Monday, April 12

Science of breaking glass ceiling

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While Science it would seem is not sexless; she is a man, a father and infected too — Virginia Woolf
Think of the word ‘scientist’, and the image that crops up in your head would most probably be that of a man’s. Admit it, your mental image of a scientist is never that of a woman’s.

Yet, science and technology as we know it today couldn’t have been possible without the contribution of women. It’s a different story, though, that a lot of them have been consigned to the shadows, while their male counterparts received most of the acclaim.

This International Women’s Day, let us remember a few extraordinary women from Bengal, who defied the status quo and worked with — even towered over — their male counterparts, in the ‘hard sciences’, an unapologetically male-dominated field.

No discussion about the contribution of women in science can be complete without mention of Asima Chatterjee, the first Indian women to receive a science doctorate from an Indian institute. Born on September 23, 1917 in a middle-class household of Calcutta to medical doctor Indra Narayan Mukherjee and his wife Kamala Devi, she was always encouraged by her parents to pursue education.

Asima was always very good at studies and completed her matriculation in 1932 from Bethune School and excelled at her ISC examinations six years later. She received a fellowship from the Bengal government in recognition for her achievements, a remarkable feat, considering women often did not finish high school those days. She got herself admitted to Scottish Church College to study chemistry, a decision that did not go down too well with her family, who baulked at the thought of her having to work with male students.

But Asima did not have any such hang-ups, and worked single-mindedly in her pursuit of knowledge. She cleared her BSc in 1936 with distinction, receiving the Basanti Devi gold medal. She became the first graduate of Calcutta University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After her graduation, she joined Rajabazar Science College to pursue MSc. During that time, she was the only woman in a class of 13.

Asima’s interest in botany came from her father, who had a deep interest in the subject. She studied medicinal plants, wanting to utilise her knowledge of organic chemistry to probe whether the benefits of phytochemicals from indigenous plants could be imparted to drugs and drug-intermediates. She started her research on natural products under the guidance of Prafulla Kumar Bose, focusing on organic chemistry, botany and physiology.

It was due to her research that led to the development of the epilepsy drug, Ayush-56, and several anti-malarial drugs. In the course of her career, she received the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 1961 and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1975. She went on to publish around 350 papers in national and international journals. She edited and revised the six-volume ‘Bharatiya Banoushodhi’ published by Calcutta University and was also the chief editor of the six-volume series, ‘The Treatise of Indian Medicinal Plants’.

On the request of Satyendranath Bose, she wrote ‘Saral Madhyamik Rasayan’, a book in Bengali on chemistry for secondary school students. After Bose’s death, Asima presided over the sessions of Bangiya Bigyan Parishad from 1974 to 1978.

She was truly a stalwart and a huge impetus to the women’s movement in contemporary Bengal.

What Asima was to chemistry, Bibha Chowdhuri was to physics. It’s sad that her name isn’t a household name in the country, despite being a pioneer in the field of particle physics and cosmic rays. This gifted physicist was born in 1913 in Calcutta to well-known doctor Banku Behari Chowdhuri and his wife Urmila Devi. Her aunt, Nirmala Devi, was married to the famous doctor, Nilratan Sircar. After completing BSc with honours from Scottish Church College, she studied physics at Calcutta University, going on to become the only woman to complete MSc in 1936. She joined the Bose Institute in 1939 and worked with physicist Debandra Mohan Bose, who was also the director of the institute. In 1949, their research was published in the famous science journal, Nature. Bibha joined the laboratory of Patrick Blackett for her doctoral studies, working on cosmic rays at the University of Manchester. Her thesis — ‘Extensive air showers associated with penetrating particles’ — was submitted in 1949. She demonstrated that the density of penetrating events is proportional to the total particle density of an extensive air shower. Scientists and science historians have speculated on how much her work contributed to Blackett’s eventual Nobel Prize.

After returning to India, she worked at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, was a visiting researcher at the University of Michigan, and later became involved with the Kolar Gold Fields experiments. She moved to Kolkata to work at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics.

The last — but definitely not the least — woman of science we’ll remember today is Maharani Chakravorty, one of India’s earliest molecular biologists. Born in 1937 in colonial Bengal, she completed her PhD from the Bose Institute. She organized the first laboratory course on recombinant DNA techniques in Asia and the Far East in 1981.

As part of her doctoral thesis, she demonstrated cell free protein synthesis. She did her post-doctoral training in enzyme chemistry in the laboratory of BL Horecker at the New York University school of medicine. Her specialized training in ‘bacterial genetics and virology’ was completed at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, US. Later, she joined the Department of Biochemistry at Banaras Hindu University.

Their stories remind us of how passion can triumph patriarchal taboos, and how determination and grit can break barriers and conventions of contemporary society.


Source: Times of India

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