it and make it available to public. That is lagging and that is why I moved.”
But she is clear that India is in a prime position to become a science superpower. “All that we need is to give the best scientists the freedom to operate and letting them do blue-sky research.”
(With inputs from Anonna Dutt)