CV Raman, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, Homi J. Bhabha are the first names that pop into your mind when asked about Indian scientists. And we know that their inventions created waves in the world of science. And when asked about women in science, Marie Curie and her discovery of radioactive elements will start and end the list. Women in science are overshadowed by the men working in the same field, although they have brought tremendous discoveries and inventions to light! On National Science Day, TC46 shines a light on some of the most accomplished women in the field of science and their outstanding work for the betterment of the world!

8 Women Scientists Who Are Paving Paths For The Generation Ahead

It was only recently that women have started being credited for their exemplary works. On the occasion of National Science Day, here are a few Indian women in science that have broken boundaries and shattered ceilings.

Did You Know?

According to the United Nations, women constitute merely 14% of the total 280,000 scientists, engineers and technologists in research development institutions in India. While in the research programmes, women account for a third of the PhD awardees.

1. Gitanjali Rao

Gitanjali Rao is a 15-year-old Indian-American that made headlines as TIME magazine’s Kid of the Year for her exceptional use of technology to solve world problems. She is a science enthusiast, author and STEM promotor. Gitanjali Rao was named as America’s Top Young Scientist when she invented Tethys, a device that detects lead contamination in water, in 2017. She has also built apps that tackle cyber-bullying and opioid addiction. 

For her valuable contributions, Gitanjali Rao has been featured in Marvel’s Hero Project as Genius Gitanjali. She has also been featured in Forbes’ ‘30 Under 30’ list and is the recipient of various awards like the EPA Presidential Award, George Stephenson Innovation Award 2020. In March 2020, Gitanjali Rao published her book ‘A Young Innovative Guide to STEM’ to inspire more people to approach today’s problems creatively with innovative solutions. She is also the author of ‘Baby Brother Wonder’, a self-published book that captures her brother’s curiosity. 

2. Dr Afifa Maryam 

Dr Maryam Afifa Ansari is a 27-year-old woman who is the youngest and the first Muslim neurosurgeon in India. Keeping her eye on the prize, her dream to be a doctor, Dr Maryam Afifa proved that hard work and perseverance leads to success.  In a recent interview, Afifa quotes, “Whitecoat, stethoscope from the elevation from Miss. Afifa to Dr Afifa Maryam was all that I always wished for. I worked hard for this.” 

After her schooling, Afifa secured admission in MBBS at Osmania Medical College. And on scoring a high result in NEET, she managed to get admitted to the same college for a master’s course in general surgery. Apart from academics, Dr Afifa also excels in painting, calligraphy and is well versed with Islamic teachings. Her message to the young Muslim girls is, “Don’t give up, never let anyone say you can’t do it. Prove them wrong by achieving it.”

3. Tessy Thomas

Born in April 1963, Dr Tessy Thomas is a scientist at the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). She served as the Director-General of aeronautical Systems and was the former Project Director for Agni-IV and V missiles in DRDO. Tessy Thomas is known as the ‘missile woman’ of India and is the first woman scientist to head a missile project in India. Dr Tessy Thomas’ expertise on the project was critical in the development of the re-entry system of the missile as it helped withstand great velocities and temperatures of 3,000° celsius on re-entering the atmosphere. 

For her valuable contributions and work in the field, Dr Thomas has received several awards including the DRDO Scientist of the Year in 2008. 

4. Ritu Karidhal

Just like everyone, Dr Ritu Karidhal dreamed for the stars and got it! As she finished her M.Tech in 1997, Dr Ritu Karidhal received an opportunity to join her dream job at ISRO. Although she received challenging tasks, Dr Karidhal never hesitated to take up a challenge and come out with flying colours. In 2021, Dr Karidhal was appointed as the Deputy Operations Director on her most challenging project – India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (M.O.M), also named Mangalyaan-1. It was a mission that had a short completion time and was the first interplanetary one for India. In collaboration with a team of scientists and electrical and mechanical engineers, the autonomy system was created in a record 10 months! 

Karidhal played a key role in creating the craft’s autonomy system calling it the “brain of the satellite”. This was the first time any country had reached the Mars orbit in their first attempt. Dr Karidhal, along with many other women on the team at ISRO, landed the title of “Rocket Women of India”. She has received several awards for her successful contributions including the ISRO young scientist award in 2007. 

5. Chandrima Shaha

Breaking all gender biases, Dr Chandrima Shaha is the first woman to head the prestigious Indian National Science Academy (INSA).  Biologist and professor at the National Institute of Immunology, Dr Chandrima Shaha often felt invisible sitting among her male colleagues and intended to tackle and combat pseudoscience and science communication. Shaha was first elected to INSA in 2008 and served as its Vice President between 2016 and 2018. She specialises in cell biology and has conducted extensive research about the ‘Leishmania’ parasite which causes Kala Azar. The main focus of Shaha’s research is understanding the mechanisms that cause cell death. Cell death is something very fundamental to our bodies and has been used very successfully to make cancer drugs.

Apart from science, Dr Shaha is interested in photography and loves adventures. She is also the recipient of the Shakuntala Amirchand Award of ICMR in 1992.

6. Mangala Mani

Age is just a number, and Mangala Mani proved the statement! In November 2016, then 56-year-old Mangala Mani was a part of the 23-member expedition team to India’s research centre ‘Bharati’ in Antarctica. Not only was Mangala the only woman in the Indian contingent, but she was the only woman in the region as the teams deployed to nearby Chinese and Russian stations consisted of only men. And she successfully stayed in Antarctica for 403 days. 

Mangala always had a dream for exploration. The Antarctica expedition was an opportunity for her to prove her point. And she successfully performed the task. She did her model Diploma for Technicians – Radio Apparatus (MDT-RA) from Government Polytechnic in Masab Tank, Hyderabad. Mani was the only female in the batch of 80 students. For the Antarctic mission, Mani and her teammates had to take several physical and mental tests over a few weeks to make the cut for the selection team.

7. Aditi Pant 

Dr Aditi Pant is an oceanographer and the first woman to set foot into the icy terrains of Antarctica as a part of the Indian expedition to study Geology and Oceanography.  Pant was inspired to take up Oceanography when she came across the book The Open Sea by Alister Hardy when she was a BSc student at the University of Pune. She did her PhD at Westfield College, London University. Her PhD thesis was based on the physiology of marine algae. She has worked at the National Institute of Oceanography and the National Chemical Laboratory. 

Under the severe and rough weather conditions, Dr Aditi Pant analysed the continent for four months and came out with wonderful discoveries and was honoured by the Antarctica Award for being a part of the expedition.

8. Nandini Harinath

From watching sci-fi movies, books and Star Trek, Dr Nandani Harinath always dreamed of working at ISRO. Working for over 20 years in ISRO, Nandani Harinath is one of the leading scientists in the Indian Space Research Organisation. She is widely recognised as the Deputy Operations Director for the Mangalyaan mission. She has also contributed as the Project Manager and Mission Design Deputy Operations Director of Mars Orbit Mission (MOM).  Harinath was also the Operations Director for Risat-1 which is India’s first radar imaging satellite. And also the Mission System Leader of NISAR which is a joint NASA-ISRO satellite that was developed to launch in 2020.

She hopes to be known as a scientist, not a woman scientist and hopes in the future ISRO will open itself to students to involve them in space research projects. 

If women have science has taught us one thing, it is that gender is just a barrier waiting to be shattered. And if the industry does not allow space for women to thrive, we can make our own space!  And in the words of Gitanjali Rao, “being a scientist is like being a superhero, because superheroes save people, and want to do what is best for their society – scientists do the same thing”. 

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